Thursday, November 1, 2012

123rd COG: A Magical Birthday

A Birthday Party! Yep, we're having a birthday party here at the COG and Jasia is the birthday girl! Happy Birthday from yet another Scorpio – I have come across a surprising number of us Scorpios. And I want to wish Jasia, a most happiest of birthdays and say a thanks for inviting us to join you.

A Magical Birthday

Clear crisp autumn days and the nippy Klamath County nights in the high desert where I grew up, have a Scheherazade quality that makes my heart sing. These I associate with my birthday, but having an October birth date is not an optimum time if it's a celebration you're wanting. Not in that farming community where I was raised. No big parties for me with a birthday sandwiched in between harvest and elk hunting – except for one memorable birthday.

The year I turned seven was perfect. Life at the Zuckerman Farms, in Klamath County, where my dad managed their Oregon operations was idyllic. The commercial potato farm bustled with life and activity in this post depression time when many farm families were struggling. The Zuckerman Farms had a name far beyond our rural southern Oregon area, and in fact, the owner and founder, Maurice Zuckerman, was known throughout the country as the Potato King.

At harvest time, Zuckerman's sent a bus load or so of potato pickers from their headquarters in Sacramento, California, to the Klamath County ranch where we lived. They were Mexican Nationals and when they arrived, it was like a party. For several weeks, my dad and the farm hands prepared for their arrival by getting the barn, which was converted into a bunkhouse, ready to be used by Mexicans during the four to eight weeks of harvest. On the day of their arrival, they would burst out of the bus, ready to unlimber stiff bodies from the long bus ride. Even if our southern Oregon autumn weather seemed warm to us, the Mexicans would soon be flailing their arms, rubbing their hands together to keep warm. Most of them, coming from sunny, warm Stockton got off the bus wearing light weight shirts and no coats or jackets or gloves. After they had stretched and put their gear and bedrolls into the warehouse, my father and several of the farm hands would get them back into the bus and take them into Klamath Falls to outfit them with warm clothes suitable for our much cooler weather. My father and our farm hands didn't speak Spanish, and only the Mexican crew boss and a few of the workers spoke a little broken English, so there was lots of chattering and gesturing as the brown skinned guys from California scurried around J.C.Penny's gathering jackets, flannel shirts, long johns, heavy socks and gloves, which Daddy then paid for out of the Zuckerman account. By the end of the first day, store clerks, the Mexican crew boss, Daddy and the Mexican potato pickers would be frazzled but also giddy with the excitement of the day.

From then on through the end of harvest, the ranch compound was filled with the lilt of their words, songs and music. I didn't understand a word that was said, but I loved the unusual buzz that streamed into our lives from the arrival of these fellows from Mexico. Lots of times, when mother made me stay inside our yard, I would hang over the fence listening to their laughter and chatter, words I didn't understand, but that filled me with excitement. My favorite time of day was evening, when my dad let me tag along beside him as he made his evening rounds and talked with the Mexican crew boss about the next day's work or anything that they needed. The pickers who bunked in the barn had an evening ritual. While their cook prepared their evening meal, a few guys pulled out guitars and mandolins and filled the evening air with the sounds of their strumming. Others would join in by singing. As I shadowed my dad on these evening excursions, I'd make eye contact with some of the guys and my shy smile was rewarded by a nod, smile and perhaps a wave. Sometimes while my dad was talking to the guys, I would sit on a bundle of potato sacks and listen to the music and the strange melodic words as they talked and sang.
1940s Potato Picking at Zuckerman's Hosely Ranch
Courtesy of J.G.Hill and Roots'n'Leaves
On the weekends, or after school, my dad would often take me with him when he drove out into the fields. When we got to the field, I would hang our the window of my dad's little green Chevy coupe and wave to the workers. . Several of the pickers would wave back, chattering in their language strange to my ear. Then I would run beside my dad as he strode up and down the potato rows with the crew boss.

“Si, Senor Mac, many sacks, good crop, very good crop,” said the crew boss in his heavy accent as he would count out the number of sacks picked by each of the pickers. The Mexican potato pickers were very fast-- which is why they were sent up for the harvest. Each wore a web belt around his waist with dozens of roughly woven potato sacks hanging from metal hooks around the belt, and a sack hung between their legs into which they quickly flicked potatoes. Each would leave a picked sack of potatoes every five to ten feet, and the crew boss would count their tally.

That year my birthday came at the very end of harvest and the Mexican pickers would be leaving to return to Stockton the next day. The night of my birthday, and while mother was fixing dinner, Daddy and I went out to the barn as we usually did during these harvest evenings. This night was special. When daddy lifted me up onto a stack of potato sacks, I was serenaded to the tune of Happy Birthday, but to words I didn't recognize. I am not sure how these Mexican potato pickers knew I had a birthday coming up --- perhaps, I told them in an almost seven-year-old sort of way – yes, most likely that's how it happened. Now they seemed to be all talking and laughing at once – a cacophony of wonderful sounds. Then they brought out the presents. Little candies wrapped in paper with pictures of Mexican children. Next was a paper fan with picture of a beautiful dancing lady painted on it, and finally the most beautiful doll I had ever seen. She looked like the picture of the dancing lady on the fan. She had a glittery golden comb decoration in her shiny black hair and her tiny hands held a little fan, just like the one I had just gotten. Her tight red bodice was decorated with black lace. I fingered the shiny red satin pillow that was supposed to be her skirt. She was beautiful and exotic to my seven-year old mind. The crew boss leaned against the bales of sack and said, “She look pretty on your bed.” O, yes, I would put her in the middle of my bed every morning, and in the evening she would sit on the chair next to my bed. She was so lovely. . I sat on a bale of potato sacks with my treasures while my picker friends danced and sang until my dad was ready to head back to our house,. Music and the sounds of their voices followed us as we walked across the compound, ending only after our front door closed behind us.

I showed mother my treasures. “Gaudy,” she muttered as she returned to the dinner preparations. I didn't know what gaudy meant but I knew it wasn't good in her eyes. I didn't care. I ran to my room, placed my dark-haired beauty in the middle of my bed and then I sprawled across the bed, fanning myself, unwrapping candies and reliving a most magical night.

I don't remember any other birthday parties, only that one very special birthday. That was enough.

~ ~ ~
 © Joan G. Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. Thank you for sharing your very special birthday memory in the COG, Joan! And a lovely birthday it was. Thank you too for the birthday wishes you've shared with me. Happy birthday to us both!

    1. Jasia, thanks for the kind words.

  2. Wow, that is an amazing story! It's touching to think that a group of people that you really didn't know all that well were so kind and thoughtful as to celebrate your birthday in such a nice way!

    1. It was a most memorable birthday -- never forgot those guys even tho I never saw them again.

  3. What a treat, Joan, to have your Mexican friends celebrate your birthday. I can imagine your surprise and delight. Thanks for sharing your memory with us.

    1. Glad you enjoyed this little story of my childhood.

  4. I absolutely loved this post when it went up Joan. What a magical and special birthday, no wonder you remember it so well. Kids love "gaudy"...did you keep your Mexican doll? I was so impressed by the generosity of those workers who probably had little enough themselves. They must have had a lot of respect for your father as well as liking his little helper.

    Sorry I haven't been commenting as much lately (long story), but I have been reading your posts on the ipad which doesn't always like me commenting on blogspot.

    I'd like to invite you to participate in my 3rd blogiversary give-away: I have two little gifts to send to the lucky-draw winners drawn from the commenters on that post. You've been a loyal commenter so I'd really like you to have a chance to "be in it to win it". This is the link http://cassmob.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/tis-the-season-for-gifts-3rd-blogiversary-competition/

    Have a great Christmas Joan and keep up the good writing work in 2013!

    1. Pauleen, as always I enjoyed your comments --- as indeed, I enjoy your posts. I have been out of communicaton for the last month or so --- first because of working on the book, and then I slipped on the wet cement in front of Rite Aid during a rainstorm. Broke my left femur and spent a month in the hospital and rehab facility. Finally home and getting more self sufficient daily, tho still in a wheel chair for a few more weeks. Nice to be back reading my favorite blogs, and thinking about blogging again.