Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Pastimes: Packing 18-wheelers full of tomatoes…

By Maylon Rice
          One of the many rites of passage for a teenager in Warren was to work at the tomato sheds around Bradley County for that four-to-six week season each spring/summer.
          It was different from working for your parents or kinfolks who had/grew tomatoes.
Believe you me.
I did enough working in the tomatoes growing up on Highway 15 North (now Highway 63).
          But getting one of the prized jobs at the tomato shed for a tomato buyer or for either the Warren Market Auction or the Hermitage Tomato Auction was an experience.
Not only did it pay well for teenage labor, but life’s lessons were on display for all to see.
          I already had a part-time job at the Warren Eagle Democrat – sweeping floors, smelting the old lead type used each week to compose the type from the stories and photos in the Eagle.
I also, every Saturday morning from January to June, made those oversized rubber stamps used at the tomato markets. Each farmer was to stamp the grade of the tomatoes on the white wax boxes used by the auction markets.
But during this summer of my junior and senior year at WHS, I needed more money and more hours. So I struck a deal with the late Bob Newton and James P. White at the Eagle to continue to work my “school hours” of about 14-20 hours a week during the slow summer.
          It was almost a fluke, but I got hired by the Wayne Landsaw Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale firm out of Joplin, Mo.,
Landsaw was a well-known buyer and I actually replaced a young man from Warren, who got to attend Boy’s State that year.
Lucky for me. I needed the pay.
          And as all young folks, there was a whole lot of the big wide world out there to see.
          Miss Evelyn Whittington, a foreign language/English teacher at Warren High had long been the office manager of Landsaw Produce. She was the lady, given the dock tickets that cut the farmers their checks for the tomatoes.
She worked in a tiny, plywood office with two desks, two or three land line telephones (this was before the days of cellular telephones) and a big safe (more on this later).
          She was “hot-natured” so a pair of twin window unit air conditioners blasted full throttle while Miss Evelyn was in the office.
And rarely did she venture out of that office – unless on an errand to hunt down us dock workers. She ran the office with an iron hand. No foolishness.
          The late Elroy Woodard, who was at the time a part-time baseball coach at UALR, was the dock boss. He and Wayne Landsaw went back decades in the tomato business. Coach Woodard drove the fork lift. Woodard was a great boss.
          As many as six guys, based on the influx of tomatoes in the market, were the labor.
And it was labor. Hard labor.
Pay was great.
Job was fast, dirty and hard.
And did I say hot. I’ve been that hot only twice since in my lifetime, but never as hot as many nights and as many days a loading out 18-wheelers off an old concrete dock on a steamy Bradley County afternoon.
Nary a dry thread would be on you, even standing in the icy confines of that refrigerated 18-wheeler with the cooler fans going full blast.
Coach Woodard lines us all up and tossed each of us a baseball. That’s how he paired us up as “stackers.”
“Good, Rice, you are a leftie, Go with John there and ya’ll will no doubt be the fastest ones here.”
I did not know that a left handed stacker and a right handed stacker would be able to stack the tomato boxes in the truck faster, and more uniformity, than two right handed guys working in that enclosed space.
But it was true.
Woodard would drive in a ballet load of tomato boxes; I would begin on the left stacking to the center, with an inch or so between boxes to circulate the cool air.
You worked fast. Awfully fast.
I also learned how to re-pack watermelons with hay in a semi that summer, along with baskets and boxes of bell peppers, hot peppers and cucumbers.
Wow. What an education.
Late one night, I also witnessed a first real adult “fist-fight.”  Oh, I had seen schoolyard scrapes were Miss Elizabeth Weiss or Coach David Barnes would separate the wanna-be-fighters and “dust their pants” with a pine-paddle. But those were nothing like this slobber-knocker of a brawl.
Two drunk Warren area farmers, arguing over who took the last pull on a bottle wrapped in a brown paper sack, began a pushing match that broke out into a fist-fight.
I mean a real, blood slinging, tooth extracting fist fight.
It lasted until two night patrol offices of the Warren Police Department pulled them apart.
And away to the tiny city jail these farmers went.
I also had the satisfaction of seeing all the hard work put into growing tomatoes being put into 18-wheelers, with the “reefers” running to chill the fruit/vegetables until they got too far away desitinations such as Joplin, Mo., and Detroit, Michigan.
We would begin loading the trucks about 4 p.m. each day and go until the docks were cleared, about 2 a.m. or so.
Maybe, we all hoped, The Corral would still be open when we got off work, for something to eat.
But more often than not, the late Kay Weisner, who knew most of us boys would bring over some hamburgers or barbeque as he closed The Corral about midnight.
He, Landsaw and some other buyers would congregate in the small office for some adult libations and talk about the day.
That big safe, it did contain some checks and a check stamping machine, but lots of lots of bottles of adult libations, all under lock and key.
That was a Pastime not to forget…

No comments:

Post a Comment