The Breaking Wheel
Doug types too much...
August 31, 2018
In 1972, I was 16 when I saw George Carlin guest host on The Mike Douglas Show for a week. Mike gave George free reign to riff on stuff and one morning, I remember Carlin coming out with material so fresh, he was studying notes off a crib sheet in his hand. One of the things that had been bothering him was blue food. In that, there really isn’t any blue food. With the exception of blueberries.
When it comes to filmmaking, in my personal opinion, I thought Martin Scorcese’s best overall effort was Casino. Great acting. Great storytelling. Great technical skills on display. In my mind, it’s just EPIC. Giving Marty a Best Picture statue for The Aviator distressed me. It’s like writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy and just getting an award for The Hobbit.
Perhaps my favorite scene in Casino (and there are many) is when the control-freak casino guru played by Robert De Niro confronts the chef in the kitchen of the hotel and demands to know why there aren’t the same number of blueberries in every blueberry muffin.
The chef protests and wants to know if De Niro’s serious. “Do you know how long that will take?”
De Niro doesn’t shy away.
“You heard me. An equal amount of blueberries in every muffin.”
I like blueberries, plus they’re good for you. But I also have a deep appreciation of how they get to your table. You see, I raked blueberries one summer when I was 13 years old, circa 1968.
I can’t recall how I fell into my first “job,” but I do remember it was summer. A hot summer. In August.
Each day, just after sunrise, for about 3 weeks during harvesting season, I waited by the side of the road for a farm use pick-up truck. They loaded up people before me and they crowded in people after me. It was mostly guys with a few girls thrown in. The oldest raker was probably young 20s. We all sat flat-butted on the bed of the pick-up being driven to various fields, the last parts of the journeys traversed over rutted dirt roads that bounced us around like rocks being shaken in a box.
The first day, one of the foremen leaned on a winnowing machine to lecture us.
“Grab a rake and a basket. A dollar a bushel. Better not be a lot of leaves. We break for lunch at noon.”
A lot of people think blueberries grow on bushes, and guess what? They do. But in Maine, they are a mere few inches off the ground because fields are rotationally burned every four years.
Raking paths were “rows” in fields defined with white strands of string spaced several feet apart, secured from one end of the field to the other. Your job: Start at point A and proceed to the end of your path, bent over, raking.
We all began equally in the morning at our start points. But as the day wore on, the more experienced, faster rakers left you in the dust.
It was a lot of bending over, kind of crouching as you went forward, one small step at a time.
It wasn’t too bad for the first hour or two. But by 10 AM, the sun beat down. Sunscreen didn’t exist. And nobody except the foremen wore hats. I did have hair then, but it was red hair, so I burned on my face, neck, and arms daily. Burns upon burns. Peeling upon peeling.
The fields had patches of richness and other areas that were severely lacking in product.
You weren’t allowed to go outside of your string boundary, but the pros up ahead of you thought nothing of “bending” your string to the side and scooping up an especially fertile piece of ground lucrative with berries that should have been yours.
And if you dared to pipe up, like I did at first, the cheaters shot you a look that told you to keep your mouth shut unless you wanted an ass beating.
The rakes were metal and resembled dustpans with long closely spaced tines on the front end. When you ran the rake underneath the berries and pulled up, the berries separated from their stems and rolled into the dust pan reserve. After a few strokes, you had a rake full that you could empty into your bushel basket. When your rake was full, you stood up, ran a hand against the underneath of the tines to remove excess leaves, and then emptied the berries into your bushel basket.
A bushel is pretty hefty for a goofy lightweight like me with skinny sunburned arms. It takes a lot of blueberries to fill one of those baskets. And the bushels could not look short – they wanted a little brim on top above the basket line.
My first basket was frowned upon. An older guy with a hat cranked up his winnower which separated out the good blueberries from the underdeveloped ones. And the winnower separated leaves.
“Too many leaves,” he growled at me. “Better not do that again or I won’t pay you.”
We were paid a dollar a bushel. On my first day, which was my best day, I made a whopping six bucks. On my worst day, I only produced 3 bushels.
When lunch rolled around at noon, you were ready to eat. I usually had a sandwich or two. Cucumber sandwiches with mayo on white bread that was soggy with cucumber juice by the time you got to eat. My mother always packed a cheap store brand lemon-lime soda with my sandwiches. She’d freeze the can the night before and by eating time, it had thawed to a cool temperature. The can was swollen from being frozen, but these cans didn’t even have pop tops, so I always had a can opener in my paper sack. Sometimes there were simple peanut butter or chocolate cookies included, but the bottoms were always burned black because my mother was not an attentive cook.
During lunch, everyone sought to sit under a tree for the shade cover. Some people would bitch saying things like, “They’re paying three dollars a basket” over in some town you’d never heard of. And then someone else would counter with, “We’re lucky. There’s other fields where they’re only paying 60 cents a bushel.”
We got a half-hour for lunch and then it was back to the back-breaking stuff.
We didn’t quit until about 6 PM. The boss man kept all of the cards with each person’s name – marked with how many bushels they’d logged for you during the day.
We worked Monday through Saturday. I made $28 my first week. They paid you in cash.
In the back-of-the-pick-up ride home, our beat bodies rode in mostly silence. Because we didn’t have the energy to talk.
The Breaking Wheel is a medieval practice where the tortured victim has every bone in their body broken over a period of days. Each morning, I felt like my body had been broken on the wheel. But I was willing to go out again because I wanted the money.
Blueberries are sometimes harvested with behemoth machinery. But rakers are still used, and nowadays, they tend to be populated with migrant workers. Needless to say, I have great empathy for them.
So if you’re in the supermarket one day, and you pick up a pint of blueberries and bitch about the price, you better hope you’re not standing next to me.
The clang you hear in your head will be me clobbering you with my imaginary steel rake.
An equal amount in every muffin.