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.