I hated getting up at 5 AM. It was pitch dark outside and my mom would fix breakfast and pack me a lunch, usually some bean burritos with "papas" (potatoes), or scrambled eggs. It was still dark and cold when we arrived in the fields, but we knew we had to start picking early because it could reach 95 or 100 degrees by 1:00. The ladders, 12 feet long, were heavy and clumsy to handle for a skinny 95 pound kid. You had to find the balancing point, tuck your shoulder into the space between the rungs, lift and head out for your first "set" of trees without stumbling. A set was a grouping of four trees and you hoped they were good ones because we were usually paid by-the-box, 25, 50 or 75 cents, so if they were sparse with fruit, you couldn't make much money. At dawn, we could barely see the fruit on the branches, and the leaves were still wet from the previous night's dew, but we needed a head start on the summer sun. Sunrises were glorious in the orchards and I would take a moment on the top rung of the ladder to soak it all in.
Full buckets or sacks of fruit were dumped into boxes, then stacked one on top one another, 5 or 6 high, and a number given each worker was visibly scribbled in chalk on the sides of each box. During the first pickings we had to pick only ripe fruit and any green ones were tossed from your boxes by the contractor or the ranchers. Sometimes we were give a plastic ring and if the fruit fell though, it was unacceptable in size. "I picked 100 boxes today; how many did you pick?" I would hear other workers boast with satisfaction. I was ashamed to say how many I had picked. The older workers who picked two boxes for every one I picked taunted: "Andale, Guerito, andale picale, picale!" (Come on Whitey, let's go, come on pick it up, pick it up!)
I had heard of immigration raids in the orchards and one day it happpened: "Ahi viene La Migra! Ahi viene La Migra! Ahi viene La Migra!!" The cry was passed from ladder to ladder and the illegals scattered like cucarachas (cockroaches) when a light is suddenly turned on in the kitchen, across fields, over fences, even jumping into canals. Then there were the stories of men who had drowned in rivers and canals, trying to escape these raids. The lucky ones were rounded up, and deported to Mexico, only to return a couple of weeks later to pick again.
I was filled with pity for these men, some not much older than I. They seemed more mature and wiser than me and I loved hearing their stories and about life in Mexico. Unlike these men who worked out of neccesity, I worked so I could look cool in the hallways of school in a Pendelton, khakis and a cashmere sweater, and my mother let me keep my entire check. For some of my buddies, their entire paychecks went to the help support the family.
Picking fruit was not just about muscle and manual labor; it required technique, a skill. The point was to not waste time moving the ladder when you didn't have to. You had to place it in a strategic part of a tree, one that allowed you to pick the most fruit, from the each side and the top of the ladder. It was not smart to pick as you ascended because the sack, made of canvas, and swung over your shoulder by a strap, was extremely heavy when full; it held a complete box of fruit! Tin buckets had a hook attached to the handle which could be fixed to a branch or to the sides of the ladder as it was filled with fruit. Smartest, was to climb to the top rung with an empty sack and fill it as you decended. You could top it off by walking around the tree picking fruit you could reach standing up.
The swinging leg was pushed forward until it safely supported the ladder; if it was positioned a little too far to the left or right of center, the ladder could topple. En La Madre! If the leg was positioned too far forward or not far enough, the ladder could collapse. Sometimes, when there was no entry place to the tree, we would totally collapse the leg and lean the ladder on a branch for support, but this was also dangerous since the branch could break or move with the weight of the person, and send you plunging through branches to the ground, with a full bucket or sack of fruit on your head! Many times my ladder collapsed, toppled, or slid out from under me, leaving me dangling from a branch!Sometimes, nests of spiders, or wasps were hidden in the branches. My shins were scraped and bruised from slipping, falling or sliding down the rungs in a dash to save my life . The weight of the sacks filled of fruit wore a groove in my shoulder and it would be sore for days.
Picking in the morning hours was for me almost idyllic, and I would daydream at mid-ladder, or pause to enjoy the view from the top rung: the orchards, the valleys, and the Coast Range. I could hear my neighbors singing or gossiping loudly in Spanish on ladders next to mine. Other times, I would dally at the top rung and take in the warm morning sun, sucking on a choice peach or apricot. We took short water breaks and I would try to extend these as long as I could.
After lunch, the work seemed grueling. By now it was so hot it hurt and your body began to complain after the first 6 hours of abuse. I dragged myself up the ladder. Sweat and dirt was pasted on my face and neck, and I tried to imagine the cold shower awaiting me when I returned home. We usually knocked off by 2:00 when it was too hot for any living thing. Picking peaches was the worst because the fuzz burned on your eyes and face, especially your neck. When we boarded the truck there were tired bodies and the smell or armpits and sweat. There wasn't much talk on the way home.
Back home, the washed off dirt turned the water brown as it swirled down the drain, but the cold shower revived me. A 2-hour snooze into deep space, was followed by dinner of frijoles, papas and my mom's flour tortillas. I understood then why people said: "Mijo, get an education so you can work in an air-conditioned office when you grow up and not have to work in the fields like us burros." But secretly it felt good to work hard like this. I felt worthy of things, like a man should.
When I got my teaching job years later, and I sat in my air conditioned office correcting papers, I would pause, from time to time, and remember those still working in the fields.