Rev. Ted’s Excellent Adventures in Blueberrying -July 2007

Retired minister Ted Anderson's life with blueberries

by: Ted Anderson

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Finding the local library was the most momentous discovery of my growing up. I say that without reservation. By finding it, I don’t mean to imply that I had not known where it was. I’d known where the library was as long as I’d known where I was.

I went to kindergarten in the library. It was located near the center of what I called my home town, much as Nantucket’s Atheneum is in the middle of the place I call home today.

By finding the library I mean something like stepping out from a magical wardrobe into C.S. Lewis’ wondrous world of lions and witches.

Three score and 10 years later, imagination and memory are so inextricably entwined it is hard to say where one begins and the other ends. Boys dream eagerly, old men wistfully. Then imagination could run free, unencumbered by experience.

Now I remember how the cadence of walking was sung out by the zing-zing chant of my new corduroy knickers purchased for the occasion of my first day of school, and how, a scant three weeks later, we were all dismissed early because a terrible storm was beginning to rip limbs and branches from the maple trees that hovered over the library. By the time I reached home, the storm called “The Hurricane of ’38” was uprooting trees and using them to club telephone and power lines to the ground – poles and all.

Like all but the most mundane, this was a new experience for me and I was childishly matter-of-fact about it. The only thing that I recall bothering me at all was the sand swept up from the dirt road stinging my face. To deal with that I simply turned around and walked backwards, certainly a more sensible thing to do than dismiss children to walk home unaccompanied at the height of a hurricane. Even seeing huge spruce trees snap off and not hearing them break or crash because the wind drowned out all other sound did not strike me as strange: a little peculiar, perhaps, but not strange.

How does a child measure what is ordinary? I had not experienced hurricanes or corduroy knickers before, and then I discovered the library and the shared world of the human imagination. And that is where I first went blueberry-picking. In a book.

I became the little boy picking blueberries in Maine who heard someone picking on the other side of the bush. Someone big. With the boy in the book I crept around the bush very quietly, plotting to shout “Boo!” and make his mother jump, but when we got to the other side of the bush we didn’t say “Boo!” or anything else.

We dropped our bucket and ran away as quickly and as quietly as we could to get away before that blueberry-loving bear discovered we were there.

Nobody had to explain the difference between real and imagined to me. I knew the difference. I knew that if I met a bear in the real world I wouldn’t run away like that. I didn’t know exactly what I would have done, but not that.

My chance to find out what I would do if I met a bear came when my parents decided that my brother was responsible enough to keep himself out of the poison ivy so that we could all go blueberry-picking out near Ram Pasture. It didn’t take long for him to decide he’d had enough of blueberrying so before any bears turned up we were back in the car.

It was all of us or none of us, a cardinal rule of blueberrying every family has to learn for itself. My potential encounter with a bear would have to be postponed for another year.

As it turned out, that year was extended to four by my father’s prolonged absence in World War II, but eventually we were back, bumping our way down Barrett Farm Road to where we remembered seeing cars parked during blueberry time. Obviously there were blueberries in there somewhere. Why else would cars be parked way out there in the middle of nowhere?

I never did find the bear. I guess I was old enough by then to know there are no bears on Nantucket. Once you know a thing like that, even imagination won’t change it for you. In those days there weren’t even squirrels on Nantucket. We did, however, discover another form of wildlife multiplying with reckless abandon all over the moors. Ticks.

The age of a blueberry-picker corresponds directly to the number of minutes he will gather berries into a bucket before wandering off to another project. An 11-year-old will pick for 11 minutes, an 8-year-old for eight minutes, and so forth. As long, that is, as the taste of blueberries straight from the bush keeps them motivated. A 34-year-old adult, who from the 8-year-old’s perspective has lived forever, will, from that same perspective, pick forever. My apologies, incidentally, to those whose findings differ from mine. My parents did not provide me with a sister so my statistical survey may be somewhat skewed by gender. After all parties had reached their limits of toleration and were regrouped back at the car we began “The Tick Check,” picking them off one by one and cooking them on the old Buick’s cigarette lighter until they popped. The car’s ash trays were handy for used Kleenex and chewing gum, but the only use our family of non-smokers ever found for the cigarette lighter was executing ticks.

Like the smell of salt air and roses, the aroma of smoking ticks is one of those olfactory memories that persist undiminished. Were I ever to smell it again I’d know immediately what was burning.

Since Jon was the most uninhibited wanderer in the clan – normally we just ignored him so that we could get on with the business at hand – he was consistently the most tick-ridden. Mother frowned when I proclaimed him champion tick-bait, but Jon seemed rather proud to have finally come in first at something without the benefit of extra points for being the youngest or the smallest.

As the elder I felt it was my responsibility to win at being a clown. One of my favorite acts involved making my somewhat squeamish mother shudder by pretending to crush a tick with my teeth. I never really did it, but I managed to put on a show as slick as any Coney Island magician’s. First, brazenly show the tick between thumb and fingertip. Then, the deception. Raise tick to exposed incisors, taking care to roll it a little deeper into the finger grip, thus avoiding it actually making contact with the teeth. Or the lips. Third, grimace with the feigned effort of biting down with sufficient pressure per square inch to crack open the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s deep-sea submersible. Finally, make a convincing but not overly demonstrative spitting action as though ejecting minuscule tick body parts, such as its head, while simultaneously making a brisk gesture as though to cast the decapitated tick to the center of the Earth. At this step in the proceeding, my mother inevitably turned away and hid her face behind her hand. But it wasn’t over yet. With the perfect timing of a practiced performer, just as she lifted her hand to make sure the show was over, I’d give a little shudder, as though I’d tasted something as disgusting as Brussels sprouts and she’d cry, “Ed, Make him stop.”

In the split second before my father could reassemble his features, I’d interject, “It popped! Just like biting down on a frog’s egg.”

“Ed!” uttered on a rising note, at which he would take his eyes half off the road, turn to me, and swallowing a smile into a stern voice, obediently repeat, “Stop that Ted. Now!”

Which, since the routine had concluded, I usually did… until success pushed me one step too far. It was hubris that ended my career as a back-seat performer.

No sooner had I launched into an encore than Ma stopped the whole proceeding by saying in her most insistent tone, “Stop the car, Ed.”

The old Buick lurched to a halt, my mother threw open the door, and hurled the entire gallon of blueberries into the pukka brush.

We were in shock. Who could have imagined such a thing? All that work. All those blueberries. The remainder of the trip back to camp was navigated in stunned silence.

Blueberrying is fraught. And dangerous.

Yes, dangerous. Not only for domestic tranquillity. Dangerous beyond overdoses of calamine lotion, disfiguring mosquito bites and the utterly unreal possibilities of meeting up with a hungry bear or eating too many blueberry muffins. Dangerous beyond imagining. Jon and I damn near got killed innocently looking for some blueberries to pick.

It being late August, there was not much chance we’d find any, but our parents wanted us out of the cottage for a while and told us to go and find some. They didn’t ask, they told. They really wanted some peace and quiet and I guess they figured searching for blueberries after there weren’t any more would keep us busy for some time. We didn’t have to be told twice.

If we’d misbehaved then it probably would have been made clear that I was to blame. The oldest always is. As I saw it, we were being offered an opportunity. As young folks say today, “We were outta there.” There was Folger’s old gunning camp out by the west end of Hummock Pond. The barn and garage were still standing before the war, but when we arrived we found that they had fallen in some time between 1941 and 1945. With the barn gone, the house was visible from the privy for the first time so that the light from the kerosene lamps inside could guide you back to port after dark. Time had moved on during the war, but it hadn’t changed everything. Certainly not a boy’s taste for blueberries or adventure.

We poked around and poked around, wandering ever farther from a possible parental summons, until, to our utmost surprise and delight, we spied what looked like a few abandoned cars on a rise up ahead. Already-dissipating visions of bushes bending down with blueberries were instantly replaced by dreams of racing across Daytona Beach and maybe even winning the stock car races at Lyme Rock. What a find! Rusting wrecks they may have been, but they still had seats and steering wheels, and so we were off, chasing the checkered flag. Or something.

The next thing I remember was a scream passing overhead with a “whoosh” followed by a terrific explosion and the roar of a jet pulling out of a dive. Faster than Superman, Jon and I were “outta there” and howling toward home, lickety-split, bare-legged through clumps of bayberry, bramble and wild rose. We met Pa about half-way, churning toward us over the pukka brush like a Sherman tank in high gear. As soon as he checked us over and saw that we were intact he turned around and churned off in the other direction. He didn’t even have to tell us to follow him. Keep up we couldn’t. Before we reached the camp the old Buick was bouncing its way up the road, high-tailing it toward town and the nearest phone at approximately the speed of sound.

Whoever the Navy commandant was that Pa connected with by phone that day doubtless heard a thing or two that he may have been quite unaccustomed to hearing. Pa had just come back from Germany a few weeks earlier with orders cut for the Pacific, orders fortunately made irrelevant by VJ Day. Even in those few short weeks of jubilation and relief I’d managed to do enough to learn that Colonel Anderson, my father, was a man whom you displeased at your peril. He was particularly dangerous when he referred to his own displeasure as “being P.O.’d.” The United States Navy had P.O.’d Pa. Never again did I see him as P.O.’d as he was that day. Never again did the U.S. Navy use the moors west of Hummock Pond for a practice bombing range. The Navy even came out and hauled away the wrecked cars that had been used as targets. We looked for them when we came back for vacation in 1946 and couldn’t even find a scrap of rusty metal to mark where we were nearly killed. To this day there are people who don’t believe the Navy ever fired rockets at some of the best blueberry patches on Nantucket.

When blueberrying ceases to be an adventure and becomes a social event, you’ve grown up. Before ticks and developers scared them off the moors, carloads of grandmothers and great aunts would start heading off to their favorite secret spots sometime in early to mid July, the exact time depending on the weather.They would stay out there all morning, picking and chatting and chatting and picking, before returning in the early afternoon with gallons and gallons of blueberries. How legs that were so arthritic they could hardly move a body up Orange Street Hill kept those women upright until they had filled every container to overflowing is one of the orthopedic mysteries of the 20th century.

I don’t know if Nantucketers invented church bake sales as an excuse to pick more blueberries than any single family could eat, no matter how many times extended by remarriage, or if they were invented as a place to dispose of the surplus.

Ted Anderson is the retired Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Orange Street. He spends his time reading, writing, traveling, teaching . . . and berry-picking!

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