The Scotts, our harvest crew as far back as I can remember, were an African American family who lived in Corcoran in California’s Central Valley. I was told they picked cotton in Corcoran and then they would come up to Healdsburg. They would arrive weeks or even a month before prune season and live in the picker’s cabin, an old house just over the levee from our house. They would work in the beans and maybe picking other stone fruit or pears. They would go up to Lake County and fish. They would pick our prunes and stay around to cut grapes. Then they went home for the winter.
The family included Mr. and Mrs. Scott, who seemed old to me then and were at least a bit older than my parents. Their names were Jack and Lucy but in our family older folks were “Mr.” and “Mrs.” so that’s what we called them. One year we found out Mr. Scott’s real name was Lacy. We thought that was so exotic that we named a kitten Lacy. The senior Scotts would bring along three young women, probably mid-teens to early-twenties. “The girls” were cousins or something similar. I was fascinated by them since they were older and wiser than I was.
The Scotts would also bring their son Moses and his wife, Stella Mae, and their small children. Moses would work as a “day man,” shaking the trees, working at the dipper and scraping trays, and Stella Mae would pick prunes. I remember Moses as a tall, good-looking young man with the gift of gab and Stella Mae as a tall, broad-shouldered woman with an athletic build. They would also bring at least one other young man to be the second day man.
During the Scott years, the civil rights movement was underway. At the time I didn’t notice, but now I can see the distant reality of racial division touched our lives as well.
I can still picture Mr. Scott perfectly. He was a slow-moving, slow-talking, gentle man with tobacco stains on his fingers. He had a slightly hunched stance and he would often be holding his cigarette with his first finger and thumb and tilting his head downward while he talked. He rarely looked you in the eye. Sometimes he would chuckle over something and flash a shy, rueful smile.
I know my father really like Mr. Scott but he was upset by what he saw as the older man’s unnecessarily deferential attitude. My dad didn’t like the fact that Mr. Scott would not come into the house or even up onto the back deck. If he wanted to talk to Daddy, he would knock on the railings of the back deck, and Dad would go out and speak with him in the back yard.
For several years in the early sixties, the Scotts brought two younger children who were relatives: Jimmy and Linda Scott. When school started in September, Jimmy and Linda enrolled in Healdsburg schools and rode the bus with us. I remember one year my mother asking me to be especially nice to Linda because some kids at school were being mean to her. I didn’t think much about why that might be true. Only recently did I hear the rest of the story. Gary Wilson, who rode the school bus with us, told me that some people in town didn’t think the black children should ride the school bus with us white kids. And they weren’t shy about saying so. Before long, the Scotts left for the winter and I don’t think they brought Jimmy and Linda up the next summer.
While the Scotts picked most of our prunes, my Farrell cousins would also pick and I would too, reluctantly. I was much happier when I reached the magic age when I was tall enough to do “day work” and drive orchard truck.
In the later 1960s, the Scotts didn’t bring any day men with them. So in the summer of 1967 after my junior year in high school, my father hired two young men who were in my high school class, Robert Risenhoover and Alex Zabala. That was also a year when I was driving orchard truck so I drove while the guys picked up the full prune boxes. The whole idea of working in the prunes took on a different tone. Suddenly, it seemed like fun.
It turned out that was my last year working in the prunes because Mr. Dunnicliff, the publisher of the Healdsburg Tribune, hired me to be a cub reporter for the newspaper starting at the end of my senior year of high school. I sure liked working for the Tribune and spending those summer days at a desk in an air-conditioned office. But I will always be a little nostalgic about all those years working in the prune harvest.
Next: Getting In the Harvest
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