Today, among hundreds of other possible projects, 4-H kids can raise puppies to become service animals for the sight- or hearing-impaired. Or they can raise llamas. Honestly. In the Forties, all I got to raise were five Rhode Island Red hens and about an equal number of anemic tomatoes.
Our Lakeside, New Jersey, 4-H club was named "The Willing Workers," a moniker with more hope than reality to back it up. But we had an excellent leader who would have fit neatly into an MGM "one-reel wonder" about 4-H-ers doing their bit for the war effort by learning to innoculate chickens and bottle the harvest from our Victory gardens.
Mrs. Alma Blakeslee still bore traces of a Swedish accent; her thick blonde hair, with only a few strands of grey, crowned her head in trim braids; and her spacious, handsome home provided barely enough work to use up her Nordic energy. The Blakeslees were the only couple I knew who had an Only Child. Having just one child struck the rest of us as more remarkable than Mrs. B's braids, her accent, or the fact that she always addressed her husband as "Mister Blakeslee." Once a week, eight or ten girls gathered in her kitchen to learn the homely arts, Swedish style.
I was pathetic at the whole business. My muffins, broken in half to show their texture, resembled open pit mines, so riddled were they with the tell-tale holes. (Too much mixing, or too little, I no longer remember.) Anything I sewed ended up looking like an item that the neediest war refugees would have rejected. "Tuck your knots out of sight!" Mrs. Blakeslee would implore. But it was fruitless: great snarled knots of thread always dangled from the hems of whatever I made, nasty little tattletales advertising my ineptitude. My canned vegetables never sparkled like jewels in their Mason jars; and for every peck of tomatoes that made it safely into one of my bottles, another peck ended up, mangled and in disgrace in the garbage bucket that would later feed the chickens.
When, after a year's work, it was time for the Willing Workers to pack up our projects and travel to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to compete with other state 4-H-ers for ribbons and glory, the question of my dubious handiwork loomed large in Mrs. Blakeslee's mind. But the Swedes are nothing if not determined. In the catalog of possibilities, along with Baked Goods, Canned Fruits & Vegetables, Fine Sewing, Embroidery, Knitting & Crocheting, and Fashion Design, Mrs. B. found "Demonstration." Demonstration turned out to mean a short talk about something. Instead of a finished product, you could demonstrate a process. You would be judged on how clearly you demonstrated the process and how well you talked. One suggested topic was "Canning Lids and Jars." Surely I could talk somewhat better than I could cook or crochet? So for my demonstration, I studied the 4-H brochures on selecting and preparing Mason jars and Kerr rings and lids prior to bottling produce and worked up a 10-minute talk. What ten-year old wouldn't be thrilled with that, right?
August at Rutgers was quiet, the college students away at the shore or the Poconos, working to earn tuition. (Rutgers was not, after all, Princeton, but the state's land grant university.) The 4-H visitors occupied the home economics building. In Room 321, its desks pushed to one side, a long table faced a seated panel of judges. Frozen with anxiety, a dozen of us girls sat behind the table on folding chairs, kept our knees together, and hyperventilated. Several of these country mice had never been this far away from home before, let alone on public display. At least the other Willing Workers could have their muffins or their knit goods judged; but we "demonstrators" ourselves were in the spotlight.
At ten, I was the youngest girl there, so I was last on the list. I guess the theory was that watching the others would give me courage. Just before my demo, two sixteen-year olds stood up and prepared to give a talk on--canning lids and jars. My exact topic. They had neat stacks of notes that brimmed with beautifully hand-written data. (Some of you will remember that penmanship was once actually taught in school.) The teenagers took turns talking about chips in rims, proper sterilization of bottles, checking used metal lids for rust, and all the rest. And just before ending, they made a statement directly contradicting some detail I was scheduled to say.
As for me, I had no notes--hadn't even thought about notes. I had recited "pieces" since earliest Sunday School days, and you were supposed to know what you recited, as in "know by heart." So I got up, looked the three judges in the eye, and instructed these high school and college home economics teachers about lids and jars as though they'd been waiting for this enlightenment all their days. When I reached the disputed point (something about whether you did or didn't tighten the lids before they popped), I simply said that the teen-agers were misinformed, and told them the correct procedure. Then I sat down.
As the Lakeside Willing Workers rode home from New Brunswick, we chattered with near-hysterical relief that it was all over. Mrs. Blakeslee said little,but she seemed satisfied. We had collected a flutter of ribbons--a few whites (Fair) and at least six reds (Good). And one handsome blue ribbon (Excellent), with not a single dangling thread showing. QED.