World War II ended, and men came home to work their fields. Although they protected their country, they could not protect their crops. A dry summer sky seared sugar beets, alfalfa and corn. Plants shrank from an unrelenting sun. Farmers watched the sky and worried — with one exception.
The Japanese farmer who recently had rented the Peterson place tended a small, vivid patch. As larger crops failed, his vegetable garden grew green under a patient hand and judicious irrigation; its lush rows highlighted the starkness of the surrounding acres of desolation.
His produce prospered while his family suffered. Because the war was recent or because he and his family succeeded where others failed, the people of the small community shunned and scorned them: a clenched fist thrust from the window of a pickup racing by as they worked in their garden, a stinging hiss splattered against them as they waited at the gas pump.
Meager harvest was taken that fall, and as winter gained momentum, families prepared for hardship. Fathers searched for part-time jobs at the steel plant, piano lessons stopped and Santa Claus learned thrift.
In the bleakness of January, gifts appeared. A mother of five, investigating a noise on the back porch, found a sack of potatoes leaning against the railing. An elderly couple, expecting a Sears catalogue, discovered a basket of winter squash beneath their mailbox. A young husband, lowering the tailgate of his pickup, saw a cardboard box full of bottled fruits and vegetables.
A spirit of hope stirred in the community, inspired by the warmth of unasked kindnesses.
Finally, winter gave way to bird-singing, flower-bursting spring. Farmers wheeled tractors around fields, believing this year would be better.
The rains came on time; the crops thrived.
Relieved to be working successfully, no one noticed that the Peterson place stood empty once again.
As nature continued to reward hard work, pride softened. Soon, with averted eyes, men broached the subject of the winter gifts. In hesitating sentences, passed awkwardly, they described their gifts and asked about the giver. One among them had the answer:
“I can tell you who did it. Early one morning, when worry wouldn’t let me sleep, I was standing in the darkened kitchen when I saw a beat-up old car I recognized coming down the road. It stopped just long enough to drop off something and then took off.
“I ran outside, bathrobe blowing in the breeze, and found a sack of carrots by the milk cans. Each one looking like it had been handpicked and scrubbed, just for me. I ran a few steps and yelled, ‘Thank you,’ after the disappearing tail lights. Hell, I couldn’t even yell a name because I never bothered to learn it. To me, he was just the Jap with the garden.”
When my Uncle Henry told this tale, he always added: “Couldn’t even call his name. I didn’t know it. And later, when I drove out to his place to shake his hand, he was gone.”
Growing up, I heard the story of the Japanese farmer many times; even as a child, I knew I was hearing about the finest type of giving: sharing what you have with those in need without expecting thanks.