I’m not sure why, but on the drive to work this morning, I started thinking about my first job ever.
I detassled for the son of my middle school English teacher.
Detasseling? What’s that, you ask? For those of you non-midwesterners (and I’ll admit that I had no idea what detasseling was until we actually went out and did it), it’s pulling the tassel off the corn plant. Obviously.
In order to make hybrid seed corn for next year’s feed corn, midwetern farmers plant one row of type A corn, four rows of type B corn, one row of type A corn, etc, etc, etc. Then, when the plants are just about to put out their tassles (those spiky grass-like parts on top that produce pollen, and thus are the ‘male’ parts of the plant, hence the castration), they hire tons of 14-year-old kids to come out and pull the tassels off.
In Iowa, at least, this is pretty much the only job a 14-year-old can get. It sucks, but it pays good money. We worked from 6am to anywhere from 12pm to 4pm.
Early in the morning, the plants are wet, and thus you get soaked to the bone, no matter how much rain gear you wear. Later in the day, when the sun is out and had been up for awhile, it’s miserably hot.
There are mosquitos and flies everywhere.
If you’re freakishly short, like me, the corn is often taller than you, and thus you work all day with your hands over your head.
And that’s not even mentioning the corn rash, a nash series of small cuts and scrapes you get across any exposed skin, like your neck, from walking through corn leaves. And if you’re allergic to corn? Don’t bother to apply!
It was not fun work, but a lot of my friends did it, and thus the company was great. Also, my English teacher and her son were awesome, and the pay was good. A kid could make a decent $1-2000 over a three week period.
The first year, I was on a crew of four. Each kid got a row of B corn, and went along and detassled it, making sure not to miss any.
The second year, I was a crew leader. I had four kids of my own, and I followed them through the corn fields, making sure they didn’t miss too much.
When the owners came through to check, we couldn’t miss more than 10-12 plants per mile, or 5-6 plants per row, as the fields were half a mile long. There were always fields, especially those that we did early, that always had to be redone.
One time, when we had a surplus of crew leaders, and the original field needed a third check, the boss came and tagged those of us who worked fast and took us over. He gave us each a quarter of the field, so about 8 rows, half a mile long each, and send us off to check it all. Fun enough, my crew leader friend had just that morning on the bus told me the plot of ‘Children of the Corn’.
Now, I have an overactive imagination, and I probably walked those two miles in a new land speed record. I’ve never been so nervous in my life! Every time the wind blew and russled the corn, I about jumped out of my skin. I mentioned this to Mir the other day, which may be why I was thinking about detasseling in general this morning.
After finishing the field, we had to go catch up with our crews, and I again speedwalked about 3/4 of a mile before I caught up with them. Boy, was I relieved to see them!
My crew of girls was great: they were all close friends, and adopted me as their ‘mom’ for the summer. A good friend of mine was another crew leader, and my girls made up a song about me and him and our two crews to the tune of the Brady Bunch song. It was hilarious. I think (hope) I still have it written down somewhere. They also had a habit of naming corn both before and after detassling it, as in “First you’re Bob, now you’re Brenda.” Good times. Two of those girls later came and ran cross country with me, and I still vaguely keep in touch with them.
The third year, I became a field leader. My job, instead of actually going into the corn field, was to direct all the crews and their leaders into specific rows, guage how fast we were working, how fast we might finish the field, when people needed a break for snacks, water, lunch, bathrooms, whatnot, time those breaks and make sure they got back to work in reasonable time, and if I thought we were capable of doing a second field. And how clean we were being. And, of course, most importantly, I got to work on my tan.
I had rovers, ususally tall guys who had been working for several years, who went out and roamed the field behind the crew leaders, checking the checkers, as it were. And sometimes, I had a back-field leader. The girl who got this job was a royal pain in the you-know-what. She only got the job if there were too many leaders, and always complained ‘why can’t I do the front?’ (cause I’d been there longer), ‘why can’t I have a radio?’ (cause they’re weren’t enough to go around and she was low on the totem pole), ‘why can’t i do the back field today?’ (cause we need you crew leading).
After awhile, I was making really good money, getting a 50cent raise every year, and in two to three weeks I could make bank! However, I started having real jobs, first at a department store in town, and then research jobs, and was restricted to detassling on the weekends. Eventually, it was too much of a hassle, and I just dropped out. It helped that the English teacher and her son had quite, and the guy who ran it, ironically the History teacher from the middle school, wasn’t nearly as fun to work with.
It was a fun job, though, despite the mud, the dew/rain, the sun, the bugs, the cuts, the scrapes, the laundry (had to do the clothes every day and then basically never wore them again after the end of the season, same for the shoes) and the heat and humidity.
I’ll never, ever, EVER do it again, but it was a fun job.