On January 24, 1965, I reached the mature age of nineteen years and left Michigan State University in a snowstorm. It had snowed more than a foot and the drive south to Baroda took over six hours. I have reflected on that day upon more than one occasion in my life, and still marvel at how seemingly innocuous events can have such far-reaching repercussions.
I had left school after one semester. It was not that I didn't like engineering. I had worked on cars with my uncle since I was fifteen, and I wanted to be an engineer more than I wanted anything else in the world. I had a singularly difficult problem with continuing my education. My father had died when I was ten, and he left few assets. Mom's salary as a secretary didn't provide all of the toys my friends owned, but had been sufficient to see us through my high school years. I had not been fortunate enough, or smart enough, to win a scholarship, and Mom had been able to save only enough for the first semester's tuition and expenses. I didn't want a student loan, so I decided to come home, get a job, and try again next year.
I soon found that temporary employment in an inflationary economy was only a dream. I applied at all the factories in Benton Harbor, but as soon as I mentioned I was going back to school in the fall, the interviewer would relax and switch to idle chat. I tried finding farm work, but most of that was done by migrant labor from the South. In February, I took my draft physical, and the doctors discovered the twisted left leg that remained as a reminder of a childhood accident. They sent me home with a 4-F status and the embarrassment of explaining it to my high school buddies. I watched them board the bus for basic training, and soon was nearly the only guy my age left in town. I was also still without a job. I had six months to earn about three thousand dollars, or I would have to let another year go by.
I found a two day job moving boxes of peaches at the local Co-op, but that wasn't going to do more than let me pay Mom back for the gas I'd burned in my search. On the last day, the supervisor told me that if I was interested, there might be another temporary job available. The next morning, I drove to Laura Hildebrand's grape farm.
The long, wide white rock drive ran in a horseshoe around the huge lawn, and the farm buildings sat along the curve. The twenty-odd acres of grape vines surrounded the farmstead proper, and the place looked run down. A huge red barn stood on the left, but the roof sagged and one of the double doors hung by one roller. I saw the headlights of an old Ford tractor gazing out of the shadows, but that dangling door would hold it captive until someone fixed it. The hayloft door hung down from it's hinges, and a half-dozen pigeons sat sunning themselves on the edge. In front of the barn, and joining the wide drive was a white rock area that must have covered at least an acre. The house wasn't much better, and must have been at least fifty years old. The mortar was crumbling between the cobblestones that formed the walls, and the enormous weeping willow trees around it probably made it dark for most of the day. The moss growing on the stone and cedar shake roof gave it a rustic look, but the facia was rotting away, and the porch hadn't been painted in years. In it's day, it was probably a beautiful house, but now it looked shabby and neglected like the barn.
In between the house and the barn stood a small replica of a chalet. I couldn't fathom the reason for such a structure, but I figured it was Mrs. Hildebrand's business. I was there for a job, not to criticize the architecture. I knocked on the back door of the house, and it was opened shortly by a woman in a long, grey wool dress coat. She was fifty or better, small in stature, and wore a man's winter hat with ear flaps that hid most of her silver-streaked brown hair. Her orange cotton gloves were about three sizes too big, and she tromped out on the porch in four-buckle overshoes. Her face was severe looking, as if she was angry with someone or something. She asked why I was there. The voice was just as severe as the face.
"Mrs. Hildebrand, I'm Terry Winters, and I hear you need some help with your grapes."
"I can't pay much, and you'll have to work hard."
"Anything is better than what I have now. How much is not much?"
"Three dollars an hour, and all the hours you can work until the vines are trimmed. That'll be about a week, if you work fast enough to earn your pay."
Well, it would be over a hundred dollars that I didn't have, and I had nothing better to do.
"When do I start?"
"Monday morning at six, unless it's snowing."
Southwest Michigan has a peculiar winter climate that dumps inches of fluffy white snow on its occupants one day, and then warms enough to melt it the next. That weekend was typical of late February. The temperature rose to about thirty-five, and the snow turned to slush. The sun was barely up when I drove to Mrs. Hildebrand's, but she was already standing outside with a five gallon water can. She was dressed in the same garb as last Friday, and as I drove in, she started across the white rock. She met me as I got out of my car.
"Well, at least you're on time. Here's your shears. Ever trim grapes before?"
I told her I hadn't.
"Just watch me. It's not hard. There's just a lot to do."
I followed her down the row, and she taught me how to cut away all of last year's growth and make sure the main vines were still on the wires. Half way through, we switched, and she followed me. She had to correct me a few times, but when we reached the end, she seemed satisfied, and moved over two rows. We started back through the field. Laura trimmed her row and I trimmed mine, and things seemed to be going quickly. By nine, however, the temperature had risen enough that the dirt between the rows melted, and soon we were slogging through mud. We finished one pass at about twelve and Laura announced it was time for lunch.
"I hope you brought something, because I don't have enough for two", she said casually, and tromped off to the house. I went to my car and ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich Mom had made for me. I got a drink from the water can, and sat back to wait. She came walking back across the drive after about twenty minutes, motioned me to come, and started back to the field.
We stopped when it was too dim to see the vines. I was feeling my lack of activity over the last five months. My legs were rubbery from struggling through the mud and my hand felt numb from squeezing the shears all day. The engineer boots I had worn had started to leak sometime that afternoon, and my feet were freezing. As she walked me back to my car, she said, "You did pretty well today. Will you be back tomorrow?"
Her voice seemed a little more friendly. I assured her I would be back, and asked why she thought I wouldn't.
"Most young men don't want to work this hard. The last one left at lunch. I just guessed you might quit after today. I'd bring rubber boots tomorrow, though. That mud can get pretty cold."
I went home and collapsed on my bed. Mom woke me for dinner, and I ate a little, but then went back to bed and slept until the alarm went off at four. I staggered to the john against the ache of my legs, and soaked in the shower for fifteen minutes. The bacon and eggs Mom fixed tasted good, and by five-thirty, I was on the road to Laura's.
Tuesday was the same, except that it stayed cold enough to keep the dirt frozen. We made better time, and by that evening, had finished a little over half of the field. I still ached when I moved in certain ways, but the rows of neatly trimmed vines more than made up for the pain.
Each day was a remarkable repetition of the first. Laura wore the same clothes, had the same sour expression, and seldom said anything except for short instructions. She was a strange woman, I thought, but I was impressed by her ability to so easily do the work that was leaving me exhausted at the end of every day. We finished the field about ten on Friday.
"Well, Terry, I promised you a week's work, but we've finished the field, and I don't have anything else for you to do. I'll go get your money." She went to the house, and after a few minutes, came back out with a handful of bills. She handed them to me, and I grinned at her. The start of a smile crooked the corners of her mouth, but the sour expression quickly returned.
"That's a hundred and thirty nine dollars there, and you earned it." She paused for a moment as if resolving some internal struggle. "You do good work, and I've been thinking. I need that door fixed on the barn. That ought to take you at least part of the day. You interested?"
The door was a challenge. It must have been hanging there for several years. I found a bench in the barn with a few tools, and after a lot of effort and a few words I couldn't say around my mother, I got the door down. It took an hour to loosen up the rollers, and half an hour to get it back on the track. When I finished, it worked; it wasn't new, but, with some effort it would roll open and closed again. I went to the house, told Laura the door was fixed, and she gave me six more dollars.
That weekend, I splurged and bought a milkshake at the local restaurant. I was sitting at the counter nursing it along, when Tom Wilson sat down beside me. Tom was a close friend of mine, and was marking time until Uncle Sam called. He told me he had gotten his letter.
"Well, Terry, I go to Chicago next week. I probably won't be seeing you for a while, so keep your dipstick dry." As always, he laughed at his own joke. "Hey, I hear you're working for Crazy Laura."
"Crazy Laura? I'm working for Mrs. Hildebrand, if that's who you mean."
"One and the same, pal, one and the same. She went off her rocker when her old man died, at least that's what my dad says. I worked for her last summer, but I quit at noon the first day. She'll work you to death. Even the Mexicans won't work for her. They think she's crazy, too. Except for the mailman and the kid who delivers her groceries, she never talks to anybody. She doesn't even have a car or phone! The grocery kid carries notes back to town for her."
"How come I never heard of her before?"
"She's kind of a hermit, so I guess people just forgot about her. Anyway, I got to get home. Dad's planning a going away party for me. Watch your back out there, OK? Never know what that crazy woman might do." He was still chuckling as he walked away.
March and April were dry months for jobs. I had a couple days work here and there, but I was a long way from serious school money. I had finished painting at the drugstore when the druggist handed me a piece of paper.
The note was written on yellow stationery, and the words were in the unmistakable flowing hand of a woman.
Dear Mr. Winters
I could use some help in the grapes if you're available. I'll pay you the same as before. If you're interested, I will start at six tomorrow.
I drove through the chill, spring Michigan morning, and wondered what she had in store for me. Laura must have liked my work, or she wouldn't have called me back. She was waiting in the drive with the water can when I drove in. I noticed that the long coat had been replaced by a sweatshirt and loose jeans. Her hair was done up in a pony tail, but she still looked pretty severe. She didn't waste any time with "hello" or other small talk. She just handed me a hoe and started for the field.
We hoed until it clouded up and started to sprinkle.
"Well, I guess were done for the day", she said in disgust. "I need to get those grapes hoed before the weeds get up. If it doesn't rain, we'll go at it again tomorrow, same time. OK?"
"OK, but why don't you use that tractor with the plow thing on the back? It would be lots faster between the rows. Then all we'd have to do by hand is between the vines."
"That plow-thing is a grape hoe, and that tractor doesn't run; hasn't for a couple of years. I don't have the money to get it fixed."
She sounded a little sad, and this was the first emotion she'd shown since I'd known her. For some reason, I felt sorry for her.
"Mrs. Hildebrand, you see that car I'm driving? Well, it didn't run when I got it, either. I saw some tools in the barn. Why don't you let me look at the tractor? Maybe I can fix it. If I can't, you don't have to pay me. If I can, well, I charge three dollars an hour. OK?"
I spent the afternoon checking out the Ford. The only thing I could find wrong, other then the mouse nest I cleaned out of the carburetor intake, and the stale odor of the gas tank, was a plugged up fuel line. I cleaned out the line and the plugs and made a quick trip to the gas station to fill up the can I found in the corner. The battery had gone dead after the years of sitting, so I turned on the ignition, and went around to the crank in front. I'd never done this, but my uncle had told me about cars with crank starters, so I figured I could surely start this tractor. I pushed the crank over the drive pin, and rolled the engine to top dead center. It took all my weight to pull the engine through the compression stroke, but it did pop. I cranked again, and the backfire almost broke my arm. I guessed I hadn't heard my uncle exactly right. On the third crank, the engine rolled over, coughed twice, belched blue smoke, and then finally ran. I pulled out the crank, ran around to the side, and played with the carburetor until the idle settled down. I let it run while I checked the oil pressure and charge indicators. Both were fine, so I climbed in the seat and drove it out in the yard. Laura ran out of the house with her mouth open. I drove the Ford up to her, and pulled the throttle back to idle.
"See, Mrs. Hildebrand, I fixed it. Now we won't have to work so hard." I noticed the same little smile that curled the corners of her mouth, but this time it didn't go away. I let the engine run until the battery seemed charged, and checked the temperature gauge. The old Ford was running like a top.
The next day, I started the Ford, this time with the starter, and drove it out on the drive. I would have to change the oil in the Ford soon, but it would be OK for today. Laura met me in the drive as usual, and after I had lifted the water can to the floorboard, I drove the Ford to the field. I had finished the field by noon, and after lunch we started hoeing between the vines. Laura seemed happy for the first time since I had started working for her, and we actually had some small talk about college, my love of engineering, and of her knowldege of grapes.
We finished the first pass over the field on Thursday, and I had worked myself out of a job again. Laura came out of the house with my money.
"Terry, you seem to be able to fix things, and I've got a lot that needs fixing. Could you just kind of fix things around here in between the grape work? I still can't pay much, but I can keep you busy all summer, I think."
I don't know where she got the money, but she paid every Friday. I fixed the woodwork on the house and painted it, fixed the porch and painted that, and took care of the mowing the yard and the area in front of the chalet. Whenever the grapes needed spraying or another pass with a hoe to keep the weeds down, I took care of that. Laura always worked beside me, and her stamina still amazed me.
The weather that summer was perfect for fruit, and the grapes grew from honey bee covered blossoms to tiny green dots to swollen purple globes that hung in huge clusters from the luxuriant green leafed vines. Laura kept checking them by tasting the juice, and one Thursday in late August, she announced they were ready to pick. When I arrived at the farm the next morning, a truck was parked on the white rock in front of the barn. I dropped the hoe off the tractor, and hitched up the small wagon as Laura had asked. We spent the day cutting the clusters and putting them into the cardboard boxes in the wagon. When we filled a load of boxes, I drove the wagon back to the truck and helped the driver load. We picked all day Friday and started again on Saturday. At about four, Laura said she had something to do, asked me to finish and get the truck on its way, and walked back to the house. I finished the field, and drove the load back to the truck. It was dark by the time we finished loading, and after he left, I put the tractor and wagon back in the barn. The grape juice had turned my hands purple and sticky, and I washed off as much as I could at the pump in the yard. My T-shirt was stained with purple blotches, as were my jeans, but they would have to wait until I got home. I went to the house to find Laura and tell her the truck had left. My first knock on the back door went unanswered, as did the second. I was looking around the yard, trying to find her when I saw a light in the chalet. I knocked on the door and waited. The door opened slowly, and I stopped breathing.
It took a moment to recognize her. Her streaked, dark brown hair hung in shining waves that caressed her bare shoulders, and the simple black strapless dress hugged the figure she had been hiding under the sweatshirts and sloppy jeans. Her slender legs were sheathed in black nylon, and she stood three inches taller because of the shiny, black, spike heels. I was staring, but I couldn't help it. Laura had changed from the severe, cold woman of the grape arbor to the beautiful creature who stood in the door, and I was in awe of the transformation. Her voice finally broke through.
"I said, come in Terry."
I walked through the door into another age. The room was decorated in a fifty's modern style, and on the long counter at the back, an old record player was playing the slow, sensual sounds of one of the old big bands. The pictures on the walls were also old, and all were black and whites in simple frames. The beamed ceiling supported a small, but ornate chandelier, which was not lit, and the cold, open hearth of a huge, stone fireplace begged for logs and flame at one end of the room. Two candelabra sat on the mantle, and the white tapers that burned at the end of their graceful, silver arms lit the room in a soft, warm yellow glow. The furniture was limited to a coffee table and a large couch with burnt-orange velvet upholstery. On the table sat an open bottle of wine, two glasses, and a picture.
Laura walked to the couch and sat down, and then patted the cushion beside her. I sat at the other end of the couch, and when she leaned back with closed eyes and listened to the music, I felt as if I were intruding on something very private, although I didn't know why. She stayed that way until the song ended, and then looked at me. Laura had used makeup for the first time I had ever seen, and the effect was amazing. The severe look had change to a soft, feminine glow, and her eyes shone at me in the candlelight.
"Can I pour you some wine?" Before I could answer, she filled the second small glass, and set it before me. Her nails were short from all the field work, but they were filed and painted a deep red that matched her lipstick. I was most entranced by the change in her face. The scowl and lines had been replaced by blushing cheeks and long, fluttering lashes that framed a very pretty smile.
"You're staring again, Terry. What's the matter?"
"It's just, well, Mrs. Hildebrand, you're beautiful."
She laughed softly. "Thank you, but I hardly think I could be described as beautiful. Girls your age are beautiful. I'm fifty-five, Terry, and women my age are usually described as mature-looking. Look at all these wrinkles around my eyes. Those aren't beautiful."
Laura got up, selected another record from a large stack, and when the music started she returned to her chair. She took a sip of wine from her glass, and then her eyes closed as she let herself drift on the slow melody. Two more songs started, melted out of the speaker, and quietly ended before she opened her eyes again. Her voice was still soft, and had an almost dreamy quality to the tone.