In the spirit of National Public Radio’s current series on memorable summer jobs, here’s this Baby Boomer’s contribution:
I was a laborer on a “muck” farm in upstate New York and it was the classic job that you loved to hate.
They’re called muck farms for the soil, rich with humus from drained swamp or wetlands. The dark soil is good for the onions and lettuce and other crops, and working on these farms was a rite of passage as a teenager in Oswego County in upstate New York.
It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore in the late Sixties and one of the men in my neighborhood was a heavy machine operator at one of the many farms in Oswego County. He was the one who stripped the swamps and wetlands of the vegetation to expose the muck that then dried and was planted. He was my ride to work before dawn each morning and my ride home each afternoon.
There were three jobs to be done depending on the day and the weather: Weeding, harvesting, or making boxes.
Weeding was the worst because it involved walking the rows — which seemed endless — pulling a particularly virulent weed by the roots and placing it a sack. At the end of the day the weeds were put in piles. When the piles dried they were burned.
It didn’t do any good to get lazy, and kick the weed out of the ground, instead of leaning over and taking it out by the root. This was a fast growing weed and when it grew back you returned to the rows to re-do the work you could have taken care of the first time out.
The best job was making the boxes, which we did on days that it rained. We worked inside the warehouse, using a machine to staple brads into the bottom flaps of the boxes that were used for the lettuce at harvest.
The hardest part of the job — but the most exciting — was the harvest. Migrant lettuce cutters trimmed the lettuce and boxed the heads. We loaded the boxes onto flat bed trucks and brought them to an area where we then loaded the boxes into tractor trailers.
You can imagine how I labored at the beginning of that summer lugging box after box after box after box of lettuce into the trailers. You also can’t imagine how much strength I developed by the end of the summer, literally heaving boxes right into place in the trailers’s hold.
That was one benefit from the job: the abs and pecs from a summer of lifting. Man, what a stud. But I’d come home so filthy that my mother made me change out of my work clothes in the garage before being allowed into the house. I suspect, like the weeds we pulled, work clothes were burned at the end of the summer for fear they contained some kind of muck plague.
The NPR look at memorable summer jobs is a series that Baby Boomers can relate to; we’re at that age where we enjoy looking back to consider the people and events that contributed to the people we are today.
My summer on the muck farm is the job I loved to hate. I respected the job for the hard work that it was, used the money to buy a Yamaha acoustic guitar that I still play today, 43 years later.
I had other summer jobs — clerk at a pharmacy, lifeguard and swim teacher at the YMCA. But none has the visceral memory that the muck farm has. No other job convinced me of the need for an education to earn my white collar, which I proudly wore for a long professional career, never having to change clothes in the garage again.