The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

          Because I grew up next door to my grandfather, I often helped him in his garden. My grandfather, R. L. Cox, loved to eat what he grew in his garden and to share its bounty his neighbors. However, his garden was primarily a hobby, and, as with all hobbies, it brought forth idiosyncratic behaviors. The pride and joy of his garden, and the subject of most of his quirks, were his tomatoes. Each year he planted four rows of tomatoes, each row one hundred feet long. Each plant was set by hand. Each wooden stake was individually inspected for straightness and strength. Each stake was carefully placed in a hole made by a 60-pound drive shaft from a Model-T Ford truck. Each piece of twine used to tie-up the plants was cut to exactly the same length.

          But to me, the most perplexing of his habits arose when he watered his tomatoes. I initially thought the most logical method was to run a garden hose out to the tomatoes and water each plant with the hose. No, No, No! The tomatoes had to be watered from a watering can. And, the watering can had to be filled from the spigot on the side of his house. Not even the watering can could be filled with a garden hose. The R. L. Cox procedure for watering tomatoes was as follows.


1)Using the spigot on the side of the house, fill two watering cans and a five-gallon bucket to the brim.


2)Transport the two watering cans and the five gallon bucket to the end of the four rows of tomatoes. The five-gallon bucket was carried in between R. L. and his helper. R. L.’s and the helper’s outside arms each carried a watering can.


3)Water the tomatoes with the watering can. When the first watering can was empty, the helper came forward with the second watering can and refilled the first. Continue until both cans and the bucket are empty.


          4)       Repeat until all tomato plants are watered.

By 1967, this procedure was so ingrained in me, that I was absolutely convinced that not only was this the correct way to water tomatoes, but that any other way was incorrect.

          In late May or early June of 1967, my grandfather went to visit his daughter in Arlington, VA for two weeks. He considered this a safe time to be away from his cherished garden because everything was planted, but most of the vegetables had not yet ripened. He gave me detailed instructions on what he wanted done to his garden and when he wanted it done. While I have forgotten most of his directions, one in particular sticks in my mind, “Water my tomatoes every day.”

          R. L. departed for Arlington, and I was left in command of the garden. I watered the tomatoes every day in strict accord with the procedure I had learned at my grandfather’s knee. After a couple of days of seeing me struggle with the water buckets, my father decided to come to my rescue. His first timesaving and efficiency enhancing recommendation was for me to water the tomatoes with a garden hose.

          I objected strenuously. Dad made a move for the garden hose. I cut him off. In my best twelve-year-old logic, I explained that I had been left in charge of the garden and that if I deviated from his father’s instructions in the slightest degree, then his father would never trust me again if anything went wrong. Dad mumbled something about my being worse than his father and capitulated. He even helped me carry the water buckets that day. However, he never again offered to help me water the tomatoes. But on I went, like the broomstick in Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, dumping water on those tomatoes every day, heedless of want or need.

          The day arrived when my grandfather returned from Arlington. I was beaming with pride at the care I had taken in carrying out, to the letter, his instructions. Without pausing to unpack, R. L went out to inspect his garden. As befitted his interest, he immediately looked to his beloved tomato plants. With disappointment heavy in his voice he exclaimed,

What did you do to my tomatoes!

I was dumbfounded. I stammered,

I watered them every day, just like you told me to.

He sighed,

Oh son, I told you to water them every day, hoping that you might

water them once or twice a week. You’ve drowned all my tomatoes.

          Well, I didn’t really kill them and after a week without my tender ministrations, the tomato plants made a full recovery. Footnote

Later that summer, as usual, every home in the neighborhood was fully stocked with home-grown tomatoes.