Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Children of a Lesser Corn

It's one of those days at work. I'm between projects right now, so there isn't much to do. You'd think not having much to do at work would be relaxing. You'd think. But every writer or editor I know feels the same way about this lag time. It's vaguely stressful. There are always little tasks to do, but since I don't throw myself into them, I feel like I'm procrastinating. Another problem is that I have too much time to Think with a capital T about my job. How long am I going to keep doing this? What's next? So I've spent a lot of time not writing my novel and looking out the window where dozens of construction workers are building a huge new office space. I'm jealous. I could be outside driving a bulldozer or smoothing out cement or making lewd comments to passers-by. That has to feel good. When those guys drink water, they really need water.

For some reason, this reminds me of my very first pay-stub job. After my family had moved from Nebraska to Colorado when I was 13, I spent a year feeling lonely and sad. This was a difficult time for me because I had a bunch of great friends in Nebraska who diametrically opposed the bad, awful, evil inhabitants of Colorado Springs. The following summer, I was thrilled to take a bus back to Nebraska and stay with my best friend Paul. Paul's parents were strict and old-fashioned, so they didn't want a 14-year-old child (or his house guest) to go through life without learning the value of the dollar. It was about time we started taking some responsibility. Paul's mother persuaded us to take a job detasseling corn. The next morning, we woke up a 5:00 am, got a ride into Bellevue ten miles away, and then rode a bus for another hour into Iowa.

Not only were Paul and I were the youngest and smallest kids on the bus, but the other kids all seemed hard and mean, like part of a juvenile chain gang. When we got off the bus at the designated farm, an older kid started shouting the day's plans. Paul and I were the new kids, so we were the only ones paying attention to the guy. All I knew was that we had to pull the little brown tassels out of the tops of the corn stalks. This apparently made the corn sweet enough for people to eat. Each kid was assigned a row. The young foreman reluctantly showed Paul and me how to detassel the corn, and then he asked us to demonstrate. I bent the corn stalk down because I was too short to reach the top, battled with the tassel for about 30 seconds, and finally worked the tassel out of the corn. Thwap. I expected praise -- "That's real good, Bobby" -- but the foreman just grunted and said he'd see us at the end of the row.

The taller, more experienced kids plucked the tassels hand over hand, thwap-thwap-thwap, sending the tassels flying. They'd stop every now and then to smoke pot or sit down. After about two hours of hard work, I got my time down to about 10 seconds per stalk -- way too slow. The other detasselers were far ahead of me. My neck ached, my hands were bleeding, and I dealt with the feelings of failure about as poorly as you'd expect of a sensitive 14-year-old boy. It was almost enough to make me want to go back to Colorado. Almost. Time crawled by. When I finally arrived at the break area between rows, the foreman called me out by name. "Bringhurst! Come here!" According to the foreman, I not only picked too slowly, but I also missed a bunch of tassels. "Do you think the farmer's going to be happy with your row?"

I spent the next 8 hours (yes, it was a 10-hour work day) doing my best to detassel corn quickly. It was torture. When we all piled on the bus at the end of the brutal day, the foreman read names of people who were going to be fired: "Henderson, Grady, Bringhurst, Carter..." Adding to my humiliation, Paul's name wasn't called. When we got back to Bellevue, I approached the foreman and begged for another chance. "It was my first day. I'll do better tomorrow. I promise," I cried. He gave me another chance.

The next morning, I picked up the pace. Dreaming about corn stalks all night long must have done wonders, because I was no longer the slowest guy. And I figured out a system to make sure I didn't skip any corn stalks. We crossed one of the break areas between the rows, and I kept picking. My hands, neck, and back still hurt, but I didn't have the sense of failure that weighed me down the previous day. When it was lunch time, the foreman called me out again. "Bringhurst! Come here!" He then pointed out that the row I was assigned to was entirely unpicked.

"There must be some mistake," I muttered. "I did my whole row."

By the time I figured out what happened -- I picked someone else's row after the break between rows -- it was too late to talk to the foreman. I was already sitting on the bus. I sat alone on the bus for six hours.

Postscript: Paul worked one more day and then convinced his mother that he should quit for my sake. We spent the rest of the summer mowing lawns and going to the swimming pool.

Post Postscript: A week later, I received my paycheck in the amount of $23.14 for one-and-a-half days of work. The government do take a bite.

Post Post Postscript: A year later, I received an invitation to return as a foreman. Paul and his family teased me about that letter for the next twenty years, until I moved to Seattle. (Action item -- Dug or Fatty, during Fall Moab, ask Paul about detasseling corn. I guarantee he'll laugh before he says a single word.)