I was 13. It was 1958. We lived at what was then the outskirts of suburban Fresno. Down the street about half a mile was a large boysenberry farm. (Boysenberries are an early 20th Century hybrid cross between a raspberry and a blackberry which was one of the first commercial berries to make Knott’s Berry Farm famous. When ripe they’re sweet and juicy yet tart and make great jams, jellies, pies, and fruit syrup.)
Boysenberries grow in thorny brambles similar to blackberries. Picking them is hard because, like blackberries, they are grown on very tough stems and the fragile berries must be plucked out individually among some very thorny leaves at just the right amount of ripeness which occurs when they turn from red to purple. If they’re not ripe they’re sour and they don’t come off the vine easily. If they’re overripe they’re squishy and crush easily in your hand.
My father sent me down the road to apply for a picking job to get some experience. The crusty old boysenberry farmer reluctantly let me take a stab at it. He handed me four empty shallow crates, and showed me where to begin. He told me he’d pay 35¢ a crate for crates full of ripe berries. It was a hot August day, toward the end of summer vacation. I started about noon. (For reference, I remember in those days it cost I think a quarter to see a movie in theater.)
I didn’t know it at the time but I’m partially red-blind so I had trouble knowing which berries were ripe and which were not. I could only tell they were kind of reddish and that some were darker than others. But I didn’t really know the difference. I approached the vines where the farmer showed me and began to reach into the thorny brambles scratching my hands and picking what I thought were ripe berries for about half an hour.
Soon I saw someone down the row who seemed to be sitting down coming toward me as I slowly and casually picked a few berries. As the figure got closer I saw that it was an older Mexican woman who had two children’s wagons. She was sitting on a couple of upside-down crates in the lead wagon. In the following wagon she had stacks of full crates of boysenberries. She moved down the row by using her feet to roll along the vines sideways while she reached in and deftly picked multiple berries at a time, coming out each time with two big handfuls of them which she gently dumped into her crates in the trialing wagon. When she got to my spot along the row she said nothing, ignored me completely, and went around, continuing to roll on down the row in similar fashion.
It turned out that she was picking most of the ripe berries leaving mostly not-so-ripe ones for me which I obliviously continued to pick, albeit much slower than the old woman who soon disappeared toward the other end of the long row of brambly vines.
After about four hours I had maybe three crates sort of full, I was sweaty, tired, sore, juice-stained, my hands were scratched and bloody, and I was frustrated. I stacked my three crates and carried them over to the shed where the old farmer was handling and paying for the crates from the other pickers, all Mexicans.
When he saw my crates he said, “Oh no! Most of those are not ripe! I can’t use those. I thought you knew what you were doing! Tell you what, you’re just a kid. Here, take this quarter and go home and don’t come back.” That was the beginning and end of my farm work experience.