“Life on the Blueberry Farm”
Being a New Jersey public school teacher for thirty-four years meant that I had to find summer employment to supplement my mediocre yearly income. Since schoolteachers are “contracted” employees they are not eligible to collect unemployment benefits during their ten-week unpaid summer vacations. In fact teachers don’t receive paid vacations at all! My job predicament allowed me to find and explore many different alternative occupations that I wouldn’t have dabbled in if I had been in a profession that demanded a twelve-month -commitment and a corresponding twelve-month-remuneration.
In 1965 and 1966 I worked on my father-in-law’s four hundred- acre fruit and vegetable farm on the White Horse Pike (Route 30) in Elm just outside Hammonton, New Jersey. I drove a forklift, loaded tractor trailers, spent many hours in the packinghouse’s cold storage and generally helped manage the growing, harvesting and shipment of peaches, nectarines, apples, sugar plums, zucchini squash, corn, peppers and tomatoes, for they were the principal crops raised on White Horse Farm. My father-in-law was a tough Sicilian taskmaster and we often didn’t see eye-to-eye in regard to personnel management and our colliding philosophies pertaining to ordinary day-to-day operations were often at different ends of the thought spectrum.
From 1968 to 1981 I co-owned and operated Dealers Choice, an amusement arcade doing business under the Atlantic Hotel at 410 South Boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. People (mostly tourists with money to burn) would come into the establishment and play poker machines that were activated upon the drop of a dime into a slot, and if they obtained a hand of “Jacks or Better” the customer received a coupon of different values depending on whether the hand was a pair, two pair, three of a kind, a straight, a flush, a full house, four of a kind or a fabulous straight flush. If a rare Royal Flush occurred the player was entitled to “Choice of the House,” which constituted the top-value-prizes ranging from a giant stuffed animal to a blender, a roaster oven, a desk radio or an electric frying skillet. The arcade also featured “money pushing games” like Flip-A-Winna, Splash Down and Pot of Gold where the player would insert a dime or a quarter and moving arms would push the inserted coin against a pile of similar coins. The object of the “Money Pushing Games” was to force coins to accumulate and then fall down a chute. Let’s say if seven coins fell down the appropriate opening seven tokens would be won and would be ejected into the winning tray situated below where the player was standing. Each token was equal in value to a ten-cent coupon won on the poker machines thus making the coupons and the tokens compatible in terms of monetary exchange.
From 1972 to 1981 I also co-owned the New Horizon Gift Shop on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware where the enterprise specialized in applying decals to tee shirts using a hot heat transfer machine. And for four summers I was also a partner in an arcade business called Wheel and Deal on the Atlantic City Boardwalk near Missouri Avenue that was similar to the Ocean City, Maryland operation. Wheel and Deal lasted until legalized gambling was passed for the New Jersey resort. My two partners and I lost our lease as competition for boardwalk space heated up and when prospective casinos began buying up strategic real estate all over the Queen of Resorts. So from 1977 to 1981 I was hopping back and forth like a neurotic jackrabbit from New Jersey to Delaware to Maryland riding the Cape May-Lewes Ferry delivering and shuttling around merchandise for the three independent summer operations.
In 1982 and ’83 I returned to White Horse Farm to give the place (and my obstinate father-in-law) a second chance but the aging man stubbornly refused to relinquish any authority so I again bolted from that Hammonton, New Jersey business and began managing an almost defunct farm market a mile west down Route 30. Much to my father-in-law’s chagrin in three short summers Pastore Orchards Farm Market was miraculously transformed into the busiest and best retail produce outlet on the busy highway.
From 1987 to 2003 I diligently worked the hot summers as a field manager for Atlantic Blueberry Company, the largest cultivated blueberry farm in the world. The farm owned by the Galletta Brothers and Sons actually consisted of two pretty massive plantations. The main farm called the Weymouth Division was located just east of Hammonton and was comprised of eight hundred and fifty acres growing the luscious blue fruit and eight miles away on Route 322 (the Black Horse Pike) the Mays Landing Division of Atlantic Blueberry sported five-hundred and fifty acres. All the berries harvested on the smaller farm were transported by large company trucks from the Mays Landing plantation to the Weymouth Farm to be packed and then shipped by tractor’ trailers all over continental United States and Canada.
Atlantic Blueberry was a massive operation growing anywhere from twelve to fifteen million pounds of the blue fruit (depending on seasonal crop volume) in an eight week harvest season. The biggest problem with blueberries is that the crop is very labor intensive. A hundred men could operate a fourteen-hundred-acre peach farm but a fourteen-hundred-acre blueberry operation required anywhere from fifteen hundred to two thousand pickers a day during the height of the season. It was impossible for Atlantic Blueberry Company to house that many workers on their properties.
The Weymouth Road camp accommodated three hundred Mexicans, a hundred of which worked in the packinghouse and in the bulk house next door while the remaining two hundred men picked with the “Home Gang,” which was supervised by brothers Mike and George Estrada, Puerto Ricans that had started as pickers back in the ‘60s and who had eventually been promoted to lower management positions. Mike and George each have small houses on Farm #1 and they and their families live rent-free as permanent year-round employees. And the smaller Mays Landing camp houses approximately two hundred and fifty men, all of whom’ pick berries on that scenic plantation. Juan Lopez (Lopey) and Ephraim Torres, long-time Puerto Rican employees, had the chore of overseeing the “Home Crew” and the prodigious harvests at the Mays Landing Division.
Because the combined farms only housed four hundred and fifty pickers Atlantic Blueberry had to contract with “Day Haul” crewleaders that could provide addition farm labor. Modesto Flores (a mild-mannered long-time Puerto Rican employee) and I managed the “Day Haul” pickers at Plantation #1 and I was the Weymouth Road farm’s liaison to the “outside crewleaders” and had authority over their respective gangs.
In the mid-1980s the outside gangs were mostly Oriental with pickers (commuting from Philadelphia in vans and Farm Labor Transport buses) of Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese origins all possessing “green cards” showing that they were “legal resident aliens.” The Oriental crewleaders possessed names like Bunyan Yang, Lu Vang, Vang Kusanni, Inxay Pathatogong, Chia Lin, Muoa Lo, Khammy Pathong and Yang Lo. One black gang at the Mays Landing Farm still remained from the 1950s and it was commandeered by a woman crewleader, Frances Dantzler, also called “Miss Frances” by her obedient underlings. But in the mid-1970s area Puerto Ricans that had started out working on the local South Jersey peach and blueberry farms had found employment and more lucrative paying jobs in other industries and this left a giant agricultural work force vacuum that needed to be filled.
Soon an abundance of Mexican crewleaders and their followers began appearing in the early 1990s and these new groups rapidly replaced the Oriental gangs that had previously fulfilled the farms’ labor needs. The Laotians, the Cambodians and the Vietnamese pickers had been sponsored by their crewleaders, who practiced a modern type of indenture system. The employees labored for their crewleaders for seven or so years and then migrated to and assimilated into factory jobs, construction work, fish canneries, lawn care services and toiling in nurseries. Most of the Oriental blueberry pickers had traveled early each morning in “Farm Labor Transport” buses and in vans thirty miles from Philadelphia to begin work on the New Jersey blueberry farms at 6 a.m.
The Mexican crewleaders that replaced the Orientals in the 1990s had names like Hermann Castro, Juan Bravo, Mario Valesquez, Francisco Fuentes, Tomas Aguire, Margarito Gonzalez, Marco Rodriquez, Carlos Lopez, Olegario Garcia and Marco Sanchez. Most of the Mexican pickers come to Atlantic Blueberry on yellow school buses hired by the company to transport them up to the Weymouth and Mays Landing farms from Bridgeton and Vineland, New Jersey, communities where most of the Mexican pickers temporarily reside. This is a win-win situation for all parties involved. The farm benefits because the workers now arrive safely to work on state inspected school buses that have the proper insurance coverage. The school bus company benefits because their drivers now have summer employment and the bus owners can generate additional revenue when schools are not in session. The “outside Day Haul” crewleaders like the new school bus transportation method because they save the expense of having their own “Farm Labor Transport” buses that had in the past required costly gas, maintenance and high insurance and inspection expenses.
My responsibilities at Atlantic Blueberry were manifold and the farm owners had amusingly dubbed me “the Director of Documentation.” Each “Day Haul” picker had to fill out a federal I-9 Form (Immigration Paper) proving that he or she was legally eligible to work in the United States. Many of the older Orientals and Mexicans were illiterate and could not read or write so the crewleaders would fill out the I-9 for them and I would check the forms to make sure that the information was correct before approving and collecting them. For example, a social security number on the I-9 would have to have nine numbers and an alien green card cited as an official credential eight or nine digits. For pickers that were U.S. citizens, a bona fide state driver’s license and a valid school I.D. or a recently updated voter registration card had to also be included. The federal I-9 forms were a real challenge to keep track of because pickers would often get on different yellow school buses and travel to different South Jersey farms and work for other crewleaders from day to day so the daily work force was continually changing. The Weymouth Farm would have anywhere between five hundred and a thousand “Day Haul” pickers show up at the south-end dirt parking lot every morning and the Mays Landing Farm anywhere between three and eight hundred prospective day workers waiting in line at the front gate to hook up with a crewleader and then be admitted onto the property at 6 a.m.
A crewleader would usually have anywhere from fifty to one- hundred-people that he or she would bring to Atlantic Blueberry. Another duty I had besides keeping track of the ever-challenging I-9 forms was monitoring and collecting daily pay slips. Every “Day Haul” picker was paid cash by his boss (the subcontracted crewleader) in the farm’s parking lot after the workday had been completed. At the end of each afternoon every crewleader had to fill out a pay slip contract (on a triplicate form) for each worker with the worker’s name, social security number, home address, date, hours worked, time in and time out, units picked and total daily wage jotted down. The white copy went to the field worker’, the yellow copy to the farm’s main office and the pink copy was kept by the crewleader. The following morning or afternoon I would come to the crewleaders’ fields (Atlantic Blueberry Company had over a hundred and twenty separate fields) and check each worker’s yellow form to ascertain that everyone made more than minimum wage. Then I would drop off the crewleaders’ yellow copies to the farm’s main office on Weymouth Road, County Route 559 for Farm #1 or to the Mays Landing Division Farm office on Route 322.
Checking each Day Haul worker’s yellow pay slip was necessary because the pickers were all paid by piecework or “units picked” and not by hourly minimum wage (the pickers that lived in the camps on the two farms were paid by weekly Atlantic Blueberry checks). The piecework system was good for all parties concerned because it provided incentive for the Day Haul workers to fill flats fast since they were not paid by the hour and thus they could make more than minimum wage if they hustled (around forty-two dollars for an eight hour work day would have been the minimum wage daily salary). Most pickers earned between fifty and a hundred dollars a day on piecework being able to fill thirty-three trays to make a hundred dollars. Some conscientious swift-handed pickers earned over a hundred and thirty dollars a day.
Each picker was distributed a plastic picking basket attached to a cord, which the field worker was required to wear around his or her waist. Usually two full picking baskets could constitute a “full red picking tray,” which was equivalent to a “flat” of twelve pints when brought to the packing house by one of the crewleader’s drivers. When two red picking trays were completed the picker would carry the “two flats” to the crewleader’s field truck and then the worker was given a ticket for each flat by the driver. Each “movie ticket” (with the crewleader’s color code and name printed on it) represented one flat’ picked and the worker was later paid three dollars and twenty-five cents for each tray filled. The farm would pay the crewleaders three seventy-five for each tray picked so each “gang master” made on-the-average fifty cents a tray, with some of the bigger crews during the height of the season picking over two thousand flats a day for their ambitious bosses.
The crewleaders were also accountable for maintaining quality control in their assigned fields. The blueberries on their trucks destined for the packinghouse had to be hard and not green. Each flat when brought to the field truck had to be inspected by the driver and by his loader to make sure it was acceptable to take to the packinghouse. After that standard had been met a picking ticket for each red tray was then handed to the worker, who would redeem his or her total tickets at the end of the day in the dirt parking lot for cash, which was (according to New Jersey Law) disseminated by the employee’s crewleader.
The farm provided each “outside Day Haul crewleader” with two box trucks. The crewleaders’ drivers would circle their fields until four skids of forty-nine trays on each had been loaded onto one of the two farm trucks. Then the berries were driven to the packinghouse where each skid would be picked up by forklifts and put on a scale for weighing. If the weight did not conform to a specified standard then the crewleader would be docked “deducted” trays from his percentage of making fifty cents a tray, so the workers were constantly reminded to pick hard berries and to fill their red trays so that their bosses made a decent profit.
At the packinghouse each skid was labeled with the crewleader’s name, Field Number and Blueberry Variety and then the berries were transported and temporarily held in the farm’s cold storage, which for blueberries had to be maintained at forty-two degrees (conversely a peach farm cold storage would be set for thirty-two degrees). When the packinghouse production crew was ready to pack the berries from the cold storage, a forklift driver would take the skid of forty-nine red trays (neatly stacked seven flat by seven high) to one of ten conveyor belts on production lines. Next each red tray was carefully dumped onto a moving belt.
Four sorters on each working line would take out the soft berries and the green ones to again ensure quality control. A weighing device would then insert the exact number of berries to make a standard satisfactory weight for each filled plastic pint. Another machine would then automatically close each lid on each plastic pint. Then the pints were trafficked to one of ten rotary tables at the end of each packing line and next the finished product was hand inserted into a handsome company shipping flat neatly containing twelve pints each. The flats were then stacked on skids and immediately loaded onto tractor’ trailer refrigeration trucks to be shipped and transported all over continental United States and to Canada.
When the berries arrive from the field the packinghouse’s un-loading dock and accepted in terms of weight for each skid, the packinghouse manager gives the crewleader’s driver a yellow receipt for four skids (usually 196 red tray flats). Late in the afternoon the crewleader takes all of his “yellow slips” to the farm’s main office and a secretary adds up all the receipts and then issues a farm check to the crewleader. The field boss then goes to either the Hammonton or Mays Landing bank and cashes the farm check, getting the money to pay his or her people at the end of the day in the farm parking lot. Of course the following morning or afternoon I would visit each crewleader in his assigned field and check and collect the yellow copies of the pickers’ daily contracts.
Another duty I had as a field manager was filling our and checking working papers for children between the ages of twelve and sixteen that showed up on the farms each morning as part of a crew. These kids were sorted out each morning and not allowed to pick until proof of the proper documentation had been obtained. Even if Asian kids had Pennsylvania working papers or if Mexican children had working papers from another state, those documents were not valid in New Jersey. I had to make sure that each new arrival had an authentic birth certificate or alien card along with a social security card and an available parent to sign the working papers. Then I would transport the kids to either Hammonton High School for the Weymouth Farm or to Oakcrest High School for the Mays Landing Farm to get their credentials officially certified. Since the school’s main offices weren’t open on weekends kids that came with working papers completed and registered on Saturday or Sunday could not go into the fields to pick. And kids under the age of twelve were ineligible to perform labor for wages and were not allowed to work at all and had to remain in the parking lot until quitting time.
I also drove a bus for the Weymouth Farm. Modesto Flores and his son Willie (the farm’s parking lot guard) would have each crewleader line his or her people up in single file at 6:30 each morning and four buses would transfer each “gang” to their designated picking fields. First the “Home Gang” had to be transported from the camp to their field and I would assist Mike Estrada driving his bus accompanied by my bus, good old faithful “Number 54.” After the two hundred home crew pickers were efficiently deployed to their assigned field I then drove white Bus Number 54 to the dirt parking lot where I joined the other three buses in transporting the eight hundred or so “Day Haul” pickers to their respective fields. A crew could not go into a field without its crewleader present or a state registered crewleader’s agent wearing an appropriate state-issued badge. Usually I would make six or seven bus excursions each morning.
The crewleader would assign two pickers to each row in a particular field. The two workers would stand on either side of the row and together pick each bush thoroughly. When a crew had finished picking a field I (“Unit 13”) would be called on my radio and I would quickly transport the workers from let’s say Field #14 to Field #48, which might be over a mile away. Then at the end of the work day I would again drive white Bus Number 54 around the distant fields and pick up tired works at various waiting stations near irrigation pumps on the main gravel roads and courteously return them to the parking lot where they would be paid by their bosses.
Usually each field was picked three times by hand at eight-day intervals. These are the berries that are sorted and packed in the packinghouse and then sold to the “fresh market” grocery stores. After the third hand picking by the crews large farm machines are deployed to do the fourth picking. The machine-picked berries are generally smaller and of less quality and they are taken to the farm’s bulk house where they are graded by hand sorters and then frozen and packed in either ten or twenty pound boxes (for the better grade) or in fifty gallon steel drums for the lesser grade “fourth picking fruit.” The frozen machine picked blueberries are ordinarily sold to large food processors and subsequently used for pies, muffins and jams.
My final responsibility as an Atlantic Blueberry Company field manager in charge of crewleaders was to represent them if they received citations for alleged violations from Inspectors from the New Jersey Department of Labor. Citations received might involve an under-aged child working in the field, a child found in the fields between the ages of twelve and sixteen without working papers, a pay slip discovered with a stated salary that did not conform with minimum wage laws, a crewleader without a badged agent in his field or inadequate insurance on a van taking workers to the farm. Usually the New Jersey state inspectors would visit each farm three times a summer and twice each summer they would stop the buses carrying workers to or from the farms at certain checkpoints on the area highways to look for violations. The federal labor inspectors would check the I-9 Forms along with other requirements and would visit the two farms once each summer.
A crewleader’s day might have some significant downsides too. On rainy days the people could not work in the fields and all must go home disappointed without earning any pay. Sometimes it rains at noon and the workers only make a half-day’s wages. But some gang bosses manage to compensate for their rainy day losses by running food businesses that sell meals to their workers from their own food trucks roaming around out in the fields.
The Weymouth Road Farm’s parking lot at the end of the day seemed like a combination of a carnival food bizarre and an amateur sporting event in progress. Tomas Aguire’s wife and brother and Francisco Fuentes’ wife would sell tacos and burritos from their enclosed food trucks, Ricky’s Tacos and Franco’s Tacos respectively. Other relatives of crewleader’s would set up shop and vend food, chicken, cold soda, snacks and clothes from various homemade stalls or improvised benches and tables set up along the parking lot’s perimeter.
In the meantime children would play impromptu games of touch football and soccer in the center of the huge dirt parking lot until the crewleaders finally arrived with their cash payrolls. Then everyone would quit their preoccupations and get in line to receive their daily wages. In 2003 (my last year at Atlantic Blueberry) the Weymouth Farm had an empty field next to the parking lot seeded and management installed soccer nets to allow for crews to compete against each other in friendly competition. And a baseball field still existed on the Weymouth plantation where Puerto Ricans from Farm Number #2 would play softball (and sometimes hardball) against its rival home field opponents.
I had witnessed and experienced some rather amusing and crazy things during my eighteen-year-tenure at Atlantic Blueberry Company. One July morning in the mid-1970s a black man and woman pulled up to Field 29 on Weymouth Road where a Mexican crew was picking. The gentleman asked me if any black crews were on the farm.
“No!” I politely answered. “The only black crew belongs to Frances Dantzler over at the May Landing Division Farm. Her pickers call her Miss Frances.”
“What’s your name?” the man requested.
“John!” I stated. “I’m the field manager in charge of crewleaders here!” I proudly added.
“Well John, could you give me directions to the other farm you mentioned?” the concerned fellow asked. “This woman wants to work.”
I provided accurate directions to the Black Horse Pike Farm and later that afternoon when I arrived there to pick up the yellow pay slips Miss Frances, a Bible toting chapter and verse quoter and a notorious stern disciplinarian accosted me at the guard’s gate situated between the parking lot and the plantation.
“John, what’s the big idea of you sending that woman over here to my field this mornin’?” Miss Frances demanded.
“The man she was with asked me if I knew of any black crews working and yours was the only one,” I innocently and defensively replied, “so naturally I explained to the guy how to get to the Mays Landing Farm.”
‘Well John, for your information that black man was a lousy pimp and the lady that wanted work was a prostitute!” Miss Frances chastised. “The next time someone wants to work for me please call Lopez on the radio so that I can meet them at the parking lot gate. I’m a faithful churchwoman John! I’m sure you know that! I don’t tolerate no guff, drinking, drugs or sex in my field from anyone! Ya’ hear what I’m sayin’!”
“Yes Miss Frances!” I answered with embarrassment and regret showing all over my crimson face.
Once I was driving a New Jersey State Inspector around the enormous Weymouth Farm to show him that portable bathrooms had been placed next to all fields being picked that day. No sooner did I finish boasting to the examiner how organized and efficient the farm was having six portable toilets on six different wagons that Modesto Flores would move around the mammoth farm to new fields. Soon the state inspector and I observed something that rendered itself as being rather humiliating to me. An old Mexican was washing his arms and face splashing murky water onto himself from an irrigation canal while a companion was urinating into the same canal only three feet from the first farm laborer.
“That’s a serious violation!” the Inspector yelled as he began jotting down notes describing the incident.
“But both men are only ten feet away from the portable toilets!” I angrily hollered back in defense of Atlantic Blueberry’s integrity. “It’s not our fault if these uneducated workers don’t have or use common sense!”
“Regardless John!” the Inspector maintained in an austere tone of voice. “All your workers must be advised of the law and how it applies to them. That’s why we require sanitary facilities with sinks and toilets in the fields. And no worker can be more than a quarter of a mile away from the portable toilets!”
“Those two men were only ten feet away from the portable bathroom!” I vigorously argued. “How can the farm be responsible for individual irresponsible behavior?”
“That’s for you, Modesto and the Galletta family to figure out!” the incensed Inspector shot back. “I won’t give the farm a citation this time but I assure you next time I will!”
Another time I got into a heated argument with a young State Inspector in a field at the Mays Landing Farm. The over-aggressive inspector had found fault with a Cambodian kid’s working papers and brought the matter to my attention.
“The school principal did not sign on the line at the bottom!” the inspector insisted. “The kid has an invalid working paper.”
“Look!” I snapped back showing a degree of anger. “There are two kinds of working papers. The first kind is for kids from twelve to sixteen that pick berries out in the field. The second kind like the one you have in your hand is for kids sixteen to eighteen that work near machinery, like any kid working up in the packing house. Obviously the school made a mistake by issuing the wrong working paper to this boy. He needed to be given the field working paper that does not require the principal’s signature and not the packinghouse working paper that does.”
The young inspector became quite perturbed that I knew something about his job that he didn’t. He pointed to his New Jersey Department of Labor badge hanging around his neck, which looked exactly like a regular policeman’s shield. “I’m the authority out in this field!” he boisterously and sanctimoniously hollered in my face. “And I know exactly what I’m doing!”
‘This guy is trying to badger me!’ I sarcastically concluded. As the callow inspector was busily writing out the (crewleader’s) citation for having a kid with an incomplete working paper a nasty fistfight broke out around fifty feet away. Two Cambodian roughnecks began brawling and then thrashing around in the bushes.
“Aren’t you going to break up the fight?” I yelled at the already rattled inspector. “Now’s the time to use your badge and exercise your authority!”
“That’s your job and not mine!” he volleyed back. “You’re supposed to be the field boss here!”
I shook my head in disgust and called over the radio for emergency backup. Lopez showed up with six huge Puerto Rican associates and thanks to farm security order finally was restored and prevailed.
On another occasion I was driving past “the Aqueduct” (also called “the Artesian Well”) that fed water into the Weymouth Farm’s main “grand canal.” Laotian young men had killed a twenty-foot-long black snake and were standing on opposite sides of a smaller irrigation ditch using the dead serpent as a rope in a weird game of tug-of-war. Suddenly four vernal Laotians on the losing side of the deceased snake lost their equilibrium and then plunged into the shallow-water irrigation ditch below.
Another time I had come across a group of Cambodians that were roasting a small animal on a makeshift rotisserie. I decided to stop my truck and chat with them for a moment.
“What’s that you’re cooking?” I asked. “Looks pretty delicious!”
“Raccoon!” a young fellow answered. “Want some?”
“Not really!” I laughed in total disbelief. “Where did you get it?”
“Up on the highway!” a second kid replied while pointing out to Weymouth Road. “Probably run over by a truck!”
“That animal might have rabies,” I warned.
“What’s that?” the first Cambodian kid asked.
“It’s a bad disease!” I cautioned. “Make sure you roast that animal really good before you decide to eat it!”
Then one day in July of 2000 I received a call on my radio from Modesto Flores to drive out to Field 39 (Blue Crop variety) and transport a Cambodian to the dirt parking lot.
“Is he sick?” I inquired over the radio.
“No,” Modesto said. “Willie just called me over the radio and said that the guy ya’ gotta’ take to the gate is the owner of a car that just turned over in the parking lot.”
“How did it turn over?” I inquired.
“According to Willie the driver had borrowed the car from the guy you’re taking from Field 39,” Modesto explained. “The guy was drunk and my son Willie wouldn’t let him drive the car into the fields, which isn’t allowed anyway! And then to harass Willie, the crazy guy started drivin’ the car in circles real fast and then hit some soft sand and turned over! Serves him right!”
“Does the guy I’m gonna’ take to the parking lot know any English?” I asked.
“No!” Modesto yelled into his receiver. “And don’’t try tellin’ him anything either! We’re gonna’ kick them both off the farm as soon as I get down to the parking lot myself!”
I picked up the puzzled owner of the car along with a friend and taxied them one mile down main elevated gravel roads to the dirt parking lot. During the lengthy ride the two Cambodians were conversing with each other in their native tongue and I could tell by their expressions and by their gestures that they were wondering what the present in-progress excursion was all about. A funny thing happened on the way to the parking lot (sic, forum). When we finally reached our destination the owner of the white Toyota automobile noticed his vehicle resting upside down in the white sand and much to my astonishment the owner loudly yelled at the top of his lungs, “What the hell! Oh shit!” ‘At least he knows five words of English!’ I thought with a smile decorating my facial features.
When I first began working at Atlantic Blueberry in 1986 I was basically unfamiliar with the various fields and their immediate environments. High reeds, weeds and grass would grow between certain fields and several times I assumed that roads continued from one field to another and then suddenly on at least six occasions I found my truck plummeting into small canals or into irrigation ditches. Then I would call Modesto on Farm #1 or Lopez (Lopey) on Farm #2 over the radio to come by and drag me out of my entrapment using sturdy chains as towlines.
But one time in the early eighties I had a really close call. I confidently and nonchalantly drove my empty bus #54 up Puerto Rican Avenue (local farm reference) on Farm #1 to “the Columbian Highway” (another local farm jargon term) that wended through a woods.’ The dirt and gravel trail led to seven distant and remote blueberry fields (located above Creek Road) that bordered on the Atlantic City Expressway. I was directed to help Mike Estrada bring the “Home Gang” to Field Number 14 (The Funny Field). Two buses doing the job could make the transportation of two hundred men a lot easier with fewer trips back and forth for the Home Gang foreman.
At the end of “the Columbian Highway” was a wicked right angle curve that only a very skilled bus driver could negotiate. I cautiously and slowly approached “Deadman’s Curve” in my white #54 bus and after getting half way around I feared that I had not sufficiently cut the angle. I panicked and then gingerly backed up, not realizing that my right front wheel was passing over soft sand. The bus began sliding to the left and I feared that my vehicle was going to topple over into a large canal. Luckily the bus stopped its slide down the rugged treacherous slope but then the front door couldn’t be opened because it had become embedded in sand. Furthermore the bus’s hood and engine had tilted sideways and motor oil had leaked out and gotten onto the hot engine causing fire and smoke to escape. “I’m trapped inside!” I distressfully yelled to Mike and George Estrada over the radio.
I attempted squeezing out one of the side windows of the old refurbished school bus but my body was too big and bulky. I tried escaping out the back door but it was rusty and would not open. Meanwhile smoke billowed and fire raged out from the bus’s very hot motor. Then I remembered that there was an axe under the driver’s seat and I was about to smash my way out of the back door when an alert Mexican managed to open the hood and throw handfuls of sand inside, thus effectively smothering the fire. A farm front-end-loader was summoned and it dragged the bus out of its precarious entrapment. Once back on level ground I finally was able to open the door and thank my rescuers. ‘Thank heaven that the bus wasn’t jammed with fifty screaming hysterical Mexicans!’ I solemnly thought.
In the summer of ‘99 a tremendous-sized septic truck came rumbling onto Farm #1 to empty and service the several dozen portable toilets strategically stationed between various fields being picked. Apparently the in-a-hurry driver was behind schedule and he was speeding in the monster vehicle down the parking lot entrance road, which was elevated eight feet or so above parallel canals that existed alongside the hard gravel road. All of a sudden the immense truck’s right front wheel hit a soft spot and before the speeding driver could steer the out-of-control “Honey Wagon” in the opposite direction the vehicle’s great weight made it skid and then wildly flip sideways down into the right-ride canal. I was the first responder on the scene and I stopped my vehicle on the gravel road, fearing that the septic truck driver had been killed, seriously injured or was unconscious.
“Hey, are you okay?” I yelled down into the canal. “Please answer me!” No response was forthcoming so I figured I should radio for help. After a third holler I noticed a hand and then a body slowing emerging from the driver’s side of the cab, which was partially submerged in water so to me the fellow appeared exiting from a submarine hatch. The disoriented but unscathed driver climbed sideways out of the vehicle’s open window and a half hour later two large farm bulldozer operators collaborated to extricate the massive septic truck from the brackish-water canal. Luckily for the truck’s navigator on that particular morning the ditch was not filled to its seven-foot-deep capacity.
On the Fourth of July in 2002 Modesto Flores summoned me over the radio to come to Field Number 23 (Duke Variety) in a hurry and to bring several large sheets of cardboard and a blanket from the office “on the double.” I immediately sped my truck towards the packinghouse.
“What’s wrong?” I nervously asked into my radio. “What’s going on Mo?”
“A Mexican lady is having a baby and you and me are gonna’ be the doctors until an ambulance arrives!” Modesto screamed in a panic-oriented voice.
I rushed to the office, obtained the aforementioned blanket, threw two sheets of cardboard in the back of my company truck and raced out to Field Number 23. Dr. Modesto was in the process of delivering the baby and its head was already sticking out of the woman’s womb. I laid the cardboard down and handed Modesto the blue blanket.
“Quick John!” Modesto ordered as I gazed in amazement at the spectacle before me. “Go out on Weymouth Road in front of the packinghouse and wave down the ambulance that’s been called. Have them follow you to this field!”
I did as instructed and when the Hamilton Township emergency paramedics arrived I led them to the scene of confusion. When the rescue squad unit’s vehicle came to a halt I noticed that the baby had already been delivered by Dr. Modesto’ and that the infant was being cuddled in its mother’s arms with the umbilical cord still attached. The woman and her newborn were immediately conducted to a nearby hospital to receive professional care.
‘Thank God they’re weren’t any complications!’ I thought. “Modesto has performed a minor miracle!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
My daily routines with Atlantic Blueberry Company were conducted from mid-June to August 1, the length of the main blueberry harvest. The company raised over twenty varieties of berries with Dukes, Bluettas and Blue Crop being the most popular and abundant varieties. Many of the varieties were developed on Farm #1 under the supervision of the Agricultural Department of Rutgers University, New Brunswick. In fact the Duke name originated from Arthur “Duke” Galletta,” one of Atlantic Blueberry’s founders. The large and hearty Dukes had replaced the early-season Weymouth and Collins varieties that were popular and prevalent in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. The last variety’ of the season were the Elliotts, a tart berry used mostly for making pies and jellies. The Elliotts were handpicked a second time around August 10th and then machine picked a final time thereafter.
My workday started at around 5:30 a.m. and lasted until 5:30 p.m. seven days a week for eight action-packed consecutive weeks. I only had off when it rained since the pickers couldn’t work in the field, which in total amounted to around six days each summer. And I drove my company truck between the two farms and through dirt fields with dusty roads putting on an average of eighty miles on the odometer each and every day.
The crews of various nationalities had to be kept in separate fields far apart from each other in order to avoid conflicts. The Laotians didn’t mix too well with the Vietnamese, who also had problems with the Cambodians. And the Mexicans didn’t get along too well with the Guatemalans, and several times while driving around “troubleshooting” I had to send out a “Mayday” for help to break up altercations that would instantly flare up. In a matter of five minutes twenty farm trucks would converge on the scene of alarm to calm matters down.
Two crewleaders that hated each other were Laotians Inxay Pathotagong and Khammy Pathong, who both claimed to speak ten languages including Chinese, English and Cambodian. Inxay (pronounced “In-sigh”) claimed to be a tank gunner in Laos during the time of the Vietnam War and Khammy (pronounced Ka-my) claimed that Inxay was nothing more than a flunky foot soldier and jeep driver working for him when Pathong was a Captain in the Laotian Army. I tended to believe Khammy’s version of their Southeast Asia relationship because I knew that Inxay started out at Atlantic Blueberry as a field driver and loader for Khammy and then after gaining experience demonstrated his propensity for free enterprise and started his own crew and became a “gang leader” on his own initiative. That for all intent and purpose explains the tremendous rift and fundamental animosity between the two strong-minded individuals.
Both Khammy and Inxay always wore paramilitary clothing and heavy combat boots and had gold-framed front teeth showing in their mouths. The two carried knives concealed inside pocket sheaths that dangled from their waist belts. And with the strange farm environments having plenty of canals, ditches, high reeds, thousands of blueberry bushes and military jets from the nearby Pomona National Guard Air Base (located right next to Atlantic City Airport) practicing flight maneuvers above Atlantic Blueberry (with all of the Oriental and Mexican pickers peering up at the A-10 Warthog jets) the place actually at times seemed like a foreign country to me.
The Galletta family made sure that they assigned Inxay to Farm #1 and Khammy to the Route 322 Mays Landing Division to keep the two dedicated enemies eight miles apart from one another. Inxay would often hop up on the back of a pickup truck in Farm #1’s dirt parking lot and violently yell out instructions to his scared workers in his native language as if he were Pol Pot or a formidable military general laying out battle plans to his hundred intimidated troops grouped below and around him. But Khammy once told me that he had worked closely with the CIA in Laos during the Vietnam War and that Inxay had never had the opportunity or the courage to shoot or kill anyone.
“Did you ever kill anyone?” I respectfully and warily asked Khammy.
“Yes, I kill many, many people!” Khammy tersely answered.
“Did you shoot them with a rifle or pistol?” I sincerely inquired.
“No!” Khammy curtly replied. “I kill at least a hundred people with my knife!” the maniac indicated as he removed his sharp weapon from his belt sheath and exhibited it to me. “I cut their throat like this!” he exclaimed as he gestured menacingly while wielding his knife.
“Okay Khammy, I believe you!” I remarked with great apprehension and feigned admiration. “Now you’re living in America so please put your knife away.”
Khammy had at least twenty-five red-bandanna Bloods working in his crew, which consisted mostly of a South Philly’ Oriental street gang whose tattooed members looked both fearsome and gruesome. One day at around 5 p.m. a New Jersey State Trooper followed a gang member off of Route 322 into Farm #2’s parking lot with his patrol car’s overhead red lights flashing. No sooner did the trooper come to a halt when twenty or so Blood’ Cambodians surrounded his patrol vehicle and the thugs began throwing cherry bombs and firecrackers onto and underneath the cop’s car. The young trooper panicked and called for backup and in a matter of three minutes at least twenty State Trooper and Hamilton Township Police cars converged on the parking lot to successfully quell the disturbance.
One day vindictive Khammy surprisingly showed up on Farm #1 and drove out to Inxay’s field, took out a rifle and hostilely began shooting at his prime foe. Inxay fled for cover inside a field of tall blueberry bushes. The State Labor Inspectors had heard about the incident and issued five citations to Khammy citing the rifle confrontation along with other more minor outstanding labor-related violations the wily crewleader had accumulated.
“Look Frank,” I told the Chief Inspector before Khammy’s hearing inside his partitioned office in the State of New Jersey Hammonton Labor Building, “this crazy guy Khammy is not wrapped too tight. Don’t trigger him off or else he might have a flashback to Laos during the Vietnam War and then become volatile and uncontrollable! In fact,” I elaborated, “Khammy confided to me that he had personally slit at least a hundred people’s throats back in Laos and had mercilessly killed them without showing any conscience or remorse!”
“Look John,” the Chief Inspector calmly answered, “he’s in the United States now and the rule of law prevails here. And besides,” the Chief Inspector bragged, “I myself was in the U.S. Army and I know how to defend myself if it is necessary!”
The scheduled hearing commenced in a placid manner for the first ten minutes but when Khammy learned that the State of New Jersey was going to fine him five hundred dollars and revoke his Crewleader’s license, the dysfunctional Laotian felt threatened and was provoked to take action. Khammy stood up and much to the Chief Inspector’s astonishment and consternation removed his sharp knife from his belt sheath and then almost instantaneously lunged at the Chief Inspector, who spontaneously fled the room as if he were a rattled rabbit while I stupidly and foolishly wrapped my arms around Khammy’s shoulders to prevent him from pursuing after his newly-declared adversary.
But I must confess that Khammy had excellent discipline over his crew of Bloods, who all feared him worse than they feared either a hundred’ Los Angeles or South Philly’ blue bandanna Crips. His pickers always sent quality berries to the loading dock and his pay slips were always done correctly with hardly ever an error to be found. Khammy was organized and conducted his field as if it was a sophisticated military staging area, but the State of New Jersey and its Labor Department Inspectors viewed the dangerous and unpredictable cold-eyed surreptitious Pathong as if he were an FBI “Most Wanted Criminal.”
In the winter of 2001 Khammy and three henchmen slipped into a Philadelphia factory where Inxay was managing a work crew and maliciously jumped his avowed rival, wantonly beating Pathatogong up badly. Police warrants were issued for Khammy’s arrest and the last I have heard of him the itinerant maverick is reported to be a fugitive from justice hiding out in either Alabama or Mississippi operating a fish store. The following summer Inxay (with his characteristic mercurial temper) had a disagreement with one of the owners of Atlantic Blueberry Company and the temperamental crewleader was promptly dismissed from the farm. Rumor has it that the Laotian now is the proprietor of an Oriental food store in West Philadelphia and his somewhat reputable new business caters to former Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian Jersey blueberry pickers. I presume with a degree of certainty that Khammy Pathong is not one of Inxay Pathatogong’s current steady customers.
Jay Dubya (author of 47 books)