By LYNDON A. ZAITZ
When you are young, say in your early teens, 5 o’clock in the morning seems mighty unGodly. Heck, the sun hasn’t even risen. Countless summer mornings my brothers and I would be rousted out of bed by my parents.
It was the time of year to head out into the fields and do what thousands of others our age were doing: picking berries and beans. Like so many other things in life, the anticipation of those mornings was always worse than the actuality.
After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and choosing which flavor of Shasta soft drink mom should pack in our sack lunches, we trudged off to the bus stop to be carried off to a strawberry field that seemed miles and miles from home.
When we first started our career as pickers, we were the peons. The ‘cool,’ older kids dominated the bus; they ruled from the back of the bus. As newbies we were relegated to anywhere else except where the cool kids sat. They were neat and cool only because they were a few years older and experienced. They knew what they were heading to; we did not.
Though the kids at the back of the bus were barely older than us they always seemed so grown up, so sure of themselves. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to sit at the back of the bus and set the standard for rambunctious behavior on the rickety school bus that belched smoke as it chugged its way deep into the farm lands of Willamette Valley.
Even though it was summer, the mornings were cold. We’d wear our sweatshirts and jackets and our junior work boots. When we got to the strawberry field we were faced with an ocean of low, green plants. There is no way we can pick all this, we’d think to ourselves. It seemed a daunting task.
We were chilly, groggy and in no mood for what we were about to do. And then . . . Mona.
She seemed to be six feet tall. She seemed old. She wore a large sun hat, large sunglasses, gloves and her pants were stuffed into her chin-high boots. She was our field supervisor; she held our destiny in her hands. It was her job to assure that this crew of young people completed the job they were paid to do: pick all the ripe berries, leave no stragglers and, under no circumstances, tromp on the plants.
In the imaginative minds of the Zaitz boys, Mona became our unwitting nemesis. She was only doing her job, but then, so were we. There was not a scarier sight than to see Mona coming up behind on the row you were picking, pushing aside the leaves to be sure we were picking all the ripe fruit. If she was not satisfied, she told us to go back and do it right. We conspired amongst ourselves, dreaming of the things we’d do to get back at her.
When picking began in our sleeves soon grew wet and cold from the dew of the plants. Soon the summer sun would get higher and higher. Throughout the morning we would shed one layer of clothing and then another as the temperature rose. After picking berries for what seemed like hours we asked Mona for the time, certain that it was lunch time. We sagged when she told us unemotionally that it was 10 o’clock. That couldn’t be, we’ve been out there picking for hours and hours.
Picking berries was not all drudgery. We all found ways to amuse ourselves, mostly with strawberry fights between ourselves and at times with other kids in neighboring rows. As you can imagine, Mona did not cotton to the idea that perfectly good fruit was going to waste, ending up smashed on someone’s face or back. But you find diversions where you can find them.
Within several years we had grown into the experienced, older pickers. We created a flag that we planted at the end of row; everyone would know the Zaitz boys were picking.
When you are paid pennies per basket of picked berries, it takes a lot of hours and days to accumulate any real income. Each filled small pallet of berries would be taken to the check-in truck where pickers received a ticket with the amount of berries turned in. At the end of the season the tickets would be redeemed for a check from the grower.
When you are a youngster, nothing is as sweet as your own check for your hard work. We appreciated what it took to earn that $215 or however much you earned. New school clothes! Music records! Souvenirs while on vacation!
The euphoria of the berry paycheck was short-lived. After a respite of a week or two we were facing another season: pole beans. Pole bean picking for the Zaitz kids brought its own set of challenges, victories and amusements.
By the end of our picking careers we were the cock of the walk. We had the drill down cold, and best of all, we controlled the back of the bus.
(Lyndon A. Zaitz is publisher and editor of the Keizertimes.)