Lessons learned in the watermelon field
Growing up in the Seaford area, local summer jobs were hard to come by. About the only place we could work was at the Laurel Farmers’ Auction Market, known as the Block.
The Block was a busy place back in the 1960s and 1970s with farmers bringing their produce – mostly melons – to sale at auction. Each morning the double line of hundreds of trucks would wrap around the market and down another road. It’s nothing like that today. Even so, the market still handles an average of about 2.3 million melons per season.
The lessons learned in the watermelon fields of rural Sussex County have stayed with me throughout my life. The importance of friendship, the idea that hard work has its rewards and respect for elders were all learned in the fields. I also learned lessons about how others beyond our insulated world lived. There is no doubt working in the watermelon fields impacted my adult life. If nothing else, we all learned that any other job we had could never be as hard as working the melons.
My friends and I worked at the Block and in local farmers’ fields throughout our teen years – even before any of us could drive. It’s hard to believe that our parents let a group of 13 year olds loose on the world. It was a different time for sure.
Sometimes we had rides to the Block and other times we hitchhiked. That’s right, we hitched rides on the back road between Seaford and Laurel.
It was hard, hot work for low pay by today’s standards. At the Block, you went from truck to truck asking farmers if they needed help unloading their sold melons onto the buyer's truck. The pay was up to the farmer, but it was rarely much more than $5.
It was tough work for $5. Anyone who has unloaded a pick-up or larger truck by throwing melons can attest that it will make a man out of a boy very quickly. Once I unloaded a truck full of large, almost black, Congo melons that weighed about 30 to 40 pounds each. I barely weighed 120 pounds back then.
After you unloaded one truck, you went back on the line to search for another farmer to help. On a good day, you could unload three or four trucks and make about $20. That may not seem like much today, but to a 13 year old back in 1968, even $5 seemed liked a small treasure.
But work at the Block was not a guarantee because you faced competition from dozens of other boys trying to do exactly the same thing. The real bonanza was landing a job with a farmer.
Most years we hooked in with a farmer and worked most of the summer in his fields picking watermelons and cantaloupes or doing other farm duties, which included everything from weeding to cleaning out chicken houses.
Since I was the runt of the group, the farmers’ wives took pity on me and I got some special jobs. One summer, I spent several weeks painting a farmers’ house and eating lunch under the cool shade of large sycamore trees. I also got to drive the tractor more than my fair share while my friends toiled in the hot fields picking melons. I also learned to operate just about every piece of farm equipment and drove large trucks to the Block to sell watermelons. I was given a price to stick to and if the bid was too low I was instructed to leave the auction without selling the melons, which happened on more than one occasion. It always worked out that the farmer got his price – or better - later in the day or the next day.
Sometimes I wonder how we survived it all. We worked from sunup to almost sundown – sometimes six days a week – for about $100 a week. We would get home and take a shower and go out on the town, or camp out in fields around our homes, until the wee hours of the morning and get up and do the same thing all over again.
Some of my friends played football and had to stop working in mid-August to attend summer camp. During the last few weeks of the summer season, farmers were forced to hire other workers, and they were not always local boys.
Many were migrant workers from Florida who lived in another world from what we were used to. One thing was for sure, the Florida crews could work, and work and work. They could cut and pick melons like machines.
They lived a sad existence. Some actually slept in the old school buses they used to transport melons.
Believe it or not, even after picking, throwing and stacking thousands of watermelons, I still love the taste of a cold melon, although I’ve been spoiled to prefer the heart, or center, of a melon.
There was nothing better than starting the day by digging out the heart of a melon. In contrast, there was nothing worse than stepping into a rotten melon.
That’s another lesson learned in the hot fields – sometimes life is sweet and sometimes you step into the smelly stuff.