Tractor in an orchard. Getty Images.
On the same day that we started working picking figs by hand, I was offered a chance to become a helper on a contraption that swept up the figs off the ground. It was late afternoon when a man working for the grower came looking for me at the orchard where several members of our family and myself were still learning the ropes of our job. The man had met me before at the camp. He had mentioned, in passing, the possibility of needing a helper for one of the two fig-picking machines. He had heard that the previous worker, a local man who did the job the year before, was probably not going to return. But he still had to confirm it.
The job involved hard work, he said, but thought that I was big enough physically to handle it. I think he was just trying to build me up so I would take the job if available. It made me feel good, though, to know that a perfect stranger would think that I was fit enough to do a man’s job. I was only sixteen.
Once offered the opportunity, I accepted it. It paid a dollar an hour and I would work directly for the grower. Our mother and father liked the idea of me working by the hour. So far that day, we hadn’t made much money picking figs by hand.
I joined the other three members of the crew the following morning. All three spoke Spanish and were of Mexican heritage. I was assigned to work with Billy, an operator of one of the two tractors. I can’t remember the names of the other driver and his helper, but they were both from Arizona. They spent part of the year in central California following different crops.
The contraption consisted of a tractor with a sweeper and a trailer behind it. It moved up and down each row in the orchard and picked up figs along with dirt and all kinds of trash lying on the ground. A conveyor belt brought the mix from the sweeper to the trailer and deposited it in wooden boxes that I had to place under an opening at the end of the belt. It was dusty back there. I don’t remember using a mask or gloves, but I probably did. The opening had a rubber and canvas flip cover that prevented the mix of figs and other stuff from flying in different directions.
The boxes filled quickly. Once full, I had to push them to the left and place an empty box under the opening. The task was made easier by a metal rack with rollers on it and on which I could place up to five boxes: two empties, two full ones, and the one being filled up. Whenever I had an opportunity I would pick up the loaded boxes and stack them on the back of the trailer. The empty ones were stacked on the right side and next to the rack, where I could easily grab them.
It was hard to keep up with the flow during my first day. Besides, it was difficult to see sometimes. There was a lot of dust blowing into the trailer and under my face as the boxes were filled up with the mix. There was also dust coming from the sweeper, which also diminished the visibility, not only in the trailer area, but all around the contraption.
Towards the end of my first day, I was really tired. It was tough lifting those boxes filled with figs and trash after a while. Each one, I heard, weighed an average of seventy pounds. Every so often we had to unload the cargo by a dirt road. It was sort of a break, but not really. Stacking those heavy boxes on the ground was no picnic either. No wonder I was told it was hard work.
After doing the job for a few days, it got easier. My body adjusted and grew stronger. Besides, it felt good being part of that crew. Billy and the other two men told me that most helpers didn’t last long. Most of them quit within a few days they said. They couldn’t handle the workload, they added. Hearing those comments made me feel important. I hadn’t quit yet and wasn’t about to do so.
After a while, Billy showed me how to drive the tractor and allowed me to run it for a couple of rows. He would climb on the trailer and do my job so I could do his and take a break. I felt accomplished driving the tractor. Resting for a few minutes felt good, too.
One Sunday I visited Billy at his home in Highway City, just a few miles south from our camp. He was married and had a couple of children. He invited me so I could see some old photos that were taken when he was stationed in Korea with the U.S. Army. Billy had a lot of pictures. They were of him and his Army buddies. Most of them were Mexicans, I could tell, maybe Puerto Ricans.
At work, Billy often talked about his time in the military and the number of jumps he had made as a paratrooper. He was really proud of having served. He also talked about his two brothers. One of them had also joined the Army and had made over six hundred jumps. That was big, he said. His other brother tried to get in, but wasn’t accepted. He was flat-footed.