I Found My Thrill
October 3, 2013 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Down among the counties that help earn New Jersey its Garden State moniker, there lies the hamlet of New Egypt. Within it is the sixty-acre blueberry patch my grandparents used to own. Drive down I-95 through Newark toward the shore to see the world flash from soot gray to Granny Smith green as you are surrounded by towering cornstalks.
Four years ago, my wife, Tiffan, and I made the pilgrimage to Jersey from Manhattan in lieu of our usual fall foliage trip (long story short: I had seen a movie that dissed soi-disant leafers and felt suitably shamed). Plus, I had heard that from back-to-school time through Thanksgiving, Emery’s Farm offered seasonal activities—pumpkin picking, hay rides. Tiffan is from Oklahoma, and I seize any opportunity to conjure country trappings.
But I did have some legitimate claim. This farm, after all, was whither the brand name “Ross da Boss Blueberries” sprang, emblazoned on the cellophane securing the fruit in its green cardboard cartons. When my grandfather, Danny Passoff, retired from running a successful tomato business, he bought the blueberry farm as a pet project with my grandmother, and during summers, my sister and I would work on the farm.
Standing there on that fall day, I told Tiffan about those summers on the farm, about picking the choicest berries and dropping them into my pail—an old coffee canister—with tinny thuds. In the onomatopoeic language of Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book Blueberries for Sal, this is described as “ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk.” By July, the bushes are heavy with the luscious blue fatties, their puckered sepals folded back, mushy marbles that squish deliciously between the teeth. In my memory, that time in my life is, like Sal’s, rendered in the book’s distinctive navy-and-raincoat-yellow palette.
In McCloskey’s book, a childhood favorite, little Sal goes with her mother to Blueberry Hill, only to get lost and temporarily switch mothers with a bear cub. Sal’s mother finds her wandering child by recognizing the cacophony of the berries—“ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk”—she throws into her bucket.
In his poem “Blueberries,” Robert Frost described the fruit like this:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
At first glance, the farm, and the town, felt frozen in time. Above-ground pools dominate and children run through the hazy twilight in night shirts near the Plum Tree, a restaurant famous for the rotating carousel of cheesecakes that served as my wages. And I can hear Louis Armstrong croon through the speakers of the oak-wainscoted restaurant:
I found my thrill on blueberry hill
On blueberry hill where I found you
The moon stood still on blueberry hill
And lingered till my dreams came true …
At nights after dinner, my grandfather, whom we called Pa, and I would make a phalanx of metal soldiers and assemble plastic cowboys and Indians on the den floor to face off in the next imaginary fusillade. Come bedtime, I would run furiously through my grandparents’ airy house beating my hand over my mouth to punctuate the Native American “Oo-Oo-Oo” chant, imitating the Hiawatha story they recounted to me.
When my Pa died, in 1991, my grandmother threw herself into developing the farm—in part to enjoy the peace of mind distraction brought, in part to tend to their last joint creation. She was known as “Big Grandma,” because she was 5’ 8” to my other grandmother’s 4’11”. It suited her; she acted the part of Grande Dame of Monmouth County, New Jersey, until her death, in 1999. At that point, my family sold its own blueberry hill to the current owners.
Observing the mini-plantation with Tiffan, I realized the whole farm had grown into a large-scale enterprise with a professional air similar to that of its newest neighbor—a Jersey vineyard, of all things, with not-half-bad Cabernet. We discovered the farm house shop had moved far beyond simple honey bears and jams, and now hawked en vogue health items like kale chips, quinoa, and agave. There was a corn maze where I used to run around savagely, brandishing a stick as a makeshift spear. The farm had become an autumnal wonderland. The gourds were elephantine, and the grounds were tidy—with lists of rules and regulations posted in what used to be the Wild West of Jersey.
Since my family sold the property, I have viewed the summer pick-your-own folks as intruders. During that first fall visit with Tiffan, I finally understood why, during summers since my grandmother’s death, I have demonstrated some Sal-like misbehavior: the sad and sadistic activity of nailing farm visitors with berries clearly stems from envy, sadness, and resentment.
The lines of bushes at Emery’s are on raised slopes with flatter interstitial sections through which pickers can ambulate. This is the prime area to initiate an attack.
Select a berry—not too puny, but not too perfect either—and pluck it from the bush. Choose a vulnerable target in the adjacent row who is turned the other way (someone in a Panama hat, say, with Foakleys secured by Croakies). Softly test the berry digitally and determine there is a bit of saftig elasticity in the epidermis. Acting swiftly, launch the berry toward the clouds (you’ll be exceedingly more undetectable if the berry missile lands from on high).
There are few things in life more satisfying than the look of confusion of the target, as he tries to determine the origin of that bouncing boopt.
Rest assured, I realize this is callow behavior, but it somehow gives me a connection to the land I once roamed. The punking and plunking empowers me as a native, much the way giving a tourist false directions might, for an unworthy moment, seem to preserve the authenticity of your favorite watering hole. During these moments, Tiffan will pretend she does not know me (her hand forms an eye-covering visor from her forehead) but she understands the emotions at work behind my madness.
The true target is clearly less any specific victim and more the past as a whole. With each direct hit, I am obscurely securing my connection to the land and to my familial history here on these sixty acres. In that moment, I am once more Hiawatha—harvesting the fruits of my fertile soil, antioxidants for the soul.
Ross Kenneth Urken is a writer in Manhattan. Read more of his work at http://tabularossa.tumblr.com.