• Picking Cherries

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    Picking Cherries

    At the tender age of eleven, my future looked very bright. The Fifth Grade had just let out, and my friends and I met in the evenings, planning and executing such skullduggery as borrowing (ok, permanently borrowing) watermelons and giant sunflowers under the cover of darkness. I had put away my extensive school wardrobe. It consisted of three school shirts (only one made by my mom – one sleeve a little longer than the other, but with pearl button snaps on forest green gabardine), two pairs of Levis, and one pair of shoes – handed down from a relative.
    The big event of the summer was Pleasant Grove Strawberry Days, which in the 1950′s included three parades, a rodeo, Monte Young’s carnival rides, and various games of chance.

    But, I found I did not have the ready capital to participate. I was flat broke. Pretty much my normal circumstance. I had to come up with some funds so as not to miss my favorite rides, the octopus and the tilt-a-whirl (35 cents each) and the other festivities – especially the games of chance – highly enjoyable, but expensive.
    My dad came home one evening after ten hours on his backhoe. He was in his usual irritable mood so I waited until he enjoyed an Unfiltered Camel outside after dinner, and had settled in his favorite chair with the paper. I ask if there were any odd jobs around so I could make some money for the coming Strawberry Days celebration.

    His countenance darkened and he pointed a finger at me. “Any odd jobs that are around here for you to do are part of your responsibility to the family”. “Who do you think pays for this house, buys the food you eat and the clothes you wear”? Then he went on for 15 minutes about how no one knows how to work any more, and that the upcoming generation was composed of shiftless and lazy young people like myself. Then he started to head towards how he used to have to walk ten miles to school in Raft River, Idaho, in a blinding blizzard with only barbed wire for shoes.

    I was getting ready to retreat when he said: “Look, if you want to make some money go ask Mr. Paul (our neighbor) if you can pick cherries for him”. Three Hundred pounds on a good day at 4 cents a pound – the orchard being right across the road. I saw myself somewhat above the menial task of picking fruit, but to stay in good graces with my dad I decided to at least make a minor effort. Plus twelve dollars a day sounded like a small fortune. To my surprise Mr. Paul said he’d hire me and to report to the orchard in the morning at 6:00 AM. Starting at that time was also a big negative, but I supposed we would get off early.

    The next morning I presented myself – short-sleeved shirt (wrong) no hat (wrong), gym shorts (wrong), and tennis shoes (wrong). I was quickly sent back across the road to get a long-sleeved shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, Levi’s, and work boots. I was expecting some training but instead I was given a rusty 4-gallon bucket, a 25-foot one hundred pound ladder, a skyhook, and a bucket hook. A tree awaited me about 50 feet away. First the ladder. It was wide at the bottom (4 feet) and then narrowed to about a foot at the top. The other supporting side was just a 25 foot two by four – naturally the entire apparatus was inherently unstable – I could tell right away that the ladder had it in for me.

    The skyhook was a thick piece of rusty wire with the ends turned back on each other so as to make hooks. The theory being that you took the six-foot skyhook and pulled cherry laden branches to you – the ones that were out of reach. One of the older pickers yelled at me: “You got the coffin ladder, look at the top where there is a dark red stain”. “That is blood, not cherry juice, good luck, you’ll need it”. What was he talking about anyway? I was a bit nervous because in looking at my fellow pickers I could see that they were an assortment of bullies, hooligans and unemployables from my school.

    I started away, stripping cherries from their branches until I had about 2 inches in the bottom of the bucket when the boss man showed up. He looked up at me and shouted: “What the hell are you doing”? “You aren’t picking without stems on, are you?” I said “no, although admitting I may have just got a few without stems”. He looked at me suspiciously and hung around watching me pick for the next five minutes. Told me that any branches broken would be deducted from my pay.

    But now the question was what to do with the two pounds of stem-less Bing cherries in the bucket. I thought about going down the ladder and dumping them in the weeds, but then I thought, hey, these are fully ripe, almost black and luscious – who cared that they had been sprayed with DDT twice in the last month. I’ll just eat the amount in the bottom and then start picking with stems on. So I stuffed my mouth with cherries, wiping the reddish black juice on my sleeve, not caring if I occasionally swallowed a few pits.

    Took about 15 minutes for the two pounds to disappear and about another 4 hours before the fireworks started. My Mom had told me that cherries are a rich source of a variety of vitamins and minerals such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, iron, magnesium and calcium (actually she didn’t say squat, but all of the above sounds impressive). Cherries do unfortunately contain sorbitol, which is a type of sugar that isn’t digested or absorbed by the small intestine. As such, undigested sorbitol acts as a fermentation agent for the friendly bacteria in your large intestine, which then produces hydrogen gas and contributes to abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, flatulence and diarrhea.

    I found that picking with the stems on was much slower, but I chugged away, thinking about the $12 dollars I was going to make on my first day. The job was dirty, hot, and a dangerous with a good chance of being injured. I found that the coffin ladder was so named because it had a strong tendency to tip if you got above the 5th step. As such I had continual difficulties, such as the ladder falling over while I was trying move it, forgetting that my half full pail was hooked to the top step, and watching my ladder crash over even when I wasn’t on it.

    Hooking a branch just pulled the ladder towards the tree if I wasn’t very careful. About three times a day the ladder would fall towards the limbs and I would be launched into the tree, there to fall to the ground taking a bunch of branches with me – landing in various positions – head first seemed to be a favorite. Also the branches I was able to pull close with the hook sometimes broke, and the ladder back-lashed putting it into free fall the other direction, naturally tipping my bucket over as it hit the ground. I could usually get about half way down before jumping for my life.

    Once the boss left all kinds of shenanigans began to take break out. I was picking away after an hour or so and something whizzed by my ear – I thought it was a bumblebee. The next thing I felt was a missive of some sort whack me amidships – right in the kidney. The next got me just behind my ear. I turned and found all nine other pickers were engaged in a welcoming me to the orchard by peppering me with cherries with the rapidity of Machine Gun Kelly. I went down the ladder and hid behind my tree until their barrage stopped, although I had red splotches everywhere. I quickly learned that you bit a cherry in half, so it would splatter when hitting an opponent.

    Every day when the boss left for a while, cherries were heaved by all hands. There were a bunch of non picking activities such as peeing in each other’s lugs, stealing cherries, and taking broken branches and depositing them under someone else’s tree. I was targeted as the main victim – seemed like everyone who came by kicked my ladder. Sometimes the ladder fell, sometimes it didn’t. My only consolation was that some of my friends had worse jobs – digging ditches on the Gas Crew, toiling on the pea viner, a paper route; Lord forbid, or even worse, working for their fathers.
    Around 10:00 AM the sorbitol began to manifest itself. I had a few cramps, but I ignored them as I ate my lunch under my tree – plus I added about 20 more cherries for desert. Thirty minutes later the abdominal pain could no longer be ignored and I went down my ladder as quick as I dared. I sort of waddled and short-stepped with my legs together to our house, taking the back corner first. Then it hit; I wasn’t going to make it. I doffed my Levi’s and fertilized a four-foot fan behind me. And I can tell you that using lawn blades as a substitute for toilet paper doesn’t cut it. After a half hour when I was fully evacuated I staggered back to the picking field.

    One of my new friends wanted to know why I had hustled across the road in a crab-like motion. “Interpretive dance,” I told him remembering a phrase from our student teacher. He looked at me as if I were both stupid and crazy. At 2:00 PM the boss called for a halt for the day. He weighed my lug and a half and pronounced 126 pounds. Surely that couldn’t be correct After all my hard labor – $5.04 – 62 cents per hour. One of the other pickers took me aside and offered the advice that I perhaps might consider putting a few rocks in my lug as soon as I had cherries to cover them. While not totally opposed to that increased weight method, I hardly thought it was worthy on my first day.

    My fellow pickers chided me as to my ability. They would ask: “Was the bottom of my bucket covered yet? By lunch time did I have a hundred pounds picked”? How many times had I fallen off the ladder? Did I count the number of times I crashed into the tree branches? Why was I afraid to stand on the very top step to pull limbs toward me”? Since I was the youngest in the orchard the comments stung, but there was not one thing I could do about it. All the other pickers were older and more experienced and tougher – and lets face it, I was afraid of them – bigger and nastier – they let me know that any retaliation on my part would end up with me being on the receiving end of a knuckle sandwich.

    For two weeks I averaged a little over a 100 pounds a day and never saw anyone get close to 300. But I saved cash of $44 and I was happy and well-funded for the carnival. In fact I rode the Octopus 32 times, the Tilt-A-Whirl 27 and lost $21 on games of chance, eating the remaining balance in hot dogs and hamburgers. I did try the Rock-O-Plane once, but threw up twice. However, my dad had approving remarks for me, tempered by calling me Mr. Moneybags and letting me know that I was completely responsible for my school clothes.
    As a well-known professional picker, I now moved on to pie cherries the week after the carnival, having spent myself back to zero again (the $44 and the carnival both down the road). Actually, it was worse than zero because I had to borrow $4.75 from my mother the last day of the festivities. Pie cherries were sour and very juicy so I wasn’t tempted to partake. Also, you picked with no stems (much easier). Now my method of just ripping my hands through the branches and harvesting the cherries worked well and I got up to an average of 200 pounds per day, but only 3 cents per pound.

    The pie cherries did have some disadvantages – they were juicy and the juice ran down your arms and sometimes your shirt collar – all now sticky and itchy. But I was making about what I had with the regular stemmed cherries. The boss there stood for no nonsense whatsoever, but I sort of missed being harassed every day. Unfortunately the summer was only about half past after the cherry season, so what to do now?
    I joined the beet crew, thinning sugar beets, but the first day I saw that the end of the rows were somewhere over the horizon. I was very discouraged, especially finding that you got only $.75 for each row. Plus there were other difficulties such as knowing a sugar beet from a weed. You were given a short-handled hoe and you could ruin your back for life by leaning over, or scuttle along on your knees with permanent leg damage. I rotated each method but still couldn’t see the end of the row after an hour – in fact it appeared that the row ended somewhere beyond the curvature of the earth.

    Then Mr. Sheba, who owned the field, came raging up behind me since I was unknowingly hoeing up the beets and leaving the weeds. He screamed and swore at me in English and Japanese and seemed to want to start World War III right there in the field. I was fired on the spot for gross incompetence and destroying sugar beets, then had to wait behind the crew truck until everyone was finished at 2:00 PM.

    This was a prime example of many future embarrassing moments – eagerly awaiting me in life. Apparently not too many hoers got fired the first morning. An appeal for getting paid for my half row brought hilarious laughter.
    During the end of July and the first of August I couldn’t find anyone who needed my talents, so my picking skills were going to waste. Then my school friend Lee mentioned that his uncle was in need of pickers for Peaches, Apples and Pears. What was the compensation I wanted to know immediately – 20 cents a bushel, and with easy picking – 50 bushels a day. Hey ten bucks a day sounded pretty good. I was equipped with a large canvas bag with a strap around my shoulders – doubled back on its self to provide a sack to pick into. Then when you filled the sack up you undid a clip at the top and emptied the sack from the bottom into a bushel basket.

    Well, same song, second verse. Took about an hour to pick three bushels, so the take was 60 cents an hour – 8-hour shift – back to $4.80 a day. But I had no other choice, so I jumped in. Besides, no squirting juice, no one hucking fruit trying to kill me. And the trees branches were lower, the ladders shorter. So for a month I plugged away replenishing my coffers.
    At the end of the summer I vowed to move on to a better profession next year – easier, cleaner, better pay, maybe indoors, something where I could use my mind and not get tagged with a cherry in the face. Alas I spent the next three summers being a professional picker, with my father there to remind me that I shouldn’t even think about quitting.
    At age 14 I joined him at the bottom of various sewer trenches as a Slave Laborer – same deal – hot, hard and dangerous – I didn’t miss being on the unsteady killer ladder that wanted to do me in, or the top branches of a 30 foot cherry tree reaching out for me like an angel of death, or getting pelted with a twenty cherries all at once. But some of the time I did miss the satisfying ring of those first picked cherries as they hit the bottom of the pail, then seeing the amount in my lug grow with each full bucket. And I do still like a ripe Bing Cherry – but never more than a handful – stems on, of course.

    July 2010

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