Working in the Fields

At the party after eighth-grade graduation, some of us got to kiss the girls. When the party ended I went outside, where my father and two brothers were waiting in the station wagon. I could see it was packed and ready to go. A couple of my friends, guys, asked if I was leaving that night for a fishing trip. I said, no, we were going to follow the crops.

For a period of about ten years, from the early 1960’s to the early 1970’s, my family worked in the fields. If some crop was in season, my brothers and I worked after school, on weekends, and during vacations. Except during the school year, we did not stay in one place long enough to get to know any girls, and we never had the means to go on a fishing trip.

That summer after my eighth-grade year, we camped at the edge of the berry fields, where we slept in the station wagon (taking turns to sleep in the front seat) and cooked our meals on a Coleman stove. An old toothless fellow, who lived in his 1940’s panel delivery truck and had a wood-burning stove inside, camped next to us. During the day, we all picked blackberries, which did not pay well but got us by. Once a week we would roll up the bedding and go into town, where we would stay in an old hotel, where we took showers. We might also have time to see a movie at the theatre or play baseball at a park in town.

It was not an idyllic vacation, but it was life as we knew it and much better than alternatives we knew of. My father had been a farmer and rancher, but he went broke in the cattle business and took to working as a hired hand. That meant winters without work, summers of fourteen-hour days. Now that we boys were old enough to do more than deliver newspapers or scrape rabbit and mink cages, we worked with our father as a crew.

In the years that followed, the crew varied. In some crops, my youngest brother worked with us. My father married again, and his wife often worked alongside. My older brother left home. And so on. Sometimes the family worked together, sometimes I worked with one or two others from the family, and sometimes, when I was old enough to drive, I found work on my own.

A few consistent qualities of field work prevailed, however. It was easy to fall back on, and it was usually available, if a person didn’t mind packing up everything in the car and driving somewhere to find work. Also, a job never lasted beyond the moment beyond which the last row was hoed, the last tree was picked, or the last truck was loaded. Then a person waited around the ranch yard, or went back to the labor camp, and before long, having been paid, he was on his way to the farm labor office again or down the road. We had an old, bitter joke among us, based on what the row bosses used to say, that the fruit was always better at the other end of the orchard. The real truth was that life wasn’t going to be much better when we got to the other end, or to the next orchard after that. 

Among the things I told myself, just to keep going, was that hard work and a hard life built character. It doesn’t seem like a bad insight for a kid of fifteen or so, and it turned out to be true. In retrospect, I think of that period in my life as having defined in some ways who I am, where I came from, how I think about work, and how I see life. For one thing, my upbringing taught me never to think I’m better than what I came from and never to consider myself above doing manual labor. I never know when I might have to go back to it, and I don’t want to resent or begrudge what I would return to.

Also in retrospect, from the time I began writing fiction and non-fiction until the present, I see that period of my life as having provided a vast wealth of material. Some of it is historical, in the days before Cesar as I call it, when I had the opportunity to meet the original braceros at first hand and the less amiable opportunity to live in a variety of labor camps of the era. Much of the material is what we learn to call métier—how in one place the employers paid the pickers in cash (forty to sixty cents) for each hamper of peas they picked, how a crew worked to pick four rows of trees through the orchard, how I cranked the ancient tractor to get it going in the morning, how the row seemed endless when I stooped with the short-handled hoe. And I have retained other lasting impressions as well, memories (and in some places, notes) of the many people who came and went. In that time, men who would now be called homeless were called itinerant laborers, or, more bluntly, fruit tramps. Most of them were born between the wars, had seen some of the Depression, and were hanging on like characters in a Steinbeck novel. In addition to them, I met migrant families both Anglo and Hispanic, as well as odd couples, young loners, old drunks, and high-school kids who often thought the work was going to be easier.

As a boy and, unbeknownst to me, a future writer, I observed this world at ground level. I don’t recall having seen much adventure, mystery, or romance, and in such a rootless existence I have not found many ready-made story lines, but I took in plenty of experiences that have stood by me and have provided me with a milieu for fiction and memoir. The stories I have shaped have ranged from nostalgia to bittersweet realism to mystery and noir. Fortunately for me, I did not take a fall in life and have to return to field work, but I could imagine what it would be like for a character who ended up that way. I never found a dead body at the end of a peach orchard, but I knew enough about that world to write a story in which someone did.

In the early 1980’s, in the cover copy of her novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine, author Carolyn Chute declared that her book was “involuntarily researched.” I understood what she meant, as I, too, did not choose to work in the heat and mosquitoes, to share a house in a labor camp, to re-pick trees where others had hit and run, or to witness two people squabbling about a splintered ladder. Having done it, though, I’m glad I did. Not only has that earlier life kept me humble, but it has also supplied me with true field work for stories I have written and stories I hope yet to write.

This essay originally appeared in Roundup Magazine in August 2009 under the title “Field Work.” I made a few changes and retitled it in order not to confuse it with my collection of short stories entitled Field Work, which came out a few years later.

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  1. Linda Ruhle

    Hi John,
    This was such a pleasure to read. Great detail.

    • John Nesbitt

      Thank you for this comment, Linda. I am just now looking back at earlier posts and finding comments that people left. It is good to hear from you.

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