A Fine Kettle of Fish

While life on the farm seemed an endless adventure for a young fella with an over-active imagination, yours truly decided that he needed to expand his horizons, as it were, and look beyond the farm for cultural and educational experiences. Or, as my father put it,

“You’re old enough to start making some money towards your support…get a job that pays you.”

Evidently, it was decided the critical work I was responsible for on the farm could be absorbed by the Unc’s and Pup, so I could make enough money over the summer school vacation to buy my own school clothes.

So, at the tender age of 12, I, along with a large number of kids in my school, got up at the crack of dawn, packed a pile of sandwiches, filled rinsed out milk jugs with water, and caught a ride with our Dad’s to the meeting spot where a school bus would pick us up, transport us to various fields throughout Waldo County, where we spent the last 3-4 weeks of our precious summer vacation, raking blueberries.

How’d you like to be the babysitter, ahem, I mean..foreman… of one of those crews?

We actually did work, most kids came from blue collar families and had a strong work ethic ingrained, but we also raised a lot of hell, snuck off in the bushes to smoke black market cigarettes (stolen from one mom/dad or another), tell outrageous lies, and skinny dip if there happened to be a farm pond nearby.

Fortunately for the beleaguered foreman who was charged with keeping us all alive and relatively unharmed while he tried to convince us to rake more, play less, there were usually a few adults along to make a few extra bucks, and to help keep us kids in line. I remember coming home one Friday afternoon after a week’s work of raking berries, and Dad asking me over supper that evening what I made for the week. I showed him my paycheck, $28.09. He looked at the paycheck, and then he looked at me, he said,

“I have next Monday off from work. I’m going with you to rake blueberries. You may want to get some rest Sunday.”

The look on his face told me the story…I was able to easily connect the dots….Dad, was not impressed with my weeks paycheck. I knew next Monday was going to be a backbreaking day, or as my Dad, who was so good with words, put it,

“Better a sore back, than a sore ass.”

Good point.

Monday dawned bright and sunny, Dad and I were up before sunrise, packed a pile of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, filled a couple of thermos’ with ice tea, and headed for Crosby High School, where we met the school bus to be transported to Northport for the day’s work. Dad was in a good mood and laughed and joked with the foreman, Dick Marden, on the bumpy ride on the back roads of Northport. There were a few other parents along with their kids to help out for the day. The over-all mood was light and the bus buzzed with chatter and laughter.

Dad had issued me a challenge that morning on the way to Crosby. If I worked beside him, kept up with his pace, and only took a break when he did (he didn’t take breaks, except for a quick sandwich and drink when coming back from the winnower, and lunch-20 minutes) then, he would give his earning that day to me. I knew this was a challenge I had no choice but accept. I also knew I was going to work hard that day. I figured this was one of those ‘defining moments” between father and son, and I decided that I wanted to out rake my dad. I wanted to prove that I could work as hard as he always did.

I came close.

He out raked me that day, but I know he was proud of my efforts and he was happy to tell Dick to put his earnings for that day on my paycheck at the end of the week. Together, we made over $100.00 that day…a variable fortune in 1968. I was proud of the fact, later that fall, that I was able to buy all my clothes and supplies for school out of my three weeks of earnings raking blueberries that year, and still have money left over in my savings account.

Over the next two or three years this cycle repeated itself. I would help out on the farm with the Unc’s and Pup through July when the need for extra labor was in high demand, i.e.. shearing sheep, haying, maintaining the huge produce bearing gardens, etc., and then rake blueberries in August to earn enough to buy my school clothes.

When I turned 15 in July 1971, the youngest age one could obtain a work permit to work for a legitimate non-farming business, I was hired by Stinson Canning Company to work for the remaining five weeks of summer school vacation.

Three salient points you the reader should be aware of before proceeding with this story.

One, Stinson Canning Company was a processing plant for sardines and for shrimp. Very fishy.

Two, my youngest uncle, Stub, was the foreman, and who I reported too. He believed in “reverse” nepotism.

Three, my beloved Mamie (my paternal grandmother), with whom I lived, had a nose like a bloodhound.

I should probably note here that I actually didn’t work on the farm at all that summer. I was traveling the country with my sister and her husband. We had an incredible adventure that summer taking in such sights as Niagara Falls, and other notable tourist sites as we meandered west, first to Kansas where her husband, Steve’s, family lived, to finally end up in Colorado where they spent the next five years of their lives together. We did a lot of hiking and exploring in Colorado and saw absolutely beautiful country, but as it sometimes happened, me and Sis would struggle to see eye to eye, and so when I called Dad the last week of July to tell him I thought she was being a bit too bossy, he was quick with a solution.

“No problem Son, I have a plane ticket for you, and you can start at Stinson’s with Stub next Monday.”

Yes, I have often wondered what in hell I was thinking when I called Dad to complain.

So, anyway, I reported to Stinson Canning Company at 6:00 am the following Monday morning to start my career as a fish processor.

The first task my Unc Stub, now my foreman, assigned to me was “the chum truck”.

The chum truck was a large wheeler dump truck parked under a scuttle hole in the side of the factory, whose main purpose was to receive all the waste of the herring and mackerel that was being processed.

The waste was dumped into the body of the truck from a conveyor which was 18 inches wide, and stuck up in the air on an angle four feet above the highest point of the body of the truck. This meant the waste made a huge pile in the middle of the body.

Someone had to stand in the body of the truck, and, using a garden rake, spread the waste around the body of the truck so it would fill evenly.

So, adorned in rain-slicker bib over-alls, thigh high rubber boots, rubber gloves, and carrying two garden rakes, (in case the handle broke on one), I clambered up into the body of the truck and joined the very squishy, fishy, mess.

I did mention this was the end of July, right?

The temps were climbing quickly to the 90’s that day.

Before 9:00 am, I was standing waist deep in this soup trying to keep the level even inside the body of the truck, without staggering under the endless stream of heads, tails, and guts flowing from the conveyor. When that truck was full, I got a 10 minute break while the truck was replaced with another one.

Unc Stub happened by at one point to check on me, peered in the body of the truck, nodded at my work, and asked,

“Whatcha think Mitch?”

I knew this was a trick question. If I told him what I thought, he would likely find something even worse for me to do. So, I grinned and said,

“Hey, it’s nice to be able to work outside Unc. Thanks for giving me this job.”

Stub chuckled and informed me as he turned to go back inside the factory, that “this was building character.”

Yeah, right. I was literally up to my ass in “character.”

By the way, you might wonder what my compensate for this job was….I was paid $1.40 an hour, no overtime pay, but there was plenty of overtime.

At about 4:30 that afternoon, Unc came out and told me to hop down. The processing lines were almost done for the day, and there was adequate room left in the truck. So, he made me stand over a large grate in the ground that led to the factory’s waste disposal system, and he hosed me down with this high pressure 2” water hose that damn near knocked me on my ass. Evidently, I was too smelly even for the fish factory. After that, I was led inside where I helped with the cleaning of the processing lines. Actually that was fun. Me and two other guys my age, were hosing down everything in sight, including each other, and washing it all down into the same waste disposal system. When that was done, Unc told us all,

“You boys go home and get some dinner and rest, and then meet me back here at 11:00 pm.”

Herring and mackerel were hauled to the factory in large tanker semi-trucks, or by boat. That night, it was a tanker truck…filled with soon to be sardines. We would use those powerful water hoses to wash the fish from the truck through a sluice into awaiting storage tanks, located in the basement of the factory, for the next days processing.

I had long since been able to recognize just how awful I smelled. I mean, after a while your body, in its own defense, shuts off your sense of smell.

When I climbed out of Unc’s Dodge power-wagon, in my grandparents driveway, intent on going in and enjoying my grandmothers fabulous cooking, and having a much needed meal, I soon realized the reason why grandmother, Mamie, was widely known for her bloodhound nose.

I didnt even make it to the steps of the shed.

Mamie met me on the steps with a broom and proceeded to whack me with it.

“You are NOT coming into this house smelling like that.” whack, “You get those clothes off out here on the steps.” whack whack, “Then, you get yourself in the shower, and make sure you clean the shower after.” whack.

“Ok, ok Mamie…stop whacking me with that broom.”

I looked back towards the driveway to see Unc Stub, sitting in his truck, laughing it up as he backed out of the driveway and headed to his house. I secretly hoped that Aunt Brenda whacked the hell out of him with her broom when he got there.

Then I remembered Unc Stub’s words… that “this was building character.” Boy oh boy, evidently I needed an extra helping of it.

So, I began the now daily ritual of stripping down on the steps of the shed, slinking into the shower inside the shed, usually with a couple of reminder whacks of the broom from my beloved Mamie, and then putting all those offensive smelling clothes in a bag kept in the barn, until Mamie would wash them. She refused to let those clothes come anywhere near any other laundry. Once a week, she would wash my “work clothes” and then clean and sanitize the washing machine after. I stayed well out of the range of her lethal broom when she did this.

Over the next five weeks, I worked several different jobs at the factory. I would dump the little cans that sardines are packed in, onto the belt that would carry them to the ladies that comprised the line. They would grab the cans off from this belt, and fish from another belt that ran round and round, and then they would do their ju-ju magic with scissors and knives, and stuff the finished cleaned fish into these cans, while sweeping all the chum onto yet another belt to be carried out to the chum truck. From there, the cans of packed fish were put on yet another belt which carried them to a huge and very mysterious contraption that washed the fish, then pressure cooked them, and finally sealed the cans, where they would pop out on the other side, ready to be packed for market. This “can-man” job was an easy, so I would jump at the chance to do it when it when the regular can-man wasnt there.

One day, me and another kid my age, Freddie, were carrying large cans of jalapenos peppers, to distribute on the line for a run of jalapenos infused sardines. These cans were gallon sized and the liquid would slop over us as we loaded the line. We wore protective aprons and gloves because the juice would burn and leave an ugly red rash to exposed skin. Freddie told me he had to pee, and asked if I’d cover for him. I told him I would but he should hurry because the two of us were struggling to keep up. He promised he be as quick as he could and ran off to the bathroom. A couple of minutes later a pitiful scream could be heard over the constant loud thrum of the factory at work. Freddie came out of the bathroom, his eyes wide, his face flushed, and he was walking like he was on stilts. Apparently, in his haste to be quick, he didnt bother to wash his hands before unzipping.

Poor Freddie. Not only was he in obvious and constant-twitch pain, but he was teased unmercifully by both the men and the ladies.

Especially the ladies.

“You want me to take a look Freddie? My mother used to be a nurse.”

“Hey Freddie, I’m looking for a “hot” date tonight…interested?”

Anyway, I also, at times, would pack the cooked and sealed cans of sardines into boxes in the warehouse located next to the factory. I sometimes would go down into the bowels of the factory to help the “bailers”. This job was hard physical work. Wielding huge fish nets on long poles, these guys would dip into the large storage tanks of herring floating in water and dump them onto the conveyor belt that would carry the fish upstairs to the processing line. A great workout for the upper body.

There were a couple of guys, Phil and Arthur, that worked the nets, that could only be described as “colorful”. Phil told me he was a descendant of Geronimo himself. And, he would go into sort of a fugue when Arthur would start the “war beat” using the handle of his net on the side of the fish tank. Phil, would get this glazed look in his eyes and start war-dancing, whooping a war cry and scare the living bejesus out of anyone that wasnt aware of their little prank. Newbies to the factory were always indoctrinated by Phil and Arthur, me included.

Hey, I was 15 for crying out loud…I didnt know….until Unc Stub walked in during one of these “fits”.

“You boys wanna play around all day, I’ll go back upstairs and tell the ladies why there aint no fish on the line.”

The ladies were paid piece-meal. They didnt like empty lines. That was far scarier than a crazy Indian.

Other entertainment on the job down there in the bowels were the rats.

I have never seen rats that big before, some of them as big as a large cat or a small poodle. I guess they thrived on fish chum. Mostly they shied away from humans, but you never wanted to corner one of them. The simple fact was, they were there, and they were not going away. So, I left them alone and they left me alone. Phil and Arthur would store rocks to throw at them, but I figured it would only make ’em meaner, so I didnt participate. Those two were pretty decent shots. I wondered if either one of them ever thought about pitching a baseball.

This five week odyssey of working at the sardine factory finally came to an end when it was time to go back to school, although I did occasionally continue to go with Unc Stub at night to help unload the fish. Gave me a few bucks for school lunch, and it was worth the dreaded broom of my grandmother. Usually we would return home after unloading fish in the wee hours, and Mamie being annoyed at the hour, would put a little extra into the whack.

After that summer of 1971, I never returned to work at the sardine factory in the following summers, but I will never forget the experience. After-all, it truly did build character.

Mitch Littlefield

About Mitch Littlefield

I was born into a large family in the mid 1950s, in Belfast, Maine. My family owned and operated three working farms during my childhood, and the entire family worked these farms. It is these formative years, this family, those farms, and that way of life that is the background for these stories.