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By Daniel C. Murphy
Our doorbell rang on a Saturday morning in the late spring of 1944, and as usual, nine years old and curious, I was the first one down to open the door to our visitor, who was silhouetted in the sunshine flooding Guerrero Street.
"Who is it?" asked my father, able to see only the visitor's feet from the landing.
"I'm from the San Francisco mayor's office," said a man, in shirt and tie. "I'm looking for young Dan Murphy. I was told by the MacGowans that he lived here."
"That's me," I said. "I'm young Dan Murphy."
My dad came down the stairs to see what was going on.
"My name is Lawrence Collins," explained the man, "and as I say, I'm looking for young Dan Murphy, and this seems to be our fellow. I'm in charge of the city's Victory Garden program, and we are looking for youngsters to help us grow vegetables for the war effort. The MacGowans thought Danny might be interested."
"Who else is in the program?" asked my father, because the MacGowans, all black hair and freckles, were considered harum-scarum, new Irish, and a bit on the rough side.
Larry looked at his list, "Well, we have Billy Higgins planting potatoes, Jackie Schroeder will plant radishes, Freddie Leperdez has carrots, and Arlene Anderson has zucchini squash," and he continued down a list of several other reputable neighborhood names and their new agricultural specialties.
"We need someone for onions," said Larry, as he finished reading the list.
I had never thought of living my life as a farmer, never considered that vegetables grew in the ground and that I could be part of the process from farm to table, but now it hit me like a crate of melons, the realization that during my entire nine years of life there had been something lacking in the boy standing on his doorstep that sunny morning in the Mission District.
The answer was onions. I knew now that I had always wanted to grow onions, and this miraculous official was here to show me how to do it. Onions! Onions with white bulbs, and bright green stalks reaching toward the sky. Onions!
"Can I do it, Dad?"
"Where will the Victory Garden be?" my dad asked.
"I'll show you," said Larry. "It's just across the street from your house, where Guerrero and Duncan and San Jose streets make the triangle."
We knew the triangle lot. It was so overgrown with waist-high weeds that even the neighborhood children, who had only streets and sidewalks for a playground, had never considered the vacant triangle a place to play, a lot so useless that it had dropped from memory as an existing space.
The lot was enclosed with an ancient fence of faded green posts and horizontal slats, an uninviting barricade. Who owned the lot, no one knew or had ever asked.
"Come on, I'll show you the Victory Garden, and you can pick the spot you want for your own garden," said Larry.
When we crossed the street, I was surprised to see that a new wooden gate had been cut into the green fence. Now, one could easily enter the lot and gaze across the small new gardens out to the wide swath of yellow weeds that still needed to be cultivated. There was a new metal pipe and faucet with a garden hose attached; raw earth, water, and the Mission District sunshine would make things grow.
Out in the individual gardens, children were pulling up weeds by hand, difficult work in the hard soil.
"Pick your new garden," said Larry, showing me the stringed plots that remained unclaimed in the dry weeds.
I chose a garden plot near the hose and began pulling weeds in earnest, my hands soon cut and sore from the coarse fiber of the dry stalks. After two days of exhausting work, I managed to clear most of the weeds from my garden. At the edges, where the string lined the boundaries of my plot, I left some weeds, losing growing space but reasoning that seven long rows would produce enough onions for an Allied victory in the Pacific and in all of Europe, too.
As I gazed out beyond the yellow weeds that bordered the old green fence, I thought that I saw Adolph Hitler, jet-back hair across one eye, his black hyphen of a moustache beneath his nose, reading a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Führer was asking a German field marshal who wore a red armband with a black swastika, "Who is this young Dan Murphy who lives in San Francisco in the United States of America? He and his cursed Victory Garden are the greatest threats we have to the Third Reich!"
Back at home, my mother remained skeptical. Raised in the city, agriculture was to her a peculiar notion. You bought your carrots and your iceberg lettuce at Jack Daly's corner grocery store, but where he got those growing things was a mystery of little interest. How could it really help the war effort to grow vegetables in San Francisco?
She also worried that behind the Victory Garden there was some grander scheme. Why would the mayor's office want to grow vegetables? Was this some subtle political conspiracy hatched by City Hall? My grandfather, a respected Irish Catholic politician, was the sheriff of San Francisco. Could the Victory Garden be merely an intrigue to use the sheriff's grandson to advance a political interest of the mayor?
Since my father had approved the project, my mother would have to go along with it, keeping a suspicious eye on Larry, the garden, and me.
On Monday after school, I planted onions from seeds along the seven rows, wondering if any onions would be ready to harvest and eat by the following weekend. I soaked my garden with water from the new hose and stood watching the soil. Nothing green seemed to appear.
Ten days later, when I reported to Larry that there was some green growth near my garden rows, he went over to look and said, "Those are just new weeds, Danny," and he pulled some out to show me. "You should walk carefully along the rows and pull these weeds out," he said. "And be patient, your onions will soon be here."
I weeded and watered and waited, and I began to wonder about gardening. You planted your seeds and there were no onions, only more weeds which thrived in the fresh earth, while the onions hid underground.
By the time Saint Paul's grammar school let out for summer, I had lost interest in being a farmer. It was summer vacation: baseball on Duncan Street, sod fights on the railroad embankment that cut between Dolores and Church, walks to the hardware store to buy a penny's worth of putty, or out Mission Street to visit my cousin Joe. The days blended and raced past--there was so much good fun around every corner.
But when I turned the corner at Guerrero and Duncan, if I looked across the street to my garden, a spot of pink guilt touched my cheeks, for I had not visited the Victory Garden in a long time. When I finally did go over to my garden, I saw some tiny green onion shoots, growing along the rows I had planted. But while the onions had tarried, my how those weeds had grown.
With no adults to prod me, and the prospect of my crop of onions growing dimmer with every day of neglect, I abandoned my garden altogether. With only encroaching weeds and boundaries of broken string, the world and I would soon forget my failed garden.
I played hide-and-seek, one-foot-off-the-gutter, street hockey, and baseball, as the summer whiled away, the garden now as distant in my memory as the last day of school.
* * *
The telephone call from Larry came on a Monday morning. As with the doorbell, I was always the first to answer the telephone.
"Congratulations!" said Larry. "You won 'Best of Onions.'"
I was afraid that Larry had made a mistake, that he had someone else's onions in mind. How could it be? I had not done any work on my garden for weeks. "Are you sure?" I asked.
"I know that you didn't do a lot of work toward the end of the season, Danny," said Larry, "but your onions are enormous, as big as grapefruits. I'm driving out to the Victory Garden. You be there at eleven and I'll show you your winners. You're a real farmer."
I walked over to the Victory Garden, and to my own small plot, and now saw that seven green lines of gigantic onion stalks stood out against the puzzled weeds. With a hand spade, Larry dug one of my onions from the ground, a firm white bulb the size of a small melon but with strong green shoots.
"Now that's a beautiful onion," said Larry.
"Can I take it home to show my dad and mom?" I asked.
"Sure, you grew it. These onions are yours."
"I'm going to try and get some newspaper coverage for the Victory Garden," said Larry. "I want to get a picture of you five winners, with the mayor. I'll telephone you when I know the mayor is available for a photo."
I ran up the stairs to tell my mother the good news: my onions had won first prize, and my picture would be in the newspaper.
But my mother was suspicious of this promise of newspaper publicity. "They probably just want to use your name and put your picture in the paper because you are the grandson of the sheriff," she said.
"No, I won, Mom. Look at the size of this onion. Mine are the best in the Victory Garden. I won fair and square."
"We'll see," she said.
When the telephone rang the next morning, I took the receiver off the hook, and heard Larry's voice.
"Hi, Danny. You have to be in the mayor's office at one o'clock today to have your picture taken with the other four Victory Garden winners."
"Who is it?" asked my mother.
"It's Larry," I said. "I'm going to have my picture taken at the mayor's office at one o'clock, this afternoon."
"Let me have the phone," she said.
"Hello, this is Mrs. Murphy, Danny's mother. What is this all about?"
She listened for a few seconds, the receiver to her ear, the black speaker column in her hand, then said, "No, I'm afraid that Danny can't go with you this afternoon. We don't want his picture in the newspaper."
"Please let me talk to Larry," I said.
"You can talk to him," my mother said. "But it will do no good, because you are not going to have your picture taken this afternoon."
When I got back on the line, Larry said, "I'm sorry, Danny, but your mother doesn't want you to go, and there is nothing I can do. If your mother changes her mind, you can still meet us at City Hall at one o'clock."
My mother did not try to stop me from telephoning my father at his law office, but it did no good because he was in court.
Through the long afternoon, I watched the hands of the clock move past noon to one o'clock, and then continue sadly toward six o'clock when my dad finally arrived home, too late from court to rescue justice in his own home.
When he entered, he found me brokenhearted at the kitchen table and my worried mother at the stove. When my dad had heard all of the story, he remained silent. It was too late to undo my mother's foolishness. He looked at me with sadness, and at my mother with disappointment, his face saying it all, that her unreasonable suspicions had ruined my prize.
Later that night, my mother said with hope, "Maybe there won't be a picture in the paper tomorrow."
But there was a picture, just as Larry had promised: the mayor and four beaming Victory Garden winners. And although I looked closely, I was not in the photo. My only acknowledgment was in the caption: "Dan Murphy (absent from photo: 'Best of Onions')."
Now when I think of that old newspaper photo, I realize that I had managed to conceal the truth from myself and my parents.
I hadn't grown those onions. They had grown all by themselves in my untended garden. The victory and the prize didn't belong to me. It belonged to Nature.
Church Street resident Daniel C. Murphy is an attorney, writer, and past winner of the Ina Coolbrith Poetry Prize.
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