I loved getting up while it was still dark outside and the air was cool and the wind crisp. My head barely bobbed high enough to see over the dashboard of the big truck, but as the sun rose light illuminated the cracks in the windshield providing me with my own sunrise. I got to look out the passenger window when my sister wasn’t with us; otherwise, I was stuck in the middle. Being in the middle wasn’t so bad either because I got to breathe in the woodsy scent of Daddy or rest my head against his shoulder and snooze.
We bumped along the winding country roads picking up the crew members on our way to one of the many orchards Daddy worked. Since there were about twenty orchards there were landmarks along the way to each orchard. The route to one orchard slipped us through the musky darkness of a train trestle. Another one crossed a rickety bridge over a river. When we hit the base of the bridge the truck leaned to one side. My favorite stretch of any of the routes ran parallel to a huge farm. The only thing separating us from the cattle was the black fence that seemed to go on forever on both sides of the road. I liked watching the cows swat their tails in the air or dip them into the water if they were lazing about the creek. If I looked out the rear window all I could see was the wooden enclosure Daddy built on his truck to haul his workers. I always wondered what they were doing back there. I’d inspect it when we got home to see if they left anything other than their playing cards. I mostly found cigarette butts and candy wrappers.
We always stopped at whatever little country store on our way. My favorite store was owned by a roundish rough spoken woman named Janie. She guffawed like the men and slapped her knee at their jokes. I thought she looked like a lumberjack in a dress. She was known to beat down a drunken troublemaker on occasion. Once she even broke her fist hitting one so she started keeping a blackjack under the register counter. Even though Mama always packed us lunches, Daddy bought us Mountain Dew, crackers, and what he called rat cheese. It was sharp cheddar Janie stored in a round wooden box. When she lifted the lid a sour odor filled the store. She’d peel back the white cloth and slice off a triangle of the wax covered cheese. She’d weigh it, wrap it in wax paper, and seal it with masking tape. I don’t know whether I liked Janie so much because she amused me or if it was because she’d often toss me a candy bar as I headed out the door.
The crew was the most fascinating group of people I’d met in my young life. They were black wiry men, each his own shade, some splotchy, some shiny. I wanted to run my fingers along their flesh to see if it felt any different from my pale freckled skin. They had crinkly dark hair, some with tickles of grey about their temples. Their skin folded smoothly across their cheek bones and chins exposing every muscle in their thin necks. They often gave me nabs or packs of cookies, and were quick to point out my daddy’s whereabouts whenever they saw me. I’m not sure if they told me where he was because they thought I was looking for him or because they were giving me fair warning not to get in trouble.
Then there was Eula, the only female picker of the crew. Because she was a woman she was a ground picker, meaning she didn’t climb the ladders to pick from the trees. Trousers peeked beneath the hems of her colorful skirts. She kept her hair wrapped in a red or blue bandana. She sang folksy kind of tunes as she strolled through the orchard. She’d stop and smile a crooked grin when she saw me. She was married to another crew member named Robert. I think he drove a tractor or some type of loader.
There was an old fella named Huckleberry. He was a ground picker, too. He was too old and feeble to climb ladders.
I liked the one they called Tater Legs best of all. Of course, I didn’t call him that. I simply called him Sir, as in “yes, sir” and “no, sir”. Tater Legs was the brother to Charlie Brown. Unlike Charlie’s thick flabby lips, Tater Legs’ were thin and strong. I could hear him whistling long before I ever caught sight of him. Beneath a coat of sweat, his skin deepened to blackish shiny blue. He usually had a white rag tied around his head to catch the perspiration. Sometimes I watched him sitting under the shade of an apple tree, knees drawn up under his chin. His pant legs rose to expose skinny legs, rough and pasty as tree bark and as dark as stained walnut. Huge boots, leather worn and curling, cradled his feet. His knobby fingers would strike a match against the book and poof, fire appeared. The space beneath his cheekbones hollowed when he sucked the fire into the tobacco. Veins and muscles in his neck zigged about like the lines on a road map. In those first few drags he’d direct the smoke from his mouth back in through his nose. Then he’d blow a perfect ring into the air. When I gave myself away with a giggle, he’d let out a cackle and the show would begin. Soon his head would be surrounded with four or five smoke rings of various sizes. I’d sit mesmerized until he snuffed the cigarette in the dirt.
Sometimes my sister and I went to the orchard and worked during the summer. Since I considered myself an expert climber I was infuriated that I was not allowed to climb the ladders. We were permitted to pick from the lower limbs or the ground. We’d shake the branches to knock the apples to the ground. I often got knocked in the noggin by dropping apples. Of course, we snuck up the ladders if we saw them unattended. We wore the picking bags over our shoulders. They were metal with a canvas bottom that folded over and clasped onto the sides with rope. To empty it you just pulled the rope and let out the bottom. The bags hung to the hips of the pickers, but it bounced at my knees throwing me off balance at times. It took me a few days to fill one of those wooden twenty bushel bins. I made five dollars for every full bin. The crew members often came by and checked my progress. I guess they felt sorry for me because they all took turns dropping their filled bags into my bin. When it was full they’d each come by grinning to congratulate me on my hard work. The best part about picking apples was when Daddy would come by on a forklift/loader. He’d tell us to climb into the big bin and he’d lift it high into the limbs where there were plenty of apple to pick. I’d squeal with both delight and fright as it got higher and higher. I remember the giddy feeling of being high enough to see to catch a glimpse of the other side of the orchard.
The times I went alone with Daddy were the ones I loved the most. I enjoyed having him all to myself. I’d sit in the cab shaking to the country music on the radio or the bumps in the road. I’d be all sweaty from the heat and grimy from the tools Daddy kept in the truck. I’d stick my head out of the window, letting the wind blow in my face and tangle my hair. I’d choke in the air and then holler until Daddy got tired of listening to me and told me to stop. Or I’d stick my head out too far and he’d threaten to make me roll up the window. I hung close to Daddy and got to ride on whatever equipment he was running. We’d make the hauls to the cold storage packing shed. . When we crossed that wobbly bridge with a full load of apples we slanted so far I held my breath, sure we were going to topple right into the river. I’d lean into him if we were lying too low on my side, and he’d laugh and ask if I was scared.
A large lake sat in the middle of the orchard. Lily pads painted a large portion of the lake green, and frogs croaked their song all day. In the early mornings while Daddy got his workers started with their day, I’d head to the lake to watch the sun glisten on the water as it rose over the mountain. My tennis shoes drank the dew as I ran through the grassy lanes. A dusty road ran between the lake and a spring that trickled off the mountain. Though Daddy provided coolers of ice water, the men kept a slightly rusted beanie weenie can wired to a tree to catch water to drink. I preferred the water nature provided as well.
I loved the way my teeth tore into the flesh of a crisp apple, the sweet taste, and even the juice drooling down my chin. I loved the lush green of the orchard and the sheer freedom of running down the hills. I loved the cool breeze that blew through the lanes and scattered the sweet scent of ripe and rotting apples. I loved dipping my hands into the chilly spring and splashing my face. I loved everything about the orchard, but mostly being with Daddy.
Daddy’s crew called him “Boss Man”, so it never occurred to me there were several crews working the orchards, each with their own boss. I thought my daddy was king of the orchard, and though I was just an orchard rug rat I felt like a little princess.