The Okie Cotton Pickers, 1963

The cotton pickers who worked in the little patch where my father eventually planted a vineyard were Okies who lived in Delft Colony. Delft was on Road 56 near the cotton gin and Conejo Avenue, the two-lane highway that led west from the foothills to the small town of Kingsburg, where my mother was born.

I went to school with the cotton pickers� kids � the twins Jimmy and Emmy, Mike, Beverly, Billy, Jerry, and a bunch of others. They always smelled like a greasy fried supper � everything dipped and battered, bubbling out of their pores in rich, sweaty globules of dough, fat pork, chicken, sometimes even rabbit. Now and then, they came to school with pieces of corn stuck between their teeth � so different from the Japanese kids, who ate seaweed and fish at home and whose mothers trimmed the crust from their white bread peanut butter sandwiches, or the Mexican kids, whose dark mystery included the scent of cumin, or the German kids, who smelled of chickens and dairy cows, or the Armenian kids, whose eager, young bodies spoke the language of onions, garlic, and grape leaves.

No wonder the teachers left the windows and doors open. But of course that allowed the dragonflies in. As many as eight or ten of the prehistoric beasts would rumble about in the still, hot air, restless, with no need to land. Every so often, a dog wandered in and looked around the room hopefully, sniffing, tail wagging, someone�s pet, a faithful farm animal often scolded for flopping in a flower bed, or spanked with a broom for leaving mud on the front porch, puzzled by mathematics, bored by history, encouraged by the sound of one of us reading aloud to the rest of the class. Hello, boy. Nice of you to stop by. How�s the missus? Now, you be a good dog and go talk to Mr. Grass. That�s it. Go on, now.

Mr. Grass was the janitor. He kept the water fountains and bathrooms and classrooms clean, swept the corridors outside in the shade with a wide push-broom clogged with grass clippings, rubber bands, and lint, unlocked the little shack where the footballs and volleyballs were kept just in time for recess, had lunch by himself under a tree.

I was playing in Dad�s old wood-framed cotton trailer when one of the Okie pickers climbed up the ladder to empty her sack. With a fat, friendly whine, she said, �You must be the boss�s boy.� I had never thought of myself in those terms and found the title a little embarrassing. I said I was, but the conversation went no further, having arrived neatly, effortlessly at its destination. The trailer was about three-quarters full, and I was in cotton up to my thighs. The ladder creaked as the woman went back down.

A few days before, Dad had let a man run his new mechanical picker through the field. The machine was doing such a lousy job that Dad told its driver-owner to leave. The man said, �But I ain�t finished yet,� and Dad said, �Yes you are.� After the man drove his cotton picker off the property and was on his way back to wherever he came from, we got in the pickup and Dad drove us to Delft. Dad knocked on the door of one of the little houses and a woman with big fat arms came to the door and said hello. Behind her, kids were shouting and playing, and I could hear the sound of grease spattering in a frying pan. I don�t remember what Dad said, or what the woman said, but everyone seemed happy.

I didn�t know then about the Dust Bowl, or The Grapes of Wrath. All I knew is that everyone worked whether they wanted to or not, and tried to get along together, whether they felt like it or not. And even these things I didn�t know in words, only by observation. It was part of life�s rhythm where we lived, a melody that offered itself everywhere, rattled the eucalyptus leaves along the ditch banks, whispered in the ear of sane and insane alike, hugged the power poles, scared the jackrabbits and made them jump, made truck drivers spit a little farther, drive a little faster, drink a little more, made women with sore feet sigh at night.

The Okie cotton pickers puttered up in a cloud of dust and started picking the field by hand � the hard way, the way that scratches your arms and breaks your back and makes you laugh and swear and tell stories and pass out after a good fried supper bought with the sweat of your labor.

Soon, the machines got better and people didn�t pick cotton by hand in the San Joaquin Valley anymore. But we had grapes by then. Dad�s heart was never in cotton anyway. The blooms were pretty, though. I remember them, the squares, the bolls, the jungle of tall plants thriving under the hot sun. I walked down the furrows and disappeared.

March 28, 2005

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