Discovering the Region: Texts
19. Lois Phillips Hudson, “Children of the Harvest”
Lois Phillips Hudson, “Children of the Harvest,” in Reapers of the Dust: A Prairie Chronicle
(1964; St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984), 101-13. Used with permission.
On a suffocating summer day in 1937, the thirteenth year of drought and the seventh year of depression, with our mouths, nostrils, and eyes full of the dust blowing from our bare fields, my family sold to our neighbors at auction most of the accouterments of our existence. Then we loaded what was left in to a trailer my father had made and drove West to find water and survival on the Washington coast.
During the auction the two classmates with whom I had just finished the fourth grade hung about the desultory bidders giving me looks of respect and undisguised envy. They envied me not so much for the things they could imagine as for the things they couldn’t—the unimaginable distance I was going and the unimaginable things along it and at the end of it.
And though we all could have imagined most of Montana well enough, how could any of us have imagined an end to the prairie’s limitless sky and the giddy encroachments rising higher and higher against that sky that were the Rocky Mountains? How could we have imagined how in burning summer the forested profiles of the Cascades could echo everywhere the shouts of white falls above us and green rivers below? Who could have imagined, once confronted with their gray expanse, that the waters of Puget Sound were not actually the Pacific, but only a minute stray squiggle of it? Who,
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finally, could have imagined that there were so many people in the world or that the world could offer them so hospitable a habitation?
There were so many things I could scarcely believe even when I was doing them or looking at them or eating them. We lived in a cabin on an island for a few weeks after we arrived, and it always seemed impossible to me that we could be surrounded by so much water. I spent every moment of the hour-long ferry trip from the mainland hanging over the rail gazing down at the exhilarating wake of my first boat ride. The island was exactly what any island should be—lavish green acres covered with woods and orchards and fields of berries, ringed by glistening sandy beaches richly stocked with driftwood. Once in North Dakota my aunt had brought a very small basket of black cherries to my grandfather’s house, and I had made the four or five that were my share last all afternoon. I would take tiny bites of each cherry, then suck the pit and roll it around with my tongue to get the faint remaining taste, till it came out as clean and smooth as a brook-bottom pebble. But on the island I would climb into the trees with my five-year-old sister and have contests with her, seeing which of us could get the most cherries in our mouths at once. Then we would shoot the wet pits, no longer hungrily scoured of their slipperiness, at each other and at the robins who perched above us. Sometimes I would go into the fields with my mother and father and spend an hour helping pick raspberries or loganberries or any of the other things they worked in, but there were really only two important things to do—play on the beaches and eat fruit.
It didn’t occur to me that things would ever be different again, but one day early in August the last berry was picked and we took the ferry into Seattle, where we bought a big brown tent and a camp stove. We added them to our trailer
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load and drove back over the green-and-white Cascades, beneath the glacial sunrise face of Mount Rainier, and down into the sweaty outdoor factory that is the Yakima Valley. There the Yakima River is bled for transfusions to the millions of rows of roots, its depleted currents finally dragging themselves muddily to their relieved merger with the undiminishable Columbia. One can follow the Yakima for miles and miles and see nothing but irrigated fields and orchards—and the gaunt camps of transient laborers.
The workers come like a horde of salvaging locusts, stripping a field, moving to the next, filling their boxes or crates or sacks, weighing in, collecting the bonuses offered to entice them to stay till the end of the season, and disappearing again. They spend their repetitive days in rows of things to be picked and their sweltering nights in rows of tents and trailers. We pitched our tents beside the others, far from our pleasant island where the owners of the fields were neighbors who invited my sister and me among their cherry trees. Here the sauntering owners and their bristling foreman never smiled at those children who ran through the fields playing games, and only occasionally at those who worked beside their parents.
In North Dakota I had worked on our farm—tramping hay, driving a team of horses, fetching cows, feeding calves and chickens—but of course that had all been only my duty as a member of the family, not a way to earn money. Now I was surrounded by grownups who wanted to pay me for working, and by children my own age who were stepping up to the pay window every night with weighing tags in their hands and collecting money. I saw that the time had come for me to assume a place of adult independence in the world.
I made up my mind I was going to earn a dollar all in one day. We were picking hops then, and of all the rows I have toiled my way up and down, I remember hop rows the most vividly. Trained up on their wires fifteen feet overhead, the
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giant vines resemble monster grape arbors hung with bunches of weird unripe fruit. A man who does not pick things for a living comes and cuts them down with a knife tied to a ten-foot pole so the people below can strip them off into sacks. Hops don’t really look like any other growing thing but instead like something artificially constructed—pine cones, perhaps, with segments cleverly cut from the soft, limp, clinging leaves that lie next to the kernels of an ear of corn. A hop in your hand is like a feather, and it will almost float on a puff of air. Hops are good only for making beer, so you can’t even get healthily sick of them by eating them all day long, the way you can berries or peas.
Pickers are paid by the pound, and picking is a messy business. Sometimes you run into a whole cluster that is gummy with the honeydew of hop aphids, and gray and musty with the mildew growing on the sticky stuff. Tiny red spiders rush from the green petals and flow up your arms, like more of the spots the heat makes you see.
The professionals could earn up to six dollars a day. One toothless grandmother discouraged us all by making as much as anybody in the row and at the same time never getting out of her rocking chair except to drag it behind her from vine to vine. My father and mother each made over three dollars a day, but I tried to work almost as long hours as they did, my pay at the end of the day would usually be somewhere between eighty and ninety cents.
Then one day in the second week of picking, when the hops were good and I stayed grimly sweating over my long gray sack hung on a child-sized frame, I knew that this was going to be the day. As the afternoon waned and I added the figures on my weight tags over and over again in my head, I could feel the excitement begin to make spasms in my stomach. That night the man at the pay window handed me a silver dollar and three pennies. He must have seen that
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this was a day not for paper, but for silver. The big coin, so neatly and brightly stamped, was coolly distant from the blurred mélange of piled vines and melting heat that had put it into my hand. Only its solid heaviness connected it in a businesslike way with the work it represented. For the first time in my life I truly comprehended the relationship between toil and media of exchange, and I saw how exacting and yet how satisfying were the terms of the world. Perhaps because of this insight, I did not want the significance of my dollar dimmed by the common touch of copper pettiness. I gave the vulgar pennies to my little sister, who was amazed but grateful. Then I felt even more grownup than before, because not everybody my age was in a position to give pennies to kids.
That night I hardly slept, lying uncovered beside my sister on our mattress on the ground, sticking my hand out under the bottom of the tent to lay it on the cooling earth between the clumps of grass. Tired as I was, I had written post cards to three people in North Dakota before going to bed. I had told my grandmother, my aunt, and my friend Doris that I had earned a dollar in one day. Then, because I did not want to sound impolitely proud of myself, and to fill up the card, I added on each one, “I’m fine and I plan to pick again tomorrow. How are you?”
I couldn’t wait to get to the field the next day and earn another dollar. Back home none of my friends would have dreamed of being able to earn so much in one day. The only thing to do back there for money was to trap gophers for the bounty; and even the big kids, who ran a fairly long trap line and had the nerve to cut the longest tails in half, couldn’t make more than twenty cents on a good day, with tails at two cents apiece. I earned a dollar and forty cents the next day and the day after that, and at least a dollar every day for another week, until we moved to another place of picking—a pear orchard.
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By that time it was September, and most of us children from the rows of tents stood out at the gateway of the camp and waited each day for the long yellow school bus. I had never seen a school bus before, and my sister and I were shy about how to act in such a grand vehicle. We sat together, holding our lunch buckets on our knees, looking out at the trees beside the roads, trying to catch a glimpse of our mother and father on the ladders.
The school had about three times as many pupils in it as there were people in the town back in North Dakota where we used to go to buy coal and groceries. The pupils who were planning to attend this school all year were separated from those who, like me, did not know how many days or weeks we would be in that one spot. In our special classes we did a great deal of drawing and saw a number of movies. School was so luxurious in comparison with the hard work I had done in North Dakota the previous year that I wrote another post card to Doris, telling her that we never had to do fractions and that we got colored construction paper to play with almost every day. I copied a picture of a donkey with such accuracy that my teacher thought I had traced it until she held the two to the window and saw that the lines were indisputably my own. After that I got extra drawing periods and became very good at copying, which always excited more praise than my few original compositions.
I was understandably sad when we left that school after two weeks and went to Wenatchee. For the first time, we were not in a regular camp. The previous year my father, recognizing that the crops had not brought in enough to get us through the winter, had taken the train to Wenatchee after the sparse harvest was in and picked apples for a man named Jim Baumann. Baumann wanted him back, so he let us pitch our tent on his land not far from his house. We made camp, and after supper Baumann came down to talk about the next
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day’s arrangements. The school was not so large as the other one, and there was no school bus for us because we were only a half mile away from it. Baumann was shorthanded in the packing shed and needed my mother early in the morning. Besides, there was no reason why she should have to take us to school, because he had a daughter in my grade who could walk with us and take us to our respective rooms.
“Why, isn’t that lovely!” my mother exclaimed with unwonted enthusiasm. “Now you’ll have a nice little girl to play with right here and to be your friend at school.”
Her excitement was rather remarkable, considering the dubious reaction she had had to everybody else I had played with since we started camping. It hadn’t seemed to me that she had liked even the boy who made me a pair of stilts and taught me to walk them. Now here she was favorably predisposed toward somebody I didn’t even know. I agreed that it would be nice to have a nice little girl to play with.
The next morning my sister and I sat on the steps of the Baumanns’ front porch, where Barbara’s mother had told us to make ourselves at home, waiting for her to finish her breakfast. We had already been up so long that it seemed to me we must surely be late for school; I began picturing the humiliating tardy entrance into a roomful of strange faces.
Two of Barbara’s friends came down the driveway to wait for her. They both wore the kind of plaid skirts I had been wondering if I could ask my mother about buying—after all, she had said all my dresses were too short this fall because of all the inches I’d grown in the summer. The two girls looked at us for a moment, then uncoiled shiny-handled jump ropes and commenced loudly shouting two different rhymes to accompany their jumping.
Barbara came out on the porch, greeted her friends with a disconcerting assurance, jumped down the steps past us, insinuated herself between them and clasped their hands.
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“I have to show these kids where the school is,” she told them. Turning her head slightly she called, “Well, come if you’re coming. We’re going to be late.” Swinging their arms together, they began to skip down the driveway.
A couple of times on the way to school they stopped and waited until we got near them; I yanked irritably on my little sister’s arm and thought about how her shorter legs had been holding me back ever since she was born. I always seemed to be the one who had to drag a little kid along.
The teacher kept me standing at her desk while she called the roll and started the class on a reading assignment. When she looked up at me, I got the irrational impression that I had already managed to do something wrong. She asked where I had come from and I said “North Dakota,” thinking it would be simpler than trying to tell all the places I had been in the last three months. She gave me the last seat in a row behind a boy in dirty clothes. As she passed by him she made the faintest sound of exhalation, as though she was ridding her nostrils of a disagreeable smell.
At recess a boy in a bright shirt and new cream-colored corduroy pants yelled “North Dakota, North Dakota” in a funny way as he ran past me to the ball field. The boy who sat ahead of me came up and said confidentially, “We been out all around here for two years. We come from Oklahoma. We’re Okies. That’s what you are too, even if you didn’t come from Oklahoma.” I knew I could never be anything that sounded so crummy as “Okie,” and I said so. “Oh, yeah!” he rejoined stiffly. I walked away before he could argue any more and went to find my sister, but the primary grades had recess at a different time, so I went and stood by the door until the period was over. That afternoon I stayed in my seat reading a history book, but the teacher, who seemed to want to go outdoors herself, said, “It’s better for the room if everybody goes outside for recess.” So I went out and stood around the fringes of two or three games and wondered what
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was funny about North Dakota. Somehow I had the feeling that it would hurt my mother if I asked her.
The last part of the day was given to a discussion period, when each of us who wanted to was given a chance to tell about an important day in his life. The important days of my classmates, all about having a part in a play or learning to ride a bike, seemed so pathetically juvenile that I was impelled to speak. I stood at my seat and told about how before we had gone to the pear orchard, which was before we had come here, I had earned a dollar all in one day in the hopfields.
From two sides of the room Barbara’s friends turned to send her looks which I intercepted but found inscrutable. I had been looking at her too, watching for her reaction. A boy near me poked another and whispered in mocking awe, “A whole dollar!”
The boy ahead of me jumped suddenly to his feet, banging his leg against the desk so hard that the entire row shook. “Heck,” he cried, “we just come from there, too, and I made more’n a buck and a half every day.” He gave me a triumphant smile and sat down. Then I knew I hated that boy. That night I told my mother about how there was a mean boy just like those other mean boys at the camps and how the teacher would have to put me right behind him. “Well,” she sighed, “just try not to pay any attention to him.”
By the time I had found my sister after school, Barbara and her friends had gone. The next morning when we went to the big house she was gone, too.
After that, my sister and I walked together. Sometimes we would be close enough to hear Barbara’s friends, who were always with her, laugh and call her “Bobby.” I had never known any Barbaras before, and the name seemed full of unapproachable prestige and sophistication; it was the kind of name that could belong only to a girl who had as many dresses as Barbara Baumann had. “Bobby” was yet more awesome, as if she were as consequential as a boy. At school,
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if I recited in class, she acted queerly self-conscious, as though she were responsible for me—the way I often felt around my sister when she said something stupid to kids my age.
For various reasons I had that same embarrassed feeling of an enforced distasteful relationship with the boy who sat ahead of me. Once in a while somebody in the class would tease me about him or would say something about “the hop pickers.” I was bitterly determined to dissociate myself from the boy, and whenever he turned around to talk to me I would pretend he was trying to copy my paper. I would put my hand over it while I kept my eyes glued to the desk and felt my face grow hot.
There were some things about the school I liked very much. We were allowed to use the library a great deal; and for the first time in my life I had access to numbers of books I hadn’t already read. By reading at noon and recess I could finish a book at school every two days. I would also have a book at home that I would read in a couple of nights. One of the nice things about living in a tent was that there were hardly any household chores to do and I could read as much as I wanted.
Frosty mornings came with October, and my sister and I would try to dress under the quilts before we got up to eat our oatmeal. Leaves began to blow across the road, apples grew redder with each cold night, pickers hurried from tree to tree, filling the orchards with the soft thunder of hard round fruit rolling out of picking sacks into boxes, and packers worked faster and faster, trying to get the apples twisted up in fancy tissue and into boxes before they jammed up too thickly on the perpetually moving belts. After school my sister and I would go to the box shed behind the big house where Harry, Barbara’s big brother, would be nailing boxes together for a nickel apiece. He was always glad to have company, and would let us stand at a respectful distance
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and watch him pound in nail after nail with two strokes—a tap to set it, then a mighty clout to send it in—three to an end, six to a side.
One afternoon, with the chill blue sky brilliant behind the orange and black Halloween cutouts on the windows, I was sitting at my desk dreamily drawing a witch in a moon when the teacher called my name. She told me that she wanted me to take all my books out of my desk and take them to the front of the room. Then she told everybody in my row to pack up his books and move one seat back. My heart banged alarmingly up in my throat and I nearly gagged from the sudden acute sensations in my viscera. In North Dakota such drastic action was taken only when an offender, after repeated warnings, had proved too incorrigible to sit anywhere except right in front of the teacher’s desk. The fact that I had no idea of why I was now classified as such an incorrigible only augmented my anguish. While books, papers, and pencils fell to the floor and boys jostled each other in the aisle, I managed to sidle numbly up to the front. I sat down in my new seat, trying not to notice how shamefully close it was to the big desk facing it, and I was careful not to raise my eyes higher than the vase of zinnias standing on the corner nearest me.
When school was out I hurried to find my sister and get out of the schoolyard before anybody in my class. But Barbara and her friends had beaten us to the playground entrance and they seemed to be waiting for us. Barbara said, “So now you’re in the A class.” She sounded impressed.
“What’s the A class?” I asked.
Everybody made superior yet faintly envious giggling sounds. “Well, why did you think the teacher moved you to the front of the room, dopey? Didn’t you know you were in the C class before? Way in the back of the room?”
Of course I hadn’t known. The Wenatchee fifth grade
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was bigger than my whole school had been in North Dakota, and the idea of subdivisions within a grade had never occurred to me. The subdividing for the first marking period had been done before I came to the school, and I had never, in the six weeks I’d been there, talked to anyone long enough to find out about the A, B, and C classes.
I still could not understand why that had made such a difference to Barbara and her friends. I didn’t yet know that it was disgraceful and dirty to be a transient laborer and ridiculous to be from North Dakota. I thought living in a tent was more fun than living in a house. I didn’t know that we were gypsies, really (how that thought would have thrilled me then!), and that we were regarded with the suspicion felt by those who plant toward those who do not plant. It didn’t occur to me that we were all looked upon as one more of the untrustworthy natural phenomena, drifting here and there like mists or winds, that farmers of certain crops are resentfully forced to rely on. I didn’t know that I was the only child who had camped on the Baumanns’ land ever to get out of the C class. I did not know that school administrators and civic leaders held conferences to talk about the problem of transient laborers.
I only knew that for two happy days I walked to school with Barbara and her friends, played hopscotch and jump rope with them at recess, and was even invited into the house for some ginger ale—an exotic drink I had never tasted before.
Then we took down our tent and packed it in the trailer with our mattresses and stove and drove on, because the last apples were picked and sorted and boxed and shipped to the people all over the world, whoever they were, who could afford to buy them in 1937. My teacher wrote a letter for me to take to my next school. In it, she told me, she had informed my next teacher that I should be put into the A class immediately. But there wasn’t any A class in my room, the new teacher explained.
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By then I was traveled enough to realize that it was another special class for transients. The teacher showed us movies almost every day.
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