Posts Tagged ‘Laurel Block’

No vacation with this Florida crew

July 15, 2009

imagesEach summer as a young boy growing up in western Sussex County I joined my friends working in the watermelon fields. Helping to unload melons and cantaloupes at the Laurel Farmers’ Auction Market – the Block – or actually picking and packing in the fields were, back in the 1960s and 1970s, about the only jobs available to those of us who didn’t drive.

But it was hard, dirty, crazy work. On more than one occasion we ended up with Florida crews – professional watermelon pickers who followed the crop north in ramshackle trucks.

The crews were a cutthroat group that lived from day to day with little regard for the future. They were like land pirates.

How we survived with that lot is still a mystery to me.

I’ve witnessed knife fights, seen things a boy of 14 should never see and heard stories that would keep most people up at night.

I saw one guy spend his entire Friday paycheck at a quick market. I got into an argument with another who claimed there were 52 states. I saw one man nearly drown when he got tangled up in snakes in an old dirt pit pond.

Some lived in migrant camps outside of Laurel; others shared rooms in run-down motels. I’m convinced some slept under their trucks.

The crew lived in a world and culture of its own. There was a hierarchy as well. Only certain members of the crew were permitted to cut the ripe melons; others were designated as stackers in the trucks; others were pickers. I never saw members of the crew change jobs, but I presume they did.

Those of us who were added to the crew were always pickers who grabbed the cut melons and passed them down the line to the stackers.

There is one thing the crews did well – pick watermelons. Once you got in the line, melons literally flew by you to the truck where they were loaded for shipment.

Once work started, usually at dawn, it didn’t stop until noon. And then after a lunch break, it didn’t stop again until sunset. And if the truck wasn’t full, they broke out lights and kept on working.

If you weren’t a man when you started on Monday, you were by the end of the workday on Friday – if you could survive the week.

As strange as it sounds, if you worked hard, eventually you were accepted among those who worked on the Florida crews. Although they lived by their own set of rules, they appreciated those who contributed to the overall goal of the day – picking the field clean.