Fruits of our labor

One can learn a lot about life in a packing shed.

I was educated within the suffocating tin walls of Bodine Produce in Glendale, Ariz. Every summer, I would load trucks or railroad cars with boxes of cantaloupes and other melons. It was like a graduate school of life, and I attended classes in illegal immigration, methamphetamine use, fighting, the Okie migration, drinking, prostitution (I only observed) and brutal bosses. But much more importantly, I was introduced to the uncaring world of extremely hard, physical labor.

Middle- and lower-class whites would compete with Mexican-Americans and illegal aliens to get these summer jobs in the 110-degree-plus heat. The melon season was two months long, with 12-hour days, six days a week, so there was no time to spend the money that later would pay for tuition and books. And if you drove yourself and your crew, you could make much more than burger flippers, because you were paid by the box.

The packers were at the top of the pecking order. They could make $600 a week by quickly stuffing a certain number of melons into a wooden crate. Forearms of steel on those guys. These were older men, mostly from Oklahoma, who started young during the Depression. Many would have half-pints of whiskey in their back pockets, mostly to ease the pain. And a painful, dangerous existence it is for those who produce the produce and fruits that you consume (see “The salads of wrath”).

Many of the middle-aged Latino truck loaders already had arthritis from lifting 20-pound crates all day and then working in the refrigerated cars at night. And these were the primo jobs, ones the fieldworkers, the real laborers, would fight over and sometimes pay to get. After spending sweltering, sweaty months with them in the sheds, it was all the motivation I needed to go to a real school.