A View of Ahtanum and Crewport Labor Camps: Part 1

In the Time of COVID. Day 55

May 12, 2020.

A View of Ahtanum and Crewport Labor Camps: Part 1

Times are hard for tens of millions of Americans. Food lines cross the country, and unemployment everywhere is through the roof. Desperation is seen in the eyes of people, as if their fears had been captured by the lens of Dorothea Lange, in 1936. Mass homelessness will surely occur as people are evicted for missing rent payments. We like to think that hard times come again no more, that somehow American Exceptionalism protects us because we are uniquely virtuous. However, we are awakening to a deep truth. Scratch just below the surface, just a couple of missing paychecks and we enter a catch-as-catch-can world. That reality brings to mind my time at the Ahtanum and Crewport Migrant Labor Camps in the mid-1960’s.

Between my junior and senior high school years, my buddy Steve and I caught a ride 170 miles southwest to the agricultural fields of Yakima Valley.

We didn’t have back-up money, just enough to rent a room in a Yakima flop house for a week and a meager meal at one of the skid row hash houses. The hotel we stayed in was itinerant’s quarters, with bathroom and shower down the hall. Each small room locked, and each had a window transom above the door, a hand sink and a hot plate. Our room had a window , but we weren’t streetwise enough to insist upon one with a fire escape. The hallways were narrow and at night everyone threw open their doors to the hall. Music from a radio drifted along. Men sat about spinning lies and sucking on 5ths or pints of Old Smiley or Apple Andy, cheap, nasty, 20% fortified wine favored by the winos.

We rolled out at 4 am the next morning. We rounded the corner and ducked into a cafe for coffee and flapjacks. Full, we went out to the corner. We joined a throng of hobos, Indians and winos. Everyone milled about against a wall in the pre-dawn, some smoking roll-your-owns and some sharing a hit from a bottle. Occasionally a stake-bed truck drove up. Some farmers already had crews and those guys piled in the back. The rest of us stood there with our arms raised, looking eager and able. Eventually we got picked and up we hopped.

Just as the sun was coming over the eastern hills, we pulled into an apple orchard. We were each assigned a row and we new guys were shown how to thin the young apples, snapping off a few in each cluster so the others could grow bigger. We were issued 16 foot high orchard ladders, with single balance leg and a sweep of rungs wide at the bottom but growing ever more narrow toward the top. We worked from can’t see to can’t see.

Over in another part of the orchard, the farmer grew Black Republican and Bing cherries. They were coming on ripe so the birds were frantic. Spread through the cherry trees were cannons. All day, at random intervals, the cannons exploded and scared off the flocks of birds. The pickers made piece wages. Fill a lug and get a punch on your card. End of the day get paid by the punches. The Indians were fast and left the other pickers in their dust.

We thinners were hour workers and it was .75 cents an hour. They took a dollar back for a sack lunch so you make $8 for the day for 12 hours.

Ambrose Filner was the crew chief. He was from the south and was pecker-wood skinny and ornery enough to do the job. You worked for the .75 or you walked back to town, plain and simple. Ambrose got the work out of us and by the end of the 6th day we had made $48 each and each had $20 after food and lodging. We were on a roll.

We rented a larger room in a nicer flop house. Just about then some friends showed up and our room became a crash pad. That got problematic real quick. Not all our pals could keep up the pace. One had an appetite for three and couldn’t seem to roll out with the rest of us. He would eat our food though, too damn much of it. How do you tell your pals to hit the road when they are loafing around and you are sweating all day? It didn’t take long to understand why parents get made when their kids are lazy.

It was hard work by day and party by night. We got a guy to buy us beer and we whooped up a good time but I owed a school $300 in Spokane for books and transportation and I had to earn it that summer. My folks couldn’t help. I felt desperate. Well, we did some sorting out and the free-loaders went home.

I’d met a musician in the orchard. He was a trumpet player who couldn’t make ends meet without busting his hump in the fields. We called him Cool C. He had that jazzy little night hawk beard below his bottom lip, wore beat up dress shoes and shiny goodwill slacks. He was thinning apples like the rest of us and making a couple bucks on the side selling us beer. One day he told me he’d heard about some government work out at the Ahtanum Labor Camp, south of town, in Union Gap. He was going to go check it out, did we want to come? “Hell yes, lets go”.

I didn’t know what I was walking into. There were some qualifier questions at first. Get those wrong and off you go.

Ever been arrested? No.

Have you made the majority of your income in the last year as a migrant laborer? Yes. Of course it was just in a few weeks but I answered truthfully.

My buddy and I got hired but Cool C didn’t . He’d had several scrapes with the law over the years. Steve and I became employees of Local Organization for Migrant Affairs, a pilot project of The Office Of Economic Opportunities. That was part of The War on Poverty. Sargent Shriver headed up the OEO. I guess we were federal employees.

Our job was to see to the kids who were left in the camp when their folks rolled out for a day in the fields. We were issued a cabin, rent free, across from an activity center. The pay was $1.15 an hour! Oh man, out of the fields and a 50% raise in pay.

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