Hobo-ing America III
Peaches in Mena Arkansas
[This is another excerpt from my book “Hobo-ing America” – A workingman’s tour of the U.S.A.]
By Richard E. Noble
We were strolling through the Wal-Mart in downtown Mena, when the local news flipped onto one of the TVs being displayed. A young, eager and very dapper announcer was heralding the arrival of the peach:
“Well, folks, it’s that time of year again. And here I am, right in the middle of all the action at Barbrough farms, in Polk County. We’re out here at the Barbrough fruit stand, just off highway sixteen at the junction of state road two-two-two and highway ninety-eight. The folks out here, as you can plainly see right behind me, are as busy as they can be. Aren’t you folks? (The camera zooms in on a fruit stand immediately behind the announcer. Men, women, and teenage boys, all displaying colorful Barbrough aprons and ball caps, were bouncing about in all directions gleefully toting crates, baskets, and bowls filled to overflowing with succulent, rosy-red looking peaches ... ‘We sure are’ everyone screams, as the camera gives them all another chance to be seen on TV by all of the folks back home ...) So get out those Mason jars, and Aunt Tilly’s peach preserve recipe, and shuffle yourselves out here to Barbrough Farms and pick up a couple of bushels of these wonderful, tree ripened peaches at just twelve dollars a bushel. You can’t beat that folks ... tree ripened, juicy, rosy-red peaches. A bargain by the bushel, just twelve dollars ... right here at Barbrough farms ... on the corner of…”
As we watched the young man on the screen peddling Mr. Barbrough’s peaches, we couldn’t help but to think of those yesteryears. The smell of peaches ripening in the cellar or pantry. Those homemade peach pies, coming hot from the oven. Grandma’s hand churned peach ice cream, made with the chunks of whole fresh peaches paddled into the cold sweet delight. Remember those peach preserves, peach cobblers, and peaches and cream? How about the luscious burst of those outrageous juices overflowing the corners of your mouth as you lean your head forward in an attempt to keep from staining mama’s freshly washed and pressed school clothes? Peaches! How could anyone ever forget the peach? How could anyone not love a peach? Forget the apple. It had to be the peach that tempted Adam and Eve to revolution. Only the thought of the moist, succulent peach could have lured mankind’s parents into the loss of Paradise. And at just this point our reverie was broken by the sound of the young announcer crunching into his pink peach.
Crunching? We both stretched forward listening more closely to the sound track. Peaches didn’t crunch. They squished. The announcer rolled his eyes and head with delight, as he nodded his approval and satisfaction to us viewers, while having the audacity to take another crunch from his pink, “tree ripened” peach.
“Why does he pick a green peach for his demonstration? What is the matter with this guy?” I screamed in desperation at the department store television set. “You mean to tell me, this man is at a peach farm and he can’t find a ripe peach? I can’t believe this! Wait until he gets back to the studio.”
“Wait until Mr. Barbrough sees this commercial that he probably just paid twelve zillion dollars for?” added Carol.
“I just don’t understand it. Hasn’t this kid ever eaten a peach before? Doesn’t he know what a peach is supposed to taste like? What does he think a peach is, a fuzzy variety of an apple?”
Although we were very dubious about any more John Steinbecking our way around the country after our experiences with onion topping and three-legged ladder Gravenstein apple picking, the lure of the peach was too much for us to overcome. Within a week we were running behind the divots coughed up by diesel gasping, dust provoking, tractors, roaring along through rows of peach trees, at what seemed to be breakneck speed.
We again found ourselves immersed in a land of foreign speaking peoples. The predominant language was, once again, Spanish. Most of the workers were from Mexico, or came to this country via Mexico from other Central American, or South American countries. Carol was the only female fruit picker. There were other female general farm workers, though.
Peach trees are small - no ladders!
We were instructed that first morning by a rather spindly, tobacco chewing, Arkansan foreman, on the intricate art of peach picking. Here is what the man had to say: “Owa wapt! Blawabba dobablatter durnbwadder peaches.” He then paused to spit some tobacco juice onto his assistant’s cowboy boot, after which he held up a peach and tried to stretch his middle finger and thumb around it. “No blabba butter be!” he announced very sternly pointing to the peach wrapped between his middle finger and thumb. His middle finger and thumb were touching as they stretched around the peach. “Da blabba dubi daba dito aplapa troba,” he added almost in a yell as he pointed over towards two pickup trucks and a van. Immediately all the workers started heading that way. Carol and I followed.
Actually we were no worse off than the Mexicans. They didn’t understand “American” and we didn’t understand this particular American. So we were all equal - none of us knew what the hell we were supposed to be doing.
Well now, nothing to this. We had our instructions, and here we were in a van heading toward “Tick Hill”. We rode over hill and dale, highway and byway, and then dirt road, followed by two-track. Finally there we were in a peach tree Garden of Eden.
Peach trees are wonderful looking things. They have these long narrow leaves, and these delicate, awkward looking limbs. For a tree, they are sweet and gentle looking. They look so frail and fragile, one would think that nature would have incorporated a sign on them stating; “Be careful, you barbarian, this tree can be damaged easily.” A peach tree looks exactly like a tree that would bear such a sweet, soft, juicy, delicacy.
We were given these burlap sacks that strapped over our shoulders and around our backs, with the sack part flopped in front of our bellies. We were lined up behind a tractor which was attached to a long trailer. On the trailer sat three large wooden bins. They probably held between fifteen and twenty bushels. Then suddenly we were off.
The tractor jerked ahead with its two front tires lifting off the ground like a top eliminator at a drag strip. Thinking back on our instructions Carol and I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing. So we simply watched the others for the first forty or fifty feet. The scene was one of literal carnage. It looked like a bunch of Huns bursting into a Playboy Bunny lounge - the Bunnies being the fruit trees. It was a disaster. The workers just spewed out from both sides of the tractor trailer, and raped the trees. They ran around the trees in a frenzy, and if the worker was a little short, or the tree slightly larger, he would simply leap into it. The sound of limbs cracking, and separating from the peach tree trunk were secondary only to the roar and rumble of the tractor’s diesel engine puffing along at breakneck speed.
The idea seemed to be to get as many peaches into your sack as quickly as possible, all the while, keeping within a reasonable distance from the speeding tractor. If you dallied too long, you would be forced to run a quarter of a mile chasing the tractor with a full sack of green peaches strapped around your neck.
All the peaches were green. I don’t think that I saw a red, ripe peach that entire day. Some of the peaches were just too small to bother picking. Clearly one would never fill his sack if he grabbed the peaches that were the size of marbles, or ping pong balls. So you ran around the tree as fast as you could, snatching at the largest peaches within reach and sight. Then you galloped after the tractor trailer, jumped up onto the trailer and dumped your sack into one of the bins. I can still hear the clunking sound of those rock hard, little peaches bouncing onto the wooden bottom of those bins. The assistant, who rode on the trailer, then handed you a token. It was a wooden token about the size of a quarter. We did this until about noon. At that time all the tractors, with their cargo of green peaches were routed back to our starting point and unloaded.
The bins were stacked on flatbed trucks, and us gladiators were all instructed to take a lunch break. Carol and I got our tuna fish sandwiches and jug of Kool-aid from the van. We then retired to the shade of an equipment shelter. We shuffled a couple of bushel baskets together. We stretched a dusty, paper sack we found laying on the ground across the bushel baskets in place of a table cloth, and sat down to eat.
It was a beautiful day. How wonderful it was, I thought, to be working out in this fresh air, instead of some apple cannery, breathing rice hulls and sawdust through a paper filter. The scene was one of pickup trucks, dusty red farm tractors, forklifts and flatbed trucks buzzing about in the noisy, but enjoyable, atmosphere of production. The sky was bright and blue and littered with random white, puffy clouds. The still live, but semi-exhausted, bodies of peach pickers were sprawled about the area.
A tank truck was spraying ground crops in a field next to our peach grove. The trucks spray was being buffeted by the wind, and occasionally woofed up, and pushed across our lunching sanctuary. We ate in a cloud of dust and a hearty cough cough cough. In between puffs of spray and dust, I noticed that our tablecloth had words and symbols stamped about its surface. One of the symbols was a rather distinctive skull and cross bones. I hadn’t seen a symbol such as that since our last retreat to the Daytona motorcycle races. Why would they stamp a skull and cross bones onto a paper sack, I wondered. As I munched on my tuna fish sandwich, I shifted and cocked my head around reading the lettering on our makeshift tablecloth. It went something like this: WARNING! This bag contains a highly poisonous material fatal to animals and human beings. The contents of this bag should be handled with extreme care, and only in strictest accordance with the manufacturer’s directions. This bag should be considered hazardous waste material and should be either buried or incinerated in accordance with federal regulations. Persons involved in the handling of this material should be trained and instructed in its proper use, and should wear the recommended protective equipment.
I nearly spit up my tuna fish. I stopped eating and pointed out the skull and cross bones to Carol. She began to read the package. Our lunch was over.
That next morning when we reported for work, we received a lecture from the management, “El jefe es no happy,” Garbled the Arkansan foreman. “Peaches mucho verde and too damn small. Mr. Barbrough ain’t gonna pay you the forty cents a bushel that you were told. These peaches ain’t gradin’ to nothin’. All that you gonna get for these peaches is twenty cents a bushel, and if you don’t do better today you might only get ten cents tomorrow. You folks knows what yer supposed to be doin’; so let’s do it!”
Needless to say Carol and I were beyond shock. The fact that our wages were determined after the work was supplied, and even that price could be changed and manipulated according to the whim of el jefe was really of no consequence when one considered that even at forty cents a bushel this job didn’t surpass the prime wages involved in the craft of onion topping. So forty cents, twenty cents, ten cents, or no cents at all - at this rate of pay what did it really matter. We had already decided to hit the road that evening, but for some unexplainable reason we made the decision to stick around for a little longer. I don’t know if it was the faces on those Mexican workers, or just curiosity.