The Pits of July

“Grandma, can we play some music on the radio?”
“No, no, no! No play music. You here to work. You makey money and save, put in bank so you can buy business someday.
“But grandma those guys over there are playing music on their radio and they’re cutting the apricots just as fast as we are.” I was referring to our cousins in the neighboring Apricot cutting shed about 50 yards across the fence from my grandparents place who were doing the same thing we were, but happily listening to music on the radio. .
“Listen to that, Eddie! Caramba! Mucho stupido! No such thing as Purple People Eater. Music no makey sense. You want real music? You likey me to sing for you?”
Grandma sang Spanish Flamenco style music. I didn’t care for it at all.
“No Grandma! That’s okay, You don’t have to sing!”
“Bueno, Good! You here to cut apricots, and make money. You work! No listen to music! No Talk. No play!”
“But grandma, you only pay us twenty five cents for each box of apricots we cut. We can’t make any money doing this. It takes an hour just to cut the fruit in one of those 40 pound boxes. That’s only twenty five cents an hour! Everyone else pays their cutters 50 cents a box!”
“You grandma poor lady, she no can afford pay you that much! You have to cut more boxes an hour. You have to work harder. You no talk, no listen to music, no play around!
“Yes, grandma.”
My grandma Gregoria was an emigrant from Estremadura, in central Spain, which is the same place Hernand Cortez, conquistador and conquer of Mexico, was from. Grandma and
Grandpa Moises, who was from Avila in Old Castille, Spain, had forged this apricot orchard business from nothing but hard work and determination after coming to the United States penniless in the early 1900s. They had amassed 28 acres of the finest apricot trees in Santa Clara Valley. They processed the apricots into premium quality dried apricots right there on the orchard with all work being done by family members such as their children and grand children. The finished product was sold to the Sunsweet Growers Co-op.
My cousins and I were part of the apricot harvest process of picking, cutting, drying and sorting apricots when we were kids in the nineteen fifties and sixties. We enjoyed being together and working together every June till the end of July while we were growing up. We didn’t make much money, but we found much fun and happiness being a part of the family apricot business and spending time at my grandparents foothill ranch near Gilroy, California.
The work ethic was something my grandparents took very seriously. We were not allowed to play around or talk while we worked.
After three short blasts on her police whistle Grandma Gregoria said, “Eight O’clock. Start work now!” She looked like a Viking task master commanding her slaves. She styled her reddish/gray hair into two long braided pig tails which she coiled up on each side of her head into fairly large buns. Around her neck, on a rawhide thong, she wore a police whistle and the chrome plated paper punch she used to punch our punch cards, which she pinned on the backs of our shirts, each time we cut a box of apricots. She was quite massive, actually you couldn’t say grandma was fat so much as she was just big, weighing probably close to 300 pounds. She stood Five feet eleven inches tall and wore a long white apron that went nearly to her shoes. This added to her authoritarian look. I visualized her wearing a Viking horned helmet. It would have perfectly finished the image I held of her. I would have bought her one if I had known where to find it. Knowing grandma, she would have worn it with pride.
My brothers Wally, Dennis and my little sister Jeanie from the Gilroy area as well as
my cousins, Paul, Kenny, Leonard and Kathy from Antioch in the East Bay were too
young to pick apricots back in the summer of 1955, so we were working in the cutting shed. It was basically a large barn with only one wall on the east side where the machine shop was located. The rest was open at the sides to let the breeze in and so trays and boxes of fruit on the truck could be driven in and unloaded in an area convenient to the cutters. Usually it was cold and foggy in the mornings, but by noontime the fog would burn off and temperatures would rise into the low nineties.
Our apricot cutting platforms consisted of two saw horses which held the wooden tray about 3 feet wide by six feet long. A box of freshly picked plump, ping pong ball sized, sweet, yellow and orange colored apricots would be dumped and spread out on this tray ready for us to cut them. We did all the work standing as we had to move around the try as we filled it with cut apricots. Sometimes we would take the load off our legs by resting on an upturned empty fruit box while we cut.
My Uncle Frank, who was boss of the apricot picking crew consisting of my Uncle Andy, Uncle Ike, and himself, had specially modified our wood handled cutting knives by grinding off and rounding over the sharp points on them and sharpening them to razor blade sharpness. We would hold the knife in one hand as we rotated the apricot along it’s crease, thus cutting it into two halves. We then had to flick the dark brown pit out of the apricot into a wooden pit box which was about one foot square by four inches deep. The pits made a distinctive clicking sound as they hit the pit box. You could actually figure out how fast a cutter the person was by listening to how fast the pits clicked on the pit box.
We spread the two halves of the cut apricot out on the try face up. The wooden trays were usually dark reddish brown to black in color when empty. It’s interesting how the color changed to a beautiful yellow orange as the cut halves of apricots covered the wood of the tray. We repeated this process until the whole box of apricots was cut. Then we would get another tray and a fresh box of apricots and grandma would take her chrome plated paper punch and give us one new punch in our work card. Another twenty five cents was thus earned.
Each time Grandma punched one of our cards she said, “save you money!”
Grandma walked around watching everybody’s trays and apricots. She carried a white metal porcelain lined bowl called the cull bowl and a knife. Wherever she found an apricot with mold or rot in it, or whatever didn’t look right, she cut it out with her knife. She also removed apricot halves that were green, over ripe or otherwise spoiled. That way only high quality, ripe, sweat apricots were being processed.
After we stacked up about six or seven trays of cut apricots on the saw horses, two of us bigger boys would grasp the trays at each end and carry one try at a time, loading it on a cart that ran on railroad type rails. As soon as there were twenty four trays loaded with cut apricots stacked on the cart we would push it into the sulfur house. The sulfur house took four carts or a total of 80 trays.
That evening Grandpa Moises would place the contents of a sack of yellow sulfur in a pit in the middle of the sulfur house and lite it. After being exposed to sulfur fumes all night the carts would be pulled out of the sulfur house the next morning and the trays would be taken down the hill by fork lift to the dry yard where they would be placed edge to edge so the sun could shine on the apricots during the day. Each sundown the trays would be put into stacks so evening dew or fog couldn’t get on them. The next morning we would spread the trays out from the stacks again so the sun could do it’s work.
We always knew when the wide counter weighted sulfur house door was opened because everyone in the cutting shed would start coughing and choking and wiping the tears from their eyes from the biting sulfur fumes that filled the air.
After several days of drying in the warm California sun the apricots would change from a
yellow color to an dark orange, exactly like the ones you buy in those bags at the super markets. I used to sample the cots on the trays that were totally dry and ready to take to the cutting shed for size sorting. They were sweet and delicious especially the ones that were super ripe when cut. We called those slabs. They were sold for making jam.
“Ouch, Oh! I cut my finger! I cut my finger! I’m bleeding to death. I’m going to die!
Help! Help!” Screeched my cousin Kathy. Then she began to cry.
Grandma Gregoria immediately ran over to her side and applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Then she practically dragged Kathy to the water faucet at the base of huge apricot tree right next to the cutting shed. She turned the water on and held Kathy’s cut finger under the water while Kathy was screaming and crying, “Grandma it hurts, Grandma it hurts!”
“You big baby! It’s just little cut. Me fixie!”
Grandma reached up into the apricot tree and took down a big white metal box with a red cross on it. She opened it and took out a small bottle of Iodine and a band aide.
“No Grandma! That red stuff stings! Don’t put it…..”
It was too late. Grandma had already spread a coat of Mercurochrome on the cut and was wrapping Kathy’s finger with a band aide.
“ Listen to you grandma. You be careful! Kathy, you come to house with grandma. You kiddos no play, no talk, just cut apricots, no cut fingers. It’s eleven o’clock. You Grandma go to house now and finish makey lunch.. We eat soon.
“But grandma, I don’t like garbanzo beans!” said my brother Dennis.
“You lucky you grandma makey good food for you. In Espania we lucky to have garbanzos! You finish work and no talkey back to you grandma! I call you when lunch ready!”
“Yes Grandma”, I replied. The rest of the gang were suspiciously silent.
Grandma took Kathy by the hand and I watched her walk the 60 yards or so to the house and saw the sliding glass door close after she and Kathy went inside.
I felt a sharp sting in my neck. Then another one in the cheek. Then right in the center of my forehead. At first I couldn’t figure out what was happening. When I heard my cousins Paul and Ken laughing like crazy hyenas I figured it out. I watched them pelt my little brother Wally and then my brother Dennis with juicy, wet apricot pits. It was when they started hurling them at my little seven year old sister Jeanie that I decided it was war!
I started pummeling Paul and then Ken with wettest, juiciest pits I could find. My brothers, Dennis and Wally, joined in and we pelted our cousins with dozens of apricot pits. Paul and Ken decided they had enough and were giving up the fight. My brothers and I were winning the pit war against my cousins when my little seven year old cousin, Leonard, started crying as he ran to the house. We concentrated our efforts on him as we pelted him with as many pits as we could toss.
We all stopped throwing the pits and attempted to assume the innocent look as we went back to cutting apricots, but there were hundreds of pits all over the cement floor and even on the cut apricots on the trays. We all looked a mess where the juicy pits had struck our faces, chests and arms. Our white tee shirts looked yellow with all that apricot juice on them. My cousins had been tossing bits of moldy and rotten juicy apricot parts from Grandma’s culling bowl. She left it too near to them! They had grabbed it and emptied it’s contents on my brothers, my sister Jeanie and me.
I heard several blasts on Grandma’s Police whistle. Oh oh. Now we were really in for it. “That little tattletale Leonard told on us. We’ll get him later!”, said my cousin Ken.
“Eye Caramba! What you kiddos do here? You makie big mess!”
My cousin Paul yelled, “Eddie and Dennie started it Grandma! They did it!”
“Me no care who start it. You take pit boxes and pick up all pits. Get water hose and clean up mess!”
After the apricot cutting area was clean, pit free and washed down, my cousins, brothers and sister all went to the house to wash up and have lunch. I was dumping the last box of pits picked up from the floor onto the pile of shiny brown apricot pits drying in the sun.
Grandma came up and stood alongside me as I was contemplating the huge ten foot high by sixty foot wide pile of apricot pits. I said, “hey grandma, where do you dump all these pits?”
“Me no dumpy pits. Me sell. Makie medicine from them called Laitrile to cure cancer. Good medicine!”
“Oh! I thought you threw them away! How much do they pay you for them?”
I saw a shrewd smile forming on Grandma’s face that she quickly suppressed.

“You ask too many questions Eddie!”
“Yes Grandma.”
“What you looking at Eddie?”
“Nothing grandma. I was just noticing how beautiful you look in this bright sunshine!”
“You no here to kiss it up to you grandma! You here to cut apricots, makie money! Workie!
“But I’m just a kid grandma, I’m only eleven! I like to listen to the radio and have fun and play too.”
With that grandma gently wacked me on my bottom. “You listen to you grandma! You workie! No play! No listen to radio. No ask stupid questions. You Make lots of money! Save money. Get your own business someday like grandpa and me!” “Yes Grandma.” was my reply. I would have to cut a million boxes of apricots to do that, I was thinking to myself.

The Pits of July

Edward Henzi

Clear Creek, United States

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Artist's Description

This is the story of the time I spent as a boy cutting apricots at my grandparents ranch in the middle 1950s.

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