Thursday, February 16, 2006

An Unexpected Lesson

By second grade I had learned the benefits of work. If I wanted something, I could have it if I worked for it. My first business venture was walking the roads looking for bottles worth two cents each. That doesn’t’ sound very profitable in today’s world but in the early 1950s a coke cost eight cents, an ice cream cone was five cents and a Saturday matinee was ten cents. Five empty pop bottles would buy two hours of cartoons, short clips, previews and a feature western movie.

I remember the good ol’ days with fondness. I would wander a huge area without fear because it was a kind, gentle world where strangers, kidnappings and evil were unknown. I would walk to town when less than ten years old and feel as safe as I did at home.

In 1956 we moved to western New York state and my world collapsed but not my need for money. I discovered grape vineyards, strawberry and tomato fields and work permits issued by the schools. I found myself working with itinerant Puerto Ricans who would sing and whistle in the fields just as I had seen and heard in the movies. I couldn’t speak Spanish and many of them couldn’t speak English so I have memories of wondering what they were saying and being amazed that they could function and survive in a foreign culture.

I think I was twelve or thirteen when one Saturday my father went with me on my first job to pick grapes. As we filled large wooden crates, he watched others to make sure the crates were full, questioned another worker about the job and talked with me about working.

My surprise came at the end of the day. He told me that he was tired and hadn’t felt like working but he wanted to make sure I was doing a good job. He game me the money he earned that day! I don’t remember how much we made. I don’t remember what I did with the money. I clearly remember being surprised and learning an important lesson – not about working but about being a father.


Blogger Buffalo said...

I worked the vegetable fields and the apple orchards. The fields were brutal - and for damn little money. I spoke fluent Mexican at the time, (then it was Mexican), which enabled me to enter a world much different from the one I knew. That was a good thing.

(Are you going to post an email link at some point?)

2/16/2006 08:55:00 AM  
Blogger Alex Pendragon said...

As a "welfare" kid, I had the honor of plowing the ten acre garden, sawing and chopping firewood, feeding the chickens, watering the cows, raking leaves, picking pecans, etc. My reward for all that was being fed. The alternative was a bullwhip or brick.

2/16/2006 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

You were lucky to have such a father.

2/16/2006 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


I too worked as a farm laborer in the fields as a youth because my choice to wear unacceptably long hair had excluded me from the better paying jobs my white peers were allowed.
I became sort of a voluntary minority, learning what it meant to be "different", and reveling in my newfound awareness.
I worked beside Mexicans in the citrus groves of my childhood home in the San Fernando Valley, and in the strawberry and artichoke fields of Castroville in central California. I stood on street corners with descendants of the original Californians and waited hopefully to be selected for fieldwork that day.

I was humbled by the kindness of these fellow workers whose language I didn't speak, by their acceptance of me into their ranks, and by the incredible productivity going on around me as I tried to keep pace. Old women were outpicking me 3 to 1 in the strawberry fields and still having time for playful bantering.

Shortly after these experiences, my best friend & I spent several months hitch-hiking throughout Mexico where we were taken in by poor Mexican families and treated like royalty.

Yet in our own hometown before we left, and after we returned, our own people would lock their car doors in fear when encountering us, young long-haired kids, hitch-hiking to the beach.

These experiences had a profound impact on me as to the consequences of wealth and its inequitable distribution (those who do the hardest work share very little of the rewards) and of classism, and how that poisons society through elitism, racism and bigotry.

I'm now 60, I've never in my life tried to fit in by grooming myself according to the standards of the status-quo, and I can still spot a bigot a mile away, just by his or her reaction to my appearance, and I like it that way.

I enjoyed your tale of working in the fields with Puerto Ricans, they have suffered much at the hands of Imperialism.


In the 1950s, my childhood years, there was no money for allowances, whatever money I made came from the collection of pop bottles, 3 cents apiece down here, and a dime would buy three candy bars at the Savon Drug Store to enjoy during the 25 cent Saturday matinee at the Reseda Theatre, good times indeed!

Your father was a good man to encourage you in whatever work you chose, and although my father was good man in many ways, he wouldn't allow my childhood Mexican friends into our home, which caused our very first major confrontation.

2/17/2006 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger still waters said...

My father complained endlessly about his job, and I've still got a hangover of disdain for labour that I'm trying to shake off. Your dad gave you a very good gift.

2/17/2006 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger Dan Trabue said...

...perhaps our grandchildren, having never seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters...glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.

-Aldo Leopold

I thought your post here was beautiful and in keeping with the Leopolds and Muirs of our world. Thanks.

2/17/2006 01:27:00 PM  

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