I chose independence and picked green beans

When I was a child in western Oregon, my family (except for my dad, who worked a full-time job) harvested beans. We children earned spending money and bought clothing we needed for the next school year with our earnings. My mother's earnings went into the family coffers.

In the bean field early in spring, workers drove tall wooden stakes into the ground in long rows, strung wires between them at the top and near the bottom, and connected the wires with many lengths of string. Bean plants wound tendrils around the strings and grew toward the top wire, blossomed, and grew green string beans.

Pickers carried buckets between rows and harvested beans. They carried full buckets to the end of their row and emptied them into sacks. Workers came around, tied full sacks, issued tickets to pickers that gave the weight, and trucked the beans to the cannery.

"Bean bosses" would walk down the rows and checked to see that the pickers harvested all large-enough beans, dropped the too-large beans on the ground, and didn't damage the plants or break the supporting strings. "Bean bosses" showed pickers how to do it right, and if they still did not meet standards, sent them home.

The plants, respectfully treated, produced three or four pickings of beans.

We moved away from bean-growing country, but we came back early in my high school years. When the farmer's high-sided truck came around, early mornings, I climbed aboard and rode out to the fields with many other pickers, then rode the truck home again in the afternoons.

Between rows of tall bean plants, a picker could be well shaded most of the day. Pickers carried on conversations with other pickers, whom they couldn't see through the tall bean plants, as we picked toward the ends of the rows.

"What time is it?" some watchless picker would call out. Unseen pickers would compete for the best answer: "Morning time," "Time to mind your own business," "Time to pick beans." Some sympathetic listener would call out the right time.

Paid according to the weight of what they picked, serious pickers in a good crop earned wages competitive with those of hourly workers in semiskilled jobs. I was only periodically serious during hot, humid summer days in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Tall rows of bean plants in one field ended close to the McKenzie River. I loved to pick my way to the end of my row, then walk down to the river, jump in, and swim. I picked my way back along the other side of my row after an hour or so, when other pickers had finished picking their rows and moved on down the field. They had several more dollars' worth of beans sacked and ready to load on the truck.

Working where there were no other pickers was good for quiet thinking while I picked. Sometimes I felt lonely as other voices drifted toward me like echoes, individual words shredded to undistinguishable sounds by tall bean plants and distance.

Friends selected rows side by side or picked opposite sides of one row. You could pick from your knees or sit on the metal bucket you pick into, for beans low on the bush. Stretch toward the sun for beans high on the vine.

We socialized at the top ends of the rows, where pickers filled their sacks, bucket by bucket, where the road ran, and hourly workers weighed sacks and loaded them on the truck. Some mothers kept their small children with them as they picked. Many teenage pickers kept a younger sibling or two in their care as they picked. Some younger siblings could be talked into picking a few pounds of beans.

I took time off from picking beans for summer adventures with my family or friends. When I did work, even when I went at it with all my ambition, I couldn't pick beans the way the people could who were out there to earn their living.

Still, when school started, I stood in front of the mirror and calculated the cost of the clothes I wore. The tally ran high, because I had purchased stylish, well-made, expensive clothing that would earn a nod of approval from my peers. I had more in my closet, and I had money in my top drawer to start me toward dances, movies, and tickets to games.

Since I didn't pick as many beans as some did, I had already started investigating ways to earn money during the school year. I liked the wider choices and the increased independence I gained from paying for more of my expenses of living.

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