Somehow I doubt we will be having victory gardens in this war. You have to feel good about a war to dig up your back yard for it.
The last time Americans really did was World War II, and most people alive today can't remember a time like that, when morale was so good and the country was so unanimous in its determination.
Anyway, since the farmers had all gone into the Army (or in the case of Japanese truck farmers, prison camps), Americans were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. Probably a million flower gardens were uprooted, and lawns all across the continent were de-sodded, shoveled and turned and raked by hand.
It was something you could do, like saving lead foil, the kind that lined cigarette packs and was far heavier than tinfoil (and made a much deadlier spitball). Everyone also saved bacon grease, because it was supposed to be an ingredient in explosives, or something. How we kids yearned to find out exactly what explosives, and how you made them from bacon grease.
But it was the victory gardens that I remember best.
As a farm kid I had an advantage. We owned acres and acres of plowed land already. Plus, I managed 400 Rhode Island Red chickens for my 4-H project, and Millie the Guernsey cow gave all the butter we could churn, so we were not going hungry. But there was my mother's lovely flower garden out by the kitchen, a quarter-acre of delphiniums and roses and what not.
So in a family council (that is, my father announced it at supper) it was decided that the flowers would become a victory garden for the War Effort. And I would tend it.
I hated gardening. I hated getting down on the ground and pulling up weeds and having their little tassels come off in my hand while the roots stayed behind. But for some reason that year I had got involved with tomatoes as my 4-H project. All winter I had been raising two flats of them from seeds, and it was actually kind of fun to watch the tiny sprouts popping up from the soil day by day.
Come spring, I turned out the flowers and harrowed the big patch. We had one of those wheeled harrows run by manpower. Gas-engine mowers were virtually unknown then, and besides gasoline was rationed. If the blades were set to scratch into the earth for an inch or two, you were fine. Any deeper, and you had to hurl yourself against the thing like a football player at a tackling machine.
The next day I planted three rows of string beans. Now, being 15 years old, I had a theory. When you hoe a row, you run the hoe alongside, chopping into the dirt just next to the vegetables. So it's the side of the hoe that does the work. How much more efficient, I thought, if you could get at the weeds with the whole blade of the hoe.
"Interesting idea, Mickey," said my father, the only one allowed to call me Mickey. He was a politician and not a farmer.
Accordingly, I planted the seeds in a neat zigzag, each zig and zag at right angles and precisely the length of a hoe blade.
This way, when I came to weed, I could go right down the row making a series of rhythmic chops, first on one side of the row, then on the other.
Labor-saving devices were my specialty.
The beans did not understand. They came up where they felt like it, an inch off here, a half-inch off there, in a very fuzzy row indeed. You could barely make out the zigzags.
In the end I had to weed the beans by hand, down on my knees. It was as bad as doing the delphiniums.
But we did have beans. And tomatoes -- well, you know how it is with tomatoes. My pampered seedlings went into a special patch, of course too far apart for any nonsense with the hoe, and they bloomed prodigally. Incredibly. They won me a blue and two red ribbons at the Oneida County Fair.
We filled bushel baskets with tomatoes. (Does anyone know what a bushel basket looks like anymore?) We put them up in jars. We gave them to neighbors and relatives and my father's constituents. We gave a lot to Mr. Capone, the barber in the Hotel Utica barbershop who every year made wine from our Concord grapes and split it with us, about a barrel apiece.
The strange thing was, the thanks we got were distinctly faint. Mild smiles tinged with irony. We couldn't figure it out. You would think people would be grateful for some free tomatoes, but all they would say was, "Oh. Yes. More tomatoes. Thanks."
It was Mr. Capone who put us right. One day he showed up at the farm with a bushel basket of his own. Piled high with zucchini. Enough zucchini to last us well into the Korean War.
"From my victory garden," he said.
Michael Kernan is a former Washington Post reporter who now freelances from Baltimore, where he doesn't have a garden.