PHOTO: Fig tree like the ones in Figarden, California, in 1962. Getty Images.
Working as a helper on a fig-picking tractor did a lot for me. More than anything, I felt good about getting a check each week. Every Saturday I would ask my father to take me to the small store in Figarden so I could cash it. I usually bought a soda and an apple turnover, sometimes other things. One had to buy something to get the check cashed. By the way, I really got to like those turnovers. They were tasty. I had seen them at the store the first time we went there to get food essentials on credit. I really wanted one then, but I knew I couldn’t have it. It’s weird. Sometimes you want something you can’t have.
The helper work gave me confidence. It was like a test, sort of like jumping off airplanes, like Billy did when he was in the Army. Not everyone could do it. I think my parents were proud of me, too. One evening, I overheard my mother telling someone else at the camp about my job and about how tough I was and that I hadn’t quit. It made me feel good. Besides, I really liked my job.
One day, though, I thought I was going to have to go back to picking figs by hand. It had been less than two weeks since I had started working on the tractor when Billy told me that we were going on strike. It surprised me. It had to do with demanding a raise for us two helpers, from one dollar to a dollar and a quarter an hour. The tractor operators were paid more than that and were fine with their pay, but both decided it was time to pay the helpers more money. My counterpart wanted it; he had been making only a dollar an hour for several years.
When the foreman, who was also the son of the grower, came by the orchard to check on us, he found us sitting down by the tractors. The operators told him about the work stoppage and the reason for it. They stated their demand for higher pay for us, the helpers. My English skills were very limited then; I just understood a few words. One word said by the foreman stuck in my head, though. He called us “bastards.” Once the son of the grower left, I asked Billy to translate the word for me. “You don’t want to know,” he said. I later learned what it meant.
We went back to work soon after the tractor drivers talked to the foreman. He agreed to talk to his dad and to be back later that day with a response regarding the raise. I felt good going back to work right away and liked the possibility of getting a raise. Close to quitting time, the foreman returned and told us that his father had agreed to raise the pay from a dollar to a dollar and five cents an hour. He added that if we didn’t like it, we could leave. We stayed. Just before leaving the orchard, the foreman called us bastards again.
That was a memorable summer. Besides learning about strikes, I also learned how to drive Billy’s car in the orchards’ dirt roads. Billy showed how to shift gears and how to apply the clutch. His car had a standard transmission. That’s what most cars had then; there were very few automatics. It was fun driving the car. One day, though, I hit a short pole that I hadn’t seen as I was backing up. I felt really bad. The pole made a big dent on the rear, left fender. Billy just laughed when he saw it and told me not to worry.
I also made some progress learning English, not from Billy and the other two workers, but from a big guy that used to come by to pick up the boxes we filled up with figs and other junk. He was young, around twenty years old. I exchanged a few words with him and found out that he was going to Fresno State College and that in the summer he worked for the grower. He didn’t know Spanish, but when he spoke to me in English he pronounced the words very slowly to help me understand them. I was surprised; I was able to comprehend most of those words. Maybe it was the way he said them or the way he tried to explain things with his hands. It’s amazing how we can communicate with others with the aid of body and facial expressions.
I don’t recall his name, but clearly remember the way he picked up a one-gallon jug of water with his forefinger and drank from it. He was big. He worked hard and fast too. He would pick up those heavy boxes like they were nothing. Sometimes he would pick up two at the time and hand them to the driver, who was on top of the truck stacking them.
It was truly a memorable summer.