We rode on the back of a cart pulled by a blue farm truck, which seemed nearly as wrecked as the rest of the farm. Bill Wrangle’s dad, who owned the farm and the truck—in so far as claims to ownership can be made—was driving the truck, and as it was a mild autumn day, he had the window open and yelled along with our singing. Davie Travis and I were basically weekend slave labor. Bill had wobbly bow-legs and walked, talked, and thought at the speed of a racing snail. We weren’t necessarily friends, but I liked him; and for all his slows, was not an unpleasant person. He was a floormate at the small Mormon College where he and I were all Freshman, and Davie was a Junior.
Bill had offered us an opportunity to “help out on the farm and make a little cash.” Our wages were three squares, a warm bed (for two nights), ten dollars, and “all the fresh air a fella can ever need”. This was Bill’s pitch. Since we were already paying for the three squares and the warm bed as part of our college experience, about the only thing that Davie and I were interested in was the ten dollars. It wasn’t quite minimum wage, but it was a decent salary for an eight-hour day.
Davie was older than Bill and me, a return Missionary, with a fiancé, earnest blue eyes under a perpetual worry frown, and a future to think about. He had grown up on a ranch in Wyoming and so was familiar with the work we were about to be slaved to. I wasn’t. My upbringing was small town backroads. I had worked as grease monkey work at Larry’s Gas and Service, and Larry had seen to it that the Lion’s Club offered a small scholarship to help with my tuition, which is what he always did for the guys who worked for him. I knew this, so it certainly wasn’t the wages that kept me eating grease and oil my junior and senior years.
Davie had the weekend off from his regular job, and I had just been let go because I told Dee Cartwright of Cartwright Hauling that he should be paying me what I was worth. “Well, Gary,” Dee had said, both hands stuffed into his hip pockets, “Well, Gary,” he said, “I been thinking about the same thing.” Then we just stood there for a minute while Dee squinted over the haul yard, nodding his head, and I waited expectantly for him to add another twenty-cents to my hourly. “Yep,” Dee said. “I been thinking about that for a day or two.” Then he took his hands out of his hip pockets and turned and started to walk off. He stopped. He cocked his head back at me, without turning and said, “You go on up and have Dotty write you your check for the two days you were here, working or not, this week. I don’t know if that’s what your worth or not, but it’s what you got coming.” In hindsight, I guess, I should not have said “I was tired of being Cartwright Hauling’s wage slave.” It was probably a naïve blunder to say “wage slave.” So, I had the weekend free, and could use the ten dollars.
As Bill’s dad drove us to our labor for the day, I had noticed old rail cars sitting in the fields, cattle wagons mostly, though there was a freight wagon here and there, all of them were rusted and heavily dented. I ask about why they were way out here miles from the railroad. “Mexicans,” Bill said. I was going to ask him to explain, but he was talking to Davie about cows, horses, and irrigating. Then we were singing, “Whistle While You Work” or something. I let the question lapse, but did not forget it.
We had spent the day—let me modify that statement for accuracy—we had labored since breakfast at 6:30 AM until now, which was nearly 6:30 PM, with an hour pause for sandwiches and Kool-Aid. Specifically, we had labored at clearing rock from Bill’s dad’s hayfield. “Clearing” is also not an accurate word, though it is the one Bill and his dad used. It is not an accurate word because there is nothing under God’s sun that could have cleared that field of rocks. It was, by accurate estimation, forty percent rock, thirty percent stone, and probably two percent hay-growing soil. The other twenty-eight percent was probably composed of fertilizer residue, rusting baling wire, and dust.
For an entire eleven hours we ate that dust, exhaust fumes, and fertilizer residue, and tossed and heaved and grunted rocks of varying sizes, shapes, and dangers onto Bill’s dad’s trailer. Bill’s dad, who was also called Bill, drove his dented and rusted blue pickup back and forth across his hayfield, elbow out the window, occasionally swinging a loose arm out and pointing laconically at a particularly fearsome stone that needed grunting. We sweated until our faces and arms were streaked with wet dust. Did I say the rocks were dangers? They were. You blunder into one of those volcanic off-casts the wrong way, and it would take finger prints of your hands. Of course, one thing Bill had neglected to say is that gloves would probably have been a good idea. He neglected to say this because he had not thought of it. He had not thought of it, because for eighteen years of working on Bill Senior’s farm, he had not used gloves.
“So much for “all the clear air,” I did not say about the dust clotting my breathing apparatus. “So much for what a person is worth,” I did not say about the barely ninety cents I was making. “So much for three squares,” I did not say as related to ham and egg sandwiches washed down by Kool-Aide. There were a lot of other things I did not say about things about this operation, as relates to health, safety, and worker well-being, but I did not say them, of course. I did not say these things because I wasn’t about assert my wider wisdom about labor relations, with a social blunder. And it would be a serious breach of social protocol to say these things to a floormate about his dad’s exploitation of starving college students.
The exhaust fumes from the blue wreck of a pickup was a blue haze that hung around us. The three of us sat on the back of the cart, letting feet swing and bounce against ground. Bill Senior wasn’t driving very fast; and I got the impression, he, like Bill, never went anywhere at more than a lackidasical stroll. It was very late, and the October sun lay our long shadows on the hay field stubble.
We were singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” and “I Am a Child of God.”
We passed the rail cars again, and I asked Bill, “How and why did rail cars get in the middle of a potato field.”
“Mexicans,” Bill said again.
“Why would Mexican’s put freight cars in a potato field?”
“They didn’t. That’s where they stay when they’re here. They work in Thompson’s potato sheds.” He said this as if there was nothing in the world amiss with people living in rusted out freight wagons.
“They live there?”
“They’re Mexicans,” Bill said. “They’re used to it.”
I suppose I could have said something. I looked at Davie for some mature assistance with this. He looked at me as if to say he didn’t understand my question.
“We use Basque for sheep herders,” Davie said to Bill. “They’re cheap and eat beans and rice and ham hocks.”
I suppose I should have blundered up my social life with some kind of protest. But I didn’t. Life is too short to blunder into the social pariahdom dorm floor revolutionary.