By Tom Rodriguez
As a young boy I always looked forward to the coming of the fall. There was something magical about the air and the changing colors of light during the late afternoon and early twilight hours. It is impossible for me to describe it accurately but anyone who has lived in the Midwest will know what I am talking about.
In my neighborhood, fall was always accompanied by the smell of burning leaves. Every year, my father and my two brothers and I would rake the fallen leaves from our trees into large piles and then rake all of the leaves to the curb gutter on our street. One of my most vivid memories is of me and my brothers standing near the curb in front of our house in the late evening hours with my father and mother, talking and enjoying the smell of burning leaves and looking down the street at a series of other brightly lit fires being tended to by the silhouetted figures of other fathers, mothers and children.
I am not certain when the practice of burning leaves ended but I think it was around 1954 or 1955. The practice ended because city officials decided that it was unsafe. Nevertheless, to this day when fall rolls around, I think back to the days of my youth and wish silently that one day I will walk down some strange street and will once again experience the smell of burning leaves.
The fall also brought with it that special time of year when our family went on our annual gathering of black walnuts at Ripley Park. Each year from about 1945 to 1954, our family gathered black walnuts. For Thanksgiving Day dinner, my mother would use the walnuts in pumpkin pies, jello, and in her cranberry sauce.The rest of the year, we used the nuts in various flavors of jello and sometimes sprinkled them over vanilla ice cream. On occasion, my brothers and I would crack some nuts and eat them right out of the shell using our mother’s bobby pins to dig out the meat from the shells.
Ripley Park was located on the far east side of Topeka, Kansas. As parks in Topeka existed at that time, it was not a very large park, about two and a half square blocks. To the immediate north of the park were the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Repair Shops where my father worked. To the east, west and south were low-income, mainly single story houses inhabited by Whites, Negroes (as Blacks were then called), Mexicans and a few Native Americans. The park was laid out with a large baseball field on the north and a two-story brick recreation center with an adjacent public swimming pool on the south. On the west side of the park were swings and a few picnic tables, plus a large wooden bandstand with a shingled roof. To the east were the horseshoe pits and a large area that had fifteen or more mature black walnut trees, which were interspersed among several large oak trees. That was the area where we gathered our black walnuts.
Each year my father would mysteriously pick the day for us to gather black walnuts. Once he picked the day, my mother would borrow my grandfather Gomez’s little red wagon and pack it with empty gunny sacks and a large picnic basket. On that day, after school let out, my brothers and I would meet my mother and baby brother, Michael, underneath the Branner Street bridge and we would all head out for Ripley Park, which was about four blocks east of the bridge.
Usually, we arrived at the park about four o’clock in the afternoon. If we were lucky the wind would be blowing and black walnuts would be lying on the ground and dropping down around us. Fresh with energy my two brothers and I would each grab a gunny sack and run off in different directions picking up the fallen nuts. In the meantime, our mother would select a picnic table, lay down a blanket for my brother Michael and play with him until my father got off of work at five o’clock.
More than sixty years later, my memories of gathering black walnuts continue to fill me with happiness. I still vividly remember the beautiful autumn light filtering through the multi-colored leaves on the trees and watching with wonder as the light from the slowly setting sun changed seemingly from minute to minute before my eyes. It was as if a delicate translucent curtain had been placed over the sun and softly filtered the light. That remarkable visual effect, along with the cool fall weather, the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves high up on the trees, the cool wind blowing on my face, brightly colored leaves falling from the trees, and the distinctive, pungent smell of black walnuts on my hands, are all indelibly imbedded in my memory.
My brothers and I picked walnuts until the five o’clock whistle sounded and then the three of us made a mad dash for the exit gate at the Santa Fe Shops to wait for our father. It was fun seeing all of the different workers file past us. As they filed past, someone always said something about us like, “There’s Joe’s boys,” or “There’s Pal’s kids.”
My father’s nickname was “Pal” and many people only knew him by that name. I remember feeling very special waiting for my father. In the seven or eight years that we went on our black walnut hunts, no other fathers had their kids waiting for them, and none of them ever picked black walnuts with their wife and kids.
On the way to our picnic table, we excitedly told Dad about all of the black walnuts we had picked. As soon as Dad reached the picnic table, he kissed Mom and greeted her with his usual, “Hello eet heart sway” which was pig latin for “Hello sweetheart.” Next he would pick up our little brother Michael and play with him for a while.
Dad would then go with us boys to see how many nuts we had gathered. He helped each of us carry our sacks to an abandoned concrete water fountain where we emptied the sacks so he and Mom could start shelling the husks from the shells.
When the table was set, our mother would call us and we would stop what we were doing and have our dinner. For some reason, the food we ate always tasted better than it did at home. Mom would make ham and cheese sandwiches, potato and meat burritos, bean burritos, and always brought along soda pop and potato chips.
I have many fond memories of feeling very happy as we all sat down to eat as a family on those cool, beautiful, setting sun evenings. Those were wonderful times and I still revel in the memory of those days because as I have grown older I have come to appreciate how very special those times were.
After eating, all of us began the hard, dirty work of taking the husks off of the nuts. Mom and Dad would put on gloves and then used a hammer or a brick to knock the mostly still green pulpy husks off of the walnuts. I remember that the husks from the nuts that had been on the ground for awhile turned black and many of them had small white larva in them. For that reason, the rotting husks were rich in black dye, which caused me and my brothers to try to avoid husking. Dad knew that and used his most authoritative voice when he told us to get busy and help he and Mom with the husking.
When Dad felt that it was getting too dark, he said that it was time to go and we loaded all of the husked and non-husked walnuts into two gunny sacks, one of which was loaded onto the red wagon. Mom would then put the picnic basket and my little brother Michael on top of the gunny sack. My brothers and Dad would then each grab a corner of the second sack and away we went.
By the time we left the park it was pretty dark but that just added to our adventure. Besides, with Dad around we weren’t afraid of anything. Our only problem was carrying the large sack of walnuts, which after a while got rather heavy and hard to hold on to. When one of us boys couldn’t take it anymore, he would tell Dad and we would stop for a while. It was always a great relief to take a break but it always resulted in the other brothers teasing the one that asked Dad to stop.
When we got home, which was usually around eight o’clock or later, we would take the nuts down to our dirt basement where we spread them on some canvass to dry. If you cracked a black walnut after it had been just been picked, the meat would be mushy and bitter. After they dried out, which usually took anywhere from five to six weeks, the meat was firm and very tasty.
Unfortunately, as with most good things in life, our black walnut gatherings came to an end around 1954. I don’t remember why but I believe it was because my older brother Richard and I felt that we were too old to do it anymore. Looking back, that was one of the downsides to becoming a teenager. Years later, however, I realized that those were some of the best times of my life.
Many years after we stopped gathering black walnuts, my brother Richard’s wife, Monica, whose family, the Ortiz’s, used to live near the wooden bridge on Second Street, told us that she used to see us carrying our sack and Mom pushing the red wagon with Michael on it and that she felt jealous of us because no other family she knew ever did anything like that. She said that we looked like we were a very happy family. These many years later, I know that what she said was true and that we were some of the luckiest kids in the world for having experienced those wonderful, unforgettable, family black walnut gatherings.
My loving parents…