“Kurt Looks For Work,” a chapter from Part III of my novel, Hardpan

Quiet pervaded the house before the morning crush. Only the hum of the fridge broke the silence. Soon everyone would be fighting for the only bathroom. Kurt scooped coffee grounds from the bright red MJB can into the aluminum percolator. He shoved the top down, turned the electric burner on high, and waited for the coffee to start perking.

He wanted to catch John before he left for work to ask him about seasonal jobs in the Central Valley. John was a chemist at Gallo, the biggest winery in the Valley. He had started with the company after graduating with a degree in enology from Oregon State in 1949.

“I like the security,” John had said. “Growing family and all.”

Back then, John and Kathy had only their first child. Now they had four. But Kurt’s life had taken a different turn. He had barely a year-and-a-half under his belt at Oregon State when he was drafted into the Army in ‘42. He knew that his experience flying lightweight observation planes in the Army field artillery, and work in the rock crushing business with his cousin Nick after he returned from the Philippines, wouldn’t help much now. He didn’t have a civil engineering degree for roadwork, and it would take him years to get certified to fly commercial planes. No question about it. He needed some cold hard cash to get the family back together. He didn’t like being dependent on Jo’s family. And the kids. He really missed them.

John finally popped into the kitchen, dressed for work in his dark gray slacks and white short-sleeved dress shirt. A skinny tie, dark blue, was draped over his right shoulder.

“Morning, Kurt. I smelled that coffee down the hall. You’re up early. Must be the rancher in you.”

“Been getting up early all my life. Here you go. Fresh brew.” He handed John a mug. “I thought I’d get a jump on the unemployment office downtown. Guess you know I haven’t had any luck with locating a farm in this Valley that could use my ranch management know-how. Hard to believe that two weeks have gone by already. Figured I better check out the help-wanted postings for day laborers on the farms around here.”

“That’s a good place to start. August is peak harvest season for the orchards—apricots, peaches, and plums. Not sure what they pay, though.” John looked his brother-in-law up and down. “You’ve got quite a load on your shoulders, with your kids scattered and all.”

Kurt nodded. “Yep. With a little luck, I expect we can get our own place before Christmas.”

“Luck, and a little of your Glover charm will get you there.”

Kurt felt his shoulders tense up. “So you think I’m not trying hard enough?” His steely gray eyes fixed on John. After all, John didn’t know what it was like to lose a ranch; he had the good fortune to have graduated from college and brought home a paycheck every two weeks ever since.

John shrank back, abashed by Kurt’s outburst. “Come on now, buddy. I have faith in you. Can’t forget what you did in flying those grasshoppers in the Pacific, for one. Took guts.”

Kurt gazed at the trellis laden with clusters of vine-ripened grapes outside the kitchen window. “Do you suppose Gallo might have any seasonal work for a guy like me?” It felt good to change the subject.

“It’s a little early for the harvest work at wineries around here. The grapes will be ready in another five to six weeks if the hot weather holds. Then there’ll be plenty of work to do through the fall.”

Kurt patted John on the shoulder. “Good to know. Maybe by then I won’t need it. I found the unemployment office in the Yellow Pages. Can you give me directions downtown?”

John pulled a city map from the drawer, smoothed it flat on the kitchen counter, and pointed to the box-like grid of city streets. Kurt grunted his thanks and shifted gears again. “Are there orchards east of here that might be hiring?”

”Don’t know. Your best bet is to take Yosemite Road east toward Sonora Pass. Plenty of small farms and orchards in that area.” He folded the map again and handed it to Kurt. “Good luck today,” he said, placing his empty mug back on the counter.

They walked out the front door together. Kurt took off in his GMC pickup, still coated with dust from their long trip west, and John left in his green Studebaker sedan.

Kurt strode into the unemployment office when they opened the doors at eight-thirty. He felt the squeeze of bodies as men hungry for work pressed forward to take a number and check out the bulletin boards. Mostly Mexicans with wavy dark brown hair like his own, except they spoke Spanish. Most acted like they’d been there before. Plenty of nervous faces searching for a friendly employment officer.

He studied the bulletin board, jotting down names and addresses of orchards that needed day laborers to pick ripe fruit. Peak season. The Tillie Lewis Cannery on 9th Street was also advertising for help on the food processing lines. Paid a dollar-seventy-five an hour. Better than nothing. He decided to check it out. It was only a few miles east.

Kurt came away from the plant discouraged. It was cavernous and full of workers on long canning lines. He couldn’t see himself confined indoors to a food processing line all day. Fresh air felt damned good, summer and winter. Even in the winter blizzards that blasted their ranch, he would venture outside long enough to check on the livestock everyday.

He hadn’t picked fruit for a living before, but he liked that it was outdoor work. He remembered their apple orchard a quarter mile from the ranch house. Lots of old crab apple trees. Every September, he and Jo would spend the better part of a morning shaking those trees. The kids would scamper around to scoop up the booty, filling buckets for the return home.

Kurt walked toward the tall thin man whose oversized t-shirt was shoved inside dirty painter’s overalls stained with peach juice. Sweat dripped from the man’s forehead onto his beaky nose. He pulled his wrinkled white handkerchief from his pants pocket to catch the drops, swiping a swath across his forehead.

“How much do you pay for pickin’?” Kurt asked.

“A dollar-fifty an hour or by the piece. Ten flats of peaches, quality pick, brings you five dollars. Fifty cents a flat. Depends on how fast you are at picking and packing without bruising the merchandise. And how much you want to make.”

While Kurt studied the situation, Mexican laborers walked around him with their empty buckets, heading for their designated rows to begin the picking. Ladders had been placed on most rows to reach fruit near the treetops. Kurt mumbled to himself.

“Got a question?” the man asked.

“No, sir. This is the first place I’ve stopped. Not sure if this work suits me.”

He walked back to his pickup out front. Goddamned fleecing operation. No better than a job some Mexican could get fresh across the border. He didn’t mind hard work. But it irritated him to think some guy running an apple orchard would offer him less than he made as a hired hand to Mickey Fraker last summer after leaving the ranch—a ranch he’d managed on his own until things fell apart. A ranch twenty times this size with livestock and an apple orchard on the side.

He spent the day driving to other orchards he’d written down on the note card. Same story each place: pay by the piece or by the hour. Late afternoon, he pulled into the front yard of a farm on Leek Road, a half mile south of Yosemite Boulevard. He hailed the first man who looked like he might manage the place.

Kurt introduced himself. “I just moved my family here from Wyoming. I need a job. I can do anything you might need done around here.”

The man shook Kurt’s hand. “Hank Staples. Sounds like you’ve got a story there.”

“Yep. I ran a twelve hundred acre cattle ranch. Turned upside down when livestock prices took a dive. But there’s no time to dwell on losses when you have a family to feed.”

Hank shrugged his shoulders. “Appreciate your predicament. Sorry to say we got nothing suitable right now. My brother moved here not long ago from Nebraska. He had a farm there that failed. Sounds similar to what you’ve gone through. He’s helping me out till he gets his feet on the ground.”

Kurt reached for words. “Got a piece of scrap paper? I’ll give you my number in case you need more help.”

Staples tore a piece from his scruffy notebook and handed him a pencil. Kurt scribbled a note and pressed it into the man’s palm. His long legs felt like lead weights as he plodded back to his truck.

“Hey, good luck,” the man shouted from behind.

“Thanks,” Kurt said, not looking back.

It wasn’t like him to walk this slowly. He could cross the back forty acres on the ranch in a few minutes when he needed to fix an irrigation ditch before a summer downburst, or get to the ranch house for lunch. When he shut the door to his pickup, the whole cab seemed to shudder. It was his last stop for the day. He had to figure out what he would tell the two families waiting for him at John and Kathy’s house.

He slipped quietly into the noisy household. Jo was in the kitchen helping Kathy get dinner. She looked up from peeling carrots and flashed him a hopeful smile.

“How’d it go, honey?” She plunked the paring knife onto the countertop and crossed the center aisle to peck his cheek. He squeezed her tight. He wished he had some good news for her.

“I ended up talking to three orchard managers and a farmer who has a big spread down the road, off Yosemite past Empire. You know, the little town just past the railroad crossing?”

She nodded. “Did you get a bite on a job?”

Kurt’s cheerful smile concealed his shame. He couldn’t bear her hopeful look. Drove him crazy not to have something positive to report. Any job would be better than having to tell her he came up empty-handed. “The farmer was real friendly. Told me he’d take me on, except he has hired his brother who lost his farm in Nebraska this past year.”

But she saw through his smile. Her voice was gritty with determination. “There’s gotta be another farmer in the vicinity who needs a man with your experience.”

He patted her on the back but she pulled away.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” she said. “It’s rough being here all day in such tight quarters, though Kathy is trying her best to be sweet to us.”

Christopher crawling through the kitchen door distracted them. Kurt couldn’t resist the little guy. He swept him into his arms and tickled his round belly.

“Don’t worry, honey,” he said. But his words echoed through the room. Jo wasn’t in hearing range.

John grilled him again later that evening. He kept asking why Kurt hadn’t taken the job at the cannery. “Hey, it’s not so bad. Kathy worked there last summer. She earned enough to afford the down payment for this house.”

Kurt didn’t try to reason with him. “It’s no good, John. Won’t work for me.” Made no sense for him to explain his feelings. How could John relate to a man who felt like newly laid pavement that was blown away by the high winds blasting through Line Creek Canyon? He couldn’t seem to get his feet on the ground before he was suddenly cast adrift again.

John finally moved on. “My colleagues didn’t know about any fieldwork right now. Timing is bad, but if you can wait a few more weeks, I’ll put a good word in for you at the Modesto Cooperative Winery. It’s a growers’ co-op only about two miles from here.”

“Thanks. I appreciate your offer, in case,” Kurt said. His hands sank deep into his pockets.

The next morning, Kurt rose early again to make coffee for him and John. “I’ve thought about the orchard work some more,” he said. “No time to wait for the grapes to ripen. I’m going back to that big peach orchard, the one on Fairland, off Yosemite.”

“I know the place,” John said. He sipped his coffee and nodded absently in the early morning stillness.

The day was already heating up when Kurt turned into the orchard a few minutes before eight. He pulled up next to a ’53 Chevrolet, the same model that his mother drove all over eastern Oregon ranch country. From the looks of the thick film of dust and dirty windows, it had taken a few back roads here in California. By the time he turned off the motor, some more cars and pickups had pulled into the dirt parking lot. He skipped the running board below the driver’s door and planted both boots on the ground, the same pair of lace-up leather boots he’d worn everyday on the ranch. He counted on the thick rubber soles to provide the balance he’d need in climbing tall ladders to reach the tops of fruit trees still laden with unpicked fruit.

He walked up to the small stucco house, painted white with emerald green trim around the two front windows. “This Land Is Your Land” was blaring from a radio inside. The weathered screen door whapped against the wood doorframe as workers walked in and out, flies buzzing around them.

A big poster barely clung to the screen door with a torn strip of masking tape at the top. The sign was handwritten in black ink: “PICKERS SIGN IN HERE” and in smaller letters below, “LOS RECOGEDORES—POR FAVOR FIRMAR AQUI”.

Kurt stared at the sign as men in jeans and dirty t-shirts shuffled through the doorway. He reached in his shirt pocket for the pack of Pall Malls and lit up a cigarette. Okay, this was just temporary. He would find other work in a few days or weeks. John had said the wine co-op would need sugar level testers when the grapes were ready for harvest. That would involve some training. Better pay too.

His mind kept reverting to fruit picking. Should he go with pay by the piece or by the hour? A quick calculation convinced him he’d earn more by the piece because he worked fast. He refused to think about it any longer, and grabbed the screen door as someone was coming out.

The manager was standing inside the entry by the sign-up table. He recognized Kurt. “Good morning. Glover, right? So you decided this work might suit you after all?”

“Yes, sir. You said a man could get paid by the piece.”

“Yep. Print your name and address and social security number on the lined paper, clear enough so we can read it. We pay in cash at the end of every day, but we got to have correct records for the state labor people when they stop by.”

Kurt leaned over the table, picked up the ballpoint pen, and started writing. He used John’s home address. He put the pen down and looked up again. His new boss gave him clear instructions. “You’ll find ladders and cardboard boxes in each orchard row. Grab a ladder and as many boxes as you might need for an hour or two. You have to keep track of your own boxes. Bring your full boxes back to the front parking lot here for inspection check-out.”

Kurt nodded at the man. “Thanks. I’m all set.”

As he shoved the screen door open, the sweltering heat hit him. It was hotter already than a July day in Wyoming. The thermometer hit a hundred and it wasn’t noon yet. He tugged down on his straw cowboy hat to shade his face. That way, too, he didn’t have to look into the eyes of the other workers. They were all here for the same reason.

He scanned the rows of trees to see which ones had the most peaches ready for picking. Many of the peaches were clustered about a third way down from the treetops, out-of-reach for most pickers. At six foot one, Kurt had a height advantage and longer arms than most. He grabbed the nearest wooden ladder and climbed several rungs.

He gradually established a rhythm: spot the ripe peaches; grab one, sometimes two, in each hand; descend a few wobbly steps and plunk the peaches into the box below. He tried to pick fruit that was still firm to the touch. He kept flicking his face to clear away the peach fuzz that accumulated in his nostrils like loose feathers from an old down pillow. No time to use the cotton handkerchief in his shirt pocket. Sweat poured down his face, coming to a point on his nose with the incessant drips. Sometimes he pinched the fleshy pulp too hard, or one would drop like a rock into the box below when his bulky work boot missed a rung of the shaky ladder. At day’s end, those would cost him some of his hard-earned pay.

By the time he turned in his last box packed full of peaches that day, he was wiped out. It was the valley heat. The temperature reached one-hundred-seven that day. No escape even in the shade of the fruit trees. His striped cotton shirt was wringing wet from sweat and his socks were soaked from the moisture trapped inside his boots. He missed the summer afternoon thunderstorms that cooled things down on the high Wyoming plains. But he had grown more proficient at picking and packing the fruit. He could pack more into a box without damaging the fruit. More fruit in more boxes translated to more cash in his pocket.

He could do this job. He could last a few weeks until the co-op job came through. By then, David and Jean could come to live with them in Modesto. Not so sure about Linda. They hadn’t talked to her since he took her to Ava’s. Jo and he were thinking that she might as well stay there for the school year. Anyway, she was living the life of Riley in southern California. She had her own bedroom for the first time ever, and a closet full of Nancy’s clothes. He ground his last cigarette butt into the dirt with the tip of his boot before hopping into his pickup for the drive home. This time he was bringing money home. That brought a smile to his face.

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