The Left-Handed Cantaloupe

Mom took an immediate job in one of the agricultural sheds since Aunt Opal would stay at home to take care of me and John. Dad soon joined Mom, sorting fruit and vegetables for shipment. I seem to remember this as being cantaloupes, but that doesn’t seem right since we arrived in fall after most of the melons would have already been harvested.

Many years later, I sorted cantaloupes myself during the season. Misshapen, damaged, undersized or mis-colored cantaloupes were separated out from the large, unblemished and well-colored ones that went into cardboard cartons and wooden crates for shipment on trucks and railcars all over the country. Then the rejects, or “culls” were sorted again, sometimes three more times.

Seconds would be boxed up for local sales and thirds would be cut up and scooped into melon balls for freezing. Cantaloupe and watermelon tend to go mushy if frozen unless mixed with honeydew which contains a natural anti-freeze.

The fourth sort would be by volunteers for charity with usable but unsaleable melons given to churches to feed the poor. The ultimate culls ended up as cattle feed, hauled away in stinky truck loads to fatten up steers in the nearby stockyards.

It may have been honeydew in fact that Mom and Dad were sorting since the season for the yellow melons ends later than for cantaloupe or watermelon. Or maybe it was squash which seems unlikely because of a detail I remember.

Mom and I (in later years) were valued on the sorting tables because of our ambidexterity. We could easily work on either side of the sorting table and swap with someone who had difficulty with left-over-right (left-handed) motions. The silly thing is that back east, left-over-right was considered right-handed sorting and right-over-left is the unfavored side.

Dad, having learned to sort in Missouri, could only do it by the method considered left-handed in California which sort of galled him since he was always definitely right-handed. Of course, in Missouri, cantaloupes are called muskmelons but I doubt that has anything to do with it.

Cantaloupes do smell musky, like apricots and cats. I had a mild allergy to all three as a child and my brother still does as an adult. He can’t eat any fruit or vegetable with red or orange-colored flesh; tomatoes, oranges, carrots, beets, watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe and tangerines cause his mouth to break out if they are fresh. Cooked, like in spaghetti sauce or carrot cake, they don’t bother him which is true of strawberries for me but who cooks strawberries?

Pretty soon, Herbert found Dad some carpenter work which got him out of the sorting shed and the ignominy of working on the left-handed side of the table. Digging holes and building forms for pouring concrete was not finish carpentry (cabinets, doors, windows and moldings) but buildings were going up fast in California back then and no one much cared what they looked like.

Dad’s older brother, Virgil, had either followed us out to California or arrived before we did, and had gotten work in a truckstop. He ended up working there off and on for more than forty years, eventually as manager, and for a while, even part-owner.

That meant more cousins, Jimmy and Billy were only a little older than I and everyone lived in Hanks’ Court. All of us little kids, with the supervision of a few adults like Aunt Opal and a few teenage babysitters like Marie, ran up and down the courtyard, chasing lizards and kittens, dodging laundry and just having a great time. It was a miserable hot October but we didn’t know that.

Some of the bigger kids even tried to climb the chinaberry trees, only to be foiled by the rubber boots. Lloyd Hanks, in his late teens, bossed a crew of Mexican immigrants in keeping the place spick and span which included painting the chinaberry trees and chasing kids and cats out of them.

I learned more Spanish words from some of the other kids; things like “Pendejo!” (stupid) and “Cabron!” (stinky goat) which were mostly what the older girls called the bigger boys. Also more usual things like “agua” for water, “comida” for food, and “perro” for dog but those didn’t stick as well. Mom made a rule that I was not to speak Spanish if I couldn’t tell her exactly what the words meant in English after she found out what “chingase” meant.

School had started, and Uncle Virgil’s wife, Aunt Eunice, and eventually Mom ended up working in the school cafeteria kitchens which were across A Street from the court. Brawley had a system where all the cooking for the schools all over town was done at the A Street kitchens then hauled in big vans to be served to kids who didn’t know any better than to eat it.

Mom baked cornbread, cobblers and sheetcakes by the half-acre and Aunt Eunice eventually drove one of the delivery vans and served the lunches with big spoons onto metal trays, making a noise like ker-dang! Aunt Eunice hated to cook and talked her way into the driving and serving job which also meant she didn’t have to get up as early but finished later than the bakers and cooks.

In the early fifties, Brawley had three high schools and three grade schools, all segregated; a black, brown and white of each. But the food was integrated since all of it was cooked in the same kitchen. A year or so later, a California court ruled that school segregation was illegal even before the federal rulings came down but the one kitchen on A Street continued cooking up meals for all the schools for several more decades.

Monday was chili, Tuesday was meatloaf, Wednesday was chicken, Thursday was enchiladas and Friday was fish sticks. Tuesdays were the worst of these meals, the entree being more of a pork-flavored, greasy, oatmeal mousse than what any sane person would call meatloaf. The menu varied little for more than thirty years and I’m sure there are people alive today who went to school in Brawley back then and still dread Tuesday lunch even if they can no longer remember why.

Eventually, the whole clan, Mom, Dad and I, Aunt Opal and her kids, Uncle Virgil and Aunt Eunice and their kids, all moved back to Senath, in southeast Missouri, though I don’t know why. Aunt Opal, John and Jane took the train with Helen going on ahead by her lonesome to live with her father Ray’s mother in Kansas City for a while. That may have happened before the rest of us left, I didn’t actually find out where Helen went until years later.

Aunt Eunice and Uncle Virgil followed us a few months after another lightning trip at my Dad’s bladder-imperiling pace. It would be the last move with everything we owned loaded into the big old Packard.

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