Going apricots growing up

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Two things happened the last few days. I picked up some dried apricots (store chutney is too expensive), and I read the 50 years ago column in the Express about fresh apricots being put in rail cars and shipped. During that era, the high school days, I stacked packed boxes of apricots onto pallets, moved the pallets of fruit into cold storage, removed them onto the concrete for shipping, tarped and fumigated the fruit, fork-lifted the pallets onto a flatbed truck, transported the load to the rail head, fork-lifted by pallet load into the rail car, stacked the boxes in tiers, each one braced, braced the center aisle, closed and locked the rail car, and provided a seal to prevent entry or damage until the car arrived at its destination. Loading a railroad car was a two-man job, but my friend and co-worker had “just a couple of errands to run” and split. He didn’t come back.

Anyway, I managed to get a rep for hard work, and for doing what I was told to do. That led to consequences.

“Oh Sh**” was as close as we got to OSHA in those days. I just told you that apricots, once packed, had to be fumigated to go out of the country. Once a heavy canvas tarp had been placed over pallets of several hundred packed boxes of apricots, I was given a stick with a nail on it, and a pressurized can of methyl bromide. This tasteless, odorless gas would kill anything living that would be interested in apricots (including humans). Anyway, the instruction was to lift the tarp at a corner, then place the stick and nail on top of the can on its side, then jump on the stick until you heard hissing. Then you hold your breath, drop the tarp back down, and run as fast as you can. After a couple of hours you could go back. Obviously, this was done after working hours, just me and the methyl bromide.

Later, methyl bromide use was banned world-wide, excepting soil treatment with a plastic covered operation so the gas couldn’t escape. Remember I told you the gas killed off bugs and microscopic pests? Turns out it had the same effect on the ozone layer.

“Oh Sh**” – At the dry yards I was a “shed boy.” Ripe apricots were cut in half, the pit removed, and the halves placed on a large, probably 4’ x 8’ drying tray. The trays were stacked on rails until about 6 foot high. The entire stack then went on rails to a shed, completely enclosed with a pit just inside the door. Turns out, I pour a yellow powder (sulfur dioxide) into the pit. This time, I light a match, hold my breath, throw the match in the pit, slam and lock the shed door, and once again run. My memory is that no matter how fast I ran, or how long I held my breath, in that first breath the sulfur went right up my nose. You can have my experience when you reconstitute the dried apricots for chutney. Looking back, I think that’s why I stopped making apricot bar cookies. The trays themselves with their new bright orange color apricots, were stacked in the open, under the sun, for drying. That’s right, if the dried apricots are bright orange, they’ve been sulfured. And before you complain, it’s also in the wine you drink.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, because I liked “swamping.” A “swamper” drove a pallet wagon into the apricot orchards (yes, for you market shoppers, apricots grow on trees). We would deliver large empty boxes for the pickers, and take back to the packing shed full boxes. There was a lot of time to ourselves, and there was short-wave radio contact between swampers and the packing shed. Stuff like – “take more empties over to this orchard,” “there’s plenty of picked boxes at that orchard.” This was a channel that all the farmers used. This one farmer’s wife used the channel for regular daily communication, and it seemed like she was always talking. It wasn’t good. Her husband had forgotten this, he hadn’t done that, he left mud in the house, he didn’t pick up something at the store. She had a voice like chalk squeaking on a chalkboard. It cut the tedium and, since we swampers were never going to get married anyway, confirmed our early views of marital bliss. During this period I composed my first song – “Swamper’s Lament” figuring that job would be better than the one I had. During this time I got dumped, which led to “If you come back to me now, I’ll make it up to you somehow.” The songs didn’t bear repeated listening, so that job was out.

I should give peaches their due. To pack and ship peaches, peach fuzz was removed by sending them individually on a belt across metal rollers with suction piping underneath. They were then coated with a paraffin wax for shipping. All of the fuzz went to the “fuzz box”. Because it couldn’t be cleaned without creating a horrible itching (even long showers had no effect), no one wanted to do it. Well, let’s have Jonathan do it.

You can add to all this that you got paid, generally, when the farmers got paid. Whether I cut apricots, changed sprinkler pipes, worked in the fields, the dry yards, or the packing sheds, the rule was delayed gratification. At the end of the summer you had real money (think orchard parties). This working first and then getting paid, and the work ethic, were wonderful lessons for life that I could always carry. The fact that, later, these were replaced with refusal, compulsion and sloth is on me. That’s for another story.

The real lesson for me was recognizing the value of a college education. I can honestly say I never met anyone, in college, that had run from poison gas for a living. Hello grad school.

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