Back in the day, if you were a kid and lived anywhere in the Willamette Valley, your summer days were probably involved with produce. Either you picked it or helped process it. I did both, starting with picking when I was in 6th grade. The farm buses came and accepted any kid who was waiting. We mostly picked berries and were paid by the number of flats we filled. It was good money for a preteen. One time, the buses took us to fields of green beans and everyone rejoiced. Green beans were much easier to pick because pickers could stand up most of the time. The pole beans provided shade, too, from that hot Willamette sun. We were paid by the pound for beans.
Green beans offered a diversion, too, a game called War Bean. Pickers would watch for beans that had grown into a U-shape, usually found near the ground. Two pickers would interlock their beans and pull. The bean that remained intact was the winning bean. I once owned a War Bean that reigned for most of the picking season, its resilience likely due to the gradual leathering that happens to aged beans.
Hops were the worst crop ever for a produce picker. The variety that we picked usually matured in the hottest part of the summer, late August. They were itchy plants so we had to wear long sleeves and gloves to protect our skin. To mitigate the heat, we picked at night under bright kleig-style lights, lights which attracted every flying insect in the county. It was great fun. The only benefit of picking hops was being paid by the hour.
I finally graduated from the fields to a cannery. The canneries received produce trucked in throughout the day from the surrounding farms. The flats were placed in a huge cooling room to await processing that evening. Line workers arrived around 4:00 p.m., suited up with gloves and hairnets, and took their places along the conveyer belts. We processed all of the fruit from that day, our shift lengths dependent on how much fruit had come in. We would regularly work 10 to 12-hour shifts during mid-summer.
I loved it. Working at the cannery was one of my favorite jobs in a lifetime of work. There was a camaraderie common to groups of people who work hard together. People played mild practical jokes on each other; we celebrated birthdays; tokens of recognition were given for silly things like Best Hat On A Forklift Operator.
The conveyor belt workers lined up along the conveyor belt according to seniority, mostly, with the newest workers next to the rinsing area. Ah, the rinsing area. This was where muscular guys would dump the contents of berry flats onto a screen. The berries would move along through a spray of water which removed dust and dirt. From there, the fruit gently tumbled onto a belt that slowly moved past us, the line workers. It was up to us to pick out all the non-fruit bits. At the end of the belt, 60 feet from the rinsing station, the fruit fell into gallon buckets.
There were six teams of two, one person on either side of the belt. You could "move up the line", a promotion of sorts, advancing positions along the conveyor belt. The people at the end of the line had the best eyes for little bits of stuff and good reflexes for picking that stuff out quickly. I finally made my way up there, literally up there, because the belt went uphill.
The line was reliably monotonous, strawberries strawberries strawberries going by, changing only with the crops, raspberries raspberries raspberries... But once in awhile, something happened.
It was the height of strawberry season. I was at the top of the line, working across the belt from Janet. Things were moving smoothly, strawberries strawberries strawberries, when we noticed a commotion near the rinsing station. We tried to figure out what was going on, looking back along the belt while trying to maintain eye contact with the belt contents. Something was definitely up at the rinsing area because those two workers were gesturing frantically at the belt. The next pair of workers began to gesture, too, jumping back from the line. So did the next pair. One of them shrieked. Janet and I became concerned. We called out "what's wrong?" but all we could hear was "Stop the belt!"
Stopping the belt was something that had never been done during my time there. Janet hit the large red button and the belt slowed to a stop, just in time. There, in front of us, mixed in with the strawberries, were lots of tiny green frogs. Clearly, field workers (6th graders, most certainly) had happened upon a community of frogs and decided to share them with the cannery workers. The frogs had been buried under layers of strawberries, unnoticed by those unloading the flats. The cooling room had put them into a mild hibernation, a state that was rudely interrupted by water sprays and bouncing screens. By the time the frogs came through the rinse, they were fully awake, on alert, jumping about. Line workers weren't expecting frogs to show up on the belt and they jumped about, too.
We corralled the frogs, a difficult task because there were a lot of them. It's also hard to catch a frog when a coworker is dancing around trying to avoid it. Not to mention that those of us who were not frogophobes were laughing pretty heartily. The line was down for nearly an hour, an unprecedented event, but we had to make sure that no frog ended up in a gallon bucket of fruit.
It was the best night ever at the cannery.
Overheard on Twitter: This cat is like grout. Just finds any crack between people, couch pillows, etc, pours herself in and sets up.
Next time: other jobs I have known, maybe. Stay tuned.