Not Long Tales … December 10th, 2019

Jonathots Daily Blog

(4448)

18.

Po-Tay-Gold

There was no advantage in being female.

Joni knew this for a fact. At sixteen years of age, she had spent her entire life living on a tiny settlement, stuck between Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The elements dictated your effort.

The climate decided your work

And the isolation made it virtually impossible to think about things like dresses and bows in your hair.

It was lift, push and survive. There wasn’t much more time or reason for anything else in this outpost which the original founders had named Sinsear. (These first pioneers might have found some humor in the name, but nobody left behind ever gave it a smile.)

Joni was an orphan. She wasn’t born that way. (Of course, no one is.) Four years earlier, her parents left Sinsear to travel to Portland in the Oregon state, to look for work on the docks. They never returned.

No one talked about it—partially because speculation was fruitless, possibilities were painful—and mostly because living in the harsh surrounding, there was just no time to care.

Joni was willing to pull her load. So she became the community pet, given a slender cot in the back end of the only municipal building in the region—a large log cabin.

She earned her keep the same way all the teenagers did. Of the three hundred and twenty-four people who still lived in the vicinity (that is, if the Hennings, with their six children, decided to stay) there were about sixteen teenagers. These adolescents were employed for one purpose. When the snow came—and the snow always did come—it was their job to keep the road to the mountain pass cleared, so the town deputy could drive his truck up the quarter mile to his lovely home.

He was the richest man in town. Unfortunately, his name was Baron Quigley. But he didn’t act like a baron. He was a pretty nice guy for someone who had too much when everybody else had too little.

Quigley paid this army of teenagers a dime a day each, to shovel out the road to his home after the snowstorms. A dime had become a lot of money since the Great Depression had spread all across the United States.

Joni once asked, tongue-in-cheek, “So, what makes this depression so great?” (People either didn’t get her humor or decided to ignore it. She never tried it again.)

It was 1934, and it was Monday, December 10th. Fifteen days ‘til Christmas.

Joni’s two constant companions were Cummings Johns and Darson Shakers. In a more civilized world, the two old fellows would be classified as ne’er-do-wells, but in Sinsear, they had both found their place. Cummings called himself a “moving mechanic,” and Darson was dubbed “The Gatherer.”

Cummings got his name because he came around to fix things, and as long as you gave him some food and permission to sleep in the warmth of your premises, he was happy to be of service. The same thing was true of Darson, whose title, “Gatherer,” referred to him pulling a small trailer in which he collected the community garbage. (No one knew where Darson took it. Most folks were afraid to ask.)

Joni had it figured that she was better off than most of the other people who lived in the U.S. After all, there was plenty of deer, moose and bear to shoot and drag home for food, lots of snow to keep things cold and tons of wood for a fire, to warm you up at the end of the day.

It was more than enough to survive—and when survival was the name of the game, wise people didn’t sit around and discuss improvement.

So it was a little surprising when a salesman appeared in the settlement, advertising the new “golden potatoes” from Boise, Idaho. He touted that these spuds were twice the size of the normal variety and he whispered to Baron Quigley and several of the men who had gathered at the cabin that “word had that the Simplot Potato Company had secretly inserted into fifty random potatoes one ounce of pure gold per each tuber.”

The sales fellow made the men swear that they would not say anything about it, but the men quickly broke their word, sharing it throughout the entire camp. For the first time in a long time, the gathering of human souls in Sinsear was buzzing with excitement. “Just think of it—a potato with gold in it! A Golden Potato!”

Matter of fact, that’s what they decided to call it.

And the sales rep had even more good news. In an attempt to help out during the Great Depression, the Simplot Potato Growers had cut their price. You could now get five pounds of potatoes for three cents.

Everybody had one thing on their mind: how do we get more potatoes?

The Golden Potatoes would obviously make a great side for the moose steaks and the braised venison—so it wasn’t like they weren’t gonna get used.

So everybody gathered all their pennies and wrote a letter to Simplot Potato Company, requesting a shipment.

Joni didn’t want to get left out, but she wanted to make sure her potatoes were separate from those of the rest of the order, so as not to get things confused when she found gold in one of the potatoes.

One ounce of gold was enough money to last the average person for nearly two years. How wonderful it would be to not have to shovel snow through a pair of winters!

Joni asked Darson and Cummings how she might be able to order her potatoes and keep them separate from the ones being delivered to the camp by the company.

“I don’t know,” said Darson curtly.

That’s the way Darson was. He began every conversation like he was ready to spit into the snow. Then he began to sweeten up as he talked.

Cummings was a little bit nicer—he actually did the opposite of Darson. He started off talking reasonably nice, and by the end turned as sour as a pickle.

Joni had learned to ask most of her questions when the pair of gents landed about in the middle.

Cummings objected. “Why do you want to separate off your potatoes from the others? What a selfish thing to do. You mean if you find gold in your potato, you’re not gonna share it with me, after all I’ve done for you?”

Darson interrupted. “What have you done for her?”

Cummings was offended. “What do you mean, what have I done for her? The little bother-bug is an orphan and I’ve never made her feel like she’s not wanted even though her parents left and haven’t come back.”

Darson shook his head. “Isn’t that what you just did?”

Cummings scratched his beard. “She knows what I mean.” He looked at Joni. “Don’t you?”

Joni smiled, shook her head and returned to her question. “How can I keep my potatoes separate from the mass of potatoes?”

Cummings suddenly had an idea. “Well, I suppose you could order them later than the others. Then they would come separate—but also, you’d be waiting and maybe the shipment that came to the town folk would be filled with gold and you’d be left out.”

Joni did not like that at all.

Darson spoke up again. “Can we all agree that potatoes without gold in them taste mighty good and are well worth purchasing, especially if you can get some of that good white gravy on ’em?”

Cummings’ eyes sparkled. “I do love me some gravy,” he said. “Gravy is God’s way of apologizing for tasteless food.”

“Amen,” said Darson, staying sweet a little longer than normal.

Joni was still not satisfied. “I make a dime every time it snows,” she said. “Now, figure this out with me. If I took that whole dime, I could buy me about fifteen pounds of potatoes.”

Cummings vigorously shook his head. “I don’t like math problems. I never learned no arithmetic.”

Darson jumped in with his agreement. “I’m with you there, brother. I’ve lived a long time, and honest to God, nothin’ adds up.”

The two men laughed like they were drunk. (Joni knew this because she had seen them that way many times.)

Convinced there was no more need to consult her two companions, she went off by herself to dream about Po-Tay-Gold.

She liked the name. It sounded promising. And since it was almost Christmas, she wanted a few moments of privacy to think about it. So she went to her cot in the back of the cabin and lay down as darkness began to fall, finishing the day.

She fell asleep.

Joni had a dream. It was more than a dream. It was like this really nice-lookin’ young man was standing in front of her, talking right into her face. All he said was, “You’re going to win the gold.”

Joni woke up so thrilled that she wanted to run and find Darson, or Cummings, or anybody, and tell them that God had spoken, and her prosperity was on the way. But it was already dark—not safe to be running around looking for people since it was that time of night when the creatures of the forest ruled over the prairie.

As she lay on her cot, nearly sleepless for most of the night, she decided it was actually a good idea not to say anything about her dream, except maybe to Darson. Well, Cummings, too. Wouldn’t want to leave him out. Maybe she could tell some of the kids while they were shoveling snow. She’d have to be careful. She wouldn’t want an old-fashioned, jealous spirit to fall on her and have people dislike her because she’d been favored.

While Joni lay sleepless, the heavens opened and dumped eight inches of snow all over the world around her. The only problem was, it was the wet kind, not the powder. Wet was more difficult to shovel—made her legs ache and her back creak. But she knew at the end of the day, she’d have her ten cents to order fifteen pounds of potatoes.

Much to her surprise, the potato people from Idaho decided to ship a whole bunch of potatoes in the direction of Sinsear after they heard that their salesperson was received quite well by the folks. So it was only four days later—December 15th—that a big shipment came in on a huge truck.

There were so many potatoes that people could buy more than they’d even ordered.

Inspired, Joni did something she’d never done before. She asked one of the boys who was on the snow-plow team—who usually criticized her for being too slow—if she could borrow a dime from him. (For some reason, he always seemed to have a little more coinage than the rest of the kids.)

He asked what she’d give in return. Joni had no idea what to say. So the boy came right out and told her that if she’d give him a big kiss on the lips, he’d loan her the dime.

Joni had never even thought about kissing. Just like wearing a dress seemed foreign, kissing seemed to be something done on another planet. She always wore Levi’s and her bulky wool sweater. They certainly didn’t make her attractive—at least she didn’t think so. Nobody had ever called her cute, pretty or even reasonably acceptable. Now this boy was willing to use her lips for collateral.

She was ready to say no when he leaned in and grabbed him a kiss anyway. Joni was shocked—offended. Her head was spinning. She wanted to curse but didn’t know the words. The boy just laughed at her, handed over the dime, and said, “You pay me back within two weeks or I get me another one of those.”

She stood, staring at him as he stomped away, giggling. What had just happened?

Yet, she was so proud of herself for being willing to sacrifice for her Po-Tay-Gold that she ran to the truck, which was surrounded by locals. She bought fifteen pounds of potatoes—almost so heavy that she couldn’t carry them. She took them back to her cot in the cabin, found an old knife that the Baron used to whittle wood, and started cutting them open.

She was about nine potatoes in when Darson stuck his head in the door, saw what she was doing and exclaimed, “What in the name of Geronimo’s bones are you doin’, girl?”

Joni didn’t even look up. She just responded, “I’m lookin’ for gold.”

Darson laughed. “But what are you gonna do with the potatoes when you’re done?”

Joni looked down at the carved potatoes and said, “I’ll offer ’em to all the folks and we’ll have a big potato bake.”

Darson nodded approvingly. “That’s good thinkin’. I’ll pass the word.”

By dinnertime Joni had cut open all of her potatoes. There was no gold. She had thought one of them might have gold in it, so she called Cummings in to confirm whether it was gold or not—since she didn’t know what gold looked like. But this particular potato felt moister. But Cummings explained that it was just rotten and seeping out some pukey juice.

Joni had carefully picked it up and threw it to the side, continuing her labor. So much carving, so much hope. No gold.

Matter of fact, other people from Sinsear had spent their early afternoon into the evening doing their own potato inspection. No one found gold.

People were a little bit fussy, but after a fire was built and a rack was constructed for roasting, and when the eating began, people cheered up a little.

Joni was concerned. She realized she couldn’t give up. That angel boy in her vision had told her she was gonna get gold. Why would God tell her a lie? And if He wasn’t a liar, then out there, waiting, was her gold.

After the great potato bake, Joni was ready to head for the cabin. She told Cummings, “I’m gonna keep looking for my Po-Tay-Gold. It’s here. Do you believe with me?”

Cummings didn’t know what to say, but nodded, so Joni ran with all her might to her bed, hoping for a sleep that would give her enough energy to plow the road to buy more potatoes.

Cummings came back to the fire. Darson was sittin’ there, chomping on a particularly well-cooked, yellow potato. Cummings said, “Joni’s bound and determined to find one of those fifty golden potatoes.”

Darson turned and looked at Cummings. “What?” he inquired.

Cummings replied, “You know—she wants to get money—gold.”

Darson laughed and laughed. He laughed so long that Cummings was almost ready to punch him in the snout. Finally calming down, he put his arm around Cummings’ shoulder and said, “Listen, my friend. You do understand, there is no gold in any of the potatoes.”

Cummings jerked back, shocked. “But the salesman told us there were fifty potatoes sent out with gold in them.”

Darson patted Cummings on the leg. “Now, just stop and think about it. How would they get gold inside a potato? They couldn’t cut it open. They couldn’t squeeze it in.”

Cummings looked at him, alarmed. “Are you sayin’ there’s no gold in any of the potatoes?”

Darson shook his head. “Not a nickel.”

“Then they lied?” Cummings shouted, surprised.

Darson hushed him. “Don’t be shoutin’.”

Cummings said, “But we gotta tell people.”

Darson shook his head. “Now, why would we do that? There’s no harm in buyin’ potatoes. They’ll get et. But there is plenty of harm in destroying hope just so you can be right.”

Cummings was mad. “Well, what about Joni? You know we love her.”

Darson frowned. “Well, I certainly feel somethin’ about her. I’m certainly devoted. Yeah, I guess I do love her.”

Cummings said, “Well, what should we do about her?”

Darson took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t do anything. Look at it this way, Cummings. She’s sixteen years old. She’s a girl living in the wilderness. She has to act like a boy, or she’ll be worthless. What should we tell her?”

Cummings stood up and excused himself. He was upset—so upset that he couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night, he got an idea. When he had graduated from high school many, many years before, somebody had given him a brand-new silver dollar.

So Cummings grabbed a potato and very carefully slit open the side, and with the skill of a craftsman, he found a way to slide the silver dollar into the center of the potato. Then, to keep the slit from being noticeable, he took a little bit of glue from his workbench and smeared it to cover up the incision.

He was so proud of his effort.

The next morning, he told Joni he had found a potato that had apparently fallen out of her stack when she was carrying them in. He handed it to her, who sprouted a dark cloud of disbelief. Cummings encouraged her to cut open this potato.

She did.

There, at the center, was that beautiful, shiny silver dollar.

Joni was thrilled. She jumped up and down, clapped her hands, and started to head out to tell the people in the community. Then she changed her mind, turned back to Cummings and said, “Can you believe this?”

He shook his head, feeling proud that he had come up with such a magnificent idea, to satisfy Joni’s desire.

Before he could speak, as she jumped up and down, Joni exclaimed, “Now, I can order me about one ton—two thousand pounds—of potatoes! I oughta find the gold with that many, don’t you think?”

Cummings didn’t know what to say. It didn’t make any difference, because Joni had already run out the door, with plans for figuring out how to place her huge order.

Cummings stood to his feet, feeling it was his responsibility to track her down and tell her he had placed the silver dollar into the potato. Matter of fact, he was halfway down the street when he stopped in the middle of the road and peered up at the sun, thinking.

If he told her, it could break her heart.

If he didn’t tell her, it could also break her heart.

The only difference was that if he told her now, her heart would be broken immediately. If he waited, she would have a little big longer to be thrilled.

He turned and walked down the street to repair a busted pump. He would remain silent.

For the truth of the matter is, our visions will continue to be dreams as long as we keep believing in them.

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