Friday, April 24, 2009

The Worst Job I Ever Had

I had a lot of jobs in high school and college. I was a carpenter for my father when I was a teen, one who bashed his thumb with a hammer, used a crowbar to unstick boots from plywood decks when the boot's owners nail-gunned their own feet, and put a lot of band-aids on, including on people who ran power saws over their own hands.

I drove a school bus in college, one of the duties of which was breaking up fights between junior high kids and kicking others off of the bus when they thought they could throw things at the back of my head (they never realized I could drive while keeping one eye on the mirror above my head, the one with the panoramic view of the bus).

I pumped gas, cooked and delivered pizzas, worked in a nursing home, was an apartment manager, drove a taxi. But the absolutely worst job I ever had, one that was a quantum leap above the rest in terms of Lovecraftian horribleness, was detassling corn. I still cringe inwardly whenever I think about it, and this is from a guy who used to put diapers on old folks.

Corn has to be detassled so it doesn't pollinate itself. If it does, you get weaker corn that isn't so sweet. The detassling itself consists of walking up and down rows of corn for eight hours a day, doing nothing but popping the tassels out of the corn and dropping them on the ground. If you've ever seen a row of corn, you'll find some of them are half a mile long and five to eight feet tall. Imagine eight hours a day, pop, pop, pop, in the heat and humidity of a Midwestern summer, sweating and sneezing and twitching and getting "corn rash" from brushing against the leaves, for about three weeks.

The pay was pretty good -- a few dollars more than minimum wage, and time-and-a-half on Sunday. Not bad for high school or even college. If you could handle the work, you could easily make three or four thousand dollars. But it was horrible work. I estimated I detassled 15 to 20 rows a day, or between eight and 10 miles. That's about 45,000 to 80,000 plants!

One time, hitchhiking home, I was picked up by a curly-haired grandpa who was a farmer in the Missouri bootheel. I told him of my experience. You think that's bad?, he asked. I used to pick cotton when I was a kid. You spend the whole day bent over like a question mark carrying a sack of cotton. Yech, I thought, that is worse than what I did.

I was reminded of my hellish journey through those Stephen King Children of the Corn rows while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, specifically Chapter 12, "The Wonderful Machine."

Now when was the last time anyone called a machine wonderful? Lots of people today take them for granted or else vaguely think they're not such good things, which is why you get adults riding bicycles, because they think they're "saving the environment." You know, global warning and all the rest of that "let's protect the goddess Gaia" silliness.

I certainly think machines are wonderful. They're examples of Cooper's Law: "Machines are amplifiers." They amplify our natural abilities. One of the things they do is make things a whole lot easier for us.

But anyway, in the book, Pa and the other farmers encounter a machine called a separator because it separated the straw from the wheat. They were ecstatic over it.

"That's a great invention," Pa says. "It would have taken Henry and Peterson and Pa and me couple of weeks apiece to thresh as much grain with flails as that machine threshed today. We wouldn't have got as much wheat either, and it wouldn't have been as clean. Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in."

Detassling may be on its way out, to which I say, thank God! I was hoping someday a semi-intelligent robot would be invented that would do the work, but instead it appears that seed companies have come up with corn breeds whose tassels don't produce pollen -- and the pollen is why all of us were sneezing and twitching and swelling up all the time. Since it turns out detassling is the second-highest cost in growing corn, we should get cheaper corn.

Others may think excruciatingly hard work builds character. I don't know about that, unless if they mean "character" includes being grateful. Which in my case, it does. It made me grateful for machines, the free market, liberty, and human ingenuity, all of which I consider almost miraculous because they create things like refrigerators, air-conditioning, dentistry, washing machines and driers, clothes, and food I can buy in the store instead of having to produce myself.

If modern-day Luddites (aka Pa's "old folks," no matter what the age) want to con themselves they're saving the environment, like those deluded bike riders who don't realize their bikes were created by advanced technology and thousands of years of work by the human brain, I suggest, if they want to return what they think is the Garden of Eden, that they spend one day detassling corn. That'll open their eyes to what technology and machines have done for us.

Either that, or the next time they need dental work, they can take a few shots of whiskey and have some friends hold them down while the local sawbones whips out his pair of pliers, just as was done a little over 100 years ago.

Myself, I agree with Pa. For all the problems we have, with the two-steps-forward-one-step-backward history of the human race, there is still a part of me that says, "I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in."

Especially since I still dream about corn rows at night.

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