The consequences of the summer of the first hundred dollars began to show up the summer of the dermatologist thirty-some years later.
We were paid 60 cents an hour.
If we stuck it out for the whole season, we were offered the incentive of 15 cents more per hour. I was determined to earn that extra 15 cents.
It was the summer before high school. Fumble at the alarm. 4:30. Surely it isn’t time yet. Eyes won’t quite open, even after a spash of cold water. Not really hungry, but would be about 9:00. Dress three layers deep. Mom drives me into town with a sandwich and a blanket. Yawn.
Like cattle, we march into a stock truck. Yes, a hosed-out truck of a local cattle hauler. Hard benches. Packed in. Chilly draft. Sharp bones. As we jerk along, dirt sifts through my hair, into my eyes. Corn, corn, miles and miles of corn. About 50 miles later, we girls are jostled as the truck bumps along a rutty path. “Everyone out!”
Stretch. Slowly down the plank. “Block in!”
The rows are so long, and we’re on foot. No machines back in 1958. Every tassel, every stalk. Hold a stalk in left hand, right thumb down. Remember: only one leaf. Reach again. Pull. Reach Pull. Back begins to ache. Leaves dewy and itchy.
Sore arm. Switch hands. Reach, pull. Reach, pull, like a machine. Back aches more, but no end in sight.
Can’t get a tan in long sleeves, so the shirt gets tied around my waist. Keep going, no stop to rest. End must be coming up. Legs hot. Jeans also tied around my waist. Take off another shirt. Swimsuit is old anyway.
Left: reach, pull, reach, pull. Right: reach pull reach pull. Two hours later, rest, water served from a cooler. Must be from a rusty stream, but west and cooler anyway.
Someone sick about halfway back. Have to finish her row. Finally, after another hour, everyone is out.
10:30. I’m starved. If we got through again, it’ll be 1:30! Double up and take every other stalk.
Must be getting a burn. Corn leaves lacerate my neck. Bottoms of feet sting. Temples west and pounding. Mouth dry and panting. Back aches. I’m starved. I wish I could quit, but I want that bonus.
Got through that row by 12:30. Spread blanket along farm driveway, near chickens. Off with shoes. Every day the same: bologna sandwich with white bread and Miracle Whip, fruit, milk. Lie back. Watch cottony clouds float in tranquil blue.
Seed corn fields are planted with two types of corn. Some rows will become “female” rows, having the tassels removed, to bear the new hybrid seed. The others will retain their tassels, remaining the “male” rows, in order to pollinate the female rows. There are three or four rows of female to every one row of male, so we had to make sure we were not detasseling a wrong row.
Have to start again already? I think again about quitting. Zinc oxide, white and sticky, coating my nose. Shirt back on. Don’t want more sunburn. Should be done by 4:00.
Bones weary. Sun baking clear through my shirt. Arms burn. Hope no more corn poisoning. Head and stomach dizzy. I wish I could quit. Maybe only 50 more stalks. I don’t care if the water’s got bugs in it. I just want to feel it sizzle as it trickles through my hair.
Oh, finally, finally. Where’s the water? I don’t blame the girls who quit this afternoon. Feel lousy. I’m never coming back. The pay isn’t worth it.
Someone just detasseled the end of a row and left the middle. I’m not volunteering to go back, but if we ever want to get out of this place, we’ll have to. Finally done at 5:30.
Home at 7:30. I want to go to the ballgame in town but, thank goodness, Mom says no. Cool bath stings. Back aches, bones moan, sunburn peels. Mom says I don’t have to stick it ut.
Bed at 9:30. Nightmares of corn, tassels, weeds, sunburn, zinc oxide, suffocating smell of suntan lotion, dirt, more tassels, dirty water.
Day after day after day.
The most miserable job I ever had. But I didn’t quit. I got that bonus and had $100 in the bank to show for my summer before high school.
Undoubtedly begun in those cornfields, the spots the dermatologist worked on thirty-sme years later, during six short minutes, cost almost exactly twice what I earned that long sunburnt summer of my first $100.
By the way, this wasn’t sweetcorn. These fields are seedcorn for livestock, mostly cattle and hogs, which is what my dad raised.