Politics and canned tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, and twelve pints of catsup (not to motion the green beans and corn)—less than two hundred miles away Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen—with its five feet of counter space, a Youngstown metal sink, and an ancient four-burner electric stove—I devotedly followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a fifteen-inch black and white TV. I wanted answers too.

Frequently I’d interrupt the flow of work to wipe my sweating forehead with the tail of my sleeveless blouse. Operating all at once, the four stove burners rivaled a Bessemer in emitting BTUs. Two blue and white speckled enamel canners occupied two burners; on another a tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the fourth burner a pan of water boiled.

As Tom Daschel posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy pealing, briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water. Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office, signing his now besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen the heat would have convinced him he was in hell.

While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the tea kettle. From a sauce pan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country was getting screwed, I thought.

After placing a newly filled jar in each slot of the two wire racks, I gently lowered the heavy racks into the boiling water bath. Pausing to rest while the stove carried out its responsibilities, I sat at the kitchen table staring at the TV, engrossed in Daniel Inouye’s line of questioning.

The simple life, that was the path my husband, Jim, and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, green beans, and other vegetables, enough quart boxes in our twenty-cubic foot freezer to feed us until next harvest. Quite an accomplishment for a young woman who’d grown up in the city and a young man whose previous gardening experience had been limited to picking green beans for his mother and reluctantly weeding alongside his father.

In addition to relying on our garden we kept two milking goats and two rabbits. Every spring we bought a hundred baby chicks. Some we kept for eggs; most, though, met their maker and ended up in the freezer alongside the vegetables.

Contrary to what we’d assumed, maintaining a successful garden required more than poking seeds in the ground and waiting for them to mature. We relied on knowledgeable neighbors for advice and read organic gardening magazines, of which some suggested that gardeners keep records of what they’d planted and when. The simple life, we discovered, was more complicated than we’d anticipated.

Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was.

My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dishtowels, then began the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes into boiling water, removing their skins, putting on lids, lowering jars into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the 1960s and 70s did to declare our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. That summer everything on my little TV supported our decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

Still I was shocked when on a July day, while I was stirring a batch of catsup, Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. So there was evidence that would point to the truth. To make sure I didn’t miss anything I walked away from the pan to stand beside the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined.

Jars on my kitchen counter cooled. Every now and then a lid would ping, a sign that the jar had correctly sealed. Two at a time I carried them down the basement steps into a small dark room lined with shelves. Evidence of Jim’s and my success at being self-sufficient.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating words. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. Stepping away from the stove to cool off, sweeping a strand of wet hair from my face, I pictured Erwin as a young man laboring in a garden not unlike ours.

In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we would bend over a hoe, work on our knees. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Had Erwin’s hands once looked the same way? Surely the fingernails of Halderman and Ehrlichman were well manicured, their cuticles not ragged.

When I dropped in bed each night from exhaustion, in those brief moments before I fell asleep, I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike. Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover. Charles Colson and G. Gordon Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean fretting about betraying those they’d worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.

Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate Hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined I heard background music change tempo, the tune become somber, dramatic. Yet I, like many Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.

There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of Jim’s and my goal of self-reliance, of our choosing to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, I recognized that we could never be separate. Just as I had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, I was a part of a country for better or for worse. I was tied to its fate.

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