I know I had a childhood because I remember playing with friends and climbing trees with my brothers, and having family picnics and going to school. But in between the usual fun and games, there was always work. Like most farm kids I had daily chores, but we had the added burden of working for others. I suppose the small acreage we leased was never enough to support us, so weekends and summers found us employed by local farmers and ranchers with hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres of grapes, olives, cotton, and peaches that needed harvesting. I learned to cut grapes before I was old enough to attend school. Before long I was trusted to tie the vines to their wire supports. I even learned to do a little pruning, although always under close supervision. Once cut, a vine doesn’t grow back!
I remember picking cotton with a child-sized sack that my mom made for me. The cotton was soft, but the drying bolls did not give up their prize without scraping and poking my tender fingers and the bag dragging behind me seemed to weigh a ton before I reached the end of the row. Cotton also required “chopping” early in its life cycle. We walked for hours chopping weeds and thinning plants growing too close together. There is an “art” to chopping cotton and it is not easily learned by a child, especially a bored child. I was scolded so often I vowed to never own a hoe when I grew up!
I sorted olives when I was about ten. The guys tapped the trees with long canes and collected the falling olives with huge tarps stretched out on the ground below. Sometimes they picked them by hand, climbing on ladders and collecting them in buckets. I don’t remember why there were two methods; I only remember that our job was to pick out leaves, debris, and “bad” olives as they passed over a slanted screen that reminded me of the slide on our playground at school.
I spent my eleventh summer cutting peaches and apricots with half a dozen women gathered at long tables underneath a carport-like structure that was supposed to protect us from the hot sun. At that time we leased a small property that included a house, barn, drying shed, grape vineyard, peach and apricot orchards, and a huge garden plot. Peaches and apricots were picked, cut in half (removing the pit), and placed on trays. The trays were stacked in a shed and the fruit was exposed to burning sulfur powder fumes for several hours. The sulfur prevented them from turning dark during the rest of the drying process and also discouraged insects from bothering them. Of course most of the insects, including wasps, were too busy bothering those of us cutting the fruit! And yes, I learned to hate the smell of sulfur.
In between crops there were always animals to feed and care for, water to distribute to the various plants, fields to be plowed, and trees to be pruned. And occasionally we picked something different- oranges, potatoes, strawberries, corn. What we did never mattered much to me. Work was work. All of it interfered with my homework, social life, and reading. But I learned to adjust- from four to thirteen I didn’t have other choices.
And then we moved to Oklahoma…