My professional berry picking days ended when I hired on at the beanery for an hourly wage. The farm owner had a weathered face, nicotine stained fingers, and yellow toenails. I liked him. He was practical and knew his business.
More or less supervising us (the crew) and maintaining the equipment, was a pudgy man well into middle age who seemed to have a handle on things, but certainly didn’t carry the aura of authority that the owner exuded. I’ve forgotten his name.
There was a pattern of activities that if done correctly would yield a seriously perfect crop of pole beans.
My older brother was the first in our family to get on the crew. The next year, I tried was too late. The time to edge out the competition was before the start of the season. So I missed a year and got wiser.
Access to the job was via bicycle that first year, the same way we reached the fields when we were berry pickers. The road was a former interstate highway, built in the days when the contour of the land determined the contour of the road. By that time it had grown rough with patches, crumbled spots, and stray bits of gravel. The morning ride was never comfortable with dips in the road causing a descent into bands of icy fog. It looked beautiful, like navigating through the bands of an agate stone. I marvel now that we survived, having niether light nor reflectors on the bikes on roads with nary a shoulder.
The trip home after a day on the farm was a mixed bag. It was warmer. Sometimes it was scorching hot. Always, I was exhausted but always the strength came to peddle that bike up the steep hills with the promise of relief at the top. Especially after I could afford the mighty sum of $107 for my Schwinn Astra ten speed bicycle. Such a glorious machine! It had parts from seven countries, two forward gear sprockets and five rear sprockets, a derailer, and center caliper brakes. Eventually I put a mechanical speedometer on it, but engaged it only on special occasions because the design caused drag and therefore more work.
The fastest I could pedal on land was around 30-32 miles per hour on a flat, not sustainable. I always wanted a third, larger front sprocket to see if I could push it a little more. 67 mph was the fastest I measured going down hill. For most people and civilizations, down hill is the direction they tend to go fastest. I averaged between 10-14 mph on long rides.
Each workday began with the crew assembling outside the farmhouse. The boss would emerge right on time, usually with a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and those toenails. Everyone got their marching orders and we didn’t see him again.
Some of the fields were a distance beyond what could be walked, and for those we drove trucks. They were very old. I was told that Harlan, the boss (we actually referred to him respectfully by “Mister” and his last name) looked for pickups that could be had for $50. They were rough. The middle aged man kept them working. It was our job to undermine that.
Dale, my elder brother demonstrated how that could be done when he discovered that green patches of untamed flora in the confluence of well travelled dirt roads were that way because they were not traversable. Being young and preferring to find his own way, he tried to drive through one of the oasis of grass and weeds.
The truck had to be pulled out of the hole that was in the middle of the mess, and I’m not so sure the axle didn’t break. Stick to roads with recent tire tracks when driving in dirt and all should be well.
The tasks were not difficult. We irrigated.
Water came from the ground. There must have been a fantastic aquafer under the fields. I don’t recall any nearby river.
The irrigation pipe was thick, long, and aluminum. To move a line, we each took position at a joint. The fellow at the inner end of the segments to be moved would disconnect the pipe from the line and in unison we all hefted the pipe over our heads. If water remained inside, and it was heavy, we’d work together to tip the line and drain it. Then like a series of ants with a twig, we carried our sections to the new position.
The boss experiemented with bush beans and the picker that would allow him to avoid the next step entirely, but I’m sure at a great reduction in yield per acre.
Pole beans really do require poles. A machine pressed them into the ground except for the two at either end of a row which were set slightly at an angle and were thick posts.
When the field was set with its uniform array of vertical posts, we unleashed the stringer, which was an ingenious attachment to the back of a farm tractor.
To string the bean rows took four of us, as I recall. One drove the tractor, one manned the outside of each row, and one worked between the rows.
Tractor man kept the device on track as it unrolled wire for the top of each row. The boys on the outside used their stapler and hammer to secure the wire to the top of each pole.
Twine was unrolled for the bottom of each pole and the guy in the middle was responsible for stapling the twine there. Somehow, the device also applied a wall of string between the twine and the cable so that a web of white string tautly awaited the tendrils soon to emerge from the already germinated beans.
As beautiful as this peculiar dance of agricultural choreography was to behold, it was choppy. Stop and start, stop and start.
Either the string or the cable or the twine would need changed periodically or one or the other would break or tangle. Or a stapler war would erupt.
Two of the fellows on stringing duty were college students, sons of the owner. Niether seemed to share the rock solid work ethic of their seasoned dad. They loved to goof around.
Great fanfare was afforded periodic work stopage either to sneeze or to urinate in the field. Peeing contests for distance and articulation to form words were staged. And it was there that I was introduced to the concept that one can not sneeze with ones eyes open. The boss’s sons ceremoniously availed themselves of the bright sun to facilitate the shutting of their eyes while presenting the act of the sneeze as if rendering the spectacle of homage to a god. I mean, if one’s god took kindly to an expulsion of the respiratory passages via so elaborate a performance.
Between sneezing and peeing, the two recounted the soft details of conquests with unnamed female confederates at the school. They had preferences, particularly about breasts, and no doubt gloried that they could address this from experience.
I found my self amazed that they had no sense of honor. Their father was paying them and rather than gratitude, I detected a flippancy that frankly surprised me. Later work experiences in other places disappointingly mirrored the surprising lack of fire to excell. They were just getting through their duties.
To improve the vitality of the experience, they introduced staple wars. They preferred the top staples because it was one post at a time. Non family got to do the twine, which was two staples for every one, didn’t employ a hammer and required squatting.
They would raise their stapler up high and whack it with the hammer, propelling a staple through the air toward their victim. Now that I think about it, tractor tires are rubber.
Encouraged to play along, I tried. But I hated the guilt of diverting my efforts from what I was being paid to do while on the clock. Still, I made the attempt.
To my horror I actually stapled a guy’s windbreaker to his back. His brothers (not working with us, but somewhere else making shady deals) were terrifying little weasels who had not yet served jail time. But he was good natured about it. He just reminded me that while he might not do anything retributive on the spot, I “had to sleep” eventually.
Being granted more time to live was a relief and we resumed work.
It was in that field that with the aid of my ever searching eye, I picked up the only arrowhead fragments that I ever found. While the work quality was inferior, so was the stone. They were not decorative pieces. Strictly utilitarian.
When the beans were fully grown to the top of the string, we made our way to the sections of pipe through what was termed the “bunny hole” which was simply an opening pulled at each post of the irrigation pipe position on the top of the posts.
Always trying to speed up the team, I coaxed and cheered the others to greater and faster accomplishments but they would have none of it. Everyone seemed to have only one speed. Still, I tried. We had worked hard and fast as berry pickers, so it was a natural inclination to do the same at this job. Problem was, I could yell “make haste, make haste!” all I wanted and it wouldn’t speed up the other guys as they blew their noses on the dirt, bragged about recreational mischief, and teased each other.
To get the requisite number of rows over to my pipe joint I hunched down and ran at top speed through the bunny holes, thinking that I could inspire the others by showing how much faster we could do the job.
One of the wires was off the post and hung right at the level of my nose and I connected at speed. The juncture of my nose and forehead took the hit, but my body kept going as my head snapped back, only to connect again with the misplaced wire against my cheek to cut the tender inside against my teeth.
I awakened on my back to the sight of my very concerned brother. When my eyes opened, he smiled and excitedly introduced the crew to a new chant that was a variant on my ‘make haste!’ mantra.
Full of vindication he yelled out, “He’s alive! Haste makes waste!”
I heard ‘haste makes waste’ all the rest of the day. And thus began what became a pattern that I didn’t see till this writing and which has nearly killed me more than once. One can only bring others along at the pace they are persuaded to accept. Apparently this applies to the laws of physics as well.