[Author's Note: "I wrote this memoir about a specific incident from my past in which the memory was inspired by my trip to Italy. I was telling my husband John about the incident, and I could hardly speak for laughing, so I thought, 'I should write this down'."]
After a recent tour of Italy, I read the novella, Death in Venice. This is not a murder mystery; in fact, the story line deals with obsession. An older man is profoundly affected by the beauty of a 14-year-old boy. This story sparked a memory for me, from my Tobacco Farm days, where I worked for four summers a teenager. I was reminded of an incident of obsession that occurred during this time. Connecticut grows shade tobacco, and the locals have more profitable ways of making money than farming. So the owners of the tobacco farms hire girls from western Pennsylvania to come up for the summer, providing buses for transportation and camps to live in for the eight week working session. The girls have the opportunity to earn some money. I went, eagerly, because I wanted contact lenses. They cost $300, and a girl of fourteen had little opportunity to earn that kind of money. I earned exactly $300 my first summer. That comes out to one dollar an hour, which, quite honestly, was probably what my work was worth.
Four girls to a room, and my best friend Liz was my roommate this particular summer. Another fellow camper was Penny. She liked to draw, and she played the guitar. She idolized the late singer Janis Joplin. I canít even remember if Penny shared our room, I think she was a frequent guest. At the beginning of the summer, Penny pulled out the paints she had brought with her, and suggested she paint an unfurling rainbow/ flower/mushroom picture on Lizís locker. Today people decorate their skin with contemporary designs, but this was the 1960ís. We made do with the furniture and favorite clothing. I guess Lizís locker was selected because it was closest to the doorway. The wooden lockers had nice smooth panels, window size, excellent for presenting artwork. The lockers were all a bland light green, so we did consider it an improvement to view Pennyís work.
The camp housed around one hundred and fifty girls. One girl showed up who strongly resembled the recently departed singer, Janis Joplin. Penny was beside herself with excitement. The girlís name was Nadine, and today, whenever I see a picture of Janis Joplin, I realize that Nadine was a dead ringer for Janis. Nadine did not sing nor share any of Janis Joplinís eccentricities. In fact, Nadine was rather docile, hated the camp, and requested to return home within the first two weeks. Pennyís attention to the girl didnít help the situation, either. Much like the obsession in Death in Venice, Penny had become attached to the sight of Nadine, and was very upset by the idea of Nadine leaving.
The morning of Nadineís departure, Penny became quite emotional, and said, "We have to give her something before she leaves!" She leaped towards Lizís locker and punched out the decorated panel. We watched in astonishment, dumfounded at this display of mild violence. Penny insisted Nadine take the panel home with her. Nadine complied, she had little choice. Unfortunately, it did fit nicely into Nadineís suitcase. I think Penny desperately needed for Nadine to have something tangible to remember her by, and Nadine needed relief from such indulgent behavior.
Liz was left with a locker missing its top front panel. We hung a towel over the space, and she endured the gaping hole. At the end of the summer, Liz came to me and said, "Thatís my locker that has been damaged. I hope they donít make me pay for the repairs." We never said anything, and no one ever complained about it later. And the contacts I wanted so badly that I gave up languid summers to industriously labor for? I wore them for one and a half years, then gave up. I have worn glasses ever since.
I spent four summers at that camp, two as a worker, and two as a supervisor. I believe the experience gave me strength to draw upon in later life choices and experiences. There was something appealing about living in the camp community. We girls would sing on the bus on the way to work in the morning and on the way home. There was a jukebox in the dining hall and we would listen to the latest hit songs. I still feel a tingle when I hear a song I associate with the Tobacco Farm days. It was those memories that drew me back summer after summer. One didnít remember how grueling the work was until about three weeks into the working summer, and we would say to each other, "What were we thinking? Why are we back here again?"
Copyright © 2005 Christine (Minerd) Smith. Published with permission.