(This post is from a Katrina prompt, the ladder).
When I was fifteen and my boyfriend was eighteen, we moved to Yakima, Washington, part of America’s Fruit Basket, where picking fruit is an almost year-round affair. This fertile stretch of Washington valleys produces much of the country’s apples, pears, and stone fruit. Back then, most of this fruit was harvested by migrant workers who followed the harvests. They made enough to live on. Certainly we could do the same.
He had enrolled in an auto mechanic certification program at Yakima Valley College, and I went to high school. That next June, I’d finished tenth grade and his two-year program had let out for the summer. We lived on very small monthly draws from a trust fund his wealthy grandparents had set up for him at birth and whatever else we could patch together; babysitting for me, pumping gas for him. We were young, alone, and very poor.
So we thought it was time to make some real money by picking fruit.
I’m not sure how you signed up or were dispatched for fruit picking, but the boyfriend handled that part of it and we showed up at a farm at 6 AM, ready to pick cherries. We were met by the orchard owners, an older married couple. They were White, and so were we (well, the bf was actually mixed race, but that’s another blog post).
Everyone else was from somewhere south of the US border. The youngest pickers were maybe five years old. Everyone got buckets that hung by straps around our necks and rested against our stomachs. “Don’t fall on those,” we were warned. “You’ll break your back.” Okay, then. We each took a wooden orchard ladder and went to work.
Orchard ladders are wide at the bottom, narrowing at the top, and have one leg. They are also known as tripod ladders or apple ladders. I looked them up on the internet to find the correct terminology, and discovered they are all made of aluminum now. I found a weathered wood version for sale on 1st Dibs for over two thousand dollars. Those orchard owners could have really cleaned up, because their wooden ladders felt antique fifty years ago.
I’m really not much for ladders in general. We decided that I would pick from the ground and the boyfriend would handle the ladder work. He was a young creature of muscle and bone, and clambered up with no problem. When his rickety ladder swayed out from under him, he simply grabbed a tree limb and hung there until I could reposition that wobbly back ladder leg, poking into the soft earth below the tree.
Picking fruit requires skill and stamina, and I basically had neither. We were a source of amusement to our fellow pickers, and they were a source of valuable help to us. After watching me trying and failing to do anything right, a kindly man showed me exactly how to snap the cherries off in bunches.
Later, a kindly woman came over and told me to make sure I was picking in in the shade. Sun made the stems pliant. They snapped better when they were cooler. The children just laughed at us, but I suppose even that was kindly. In its way.
You were supposed to let anything without a stem fall. If you put too many stemless cherries in your bucket, the grower could reject it. I picked thoroughly but slowly, because I didn’t want my bucket to be rejected. I really don’t handle rejection of any kind very well at all.
The boyfriend continued to maneuver the trees like he was born to it, but he didn’t pick much more than I did. Well, he might have, but in my memory, he didn’t. When the lunch break came, I checked my tally. I’d picked half as many buckets as the five year-olds.
The bf went to our car to get our lunch, and I asked the wife where the bathroom was. She expressed great embarrassment that I would have to use the worker facilities. I reassured her that was fine. I was a worker, right? But I understood her embarrassment when I saw those facilities. It was all concrete and filth. Asking an animal to use that bathroom would have been an insult to the animal.
I was most insulted by a hand-lettered cardboard sign advising me to “BE CLENE.”
We picked for a week (maybe less) and made very little money compared to our fellow workers. They earned the big bucks, as well as my deep respect for their skill and stamina. Toward the end of that week, I got a letter (we never had a phone in Yakima) from my parents asking if we’d come to Missoula and help them with their business of making and selling miniature furniture. They were way behind with their orders.
The boyfriend could run a saw and I could sew. We could both pack boxes. Best of all, there were no ladders. So, we packed up the cats, drove through passes, and came to Missoula, where we stayed for an entire month (and I learned to ride a bike). I might have been hopeless at picking cherries, but I could stuff a tiny sofa like a pro. And there were absolutely no ladders.