Thursday, 15 December 2011

Ch.13 Getting a job, tobacco picking in Southern Ontario

On the tobacco farm, 1958 August.
By the summer, the news spread in the immigrant community that in the south part of Ontario there are huge tobacco fields, whose harvest in late summer could present a major new source of income. The terribly hard job of tobacco picking lasts for 4-6 weeks but the pay is exceptional, too.
The tobacco farmers were, for the most part, former Hungarian land cultivators, peasants who came around the turn of the century and were particularly successful growing tobacco in Canada, mostly situated in the area of Tillsonburg and Delhi, Ontario.
The three friends had given up their secure but poor paying, bleak prospect jobs and traveled to the tobacco farms area. Here, in one of the small town’s main square an informal “recruiting” center was set up on a given Saturday morning. It was a real market place for human beings! The local farmers had kept on coming and after an intensive scrutiny, where the judgment had to be made at what the naked eye saw from a physical point of view and after a brief bargaining, which was easy as almost everyone spoke Hungarian, for the daily stipend, the hiring was done.
The farmer wanted only their first names and within minutes they were on the back of a pickup truck speeding to one of the many farms in the area.
Their quarters were prepared in a part of the huge barn, furnished with simple wooden furniture and hay filled mattresses on iron beds. Shortly they were called to dinner which was served on long, covered tables, under huge chestnut trees in the farmer’s courtyard. The “gang” as they were now called consisted of 6 young men. During their short Canadian stay they have never experienced such a generous feast, vying with such a wedding feast that they had occasionally seen in the old country. Any delicacy that could be found and prepared by a well to do farmer in rural Canada with several experienced women chefs and that was steaming on the long table. The gang that to this point hadn’t worked a single hour made a valiant effort to be up to snuff and had achieved an appreciable success putting away most of the food. Tastes and aromas, reminiscent of Hungary came to be savored, almost to the point of shedding a tear or two, after long months in refugees camps and since over a year, in simple circumstances. The son of the farmer had sat with them, too, towards the end of the feast. Michael had a thick accent speaking Hungarian, he was Canadian born, but still managed to detail what was expected of the fresh farm hands.
The start of the tobacco picking season is always determined by the ripening of the so called sandy leaves, near the ground. That year the start happened to be on a Sunday. Only the sandy leaves near the ground can be picked off the plant. As the higher leaves continue ripening, the pickers move slowly higher. During the harvest there are only workdays, without any breaks, except for steady rain. So next day the wake up will be at 5 am, breakfast starts at half past five, so they are on the fields some kilometers away by 7am.
“ But in a few days the picked tobacco will be tied in bunches and placed on long sticks by the women, then wake up will be at 3 am so the tobacco laden sticks can be placed in the huge kiln-houses, for drying” continued Michael.
They didn’t really understand all that, but after the sumptuous dinner and the brief outline as to what will follow in the next few days, they knew that there would be a great need for very rich and nourishing food to cope with work demands.
Their first night on the tobacco farm, near the peaceful, ruminating farm animals, with billions of shiny stars in the August sky could not be spoiled even by the prospect of the early morning call. So close to nature, in such a quiet and peaceful place was such a change for these young men, after months of rather crowded refugee camps and then very Spartan basic city life after their arrival in Canada.
Following the generous dinner the night before, their breakfast was equally fitting and several farm matrons were asking them, one by one, whether they would like omelets from 4 or 6 eggs, with bacon, ham and cheese. By then the gang was getting just a little suspicious of all this attention and generosity ! Shortly after breakfast they hopped up on the cart, pulled by a massive tractor and soon they arrived on the tobacco field. Each green tobacco line spread for up to a kilometer in length, as far as the eye could see.

Tobacco field, Tillsonburg, Canada 1958
Michael had immediately occupied the first row in the field, bent to the ground and with a half circle of his right arm, he tore off the leaves of the tobacco plant. Then, still bent over, he stepped up to the next plant. Then the next and the next…
“You see, only the sandy leaves, the lowest ones you are allowed tear off…” he said looking at their faces for understanding, “…then as they ripen we keep on moving up on the plant. By the end of the season, it will be much less demanding on your backs…” he promised. It seemed simple and logical for these young men, reared in the city.
The six tobacco pickers had occupied their rows and began to work.
Behind them, a docile and “experienced” horse was pulling a wooden sled between the rows into which the collected, “sandy”, tobacco leaves from under their left armpits were carefully placed.
“Don’t break the leaves!” cautioned Michael.
They did not have to advance more than the picked sandy leaves of 10 tobacco plants, so that it can be stated that: they mastered tobacco picking. However, the continually bent backs had started to complain at each next plant, with each step they took towards these plants. After only a half an hour, while continually bending almost to the ground, the pickers believed they could not go on.
But Michael was there and by example he was jumping into one or another’s row, helping out, until somehow, miraculously they reached the end of their first row! At that point the six boys had just fallen to the ground, could only moan from the excruciating pain coming from their backs. Fresh water was brought by Michael and after a short rest they have started a new row.
Every step from now on was a painful maneuver, but goading each other on, the young and tenacious bodies, somehow, with many rest stops they lasted until noon, when Michael, literally picked them up one by one, and brought them back to the farmhouse. Again, a rich table was set up for them under the chestnut trees, but other than a few spoonfuls of soup, they preferred just to lie in the shade. After an hour’s rest, back to the cart and out to the fields. This struggle just to survive the day went on until 5 PM on their first day.
By the time they were back at the farm, they only had strength to wash up from the dust, sweat and the sticky sap from the broken tobacco stems, which dried and matted on their hairy arms, so much so that it simply could not be washed off by soap and water. Frankly, they could not care less about it.
Every part of their body was aching, especially their thighs and backs, so much, that none of them showed up for the evening meal. Within a short time, the whole gang was in deep slumber, awaking only for the pain caused by turning in their sleep.
If the unusual work seemed difficult and caused them pain on the first day, then the stiffness on awakening the following morning surpassed any such experience in their lives. One of the six had politely taken his leave that very morning, and the owner paid him fairly for his one day of work. The other five, overcoming the terrible pain, stubbornly began their second day of tobacco picking. They were still at the “sandy leaves” or sand lugs, as they were called by the farmer and they were still having the greatest pains with each step forward. They were encouraging each other, singing even, and also cursing all those who smoked, blaming them for this inhuman, bestial work! Where did the effort come from after each step taken forward with a back bent almost to the level of the ground, row after tobacco row? They could not explain even today perhaps.
They had overcome the greatest physical challenge of their lives then, in the first days of the tobacco leaves’ harvest. After the second Hungarian had given up and left on the third day, the rest had now stayed just out of spite and sheer bravado. In the meantime Michael had found three new pickers in the nearby town who were experienced, veteran farm hands who joined them and did their job without a word of complaint.
And as the bodies of the newly graduated farmhands adjusted to the physical demands, the muscle cramps abated and the task seemed easier. The veterans educated them on how they should shave their arms so that the sticky, gummy sap of the tobacco plant would not mat the hair on their arms.
Within days the muscles had adjusted, the body accepted and bore the daily punishment, the appetite returned. But by then the women had tied all the picked leaves on long, wooden stick which had to be racked in long, even lines in special places, called kiln- houses to dry. This was done on most mornings when they got up at 3am and emptied and refilled these kiln houses.

Tobacco drying kiln-houses, Tillsonburg,Ont.1958
These simple, wooden, under-roof drying places, with heating inside, were constructed inside of vertical and horizontal beams, resembled more monkey cages than anything else. They had no stairs, ladders inside, while two stories high, the lads, balancing on the horizontal beams, like monkeys handed each other the tobacco laden stick which were placed 3-4 feet apart on the beams, right up to the roof. Only the bravest dared to climb up to the top, one bad move could have resulted in serious injury. On most days the morning program from 3am to 6am was this acrobatic exercise, followed by a generous breakfast and out to the fields. If there was no rain they worked 7 days a week. Their wage was 25 dollars a day, with room and board included, as much as Peter’s first weekly stipend in Quebec City!
As the tobacco was ripening, so did “ease” their daily effort, since the top leaves could now be picked without bending over. It was life’s irony that the most difficult days of tobacco picking happened to be the very first days on the job.
Peter and the gang after several weeks in the country of the August summer in South Ontario were the color of chocolate, muscular and in top physical shape, had graduated possibly from the greatest physical challenge of their lives.

After a “tobacco picking ” session…
At the end of the harvest the Hungarian tobacco grower was satisfied with the boys’ work and paid them all in cash. Those who had survived the first days on the job had to be justifiably happy; their wage seemed like a small fortune. They had heard the stories about those who after many weeks of hard toil wagered all the money in horse races within hours, maybe the very day they were paid. But they had spent days deciding what to do with the money. It seemed they could always find work to look after their daily existence, but the one thing they thought was missing in their lives was the almighty automobile, which stood between happiness (girls) and frustration. Since they could not buy a reasonable car individually, even with the small “fortune” they owned, a few hundred dollars, pulling their money would get them a good used car.
On returning to Ottawa they found a car dealer who would sell them a 1954 Ford Meteor auto. The 4 year old car was in good shape and they believed the dealer that this exceptional automobile was owned by a retired lady school teacher. Since only one had a driver’s license, he taught the other two to drive.
The real purpose of the car purchase was their firm belief that the way to meet local girls was via the ownership of 4 wheels. Of course, the three way ownership resulted in alternating the days or evenings for usage. Of course, the logistics never worked out and the boys remained, for the most part, without significant relationships.

The object of their desire and the owners in their “ Sunday” best

Among the immigrants were many gloomy people who did not know, or realized perhaps only after many years, the opportunities of their new country. Which host country could have made it possible for immigrants capable only of manual labor, without language or professional skills, within a year of their arrival, to have an acceptable standard of living, that a working family could even afford the ultimate status symbol in the fifties, the purchase of a reasonable car?
The wealth from tobacco picking was not all invested in the car purchase, so Peter could realize his long held dream of owning a set of drums. His friend, Andy played on both the piano and saxophone, so their plan was to form a small band, maybe with a third countryman of theirs. However, the “drummer” was only an enthusiastic dreamer since he had no musical training whatsoever. He had practiced diligently in the basement of their flat, especially when the landlady was not at home, since she had many misgivings about the drums when they have arrived, with reason.

The student-drummer, in the basement , Ottawa, 1958
Towards the end of the fifties, when rock and roll was on its peak, light jazz music was not really a desired product. The small and intimate piano bars they had known back in Hungary were not really in vogue in those days. All they could achieve on the field of light music was the occasional Sunday afternoon entertaining the patients in old age homes, gratis.
Perley Hospital, (senior citizens’ home) Ottawa, 1958
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