Our first day of picking tomatoes, began before the sun was up. We were roused just as light was breaking and told there was no time to cook breakfast as we would be heading out before it got full light. Our gang hustled to get dressed and gulp down some cold food. Seasoned veterans advised us to wear layers of clothing, ending at very brief attire. It was quite chilly as can happen at night in the desert. Soon, we clamored aboard a flatbed truck that had just enough space for the workers. It was also loaded with cases of half peck cartons we were to fill with tomatoes. When we arrived at the 10 acre field, there was not yet evidence of a sun. It was relatively light but still no shadows, when we received picking instructions. Each tomato has to be turned up and examined for a hint of red at the middle of the underside. If it shows, it is picked and placed carefully into its container. Once almost full, it is topped off with fully ripe red examples.
Since it was prized to be careful and not rush we are paid $3 per hour and not by the container. We seemed to be at work for at least an hour before the traces of shadow of the mountains to our east appeared on the slopes to our west. Above the retreating shadow was the brightness indicating a rising sun. Brightness advanced across the desert floor till suddenly a full sun appeared pretty high in the sky above the eastern range. Immediately temperatures leapt, clothing starting coming off and by noon a scantily clad crew worked its way through the harvest. Next door was a similar size field of cucumbers. At lunchtime loaves of bread, salt and mayonnaise appeared and we enjoyed fresh tomato cucumber sandwiches. Our straw boss showed up occasionally to make sure we were working not quickly but steadily.
Our crew seemed musically inclined and often would break into song. Since we were moving thru the field in a random pattern the singing duets, trios and sometimes quartets would comprise different members. It was like we had live radio without commercial breaks but occasional news announcements and editorial content to entertains us in our day’s work. One of the announcements concerned a young man who came toward us from the eastern slopes carrying a sizeable burlap sack. When he got to us, all work stopped briefly to attend to his story. In his sack were live rattlesnakes and he carefully exposed one to verify his story. He gathered them from the desert and delivered them to University in Vancouver to be milked for medical use. He assured us that afterward these snakes would be returned to their habitat. We were hearted that we were not witnessing wholesale destruction of a species for scientific benefit. Our days were rather long, and it was likely 12 hours had elapsed before we were transported back to home.
Evenings were low key. We seemed to have just enough juice to prepare supper, relax around the campfires and listen to the evening version of our live radio. Except now we had available a variety of instruments to accompany vocals. Also stories would spring up to instruct and amuse amidst the songs. Everyone seemed in fine spirits. Getting a steady wage, working to exhaustion and having relaxing times in the evening in the company of friendly strangers fulfilled our basic needs. There was a diverse element amongst us as it seemed several nationalities were represented, mostly from the Americas, North and South, but also the Caribbean. This added richness to our homespun entertainment and variety shows. It also added flavor to our meals. Certain of the crews who had more experience brought along their families. Their kids were helpful and some family members did not go out to the fields for work but stayed behind helping to prepare the evening feast. Although we were not destined to become financially wealthy in this pursuit, we nonetheless gained in culture and human awareness.