Follow the Digger
Dad went over to the International Harvester Farmall tractor which pulled a de-vining machine, started it up and began de-vining new rows of potatoes. Prior to getting the de-vining machine someone had to go ahead of the pickers and pull the vines off the top of the dug potatoes. The de-viner shredded the vines, which were largely water and they shriveled up to almost nothing in a day or two. Since the vines provided some protection from frost, we only de-vined shortly before digging. Dad de-vined until the sun went down. The de-viners had only been around a couple of years and were expensive but were a big labor-saver.
Mary, Mother, and I scrap-picked the field, picking up those potatoes left behind. We thought of ourselves as being like Ruth and the gleaners of the Old Testament. The cut and smashed ones were left to lie, becoming food for the chucker partridges, the ring-necked pheasants, and the occasional deer that came out of the foothills and into the fields at night.
At the end of the day the pickers checked their unfilled sacks back with Mary before going home for the day. She adjusted their daily tallies accordingly.
Mom took me home to help out in the cellar, counting and stacking the empty sacks for the next day. It was cool in the cellar with its peculiar earth odor (that would eventually give the potatoes that sandy taste - their own terroir), and refreshing after a hot day in the sun.
As dusk set in I fed the horses and milked the cows. (John and Tom did this in the morning when Dad and I were digging). I poured the milk into the separator, cranking the centrifuge, until the cream spun off into a separate spout and into the cream can. We sold the cream to the local creamery in town. I carried the buckets of separated milk out to the pig pens, where I slopped the hogs. Mother and Mary fixed supper, and when it was ready, we ate. I spent a little time working on my homework until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. It was 9:30 and time to go to bed.
It seemed that I had barely gone to sleep when Dad came in and woke me. It was 3:30 a.m., and the next work day began. After we stopped digging that afternoon Dad and I had a math lesson. Dad dug an old envelope and a stubby pencil from the pocket of his blue work shirt. He knew how long the rows were and how many rows we had dug. We calculated that I had walked seven miles that day.
Later in the afternoon Dad was de-vining when the bearings burned up and the machine quit working. Dad drove home, got on the phone, rang Central who got him a phone line to the farm equipment business a hundred and twenty five miles away in Billings. (There were eight families on our party line. You cranked the phone to ring an operator in town to connect to the outside world.) Fortunately someone was still in the office in Billings to answer the phone. The news was not good. They did not have the bearings in stock, and could not get them for about a week. So that was the last of the de-vined potatoes for several days. The pickers would have to pull the vines off themselves, slowing them down considerably.
The next morning while I was eating my breakfast of oatmeal Juanita came over and told my mother that they needed more picker belts. “My boys Jose and Phillip are big enough to be picking,” she said. Mother told her we didn’t have any more belts, but that we had some rubber baskets they could use.
“Baskets are no good. They are old fashioned and too slow,” Juanita complained. She was not happy. Prior to the invention of the belts a picker would fill a rubber basket with 30 pounds of potatoes, dump it into a sack and fill another basket to dump in the sack, making about 60 pounds. Belts made picking much easier and faster with the sack opening being close to the ground and dragged between the legs until filled to 60 pounds.
We could sense the pickers’ unhappiness when we scrap-picked that afternoon. They were leaving a lot more good potatoes on the ground. We would try to borrow some more belts from one of our neighbors.
The next day we were digging un-devined potatoes. The pickers did not like this either and were surly when they spoke with us. The word “Texas” was mentioned quite often in their Spanish conversations.
That night several empty sacks were left lying in the field. Someone was cheating, but there was no way we could determine the guilty ones, so we would have to pay for work not done. Sometimes they also stuffed empty sacks into another sack and then filled it. By the time the sack was unloaded in the cellar there was no way to determine who had done this. The cellar tally was several sacks short of the issue tally.
I went out to milk the cows and was gone for a long time. When I didn’t come in for supper, John came out to the barn and found me leaning on the cow’s flank and warm udder, sound asleep. There was no end of sibling amusement and teasing as they retold the story over the years. “Just show Grant a warm cow’s udder and he’ll fall asleep on it in a minute,” was John’s favorite story.
It was around noon on the fourth day when the digger chain links started breaking. The steel links had crystalized, became brittle, and snapped. Even I, at seven years old and no Charles Atlas, could snap a steel bar in half with my bare hands. We replaced the broken links until we ran out of replacements. While Dad went home to call the potato equipment store in Idaho Falls and determine whether they had parts, I showed Tom my “new-found” strength by snapping a couple of links for him. Dad came back to the field and called Mr. Ramirez over to tell him not to come out to work the next day until noon as he had to go to Idaho Falls to get a new digger belt, Mr. Ramirez was not pleased.
Dad filled the Plymouth with gas and drove off in the sunset to Idaho Falls, two hundred and fifty miles away. He drove up the North Fork, past Pahaska Tepee, and getting to the East Gate of Yellowstone Park before it closed for the night. Driving on through the night he stopped briefly at Old Faithful Inn to use the restroom, and washed his face in cold water to keep him awake. He was soon out of the park and in to Idaho. He pulled into the equipment store parking lot in Idaho Falls around dawn. Even though the store was closed the owner was there to meet him. He bought a new digger chain and started back to Cody, arriving at around 11 a.m. We installed the new chain and had just begun digging when the picking crew arrived.
Since they did not have to be to work until noon some of the crew went into town, celebrated too much, and Rafael became intoxicated and beat up his wife Felipe. She was the fastest picker, but she couldn’t work the next several days.
The picker’s started picking light sacks that day; the buckers were careless in loading, and a lot of potatoes were bruised in the process, rendering them useful only for pig food. Everyone was in an owly mood.
The following day was no better. The sacks were still light so Dad weighed most of the loads on the railroad beet dump scales. The loads were about two thirds of what they should have been based on sack count. Dad told Mr. Ramirez that he was going to deduct the short weight from the pickers’ totals for that day.
The crew waited while Mr. Ramirez and his leaders talked the situation over. They decided to quit. The pickers filed past Mary, dropping their picker belts in a pile in front of her. Ramirez and the rest of the men came up to the tractor where Dad and I were waiting. Ramirez spoke: “We are quitting. We want our money.”
(To be continued in the November issue)