You don’t have to consult the tilt of the solar calendar to know that it’s summer. Not only is the heat on you like a blanket, but kids are everywhere you go, at nine o’clock in the morning . . . On weekdays and weekends, plus nights too! Where’d they all come from?
Another way to tell summer, is watermelons. Yeah, watermelons. Watermelons in the grocery, on the side of the road, and in the back of trucks with out of state tags. For me melons and summer’s advance are the stuff of my personal nostalgia.
So much has changed in sixty plus years, and it seems like it should have taken a century, at least. Oh, how time flys.
For us kids the first job of summer was: “Head for the melon fields it’s pickin’ time!” Little kids from nine up to twelve and thirteen did the pitchin’ in the field. A group of adults and older kids went ahead and cut the melons from the vine. You had to be bigger, around fourteen, to ride in the truck and stack the melons as the young ones on the ground pitched them up. This hierarchy made no sense to me then and can only be explained as peckin’ order, not logic.
We would meet at the appointed place each day, in the cool darkness before dawn and be hauled out to a field to start work promptly at seven. Early day, and the clip would go well. Then as eleven approached, the sun would start its assault on your sweat glands and the “bear” would start breathin’ down your neck. For some that “bear “ just wouldn’t get off them and they’d faint away. . .Too many steps under an unforgiving solar eye that beat down relentlessly. For the uninitiated that “bear” rode you into the ground, or you beat him with your “gut “stamina in the first day or so. The few that collapsed under that weight didn’t show up again at any farm field. They went back to town to work at lawn mowin’ or sweeping out stores and runnin’ errands for the summer. Compared to 50 cents an hour on the melon chain gang, they made chump change - - - but, they only worked two or three days a week. Why, the rest of us opted to stay out there I can’t explain? It sure as hell wasn’t fun. Or was it?
The relief of lunch would come none too soon and the jockeying for shade under tree or truck was short lived for want of rest. Black and white made no difference out here, and got you no consideration job-wise, or pay. We all struggled with the big Charleston Grays, Cannonbals, etc; slogged along in the sugar sand and burnt like sharecroppers, no matter the color of your skin.
Being youngsters with hidden energies for certain things, the continuous talk and jokes kept everyone going in this agricultural hell. It made you look forward to being with those comrades of the melon fields each day. You strove to keep up cause you knew there were some better than you. Truth was, however, those few thought you must be better than them if you could keep up with the pace and them too. By the third day, we proved we all had heart and shared more than we realized tryin’ to impress others instead of ourselves.
On Fridays you still worked a full day, 7:00 AM to 4 in the afternoon. Sometimes the job boss would blow the horn at 3:30 so everyone could walk in without hurrying. Fifty cents an hour! That’s it, $20.00 a week. Sign the sheet and the boss would pay you off in small bills. Your pocket bulgin’ with a roll of twenty ones made you feel like somethin’ important. Those guys who rode the field trucks made the same, but they got an extra 50 cents on every truck full they stacked that left the field. And, believe me, you didn’t leave the field ‘til that last flatbed, stake truck was finished off! Experience taught you quick, to be assessin’ those trucks as the day neared its end. You might see as many as twenty kids, suddenly surround a given truck. Then, under a huge dust cloud, they’d be scrambling - - - Handing up watermelons, in a “gang” effort to reach knockoff time, on time.
High school boys worked down at the rail siding packin’ boxcars and open semi’s. They worked in teams of four and got fifteen dollars each for loading a car or tractor trailer. So, there were serious plateaus to look forward too, for us young ones. Why, as a teenager, you could make yourself over thirty dollars a day! It didn’t matter that you often worked into the night; that with no ventilation the boxcars were standing infernos, and the hay you used to pack the melons in was infested with critters that chewed you up worse than redbugs. Assignments to open semi trailers parked in the shade were often decided by “team” leaders. Who could hit the hardest, or who got tired the quickest wrestlin’ in the dust and dirt? For many this was college money - - - or a car!
By the time I made it to the boxcar loadin’ level civilization had set in and little folks were written out of farm labor for peanuts, or otherwise. You couldn’t work until fifteen. I knew a lot of fourteen year olds, like me, who signed up for Social Security cards as claiming to be fifteen year olds. I was sixty five before I had to correct that lie out of benefit necesssity.
Minimum wage took on a new significance for a lot of folks. Funny, boxcar loadin’ pay didn’t change one red cent the whole time I did it.
When the melons were done – about four weeks tops – you could go on to other crops, such as dreaded tobacco. Nasty, sticky sap and hotter than field hell in the curing barns. By this time you couldn’t tell the white kids from the black kids except for the sun bleached hair. And everyone knew the sore points and sense of humors of everyone else. You made real and lasting friendships in those summers that lasted through the segregated school years, until summer came ‘round again and growin’ up could be shared in a common effort for wages that seemed, at the time, to be worth the payoff.
So much for my childhood. Enuff said.
A bit of wisdom from my favorite girl Cuz:
: " it's not about who is real to your face its about who stays real behind your back ! "