September has arrived, and for farmers across the San Joaquin Valley that means one thing – harvest time.
From corn to tomatoes, trucks and tractors will be filing down country roads with produce and product. Long hours in hopes of reaching long benefits, with many a farmer putting in a 16 hour day until, well, until the rains come in December and you can no longer get onto your fields.
The physical labor takes its toll on those picking and harvesting out in the fields. Some enjoy the new creature comforts tractors have incorporated over the years: AC, AM/FM stereo, and air-ride seats to name a few. For these people, the day is much more a mental grind. Let’s just say 16 hours in the cab of a tractor for two weeks straight, with no human contact, can make a man go stir crazy. It is like being in solitary confinement, but moving at 5 mph.
In the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” it took Andy Dufresne 18 years of digging to get out of his prison. Pffft! I’m going on nearly 30 years of Tractor Confinement – and every day I plan my escape. Here is a quick look at a day in the tractor:
5:45 a.m.: I arrive at the tractor. If I’m being honest, it is 6:37 but nobody is there to document it, and pre-6 a.m. is much more farmer-like. I’m wearing a pair of cutoff sweats and an old Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt. It’s not your standard farmer attire by any means. Long ago I gave up looking the part – jeans, boots and short-sleeve work flannel for being comfortable in the cab. Besides, I bring a pair of blue coveralls everywhere I go – just in case. The morning is the worst part of the day because you have to grease the tractor. Any farmer worth his weight in silage will tell you he greases his tractor 100 percent of the time every day – and I’m here to tell you that farmer is a 100 percent liar. At times I’ve treated the tractor like one of those late-night homeless/hungry children commercials. I often ignore the fact it needs attention, until some type of Catholic farmer guilt washes over me, and then I serve my penance by being covered in grease by 7 a.m.
7:05: The first silage truck arrives loaded and ready to dump. We are in the middle of corn season. Trucks hauling chopped corn silage from a field six miles away will be dumping loads in front of me all day. It’s my job to push these loads up into what is called a “silage pit.” You know those large piles on the sides of country roads covered in white plastic and tires. That is silage, not manure. I’d say 75% of people living in the city give that answer. “Why do you guys make huge piles of manure out there?!” I usually answer “because they are fun to slide down in the winter when it’s raining. The stench is just an added bonus.” Why people think we’d cover piles of manure is beyond me. I’m getting a dump roughly every 6-8 minutes, so I will be pushing and packing loads all day. The weight of the tractor packs the feed down when pushing into the pile, extracting the oxygen that spoils the feed. Think of the pile as a slice of bread. If you set a slice of bread on a table, after a period of time it will rot and spoil. But take that slice a mush and mash it into a ball. The outside of the ball will spoil a bit, but the insides will be encased and edible for a longer period of time. For you non-farmers, that is all a silage pit is – a massive ball of feed for the dairy cows out here. It is the first step in a cycle that ends with a carton of milk in front of school kids.
7:25: Richie Machado the boss of this harvest crew arrives from the field to the pit. He gives me the “Did you grease the tractor?” hand signal from his pick-up. It’s a funny thing the hand signals you learn over the years in the country. There is a signal for everything. I had a truck driver the other day ask me, “What does this mean?” and he proceeded to do what appeared to be someone dog paddling with just his wrists. “Oh, that means go to the scale.” He wanted to know why. I gave no answer. (Think of the Lady Liberty scales of justice and you’ll get it.) Anyway, I nodded back to Richie as if to say “Yes, of course, I greased,” which gives him no comfort, as he has known me my entire life.
9:15: The reality that I have no food or water hits me. It hits me every day. There is no lunch break in farming, and as a 41-year-old bachelor/farmer/comic, the chances I awoke early to pack a lunch are slim. In the field next to me I spot my food savior in the form of Tony Coit. A married man with a lunch pail complete with utensils and ice. I make the call. “No, I don’t have any food for you!” I hadn’t even asked the question. He is accustomed to my early morning food requests. “There’s a bag of salted peanuts on the seat of my pick-up over by you, though” Great, a bag of salted peanuts is just what a man without water and a slight hangover from a comedy show the night before needs.
9:48: I’m listening to KRVR The River 105.5 and know the answer to the morning trivia question. What was the name of the small trophy that Les Nessman kept on his news desk on the TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati”? The Buckeye Newshawk Award! I call knowing one thing: Even if I win, I can’t win. The station only allows a person to win one prize a month, and I’ve already done so. I call anyway, and give the correct answer – along with a fake name. I’m greeted with: “Teicheira, we have caller ID. I know this isn’t Bryan Uecker.” He sends me the pizza certificate nonetheless, which is salt in the wound of a hungry man in a tractor.
10:00-noon: I devise a scheme in my head. I’ll sneak off to the local country store. After all, the pit is five-dumps wide, and at 6 minutes a load, that gives me a 30-minute window. That window closes when the farmer we are custom chopping for pulls up to watch the day’s proceedings take place. My thirst and hunger slowly turn into an hour-long internal dialogue of “I should’ve listened to my teachers and gone to law school” and “The girl that got away.” The inside of a tractor is like a therapist’s couch, just without the therapist and no end to the session. Coupled with the fact that 104.1 insists on playing a crappy Boston song every 10 minutes, the day is going awry.
(This entire time I’m calling Richie Machado every 15 minutes to tell him I’m thirsty. Mind you I’ve known him my entire life. He was even in charge of babysitting me as a kid at the MRPS Hall. So as far as I’m concerned, he is still on the hook to bring this 41-year-old toddler water when I need it. But he hasn’t yet.)
12:15: I receive a phone call from booking agent/comic Del Van Dyke of Vallejo. He books Black Oak Casino, and there has been a cancellation that needs filling. “Can you be there tonight by 8:30? And if not can Anthony make it?” He was referring to my roommate Anthony Krayenhagen. Having one of the area’s best comics living in house is a huge benefit. Bookers know that upon a cancellation, they have a decent chance of getting one of the two to fill in. But I’m stuck in the tractor until dark, and would need to leave by at least 7. The Black Oak Room is amazing and comes with all the trimmings of a Casino gig – free meals, room, and on top of a decent paycheck, some playing chips. I’ve walked out of the Black Oak gig up $800, but usually walk out down $200. It is casino entrapment at its finest. I let Del know I’ll be there.
12:20: After a few minutes I make the phone call. “Can I get off early to…” Before I can finish the sentence a resounding “No!” is given. Richie uses the old “This is corn season, not comedy season” on me, and adds that there is nobody to replace me on the pit. Packing Pit is an art form. I know that sounds like farmer hyperbole, but it is a skill that takes a few years to learn – and a lifetime to master. There are no truck drivers that can hop on and relieve me for a few hours. There is only one man on the crew that can pack pit – Richie Machado himself!
2:15: I blow a hydraulic hose, giving me ample time to make my pitch to Richie as he helps me replace the hose. “Are you just gonna step on my comedy dream?!” I’m begging him to relieve me at 7. He is unwavering in his answer of no. “I have to be available to get to the field in case the chopper or trucks have an issue” is his go-to response. Ugh, I hate when he hits me with logic. But I manage to sneak a CapriSun and Pop-Tarts out of his lunch pail when he’s not looking. Score one for Chris.
3:00-6:00: Richie drives by the pit periodically, making sure I haven’t skipped town. I am quick to give him the One-Finger Portuguese Salute on each passing. He returns the favor each time. The boss-employee relationship has now regressed into an “angry cousins at a birthday party” situation, and I won’t be happy until I get the piece of cake I want. He is the one holding the cake.
6:15: I inform Anthony that the gig is all his. “My family hates me, and wants me to be stuck inside this tractor until I die” were the words I chose.
6:30: A last-ditch phone call to Richie is sent to voicemail. The colorful string of foul language I left for him to hear would’ve made a sailor blush. The defeat sets in.
6:45: Richie pulls up to the pit. Certain he has heard the voicemail, I get out of the tractor for my tongue lashing. He hands me a bag with a Pepsi and a sandwich inside. “Go to your show, ya idiot.” As I sprint to my Jeep, I yell “I stole your Pop-Tarts earlier.” He says, “I know. Make sure you grease the tractor in the morning!”
National Anthem time...
Manteca’s own James Greer has been selected to sing the national anthem at the Oakland Raiders home opener on Sept 14. The 1994 East Union High graduate is a rising singing star in the R&B community. This is the lifelong Raiders fan’s second opportunity to sing at O.co Coliseum. His music can be found on ReverbNation and Suncloud, and has recently moved into the No. 1 slot on Reverb’s new artists list. Check him out!
Karen Steves-Ott and the Manteca High Class of 1979 are hosting Alumni Bash 2014, and they are inviting any and all former MHS classes to attend. An evening of dancing and reminiscing will take place on Sept. 13 at Chez Shari. Contact Karen at Kstevesott@gmail for more info. … The MHS Class of 1964 is holding their 50th at the month’s end and are searching for a few missing Buffs: Georginia Cezar, Paul Durand, Clyde Ganes, Sandra Glow, Bobby Hicks, Linda McEntire, Phillip Manning, Robert Miner, Kim Paine, Charles Ramsey, Sandy Roberts, Roger Sealey, Tim Woods and Beverly Young. Send info to Manteca50threunion@gmail.com.
“It’s not Where ya do, It’s What ya do”