Your Mother's Pumpkin Patch
© Copyright 2019 by Nancy Massand
This is a story of my first job. It had nothing to do with teaching or writing. I made pumpkins. I know it reads like a sitcom, but I promise I didn't make it up.
The summer I graduated from high school, my nine best friends and I got a job at a pumpkin factory. Yes, you heard that right. We thought it was tremendous good luck that we all got hired at the same place and could be together a few months longer before heading off to college. That never happens. But being seventeen and oblivious to the darker workings of the business world, we didn’t question how ten friends who barged into a factory without an appointment would all get hired. The boss was elated to get ten naïve unskilled workers who were happy with minimum wage and no benefits. On the first day of summer we all piled into an ancient station wagon and headed for our new job.
Gregg Novelties was in a seedy neighborhood of Worcester’s warehouse district near the railroad tracks. The other side of the tracks. You know what I mean. The back lot where we parked was overgrown with crab grass and littered with bottles. A couple of windows were broken. We didn’t care. We spilled out of the car like clowns in a Volkswagen at the circus, eager to start our first day at a real job that paid with checks instead of cash. We weren’t babysitting or mowing lawns. We were factory workers!
The owner called us into his office to give us our assignments for the day. Seth didn’t look like a factory boss. His hair was slicked back and greasy. He wore a tight button-down shirt that didn’t do much for his pudgy physique, tucked into pressed blue jeans. And those high heeled cowboy boots! I kept expecting him to break out in a chorus of yippee-kai-yi-yays. Turns out Seth was a recent college graduate who didn’t know what to do with his life, so his father had bought him the factory for a graduation present and set him up in business. It was Seth’s first day at work, too.
Novelty production goes in seasons, and in the summer months they prepare for Halloween. Hence the pumpkins. Our job assignments were all focused on piecing together and painting thousands of pumpkins to be packed and stored before shipping all over the country. Some of us were pluggers. We had a box of bulbs with cords at our feet, and as the pumpkins bobbled down the assembly line we’d pick them up one by one and plug a bulb into its hole. Then we’d plunk it back on the line and grab the next one. Plug, plunk. Plug, plunk. All day. Some of us were face painters. We grabbed the plugged but faceless plastic orange pumpkins from the assembly line and held each one behind a grinning iron template, sprayed the plate with black paint, then plunked the smiling jack o’ lantern back on the assembly line before reaching for the next. Pssht, plunk. Pssht, plunk. For eight hours in sweltering heat. The fans didn’t work, and opening the windows didn’t help much. Most of them were stuck shut, anyway.
The painters were lucky, because they got breaks built into their job. After a few dozen pumpkins the templates were full of black gunk and had to be cleaned to avoid producing pumpkins that looked like dripping vampires. The painters got to leave the line and run their templates to Kenny, the vat guy. Kenny stood next to a huge tub of turpentine, and the only thing he did all day was clean the dripping templates. We’d hand them to him, and he’d dip them into the vat with metal tongs and scrub them with a brush. While he was doing that, we’d grab a clean one from his done pile and race back to the line. Seth never assigned one of us to be the vat guy, because we were minors. Kenny stayed on breathing turpentine fumes for two weeks or so and then floated out the door, to be replaced by the next vat guy. This pattern persisted throughout the summer.
Seth had been instructed by his father to rotate our jobs every few days to avoid burnout on the line, since we were all kids. He had adults to work the machines that melted and molded the plastic, and we made friends with some of them. One lady, Doris, had been with the company for thirty-five years. At lunch she would tell us about her life in the factory. She considered herself lucky to still have all her fingers. Her asthma was getting pretty bad, but she didn’t complain. She had raised five children, and now she was helping out with the grandkids. She couldn’t afford to leave. “Go to college, kids,” she told us. “You go study and don’t ever look back. There’s better than this out there somewhere.”
The noise of the machines was deafening, so much so that we had to yell at the top of our lungs if we wanted to talk to each other on the line. There was an up-side to this, though; we could say anything we wanted without fear of the foreman hearing us. The foreman was actually a woman: tiny, feisty Viola. Vi for short, she informed us on day one. And don’t mess with her. She couldn’t have been much over four feet tall and looked like she weighed ninety pounds soaking wet. And she was soaking wet; all of us were. Only Seth, with his feet up on his desk in front of the fan, never broke a sweat.
Vi ran up and down the line all day long, making sure we weren’t slacking off. Even so, with the assembly line clacking and the molding machines roaring, we sang terrible songs about Seth and she never caught on. My favorite was to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” and had seventeen verses. I still remember the first one:
In the town where I was born
Lived a rich man and his son
And he said, “Dad, what will I do
Now my college days are through?”
And Dad said, “I will buy you a pumpkin factory, pumpkin factory, pumpkin factory…”
We would keep the songs going for hours. Vi knew we were up to something, but since she was probably deaf after working there so many years, she couldn’t make out the words. “What are you kids laughing about? Speed it up!” We’d humor her until her back was turned, and then start in again.
One day when I thought I would die of boredom if I had to plug one more pumpkin, Vi announced that my friend Patty and I were being reassigned as packers. Our new job was to grab the finished pumpkins as they got to the end of the line and pack them in boxes by the dozen. We were to stack the boxes against the wall so the loaders could take them to the warehouse. To our joy, our new station had a window that opened! Not much of a view, only the littered back lot two floors down, but a breeze blew in from the railroad tracks. Well, not really a breeze. More like a hot, sultry little sigh. But it was better than the plug line or the paint line, that was for sure. There was no ventilation back there.
We loved packing. Pumpkins bobbled down the line like friendly ghouls, grinning at us before we snatched them two by two and fitted them into their boxes. Then we’d tape the top flaps shut and stack them next to the wall. Two-four-six-eight-ten-twelve, fold, swish, crack. Two-four-six-eight-ten-twelve, fold, swish, crack. Over and over. It wasn’t noisy there, so we couldn’t sing. Vi was on our backs to pack faster since she had a big order to fill. With nothing to amuse us, we threw ourselves into the work and turned into packing machines. Vi was beside herself with excitement. “These girls are terrific!” she called up the line. “Speed up production!” The line started moving faster. And faster. Vi disappeared to yell at someone else, leaving us to our own devices as we tried to cope with the army of grinning heads marching in battle formation down the line. We couldn’t get them into the boxes fast enough. There was no time to seal the tops. Pumpkins started spilling off the line onto the floor. We felt like Lucy and Ethel on that infamous chocolate factory episode.
“The window!” I screamed to Patty. We scooped up armfuls of pumpkins and chucked them down to the back lot. By the time Vi came to check on us, we had the floor clear of excess pumpkins and the wall had sealed boxes stacked almost to the ceiling. “Amazing!” Vi was almost smiling, she was so happy. She turned and yelled up the line. “Crank up the speed another notch! These girls are fantastic!”
Our jaws dropped to our knees as she bustled away to harass the other workers. We packed in a frenzy: one for the box, one for the window. One for the box, one for the window. A group of little kids gathered on the ground below us. “Hey, pumpkin ladies! Can we have some more?” We were happy to oblige. We watched them pick up as many as they could carry and race off with them to tell their friends. The crowd of children grew, and none of them left empty-handed. We felt like Robin Hood and Little John. Seth was oblivious, but Vi grumbled that the loaders must have stolen a few dozen boxes that day.
On our last day of work before heading off to college, we asked Vi if we could each have a pumpkin for a souvenir. “Only if you pay for them!” She glared at us, and I wondered if she knew. As we piled into the station wagon and bid farewell to Gregg Novelties, we were thrilled to see a grinning pumpkin in every window on the block. Our legacy.
During Thanksgiving break my friends and I decided to have a reunion and surprise the people at the factory. But no one was there. There was a peeling sign on the front door: CLOSED BY THE BOARD OF HEALTH. Following Doris’ advice, we went off to college and never looked back.
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