In Praise of Migrant Workers

Bugsy and Phil Mayall first clued me into the money that could be made planting trees at Wandell’s Nursery in the early 1970s outside Urbana, Illinois. We’d been working as cab drivers and clearing a few hundred dollars a week but they’d discovered that could made in a couple of days at Wandell’s, where you were paid a couple dollars for each tree planted.
First day I worked with Bugsy and Phil as a three-man team. The Wandell’s supervisor organized everyone in teams of three. We were supposed to take turns holding the tree completely straight while the other two filled in the hole from each side.
Unfortunately, there’d been a raging rainstorm the night before and all the pre-dug holes were mostly filled with water. Phil was a maniac about making money and quickly devised a technique for dropping a single shovel in the water in such a way the tree would stay upright. It was important our trees stood straight, otherwise we’d not be paid.
We were a happy crew that wet, muddy day and planted twice as many trees as any other crew, although we saw out supervisor a few days later having to go out a refill a lot of holes and straighten our trees after a windstorm blew them all down, which made me feel bad, because he was being paid by the hour.
The next spring came around and I went straight to Wandell’s as soon as planting season came around. Bugsy and Phil were gone, but some friends of my sister were there, and I actually was put on another three-man crew with her old boyfriend and his buddy. He was a righteous dude in every way, just extremely laid-back and shared none of Phil and Bugsy’s passion to clock dollars, so after a half day’s work, I asked the supervisor if I could work alone. He was shocked. You see, this standard technique they’d devised was based on one man taking turns holding the tree upright while the other two filled the hole from opposing sides.
Fortunately, he was nice enough to allow me to break out as the first single tree planter in Wandell’s history, probably thinking I was going to produce some lowly number of planted trees. At the end of the day, I’d planted a hundred more trees than any three-man crew in Wandell’s history.
I became the king of Wandell’s and people stood back in wonder to watch me work. Driving home in my grandfather’s ancient Chevy with the huge fins and the radio blasting Hank Williams and me sitting there with a fat wad of cash in my pocket (all hard earned pay) while the equally fat red sun glowed on the horizon remains one of the happiest moments of my life, and I’ve had some happy ones.
Well, that next Spring came around and nobody was hired by Wandell’s… except me. …And one other dude. He was Mexican and didn’t talk much. Maybe you know the end of this story? He kicked my ego ass as bad as I did my sister’s friends and planted several more rows a day than ever could, and I gave it everything I had working side by side. But I still had my wad of cash every night and happy sunset ride home, only with a much less inflated ego.
And that is why I respect our Mexican brothers and sisters.

2 Replies to “In Praise of Migrant Workers”

  1. Not quite the way I have chosen to remember it, but that is part of the beauty of memory, it remains malleable. I have often told people about that job and have cited as my favorite job ever…
    Spoke with Frank Garvey and he told me about this…I’ll have to get it on my page for my kids to see.
    Thanks for the memory,

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