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Farmer Pepper's Lonely Heartburn Band

By Jerry Zezima

I like to think I’m hot stuff, even in winter, but whenever I look in the mirror to shave, I come to the sad realization that I’m not so sizzling after all.

Still, I almost needed to call the fire department when I ate some peppers I picked at a farm whose owner is one cool dude.

“What does it take to be a farmer?” I asked Doug Cooper, who owns Cooper Farms in Mattituck, New York.

“A strong back and a weak mind,” he replied.

“I have both,” I assured him.

“You’re just the man for the job,” he said.

Mr. Cooper, as he is known in these parts, resembles the late actor Gary Cooper, who was tall, dark and handsome, and has the same laconic way of speaking.

When I said I like his corn, he said, “Shucks.”

I wasn’t surprised because his farm stand features these signs:

“ ‘Lettuce’ supply your farm fresh needs!”

“Our beets are ‘unbeetable!’ ”

“Ask about our ‘eggcellent’ eggs!”

“What about your eggs?” I asked.

“We let our chickens take care of them,” said Mr. Cooper, who not only has a flourishing flock of fowl, but also a pair of peacock parents and, he added, “two baby ones.”

“This place is for the birds,” I said.

At that precise moment, a rooster crowed, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

It’s been a wake-up call at the family-owned farm for 200 years.

“I’m not that old,” said Mr. Cooper, who is 73. “I was born on April 2, 1948. My mother said, ‘I’m having twins.’ My father said, ‘April Fools’ Day was yesterday.’ It was no joke. My brother, Donald, is 10 minutes younger than me.”

I put my arm around my wife, Sue, and said, “April 2 is our anniversary. No fooling.”

Mr. Cooper then regaled us with the story of “The Squirrel That Got Away.”

Years ago, the rascally rodent came in the house through a window screen and was trapped in a box by Mr. Cooper’s late father, David, who took the box outside and blasted it with a shotgun. The squirrel survived and ran away, only to come back through the window screen and was trapped again, this time in a burlap bag, which the elder Cooper took outside and blasted with a shotgun. The squirrel escaped through a hole in the bag and came back a third time.

“That was the charm,” said Mr. Cooper. “It wasn’t the smartest squirrel, but it was lucky, so we took it down to the field and set it free.”

It was that very field to which Sue and I towed a wagon that Mr. Cooper gave us to pick vegetables, including hot peppers, which Sue loves and I don’t.

“They’ll blow your brains out,” she said.

“Not mine,” I responded. “I don’t have any.”

Sue nodded as we made our way through rows of peppers — cherry, chili, corkscrew, habanero and jalapeño — that I dutifully picked and plopped into a cardboard box in the wagon.

Mr. Cooper had left by the time we got back to the stand with our bounty, which included corn, beets and tomatoes. We paid a grand total of $17.25 and drove home with a vehicle of veggies.

A few nights later, Sue made pork chops with onions and the cherry peppers I had picked.

I took one bite. A smoke alarm went off in my mouth.

“Ung, ung, ung!” I cried as I fanned my tongue with a napkin.

“Is your nose running?” Sue asked.

“It’s lumbering,” I said, choking out a response.

I tried to douse the invisible flames with water. It didn’t work.

“Have some bread,” Sue said.

It helped. So did red wine, which probably prevented me from having a heart attack.

Sue smiled as she calmly ate the chops and peppers, which had no effect on her.

I tried to be brave by having a few more forkfuls, but each time, I repeated the routine: gag, gulp, gong.

“Dinner’s delicious,” I told Sue, “but if I eat any more, I’m going to buy the farm.”

“Tell that to Mr. Cooper,” she said.

“He already knows I have a weak mind,” I said. “Now I can tell him I’m hot stuff, too.”

— Jerry Zezima 

Jerry Zezima writes a humor column for Tribune News Service, which distributes it to newspapers nationwide and abroad. He is also the author of five books, Leave It to Boomer, The Empty Nest Chronicles, Grandfather Knows BestNini and Poppie’s Excellent Adventures and Every Day Is Saturday, all of which are “crimes against literature.” He has won seven awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his humorous writing.

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