Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memories of toiling in the Minnesota cornfields July 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:17 AM
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WHAT’S THE WORST SUMMER JOB you’ve ever worked?

For me, the response to that question practically flies off my tongue. Detasseling corn ranks, hands down, as the worst job I’ve ever held, beating out picking rock and walking beans by acres.

Here’s a scenario of how that part-time summer position played out for me back in the early 1970s in southwestern Minnesota: Rise early to catch a school bus. Bounce along bumpy gravel roads with a bus full of other sleepy teenagers to the edge of a cornfield. Slide on a rain coat. Then begin your day’s work, stretching on your tiptoes to pull tassels from corn stalks.

Rows and rows of corn stretch across acres and acres of land under the hot summer sky.

Dew slides down your arm. Rough corn leaves scratch across every inch of exposed skin. You itch. You sweat. You hurry up. Sometimes you bend low to the earth to snap sucker plants that leech onto the main corn stalk. Your back aches. Your muscles scream.

And then, when you have to urinate, you squat between corn rows and hope no one is watching. Forget toilet paper, unless you’ve stashed some in your pants pocket.

As the sun moves higher in the sky, heat and humidity rise. You shrug off the raincoat. Your skin burns. (Who’s heard of sunscreen?) Sweat trickles down your face, burning your eyes. You sweat and sweat some more.

Come noon, you’re thankful for a break in the shade-tree oasis of a farm yard (if you’re lucky) or in the shade of the school bus. You grab your Styrofoam cooler, remove the cover with grimy hands, unscrew the lid of a quart jar and lift the glass to your lips, gulping Kool-Aid like a thirsty camel.

Hungry from all that physical labor, you wolf down a sandwich, inhale chips, nearly consume an entire apple in several bites.

Then it’s back to the corn for a few more hours of reaching and yanking. The oppressive afternoon heat blasts like a furnace, smothers your breath, sucks away your energy. Your feet drag. Your mind screams: How much longer must I tread this land, pull these tassels, endure this misery?

By 3:00, you are bone-weary, exhausted, thankful that your supervisor has finally hollered, “This is the last round.” You are finished, for the day, with the tug-of-war you’ve played with the corn.

You join the line of subdued teens climbing onto the bus, bodies weighted with lead-heavy weariness.

Tomorrow you’ll return to the farm fields to fight the corn again, all for $1.25 an hour.

In the setting sun, a corn tassel stretches high above the corn plant.

JUST A NOTE: Working conditions in cornfields have improved dramatically since the 1970s. Today detasselers ride machines (I’m pretty sure), have access to bathrooms and certainly earn more than $1.25 an hour.

If you have a worst summer job story, submit a comment and tell Minnesota Prairie Roots readers about your experience.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling