‘The first day after Labor Day’

The above words are the exact words spoken by my orchard boss when I asked the date of the first day of the “heavy” apple-picking season of 1980.

I had started the previous November and pruned and cut firewood through the winter, serviced and repaired the ancient Oliver tractors and did various other chores through the bloom period. Later, I helped pick the relatively small crop of peaches and summer apples. Next comes the busiest season of all — fall apple picking.

Such volume of fruit required additional temporary help. The same group, visiting from Jamaica, came to this orchard year after year for the harvest. These fellows were very well paid. The compensation was by the volume of fruit picked and these guys were in good physical shape and their attitude toward hard labor was just as healthy. The currency rate of exchange between the U.S.A. and Jamaica added to their enthusiasm. No local picker could match the volume of fruit picked by the typical Jamaican picker.

In the days leading up to Labor Day, I was asked about my driving record — which, believe it or not, is immaculate. I then took a ride with the boss to be shown the route to the migrant labor camp at Winchester, Va., and to be briefed on the procedure for rounding up the crew from the camp.

I showed up a half-hour early on the day after Labor Day and climbed aboard the 1963 Ford school bus that I was assigned. The bus smelled like leather of all things, possibly due to the many picking buckets stored there. To this day, picking buckets still have some leather in their construction. I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the school bus, having replaced its worn out clutch during the summer.

I pulled out the choke and started the engine, being careful not to apply throttle until I saw some movement of the oil pressure gauge needle. The needle moved lazily off the zero mark and the engine quieted down. There was heavy dew on the windshield so I found the wiper knob and turned the wipers on. The wipers jerked slightly then a piece of wiper linkage swung down in front of me. I re-affixed the linkage and held it in place while the wipers made a few swipes. The de-fogger didn’t respond until I gave the heater motor a dope slap.

The old bus and I finally got under way and we started the familiar process of getting to know each other. I had long been an antique truck owner and enthusiast so this adjustment was easy for me and thus easy for the bus as well. We were moving along smoothly when I hit the railroad tracks at Gore just a little too fast.

The bus responded in protest by allowing its hood to fly open, blocking my view. This problem was common for Ford trucks of that vintage so I didn’t panic and, really, was not all that surprised. I stopped, got out and securely shut the hood. Point taken — I won’t hit the tracks so fast again. I had unofficially become the orchard’s mechanic and was beginning to suspect that I was assigned this driving job for reasons other than my driving record.

Arriving at the camp, I pulled the bus into the designated area and swung the door open. I walked over to the office past people moving purposefully in the morning mist. A variety of languages and dialects filled the air, Creole French, Spanish, deep southern rural and Jamaican.

The Jamaican dialect has its own unique island accent but if you listen closely enough, you can discern the Jamaicans are really speaking a British style of English that would do Liza Dolittle proud. At the office, a Jamaican at a microphone announced my arrival over the camp’s public address system as though he were announcing the next double decker bus to Puttingham on Trent.

There was a little subdued conversation on the way to the orchard. I wasn’t sure where to go and hoped that the boss would be there to direct me or, like a harbor pilot, take over the helm. One of the pickers, though, directed me to the barn where the ladders were kept — well, duh.

The pickers clamored from the bus and began making their ladder selections, many choosing the ladder that they used the previous years — others, perhaps remembering some undesirable quirk of their old instrument, took pains to avoid it. Tractor drivers and straw bosses appeared and those who had worked together in previous seasons exchanged handshakes and brief conversation.

The ladders were stacked on a tractor drawn wagon. The pickers again boarded the bus and we drove the eighth mile to a chosen block of apple trees of the Jonathan variety. These apples hung bright metallic red amid the dusty green leaves.

The dew burned away — there was no conversation and the sound of the tractor engine ceased. The morning crickets sang. There was the sound of comfortably worn wooden ladders working against leaves and limbs and the delicate ring of about a dozen bushel picking buckets gently emptying apples into empty wooden bins. This is music — a classic of classics. In a few minutes, the bottoms of the bins are covered and that sound yields to silence. A picker calls to have his bin moved further along to another tree. A tractor fires up and ancient, well-worn gears mesh.

Coming mornings won’t be quite the same — some pickers will start with partially filled bins and the tractors will be busy moving full bins out of the orchard to the packinghouse. Local folks will be arriving to pick up the dropped apples from the ground.

These precious few musical moments at the very beginning of picking’s first day won’t be heard again for another year on the first day after Labor Day.



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