A Pear Picker’s Guide to Mental, if not Physical, Balance… The MisAdventures Series

I am in the middle of the top row, here, looking a bit awkward and geeky. The group is our men’s ensemble from chorus. My brother, Marshall, btw, is in the center of the bottom row. He was a senior when I was a freshman and this was about the only time our paths crossed in high school.


As I have reported in MisAdventures, my freshman year of high school was something of a disaster. My social life tanked, dance class sucked, my political aspirations were reduced to running a friend’s campaign, and my success in sports was mediocre at best. I became depressed, although I didn’t recognize the condition at the time.


A number of things combined to pull me out of the doldrums. For one, I ceased being a freshman. Hormones slowed down, my voice abandoned octave leaps and I bought a pair of contact lenses. Academics were a plus, even during my freshman year. Lacking a social life, I studied full-time and managed to get straight A’s. If I couldn’t be ‘ruler of everything,’ ‘sex symbol’ or ‘sports hero,’ maybe I could at least be ‘the brain.’ Was I driven or what?

I also believe that having a job helped. I began working in the pear orchards around Placerville starting the summer of my eighth grade graduation and continuing through high school. The general rule in our cash poor family was that basics were covered. We were responsible for the extras. My income went toward clothing, books and entertainment. Later, the money I earned paid for my college education.

Pear picking consisted of hazardous duty without hazardous pay. We were each given a 12-foot ladder, a sizing ring, and as many boxes as we could fill. The pears we plucked from the trees were placed in a canvas bag that fit around our front like a pregnant belly and carried up to 50 pounds. We had the option of working by the hour at $.90 per hour or by the box at $.20 per box. I chose the latter under the assumption I could earn more.

The ladder was a suicidal three-legged device with two legs playing standard ladder while the third served as a balancing arm we threw out to provide ‘stability.’ I use the quote marks here because the stability was questionable. There was always a chance that you, your bag of pears, and the ladder would come crashing down. The first few rungs were solid; it was on the top four that life became interesting. Even here it was tolerably safe, assuming you focused on easily reachable pears.

The problem was that the best pears had a way of hiding away in the highest, most unreachable part of the tree.  Such premium fruit couldn’t be left hanging, even if it meant taking risks. Success meant performing a one-legged-ballet-balancing act. I became quite proficient at the move. Only once did I reach beyond the imagination of my ladder and follow a rapid descent path straight to the ground. Fortunately, the only limbs broken belonged to the tree. I wrote the experience off as a lesson in Newtonian gravity.

A greater challenge was entertaining myself for nine hours a day. Reaching out and picking a pear requires a minimum number of brain cells and very few of those are located in the frontal lobes. My favorite ploy was singing at the top of my voice. Harry Bellefonte’s tune about picking bananas was a natural but I also belted out many other popular tunes of the day.  “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight” was a mistake. I couldn’t get it out of my mind; I would wake up in the middle of the night humming it. To this day I have to be careful in bringing it up or it is right back there on the tip of my tongue, waiting to escape. Like now.

A more productive form of amusement was challenging myself to pear picking contests. The more I picked the more money I made. When the fruit was plentiful and well sized, I could pick 60-80 boxes a day and earn big money, $12-$16. Once I even reached a magical 100 boxes. My goal was to try to match the professional pickers, the folks who made a living helping harvest crops. On really good days, I almost could. Over my five-year career in the pear orchards I worked with Filipino crews, Braceros, and the usual contingent of semi-nomadic types who followed the various crops as they ripened from state to state. Most were good, even excellent workers. Of course, there was also the occasional guy who worked just long enough to buy a gallon of Red Mountain Wine and then disappear.

After my first year of working in the fruit orchards I graduated to swamper status, which meant I delivered empty boxes to the pear pickers and took out their full boxes. I also learned such fine skills as tractor driving, tree trimming, sprinkler changing, post hole digging and crew bossing. And, I might add, enjoyed most of it. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from doing hard work, challenging your body, and being dead-tired at night. I also gained a farmer’s satisfaction that comes from seeing a crop evolve from spring bloom to fall harvest. And finally, as my pear orchard responsibilities increased, the work helped me overcome the puberty blues and regain my confidence. Becoming buff didn’t hurt either. Picking pears and stacking 50 pound boxes above my head guaranteed muscles from my big toes to my hair follicles.

Almost on cue, girls reappeared in my life. Admittedly it was a slow process, in fact far too slow for my hormone driven fantasies. But there the girls were, tentatively giving me the eye and practicing a wiggle or two to see if anyone was home. There was.

TUESDAY’S POST: I will finish up the Rogue River series

FRIDAY’S POST: I go on my first high school date the summer between my freshman and sophomore year— and promptly run over a skunk.

29 thoughts on “A Pear Picker’s Guide to Mental, if not Physical, Balance… The MisAdventures Series

  1. Only once did I reach beyond the imagination of my ladder and follow a rapid descent path straight to the ground. Fortunately, the only limbs broken belonged to the tree. I wrote the experience off as a lesson in Newtonian gravity.

    That is some fine writing, Curt. 🙂

  2. I love picking fruit. Especially apples. When I was a kid we picked pears, cherries, and apples for my mom to make pies, and blackberries and raspberries to sell to the local market. I didn’t mind that for a while. My hands got stained reddish-purple and I had lots of scratches from the thorns, but the thing that finally ended my harvests every summer was spying a snake coiled around the stalk inside the bushes. Snakes still petrify me.

    Now, as an adult, I have a big, tall cherry tree in my backyard. It’s only been bearing fruit for a couple of years, but when it does I’m out there precariously perched on a ladder trying to claim them before the birds get them. This year, I plan to actually climb the tree, too. Surely that’s a good plan…

    • Snakes can do that. 🙂 They were always showing up in strong places when I lived in Africa. And most of them were poisonous. I like rattlesnakes because they buzz a warning. That is, as long as I can see them!
      A while back I posted on our midnight cherry orchard raids of a neighbor’s orchard as children. We climbed up the trees and ate to our hearts content. Cherries never tasted sweeter. We were birds, very big hungry bids. 🙂 –Curt

  3. Reality is that most people were/are miserable in high school (All done with mirrors, I think)
    Working outside – working at all at that age may not be enjoyed at the time, but gives a solid foundation ( even if done with ladders – got to drive the tractor – cool! Worth all the climbing to get to that!)

    • There was something about running up ladders that I enjoyed, Phil. So I’m a bit weird. 🙂 The cats flooded along, slow enough for me to jump off and load boxes as I made my way down the rows of pears. A challenge! –Curt

  4. What a vivid picture of pear picking Curt. I wanted to run in and hold the ladder. My parents had a small Saskatoon berry orchard. Why is it the best fruit insists on clinging to the tip top branches?
    I have no doubt that lifting 50 pound boxes of pears over your head would bring on the muscles and in turn the admirers!

    • You made the point I was going to, Dave. And the answer is ‘no way.’ Tuition at UC Berkeley was free in the 1960s. All I had to pay for was room and board, student fees, and books. There came a point where the government decided it was more important to lower taxes on the wealthy and increase the wealth of banks than it was to educate kids. For California, that started when Ronald Reagan became governor of California. I could rant on… –Curt

  5. It’s interesting to compare your early years growing up in El Dorado county to mine growing up in Boston. But don’t get me started on Gov. Reagan, much less Pres. Raygun. Working in the welfare department during his reign as Governor, I can’t help but blame him for launching our “homeless” society.

    • Two different worlds, for sure, Gunta.
      As for Reagan, that must have been about the time he was shoving the veterans needing psychiatric care out into the streets. –Curt

      • Yup, you got that right! Wasn’t Reagan to blame for eliminating free college in California, too? I can’t stomach paying too much attention to politics these days, but it seems we’ve come full circle with Trump charging outrageous fees for some fake college education… or something like that. Oh! we never should have started this topic. It’s guaranteed to trigger endless rants! 😦
        No response required. Your “Ever so sad, ever so dumb.” pretty much took care of it.

  6. Good hard work is a great pill! I’ve used it on occasion to battle the blues myself even when the job was small and the blues were short-lived. I think I’d be a bad fruit picker in the long run, though – it sounds backbreaking and boring at the same time! (Still impressed with your industriousness, of course.)

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