Almost every year in the early fall, the local radio stations starting broadcasting “the call for laborers”. Eastern Washington is one of the most fertile areas for growing apples, specifically Washington Red and Golden Delicious Apples. Whether because of a shortage of workers or a fear of an early frost, the DJ’s would start announcing that the orchards needed pickers.
I had two close friends that I hung with a lot that summer. We had never considered getting involved before, but one particular Fall we decided that we would do it. We’d jump in one of our cars, race over the mountains, pull up to a roadside orchard, spring out of our Hot Rod, offer our services to the beleaguered Orchard owners, and be hailed and financially rewarded as the saviors from the West.
Well – the idyllic quest started out great as we sped East with Seattle in the rear view mirror, wound through the mountain pass and shot out into the hot Eastern countryside by the mighty Columbia River, but it came to a grinding halt as soon as we got to the orchards. Where were the desperate orchard owners and workers who would be welcoming us with open arms? Where were the signs announcing where we could swoop in and save the day? Where were the piles of cash ready to be distributed to all of us willing souls from the West?
So – we pulled into the first seemingly abandoned orchard and sprang forth ready to pick! We spotted a little shack and decided that we better start there. As we stepped inside we found a little desk with a woman sitting behind it. In the best “Ta-Da!” voices we could muster, we announced that we had heard of their plight. had been summoned by the big city radio gods, and we were here to help…
In a single moment, the dream came crashing down. An almost disinterested “What…? was all she muttered as she peered over her reading glasses, cigarette bobbing in her mouth. We stammered out an explanation – she had NO idea what we were talking about, but said that if we wanted to pick apples, we had to go to the labor office in town. Well – as deflating as this had been, surly we’d find the answers and direction (and grateful reception) we’d been seeking there.
Reaching the labor office in Wenatchee, we did find people who knew what we were talking about. And they were excited about us being there and wanted to know how long we were there for. How long? We were just here for the day… we had to work tomorrow… what do you mean “how long”? Apparently, they expected people to come work for a week or two, or even a month – not just a day – and of course the whole day we had committed to was almost half gone now! The nice lady at the office smiled politely, made a few phone calls, and ended up finding an orchard that would take us on for the afternoon.
We rambled up some non-descript dirt road and found the orchard we were supposed to pick at. Once again we piled out of our car and presented ourselves for use. The foreman sized us up, gave us the “I’ll guess you’ll do” nod and led us off down the rows of apple trees. In the 100 or so yards we walked she filled us in on everything we’d ever need to know about the correct way to pick apples. You had to wear this apron-looking thing to put the apples in as you were up on the ladders picking. You had to twist and break the stem at a certain place where it connected to the branch: do it right and the tree would produce from the same spot year after year, do it wrong, and it would take 3 years before that place would produce another apple. As you filled your apron, you had to carefully climb down the ladder and gently release the apples into a big (I’d guess 4’x4’x4’high) apple bin. Repeat this process and fill up the apple bins stacked at the end of the orchard rows.
What we had intended to be a fun day of helping out and getting handsomely rewarded for it had turned into a remaining afternoon of apparently scientific apple removal from fragile trees and balancing on ladders while caring for each apple as though it was as breakable as an egg.
Well – we got our marching orders, scampered up our ladders, and began to pick. It didn’t take long until we figured out that it was really difficult to pick the apples correctly. Being less than mature adults and having our day already turning out much different than we had planned didn’t help us really care about the picking process. It was also a lot easier to pick the apples quicker if we just grabbed and pulled without regards to those little stem thingys.
Get some kids up on ladders and doing a boring, repetitive chore like apple picking, and it won’t be long until some tom-foolery ensues. We ate our fill of apples, threw the cores at each other between the trees, and even tried to see who could throw whole apples the farthest down the hillside we were on. And speaking of hillsides, we had some challenges trying to keep those cherry-picker type ladders upright on the slopes. We had a few close calls, and once a ladder went over taking us all out in the process. Had we not rolled and bounced just right as we hit, there might have been some serious injuries, but instead we just laughed uncontrollably at the silliness of it all.
We did work, or should I say “work” all afternoon at that apple orchard, and between the three of us we actually filled a whole bin. Never mind that the migrant workers who were picking around us had each filled several bins by themselves in the same time span. We felt we had done a great job since we weren’t professionals and had endured certain – although self-inflicted – hazards and limitations.
After we filled that one bin, we decided that we’d had enough. We’d spent more time laughing, falling and eating than picking and didn’t really anticipate our attitude or approach to the task at hand changing much. We sauntered on down to the orchard’s job shack to let them know we were heading out and to cash in.
$11.00. We made $11.00.
Divide that three ways, pay for the gas, pay for the breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks… yeah, it wasn’t exactly a money making venture. But - we had a great time, and it does make for a great story – but heed this as a warning to all reading this that not every time will things pan out the way you plan. So when/if you ever happen upon some similar adventure, take it from me - learn from it, laugh at it in retrospect, and chalk it up to one of those life lessons that goes down as a great memory and an event that shapes who and what you are.