Spuds

Sweat dripped into my eyes and sizzled. It slipped off the end of my nose, onto my lip, and down my neck.

My back felt like dagger slashes marred the flesh at the base of my spine and I wondered how all those folks working close to me in the other rows moved so quickly, steadily, while I had to stop and stand tall and stretch my back and drink water.

It was June, hot, and I was 17.

As I gazed across the field, the people, all bent over, reminded me of beetles. Their potato sacks fastened to a wooden stick with hooks that attached to the torso with a thick leather belt.

Besides my compadres, the brothers Tim and Brian, and the ragamuffin punk, Jacky, there were kids working among us with whom I’d attended school—elementary, junior high, high school. But as I spoke to Pete and Enrique, two guys I’d known since I was six, they turned away like they were more interested in the jagged incisors of Picacho Peak.

When I called to them again, like I would have when jiving into English class or out on the playground, they ignored me.

Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

That happened the first morning, and this all comes back to me now because I have been thinking about agriculture. It’s the season of crops maturing here in Idaho and the fields are all around. Besides, the COVID-19 episode seems to have brought into sharper focus where we get our food.

Back in 1964, morning number one of my spud-picking adventure commenced with high hopes that I’d make some money to buy and do the things that my parents told me I didn’t need. New shirts, some albums—Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones—and maybe even my own car like my neighbor had, a 1950 Ford with the bullet point emblem on the grill.

We assembled at the Greyhound Bus station at two in the morning and jumped into the back of a bobtail truck with sideboards. A lot of folks I didn’t know joined us. Mostly Hispanic -Americans, a few Native Americans and African-Americans.

Out at the spud fields the permanent crew handed out gear and we were ordered, “Get to work.” The drone of the machine that turned up the potatoes growled across the fields, people lined up abreast over individual rows of spuds, and the picking began. We stuck our hands in the dirt and threw the potatoes in the sack, which hung between our legs, and when the sack was full, we put it next to where we worked and moved on, picking, picking, picking, and the jefe came along and marked our sacks so we could get credit for them.

Being in some ways damned competitive, I looked left and right, not at my mates, but at the folks I deemed knew what they were doing. They worked fast, their hands and arms like tools on a robot that picked and sacked the potatoes at a quick and steady rate.

I had to keep up, but soon understood I could not keep up while they chugged along briskly, chatting in multiple languages. When they laughed it amazed me because I could barely keep breath in my lungs.

As the day progressed, my compadres and I fell further behind and when we got to the end of the day, noontime, I received a total of five dollars and some cents. That wouldn’t buy new, cool surfer shirts, or a bunch of Beatles albums, but at least some Cokes and a burger at the drive-in joint we festered around at night.

When we loaded onto the truck for home, I looked around for Paul and Enrique and the others I thought I knew well, but there was no sign of them. On the ride back to town, I dozed in the heat, sitting in the truck against the sideboards, sweat dripping down my back

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At home, I showered and ate and soon hit the bed.

Day two was much the same. Not much cash in my hands.

On day three I rose early again, the swamp cooler outside our house blowing damp air into my room. When I arrived at Tim and Brian’s, I followed them down the ladder into the basement where we found a cabinet full of liquor. We poured Johnny Walker Black Label and Smirnoff Vodka and some red table wine into each thermos.

Upstairs, we added sweet tea and topped off the mix with ice and water.

At the bus station, we boarded the bobtail and watched the stars wane as desert heat began to nag. I unscrewed the top of my thermos and took a long swallow. I shivered all the way to the bottom of my spine, as if it were freezing outside instead of a surly Sonoran Desert morning.

At first, I burst out of the chute like all the other workers and I thought, I’m getting as good as the old guys. I saw Paul three rows over and I vowed that since he ignored me, I’d keep up with him.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

As I threw spud after spud into the bag that hung between my legs, my mouth grew dry and tasted like the worst thing I’d ever swallowed.


As I constantly sipped at the concoction in my thermos and wiped the sweat out of my eyes and stood up to ease the knife-stab jolts in my lower back, I noticed that I’d fallen way behind and so had Tim and Brian and snotty Jacky, too.

Even before the jefe called for an end to the day, we’d stopped and received our meager earnings.

In the company store on the farm, we bought Twinkies and Cokes and peanuts to put in our Cokes and walked out on the porch and then around the corner where we noticed a long line of cottonwoods that drew us down to the banks of what remained of the Santa Cruz River.

One of us, probably Tim, because he was kind of a leader, said, “Hey, my thermos is dry.”

We pooled what little cash was left and Jacky wandered up to the store and found an adult to buy us some beer.

We sat along the creek and drank Coors and got stupider waiting for the truck for home. Insulated from the others, we acted our ages, giggling and throwing rocks into the slim trickle of water that once was the pride of Southern Arizona.

We hunted frogs, making sharp sticks for gigging but all we found were big, warty toads that, according to Tim, were loaded with poison.

Finally the truck came and the horn honked, and before climbing in we managed to finagle another quart of beer each, which we harbored in brown paper sacks choked around the cold, sweating bottles.

As I loaded up, I again looked for Enrique and my other pals from school. But they were nowhere around.

On the road home, we took big sips and clowned around and folks back there, sitting with us on the hard deck, laughed and rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

Once, we hit a bump just as I took a big swallow. The beer didn’t go anywhere but out my mouth in an explosion that flew into the middle of the truck bed and down my shirt. I choked and coughed and the others really laughed. I felt kind of stupid, my head like a spinning merry-go-round.

Later that year, when I went back to school, all those kids I knew who chose not to recognize me in the potato fields acted like always, laughing and talking with me, clowning around.

For over five decades I have pondered what happened out there. Beyond getting stupid drunk and making an ass out of myself, and finding out that I was soft, and even though I would learn to do things that now amaze me—walk up steep hills with forty or fifty pounds of gear while smoking a Camel, unfiltered, of course, and the things that followed, the death and the fear—is the memory of those fellows not acknowledging me as…as what? An equal?

Back in 1964 I don’t think we were viewed, in my town, in my time, as being equal. There was a lot of talk about rights and equality, but no, we weren’t equal. And those kids who shunned me out in the spuds knew it, and when we showed up at the spud field, maybe they thought we were trying to take what was theirs, their world, their privacy. They weren’t going to get to go to college, and they were going to spend their lives probably working menial jobs, and we—us Anglos—weren’t keen to share what we thought was ours, either. Or maybe they were just tired of us after a year of all of us acting out “She Loves You” and “Alley Oop” while wearing our expensive surfer shirts. They showed up to school, in many cases, because the law said they had to. Or maybe it was something else altogether, like they secretly hated us, or something that I don’t know even now, and never will.

But they could work my butt into the ground, and they knew it.

Theo

Theo stuck his big head inside the office door and said, “Hey, Ken, turn on your radio.”

Theo rarely talked and at that moment, as I watched him shut the door to the shop, I wondered if he’d ever said a word to me.

I walked into one of the bosses’ offices and turned on his fancy new Bose radio and the voice of Peter Jennings came through the speakers. Talking about chaos in New York and chaos in the vicinity and chaos, chaos, chaos.

As I listened, it became obvious that someone had flown a plane into one of the Twin Towers in New York, and as I worked at my desk, the radio blaring loud out of the boss’ office, I flittered in and out of attention.

Then the second plane struck the tower and we all figured out that it was an attack on us–our culture, our country—and the patina of pleasure I’d been experiencing for the past few months suddenly caved in and I felt as if my guts had zoomed to the bottom of my boots, and I thought about Vietnam and dead bodies and the stink of old death and the roar and the fear and my heart pounded and I plunged into a funk that I thought had been contained, killed, dead on arrival.

Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. Photo courtesy of Reuters

I don’t know why I blamed Theo for it all. He was only the initial messenger. He’d been on the shop crew for several months, a supposedly super woodworker who had been educated in one of those big New York City schools that taught the trades.

I hadn’t thought of this earlier, but being from New York, he must have felt something more devastating, more immediate about the murders that occurred that morning of 9/11 and, hell, he may have known someone up in that tower . . . a sister, a cousin, an old friend.

But as the day progressed, the attack on the Pentagon, the plane crashing in Pennsylvania, the only thing in my mind was the turmoil that roiled my innards and my desire for revenge against whoever in the hell had attacked the towers, New York, America, me. Yes, who had attacked me.

And as the following days heaped fear upon us, and chaos, and the flow of information about the attack and its impact on our world, my rage and my uncertainty festered like an ugly boil about to pop.

And every time I went out into the shop, the sound of radio people talking about the attack—the reasons for the attack, who was at fault—galled me. Most of the time it was Theo’s radio blaring a Bay Area station.

As time went on and I went out, the radio voices fingered someone to blame: the government, the corporate structure that kept us all under the yoke, Republicans, Democrats. The litany of blames became more obscure as the days went by, and in my paranoid mind, anyway, it seemed the announcers, the opinionators, the talking heads on that station were looking for anyone to blame except for the people who flew those planes—Mohammed Atta and his fellow murderers and their handlers who hid in the background controlling everything.

But to those radio heads it was the government’s fault, it was George W. Bush’s fault, this organization’s fault, that bunch’s.

After some of the sorriest days I ever lived, I walked out one morning while the planers planed and the straight-line saws whined and the sanders buzzed, and over the racket of the shop, those now familiar voices on Theo’s radio announced that the one who was really at fault for the death and the misery of 9/11 was the architect who designed the Towers, because he had them made of this and that and he didn’t foresee the attack and blah and blah and bullshit that swelled in my craw and began to jerk and pinch and kick and burn, and with a voice that any Marine Corps drill instructor would have loved, I boomed, “If that “f**king radio isn’t’ shut off in ten seconds, I’m going to yank it off the shelf, smash it on the floor and kick the shit out of whoever turned it on.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I glared at Theo, and the shop foreman ran over and turned the radio off, but I had more to say, “And If I come out in this shop and hear that f**ing station ever again, I’m going to take a hammer to the radio and its owner.”

After that, in my estimation, Theo couldn’t do anything right, and as the autumn turned to winter, he made mistakes and I bullied and berated him as well as the management about the costs of his “inefficiency.”

Finally, in part probably to shut me up, the bosses found Theo a new position with another woodshop, and by all reports he did his new employer one hell of a job.

This has all come to mind right now, I suspect, because of our current Coronavirus crisis and my memories of times when my universe morphed into something that scoped in on the uncertainties of the world: JFK’s assassination, the Siege of Khe Sanh, 9/11.

For months after that morning on 9/11, while driving down the road, I would burst into tears, I would sob and have to wipe my eyes. I hated that, the breaking down.

I was weak and not what I thought was the kind of man I wanted to be, and I understood as the weeks went on that I suffered from the return of all my guilt and grief and rage, my PTSD, from Vietnam that I thought I’d whipped into shape.

And I blamed Theo.