At the start of my first high school summer, I quit the afternoon paper route. A classmate named Johnny MacDonald and I decided that we’d make some seasonal money picking strawberries. The Innocents Abroad! We signed up at a federal AAA clearing center for migratory workers, located in the old downtown court house.
Early the following morning, two hard-faced, field bosses herded about two dozen of us onto a flatbed truck. With bedding rolls in tow, we held on tight as they trucked us down to the sprawling fields around Newberg, Oregon, where they put us to work immediately.
We soon discovered that picking strawberries was one hot,
dusty, miserable, backbreaking job. The sweat ran down in rivers. We squatted or bent over low, picking row after row, hour after hour. Unending.
One scorching afternoon, after two weeks of excruciating work in the fields, we painfully stood up, looked each other in the eye, asked ourselves what the hell we were doing—and walked out. With tender sunburns, aching backs, filthy, dirty bedrolls and less than twenty bucks earned between us, we hitch-hiked our way back to Portland.
Today, whenever I drive past a coterie of Mexican fruit pickers at work in a California strawberry field, bending their bodies low to the ground, I feel a strong, commiserating twinge in my lower back.
Somewhat recovered, Johnny MacDonald and I went back to work. We snagged a job picking string beans for a Japanese truck farmer whose land bordered the Columbia River slough, where Portland’s International Airport is now located. I developed into a fast picker. But not as fast as one, sturdy, bow-legged, Japanese woman who tallied more giant sacks full of beans at the end of the day than anybody else working the fields.
Most of the bean pickers were Japanese.
During the tail-end of that sweaty, hard-working summer, I lazed around. Almost daily, I went swimming at a public pool located in Powell Park, far out on the southeast side of Portland. Id bicycle out in the morning, taking along a sandwich, an apple or maybe a Baby Ruth candy bar. I’d spend the entire day, hanging around with a few guys I knew, swimming, flirting with girls from other high schools and working on my tan, like every other callow teenager lying around the pool.