Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jane's Column

The Moms is right. She is always saying how Mr. Thompson's generation paid their way and then some. They do, even in retirement.

God bless Mr. Thompson. It seems to me if there is a God, it must surely be well pleased with this man.

Filling the day with collards and roses
By Jane Fishman

Last winter, Johnnie Thompson walked into a Wilmington Island nursing home, his arms wrapped around a mess of fresh collards he had just that morning cropped from his garden.

Thompson was taking the greens to a nurse friend so she could cook them up for her husband. As he made his way past the residents in the halls and in their rooms, he couldn't help but notice their reaction as they smelled and/or recognized the large, dark-leafed plant.

"They oohed and aahed," Thompson said. "For lots of these old people, that's their No. 1 vegetable from the past. It brought back so many memories. That's when I decided this year I would plant ample."

And so he has.

Any day now Thompson, who is 87 and a veteran of Iwo Jima, will climb into his golf cart ("best investment I ever made"), traverse the deep backyard between the Isle of Armstrong home he built in 1961 and the edge of the Wilmington River to make his collard cuts.

The sprawling collards, which back up to a line of vigorous asparagus plants, grow in a narrow strip of reclaimed land a few feet above the marsh grass.

But good soil this close to the tidal waters is scarce. So Thompson, no stranger to problem solving, has resorted to blending his own soil and growing his other plants in hundreds of black, plastic pots, the kind we stack in the backyard and don't know what to do with.

To see Thompson's set-up - a meandering set of rows composed of 105 broccoli plants in 2-gallon pots, 109 cabbage plants, also in 2-gallon pots, and 36 Brussels sprouts plants, grown in 20-gallon pots to accommodate their larger root systems - is to think, "Hey, why didn't I come up with this?"

To re-confirm the number of pots, Thompson, a carpenter, a craftsman, a stickler for the exact, looks for the figures he wrote in pencil in early September on the posts of the pergola he built years ago.

The system of pots works, he says, but it needs constant attention because the leaves deflect water when it rains. Come March or April, Thompson will be ready with his next crop: butterbeans.

"I'm growing for three families," Thompson said, his wrist wrapped around a leather strap that feeds through a hole on the cedar cane he made out of scrap wood. "Me and my wife and my children and their families. I like to know what they're eating."

Road to Savannah

No slouch with flowers either, he also grows roses, a habit that started in 1950 when Thompson and his wife of 63 years first married.

The couple was living in southern California after World War II. Driving a 1939 Chevrolet Thompson would pick up sailors on weekend leave and for $20, transport them from San Diego to Los Angeles and back. As he'd leave Los Angeles for the return trip, he started frequenting a florist on the side of the road and bringing roses to his young bride, Doris.

"I saw her in a Western Union office," Thompson said, while reaching into his jacket for a pocketknife and carefully snipping off the briars of a perfectly formed yellow rose.

"She was working there and I was going to send home for money. I met her on a Wednesday night. We got engaged the following Saturday. We got married Jan. 8, 1946."

Born in Glascock County, Thompson left home as a teenager, joined the Marines and ended up in California.

"We didn't think we would ever leave," he said. "But when her mother got seriously ill in Iowa, we packed up overnight and went there. Shortly after my father got killed in Savannah we packed up a second time, again overnight, and headed here. There were no jobs in California so we stayed."

It wasn't hard for Thompson to find work in Savannah. After working for Whalley Construction Company, he formed his own business, Thompson Construction. The couple started living at Pine Gardens in homes built first for World War II shipyard workers, then made available for veterans. But when someone told Thompson about the Isle of Armstrong, he jumped on it.

"It was a wilderness back then," he said. "No one else was living here. There was just a trail." He ended up building his home, a house next door and a third one for his sister.

Retirement days

Since he retired in the mid-'80s, every day is "eeny, meeny, miny, moe. When I wake up in the morning, I don't know where to start. If I'm in the front of the house I need to be in the back."

He has buckets of eggshells and wood ash waiting to go into a compost pile, bags of leaves his neighbors drop off after seeing him save his own leaves, 36 purple martin gourds he has raised on 30-foot poles of his own invention and that need to be lowered and cleaned.

He has pieces of ancient hickory he squirreled away when he was working that he wants to turn into tables. And he could always make a few more bluebird nests.
"When I was a boy, the bluebirds used to nest in the top of wooden posts after they'd rot. Now we need to build boxes for them." When he's not in the backyard, he's taking newspaper to the Humane Society, visiting widowed friends and sharing his collards.

"I have so much to do, I don't know if I'll ever get caught up," he said. "But if I can help someone, that's what I want to do. I don't want to leave here with any regrets."

Contact Jane Fishman at


Mel said...

I love that guy. I love this post. I am just not worthy. And for the record, I love collard greens.

Thanks for this happy post.

Ms. Moon said...

I love Ms. Fishman. I am going to copy and send this article to Mr. Moon because that could be him in thirty years. Or me. Or both of us if we should be so lucky. And I am going to send Jane Fishman an e-mail.
Thank-you for posting this, Ms. Bastard and for being the sort of woman who realizes what is real and shares it with the world, not unlike Mr. Thompson. And Jane Fishman.

Nellie said...

I have mad respect for the Mr. Thompsons of the world. I've always wished I could be that industrious. I always seem to fall waaaay short. I have tried to grow stuff in buckets with varying results. They need so much water it seems.

That was a good little snippet.

The Dish said...

What an amazing story! Certainly makes me feel like a big, damn slacker.

Syd said...

Another inspiring post by Ms. Fishman. I think that Mr. Thompson is an inspiration.

Lori said...

What an uplifting post! Many could take a clue from this man. The world would be a better place. Great post!

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I like collards, too!

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Ms. Moon,
Glad you enjoyed it. I thought of you when I posted it, and I love you.


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Thanks, Nellie Nell. It is good to hear from you, as always.

Mad love,


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Me too, Dish. Me too.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I think so too.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Thanks, Lori.

Merry Christmas!

Kathleen Scott said...

Mr. Thompson is who I want to be when I grow up.

Thanks for sharing this post.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Me, too, Kathleen, but he's a tough act to follow, isn't he?

Love, SB.