It was the summer after my second year of college; the summer of 1962. I had spent the school year living in a not exactly dormitory.
In anticipation of the coming baby boomers the college had moved a bachelor officer’s quarters from an Air Force base about 75 miles away and plopped it down between buildings on campus. The occupants, me included, were not traditional.
There was no dorm mother – in contrast to all of the other dormitories – and about half of the occupants were Persian; Iranian engineering students, who traveled in a gang, spoke Farsi to each other and were generally hostile to the rest of us. The hostility was mutual.
The remaining residents were veterans going to school on the G.I. bill, older students, or were, like me, students with good grades generally regarded as trustworthy. It was the perfect place for a lot of intellectuals who thought of themselves as the intelligentsia.
This was the height of the folk music revival in America. We listened to Appalachian tunes that had been altered through generations from the, mostly British Isles derived, original tunes and lyrics. There was Joan Baez singing labor songs and, of course, recordings of Woody Guthrie singing songs like Roll on Columbia, and This Land Is Your Land. I wanted to see all of those places Woody sang about.
In addition to late night conversations about the nature of the Universe and our place in it, there were lengthy discussions about the philosophies of Kant and Nietzsche and Camus. And then there were stories from some of the older students about work and adventure.
So, following the most grueling college year for me, one that included not only philosophy and literature classes that I loved, but physics, quantitative analysis (a tedious, laboratory-intensive chemistry course), comparative anatomy, and plant taxonomy, all considered hard science courses, I decided to go to Oregon and work in the pea harvest. This would be more an adventure than a path to fame or fortune, but we were full of ourselves and ready for something different.
I caught a ride to my parent’s home, a small farm near Alma, Arkansas, to spend a few days, store my things and see the folks. My mother remembers the visit this way, “You came home, told us that you didn’t believe in God anymore and that you were going to hitchhike to Oregon.” I’m sure it didn’t happen just like that, and I believe I said, “I’m not sure that I believe in God, anymore”, but she hit the high points.
We left with little more than the clothes on our backs in Tom’s 1958 Chevy Impala. There were six of us in the car; windows down, wind in our hair, all of our things thrown in the trunk.
There is not much to tell about the trip out. From Ft. Smith, Arkansas we drove into Oklahoma, then north through Kansas and Nebraska, turned left in Wyoming and then west through the wide part of Idaho and on into the northeastern part of Oregon.
What struck me was how beautiful this country is, and how different the terrain is in the West compared to the Mid-South where I had grown up. We saw birds we had never seen before like magpies in the road, and herds of pronghorn antelope on the horizon . At times it seemed that the earth might be flat, it stretched so far. We caught glimpses of mountain ranges, and crossed streams whose names we didn’t know. What I learned in my later travels was that we drove through the least scenic parts of the states we traveled, and still it was awe inspiring.
Tom drove the whole way without stopping for much of anything but gas. We did stop in Laramie, Wyoming thinking we might drink a beer. We stepped into a small bar that looked like something from a movie set and every head at the bar swiveled toward us. We were politely told, by a man drinking what looked like whiskey, neat, that the drinking age in Wyoming was twenty-one, and we clearly were not, so we bought snacks nearby, and got back on the road. After who knows how many hours we stopped in a small town in Idaho, just east of the Oregon line.
Coming into the town someone suggested that we get a pizza and split it to take the edge off of our appetites. Tom stopped at a gas station, filled up, and asked the attendant if he knew where we could get a pizza. The attendant replied, “They ran all of them out of town a couple of years ago.”
We were leaving town when we finally made the connection and broke out in laughter. It didn’t look very likely that we would find anything to eat there, let alone a pizza. From that little wide spot in the road we drove to the town of Athena, Oregon. The cannery there was generic. It canned peas and sold the cans without labels to whichever business wanted to stick their label on the can.
City of Athena
Rogers Canning Company, formerly P. J. Burke Canning Company
We went, all of us, to the cannery office and were told that the peas were late and it would be a week or two before the cannery started production. In the meantime, there were cabins with bunk beds that slept six to a cabin, and we could rent those for three dollars a day – fifty cents apiece – and have access to the showers.
To be clear, these cabins were more like storage sheds than housing. The floors were wood, thankfully, and there were windows on the sides and front. There was no interior paneling; just the framing covered by outside boards, and there were no curtains on the windows. Bunk beds were on three sides and each bed came with a set of sheets. A small table and sink with running water sat next to the door.
Tom was drinking, smoking and reading one evening and fell asleep or passed out, while the rest of us were away, setting his sheets on fire. We had to scrounge up extra sheets and leave the door and windows open for a couple of days to clear the air.
Another half dozen of our friends came into town and they rented another cabin.
None of us had planned on having to wait even a week to get paid. Between beer and food from the local grocery we had almost completely run out of money in about five days. A couple of the crew had bought an old refrigerator for five dollars and put it in our cabin to keep the beer cold. That turned out to be fortuitous.
What to do? There was no other work available in the area. The town may have grown since, but at that time you could have sailed a Frisbee from one end to the other.
We got the idea of driving to the Umatilla River to catch trout. The fact that we had no fishing gear, had no idea how to fish for trout, and had no license did not seem to be an impediment to our plans. For some reason that I don’t remember I stayed in the camp while others went to the river.
I would like to tell you that a miracle occurred, but things turned out to be just as ill thought out as expected. Someone at the river with more than one rod loaned one of the group a rod and gave him some instruction, but the fish weren’t biting, and Tom and crew started back before anyone checked licenses.
When the group returned they came into the cabin and said, “You grew up on a farm, right?” That’s right. “Do you know how to butcher anything?” I helped with the butchering every fall. “Good, Tom shot a deer with his M-1 Carbine on the way back, and we left it in the field and thought we would go back and get it if you could dress it.” It was summer, not deer season, the deer had no antlers and no one had a license anyway. We drove to the field and saw that the deer was still there. We put it in the trunk and drove back to Athena.
And, so, at a quarter to three in the morning we went to the camp’s “laundry”, which consisted of a long table and deep sinks for washing out and rinsing clothes, with a lot of newspaper for wrapping the cuts of meat, and cleaning up, and I butchered the deer with a paring knife while the rest stood guard. We left the laundromat looking just the way we found it, and took all of the venison, stuffed what would fit in the freezer, and packed the rest around that..
Tom knew how to make biscuits from scratch and make milk gravy. For the next ten days we all ate pan fried venison with biscuits and gravy, rotating the meat so that it never completely thawed out until ready.
We read a lot waiting for the work to start. Everyone had spent all of their money, and it was nice to have something to eat, but we had nothing to drink, and then I remembered my lucky two dollar bill. I’m not sure how it started. At some point I stuck a two dollar bill in my wallet with the idea that I would never be totally broke as long as I had that two dollars. Somehow, it became my good luck charm.
I went to the grocery store and bought a six pack of beer with my last two dollars and shared it with the guys in our cabin.
The peas came in.
The cannery was loud, messy, and all of the important jobs were taken by Hispanic migrant workers who had worked there every year for years. Peas came in from the field with dust, bits of vines, caterpillars, nightshades and other debris. They were dumped from a tanker truck into a large vat of water. For the most part the peas sank to the bottom and the debris got skimmed off of the top.
A suction hose lay on the bottom, and the peas were pumped up a floor and out of a chute onto a short conveyor belt with college students from everywhere standing on either side running their fingers through the peas looking for caterpillars and anything else before the peas dropped down a tube into cans that were filled, and sent to the cookers. A student from somewhere in India thought his job was to push the peas down the conveyor to fill up the cans. We had to explain about the deadly nightshades.
I was one of those students for about a week. I got moved to a job that required even less intellect. On the other end of the line, after the cans left the cookers and were sealed, came another conveyor belt with open cardboard boxes filled with cans of peas. My job was to fold down the flaps on the box, tucking the flaps into each other so that they did not come back open. We then loaded those boxes onto a wood pallet, stacking them as high as we could. By that time a fork lift would appear, drop off a pallet, and take the filled pallet to somewhere in the depths of the warehouse.
My co-workers were Tom, another student we didn’t know, and a wino that slept under a John Deere tractor across the road from the labor camp. He didn’t talk much, just worked, collected his pay at the end of the week and bought more wine. Wine came out of his pores.
There wasn’t much to do after work except cook and talk. I walked to the post office each payday and sent everything home except for what I needed for rent and my part of next week’s groceries.
And then one day all of the machinery stopped and we were told that the peas had run out; we were to collect our pay.
The “pea vine”, a sort of underground network of migrant workers and students like us, told us that the harvest was still going on a ranch a few miles down the road. We all got our stuff together and I hitchhiked to the ranch. This was not to be a cannery job, it was field work.
This ranch, which grew winter wheat and peas in the summer, had a nice, air conditioned bunk-house with showers, and a dining room where we ate with the ranch family and permanent employees. The work ran 24 hours a day as long as there were peas left to harvest.
I worked on a “Viner”. Dump trucks showed up at the row of Viners in the field and dumped their load of cut pea vines. Our job was to grasp the vines in a large double set of tongs, turning the grip like the throttle on a motorcycle which controlled an electric winch that picked the tangled mess up to be swung by us onto a conveyor with “dog teeth” that pulled the vines up and into the Viner.
The Viner was a genius invention in its simplicity. A belt that ran the length of the interior rotated uphill at about a 45 degree angle. At the top knives slashed the pea vines and pea pods to bits. The peas rolled down the belt into a trough which emptied into a tanker truck, while the pods, vines and smashed peas got carried up and over into a pit. A caterpillar tractor ran back and forth day and night over the debris turning it into silage which then was later fed to cattle.
I worked 6:00 pm to 6:00 am seven days a week for a dollar an hour. In the midst of summer it got up over 100 degrees F. during the day and at night dropped to as low as 45 degrees. We felt lucky to be working nights. When we passed the crew getting off at 6:00 p.m. they were green from the dust of the peas stuck onto their sweat soaked clothes. The other benefit of working nights was that we got to see the aurora borealis put on a magnificent light show on some nights.
The dump trucks were driven by teen age girls from the area. They flew in, braked in front of the machines, dumped their loads, and were back on the road. As it turned out the ranch hired girls because their insurance was cheaper than for boys. These girls were not dainty things. They were trim, but they wore blue jeans and work shirts, and were rugged young women who looked like they had spent their whole lives doing some physical outdoor thing. My fellow workers flirted with the girls to no apparent avail.
When we first arrived at the Viners the foreman told us that there were eight machines and twelve workers and we could devise our own routine. We decided to work a couple of hours and have an hour off.
At midnight they brought “lunch”. It consisted of a large sandwich, an apple, and some version of a Twinkie. There was a mechanic on duty who was an enormously fat man who patrolled the lunch line asking us, “Are you going to eat that?” I didn’t know the term or condition at the time, but he had Pickwick Syndrome, more properly called Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome. Joe, a character in Charles Dickens’, “Pickwick Papers” was overweight and fell asleep at inappropriate times. The Viner mechanic’s weight was so great that his breathing was cut short creating a change in his blood chemistry. He continually fell asleep even as he was talking to you.
Joe, the “fat boy”, from the
Our version of “Joe” was a WWII veteran who was captured in North Africa and spent time in a prisoner of war camp where he said he was starved. He swore never to go hungry again. A couple of years after I worked on the ranch, the mechanic fell asleep up on a Viner and fell to his death.
We had settled into a daily routine at the ranch of work, eat a really great breakfast for dinner, sleep, eat dinner for breakfast and back to the Viners.
One night the foreman drove up and asked if any of us could drive a truck. My hand shot up and he told me to get in the truck at the end of the machines and follow the next truck out. I was sitting in the cab trying to figure the gear pattern out when the cab door opened and the foreman asked whether I had ever really driven a truck. I confessed my lie, he showed me the gear pattern and away I went.
We drove at night through hilly country over what was barely a road to a large field with a combine steadily cutting peas and throwing them in an arc into the bed of the dump truck driving along side. When the bed was full someone shouted at us and we took off allowing the next truck to pull alongside. From there it was a race back to dump our load and race back to the combine. It was dangerous work. Someone turned a truck over every summer.
And then the girl who I’d replaced got over whatever was ailing her and I was back hoisting pea vines with a crane.
The morning before we were told to pack our things I discovered that all of those truck driving girls came by and woke the guys who had been flirting with them and they all went somewhere for a party. They didn’t wake me. I didn’t put in enough effort, apparently.
I asked around about other work. The pea harvest appeared to be over. A fellow in the next bunk – a member of some northwest Indian tribe – told me that he was going to Seattle to check into the V.A. hospital. He had fought in the Philippines during WWII and contracted some chronic skin condition that he called jungle rot. He would spend a few days getting three meals a day out of the weather, get his feet treated, and then hitch down to someplace in California where he had worked in the past.
As I was packing my few belongings the man took a look at my shoes and asked if I needed new shoes. After working for several weeks in a cannery in canvas sneakers, up to my ankles in smashed peas and brine, my shoes were rotten and about to fall off of my feet.
“I guess I do” I replied. “Here, try these on.” He reached into his duffle bag and pulled out a pair of high top shoes that were as rigid as a nun and not exactly stylish, but I tried them on. They were too narrow, but the length was right. I told him that I had already sent my money home and I didn’t have any to pay him. “That’s all right. You’re a college boy and you’ll make a lot of money. Buy a pair of shoes for someone who needs them.”
Those shoes hurt my feet…a lot. I wore them the rest of the summer because they were a gift that I wasn’t sure I could repay, but on the way home I found a pair of discarded shoes that fit better, left the ill-fitting shoes by a railroad track, and went on my way.
From the ranch I hitchhiked on across Oregon, headed for Portland where a cousin lived. I found Bruce. He had a live-in girlfriend who I think later became his wife. He was courteous, but his girlfriend was not too happy for me to be there. After a few days I moved on.
I tried picking raspberries. After a morning I had made about two dollars and feared I might never be able to stand erect again.
Somehow, along the way, I hooked up with Burt, another member of the intelligentsia, and we dropped by Reed College. It proved too exclusive both academically and monetarily for either of us, but it had a beautiful campus. We went fairly aimlessly around the western part of Oregon, through The Dalles, Eugene, up into Washington where we came across a museum displaying the belongings of some member of the royal family of Russia who had fled to Washington. As we hitchhiked in Washington we were picked up by a State Trooper because hitchhiking in Washington state is illegal. The trooper asked us a few questions. We told him that we had jobs across the line (we had the promise of one) and he took us back to the Oregon line and dropped us off. The job didn’t materialize and we split up.
Earlier, at the cannery, we had picked up a high school kid from Arkansas. I remember his name as Johnny, but everyone called him “Seventeen or Eighteen” because that’s what he told us when we asked his age. Every teenager knows exactly how old they are because age seems so important then. He was solid; honest and a bit in awe of us. He was candid. Working on the ranch he told me that I was skinny, but wiry, and capable of a lot more work than he had at fist suspected.
The two of us went to look for a job on a fishing boat. We would be gone for six months, but make good money. We were in a large room, waiting to be called for an interview when I told Johnny, “I’m not going to do this.” My fear was that I might get hurt – it was dangerous work – but more importantly, I was afraid that I would never get back in school.
We went to a railroad yard thinking we might ride a freight train back east. We had no idea how you did that, so we climbed in an empty box car and waited for hours. Nothing happened. It was pitch black when I lit a cigarette and almost immediately there were two men standing next to the open door asking if they could bum a smoke. I gave them each cigarettes and one turned and shouted over his shoulder, “Hey guys, this kid’s got tailor-mades.” We had climbed into a car next to a hobo camp. There went my whole pack of cigarettes.
The guy who had given all of my cigarettes away asked what we were doing. We told him and he told us that we were nuts. “We are too old to hitchhike. No one will pick us up. That’s why we are here. You need to go back to the highway.”
We went to the road and stuck our thumb out.
The first leg home was pretty easy. We caught a ride all the way to Pocatello, Idaho.
After that it was hard. We spent the night in an all-night diner. The waitresses knew what we were doing and kept bringing us coffee refills. We went to the highway and started walking out of town thinking we would be more likely to catch a ride at the outskirts of town, and less likely to get hassled by police. We walked a long way. Cars would slow down, see that there were two of us and then speed up.
Finally, a car pulled up with men who had been fighting fires up near Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho asking if we would drive. I got behind the wheel, but then dozed off because we hadn’t slept in a couple of days. The firefighters kept us although they were not happy. They dropped us off in the western part of Nebraska, near Platte, where they lived, and we were back hitching. Hours later a tractor-trailer rig stopped and we climbed in. The driver told us to climb up into the sleeping area. He needed someone to talk to in order to stay awake, but couldn’t be seen with riders. So, we chatted while Johnny slept. I watched the driver, mesmerized by his ability to shift multiple levers with his fingers, elbow, and whatever else came in handy as he worked up and down through the gears. I don’t remember any of the conversation. I just remember him as being a kind person.
We got dropped somewhere in the eastern part of Kansas. It was awful after that. We spent the night trying to sleep on picnic tables in a park, got out on the road where we would typically get a ride in the back of a pickup for five miles, get dropped off and back on the side of the road with our thumbs out.
Near Noel, Missouri we got a ride with two young men in a hot rod. It was nicely done, smooth, purring engine, pin stripes, all of the chrome gone; just black paint and pin-stripes. Unfortunately, the young men, in the middle of the day, were drinking moonshine from a fruit jar. They were blasted. The passenger said – and we were solidly in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas at this point – “Bet you can’t go over a hundred miles an hour for five miles.” “Betcha I can.” And away we went. Seventeen or Eighteen and I were in the floor in the back when the passenger said, “Pull over I’ve got to throw up.” He did and we bailed out.
More “five miles in the back of a pickup” followed until we got to Johnny’s home south of the Arkansas River in western Arkansas. I met his parents, nice small town people, and stuck my thumb out for the last few miles home.
I finished college, and medical school, bought somebody a pair of shoes who needed them, and had a thirty plus year career. I’ve been very fortunate.
A couple of days ago I was sitting in the car waiting with our dog for my wife to run an errand in the mall. It is November, but it was nice enough to have the windows down partially. A voice outside said, “Pardon me sir. I wonder if you can help me. I ain’t no drunkard or nothin’ but I’ve been on the street for a couple of months. Last night I nearly froze sleepin’ in the woods behind Home Depot, and I found a shelter in Hickory that will take me. I’m sixteen dollars short of enough money to catch the bus there.” I looked in my wallet for cash. I apologized for not having enough for his ticket and gave him my lucky two dollar bill. Maybe it will work for him.