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Summer jobs were excellent adventures

Summer jobs. Work permits. War time need for workers to help with the harvest. Opportunities to learn.

Life has changed a lot since the 1940s. While summer may get a bit boring for young people today, back in the 1940s it was a time to work in the harvest, a time to earn money for new school clothes or to put away dollars for college. Work permits were required for some kinds of work, though I don’t remember ever having to provide one for my employers.

I was fortunate to live in an agricultural area in Northern California — an area where many of the ranchers grew hops or grapes or prunes. In the war years the farmers needed pickers and many of the young people were delighted to have the chance to work. I fondly remember my first job as a prune picker. My sister and I at ages 12 and 10 lived on the ranch during the week staying with grandparents. Each night we called home to proudly report how many boxes of prunes we had picked that day. We might tell about a bee sting but seldom reported prune fights where we hurled hot sticky fruit at each other.

Now the prune harvest is conducted by large machines, but 60 years ago the job was done by hand. Tree branches were violently shaken by men wielding long shaker poles. As the ripe fruit fell to the smoothly prepared soil making a carpet of purple, a pleasant thunder could be heard. Next entered the pickers with their buckets. Either on their knees or bent over from the waist they collected the fruit, filled their buckets and then emptied the contents into 50 lug boxes which lined the road for pickup.

The full boxes were then taken to the “dipper,” where the prunes were given a bath of hot lye water and then dumped onto a shaker table where the sweet purple plums were jiggled together tightly. Next step: trays were stacked onto the back of an old flatbed truck and taken to an empty field where the ripe fruit could dry in the California sun. If rain was predicted, trays were taken to a dehydrator for the drying process.

Our wages of 25 cents a box were tallied by the men loading the boxes on the trucks bound for the “dipper.” Some farmers gave the pickers tickets that they used to identify their work. Others gave out chalk to mark the boxes.

We enjoyed meeting migrant workers — a shy family from an Indian reservation, a white family and a large wonderful family from Mexico, the Gonzales. I remember the cold showers, the Kellogg’s Pep for breakfast (a type of whole-wheat cereal), the early rising. But most of all I remember getting into trouble for coming home late after visiting with the Gonzales children and of the birthday party we held for Magdalena after work one day. My sister and I had fun preparing gifts for all 11 children. My mom brought out ice cream and cake for the celebration.

Jeanie Oakleaf Anderson is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

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