Originally posted in April 2009: Here’s a story about working for the Del Monte bean and pea plant in Markesan, Wisconsin. Fresh out of Wilton high school, five or six of us drove out to America’s heartland to earn a little money and have an adventure. It was fairly miserable work all around. Back-breaking, tedious, soul-killing. We wound up working different jobs and different shifts — pushing cans, operating fork lifts, end-of-shift cleanup, hosing down freshly picked peas and beans. Migrants did the actual picking in the fields.
For a week or two some of us were working the 8 am to 5 pm shift. We’d shower, eat and head out for a night of beer-drinking at a local tavern. We’d sometimes go to a place in Fond du Lac called the Brat Hut. And when we got back to the plant around midnight or so we got into a habit — for a couple of weeks, I mean — of taking out our rage at Del Monte.
A friend worked the evening shift atop a wooden chimney-like structure. His job was to clean freshly-picked beans and peas. Every night they were unloaded off trucks and sent up to his area on electrically-powered conveyor belts set at a 45 degree angle. The vegetables were then dropped into huge spinning cylindrical containers made of chicken wire. Our friend operated sprayers that bathed them in steaming-hot water.
The beans and peas were then dropped into tall metal chutes that fed them straight into a stream of open-topped, label-free cans about 20 or 25 feet below — constantly moving, spotless and gleaming. It would take no more than a second or two to fill up each can, maybe less. It went on like this all night, every night, and with a fairly deafening sound.
Each and every night for about two weeks, my beered-up friends and I would climb to the top of the tower, say hello to our friend, and piss right into the chutes that fed the beans and peas into the cans. We figured we hit maybe 200 to 250 cans each night, minimum.
We were anarchic, fuck-all middle-class kids, but we’d been raised by good people in well-to-do homes and weren’t psychopaths. If guys with our backgrounds had the rage to piss into cans of vegetables every night you can bet others have done this since. A lot. Pissing into prepared food containers is what powerless people do to give them the feeling that they’ve somehow evened up the score. Think of this the next time you buy Del Monte.
This story feeds, by the way, into a piece I ran four and a half years ago called Near-Death Trip. A nightmare that happened to me in Wisconsin when I was just out of high school. It’s funny how memories from long ago suddenly return and tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey.”
The scariest thing wasn’t the fact that myself and two friends came close to dying in a car crash that almost happened…but didn’t. The freaky part was re-living that godawful horrifying feeling as I waited for the car we were in — a 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible — to either flip over or slam into a tree or hit another car like a torpedo, since we were sliding sideways down the road at 70 or 80 mph.
It happened just outside Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. A classmate named Bill Butler was driving, another named Mike Dwyer was riding shotgun, and I was in the back seat. It was 1 am or so, and we were coming from a beer joint called the Brat Hut. We’d all had several pitchers of beer and were fairly stinko.
We were five or six miles out of town and heading south towards Markesan, where we had jobs (plus room and board) at the Del Monte Bean and Pea packing plant. To either side of us were flat, wide-open fields and country darkness.
Butler, a bit of an asshole back then, was going faster and faster. I looked at the speedometer and saw he was doing 90, 95, 100. I was about to say something when the road started to curve to the right, and then a lot more. Butler was driving way too fast to handle it and I was sure we were fucked, especially with nobody wearing seat belts and the top down and all.
But thanks to those magnificent Chevrolet engineers, Butler’s Impala didn’t roll over two or three times or slam into a tree or whatever. It just spun out from the rear and slid sideways about 200 feet or so. Sideways! I remember hitting the back seat in panic and looking up at the stars and hearing the sound of screeching tires and saying to myself, “You’re dead.”
The three of us just sat there after the car came to a halt. There was a huge cloud of burnt-rubber smoke hanging above and behind us. I remember somebody finally saying “wow.” (Dwyer, I think.) My heart began beating again after a few seconds.
Maybe some 17 year-old kid with issues similar to Butler’s will read this and think twice the next time he’s out with friends and starting to tromp on the gas.