For many teenagers growing up in America’s Midwest their first summer job is often not working at some fast food restaurant or other service-related employment, but instead detasseling corn.
The neat thing about corn detasseling was that you didn’t have to be 16 to work, but instead only 13.
Back in the summer of 1971, my friend Jim and I decided that was what we were going to do that summer having just turned that magical age of 13. So one summer afternoon, we hopped on the bus from Oglesby, Illinois to LaSalle—about a 20-minute ride—and went to the Unemployment Office where we signed up. (We had gone to the Social Security Office a few days earlier to get our Social Security Cards with that all-important Social Security Number which entered us in the system and allowed us to work and pay taxes.)
It took us longer to get to the office than it did for us to fill out the application form. And when we had finished filling it out, we were told that we would be given a call when to report to work—actually meet in the parking lot of the A&W Root Beer Stand where we would get on a bus to take us to the fields—sometime in the middle of July.
For those of your unfamiliar with this agrarian rite of passage and the science of hybridization, corn detasseling is the crucial last step in producing hybrid corn seed. It involves removing the pollen-producing top part of the plant, i.e., the tassel, so the corn can’t pollinate itself. Now if you had been paying attention the day in biology or botany class when your teacher was explaining how pollination works, you would know that if the corn couldn’t pollinate itself, pollen from another variety of corn grown in the same field would be carried by the wind, pollinating the detasseled corn. The result is corn that bears the genetic characteristics of both varieties and can produce healthier crops with higher yields.
Although that bit of pollination lore might have been lost on me back in 1971 and again a few years later in a high school biology class, it wouldn’t in 1986 when I took a biology class at Eureka College. I’m sure my college biology teacher Dr. Mike Toliver would be proud of my explanation.
Despite technological advances in agriculture, detasseling is still a task that for the most part needs a hand—a human hand or two, if you can excuse the pun—and that’s where the need for manual labor comes which must be done quickly because the detasseling season is short, around three weeks from mid-July to August. And that’s where all those teenagers come in (migrant workers supposedly want nothing to do with this minimum wage job); approximately 100,000 teenagers, according to some estimates by seed companies and detasseling contractors, have corn detasseled during the summer.
Now that I was officially employed I had to break the news to my grandparents who had planned to take me on a trip out west to the Dakotas and Montana where my grandmother’s grandmother was buried in Hays City, Montana. For months they had been talking about and planning for this trip and looking forward to having me along for the third summer in a row.
Well, suffice to say they did not take too kindly to me giving up this chance to go out west with them and of course, in my pubescent wisdom, it was more important for me to make money instead, of going on some “dumb trip with my grandparents.” After all, I was a teenager now and it wasn’t too cool to be hanging out with your grandparents when you could be making money.
Don’t worry, that wisdom, or should I say the lack thereof, would come back to haunt me over and over, time and time again every time I would see Mt. Rushmore on TV, in a movie, or in travel article, and think, “gee, I could have seen that in 1971.”
When the day finally came to start detasseling, I had to get up before the crack of dawn, which if I am not mistaken is still pretty darn early to have to start anything. My Mom, who was already up early waiting for her ride into work at Spiller & Spiller (a furniture factory where she bent tubes of steel into legs for kitchen tables and chairs) had already made me a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packed them in a brown paper sack along with some Twinkies. She had even frozen a can of Coca-Cola in the freezer the night before and wrapped it up in some newspapers for me.
Of all the things I might have done wrong that summer and would do wrong in the summers to follow before I finally went into the Air Force five years later, I have to say my Mom was pretty darn proud of me that I had a job that summer of 1971.
It took Jim and I about 30 minutes to walk from our homes to the parking lot of the A&W where there were about 50 other kids waiting for the buses to arrive. I recognized a few kids who had been in 7th grade with us; however, most of them were 8th graders, and high school freshmen and sophomores.
There was some older looking kid, probably a junior or senior in high school with a clipboard and calling off names. Looks like I had gotten there just in time. A few moments later, our names were called off.
It suddenly dawned on me that this was the first thing I had done without any parental supervision or adults around telling me what to do and what not to do. This was so cool. However, before I could revel with this sudden epiphany, two yellow school buses pulled into the parking lot. Of course Jim and I were expected to sit at the front of the bus with the rest of the younger kids while all the cool, older kids got to sit in the back.
From there, it was about a 30-minute ride to the fields we would be working that day. There was a kind of a staging area where the buses let off all the detasselers and everyone was put into smaller groups with a kind of squad leader or supervisor whose job it was to make sure that we did our job and if we left any tassels to get them and of course bawl us out for not doing our jobs.
There is not much to corn detasseling. All you had to do was reach up and snap off the tassel. That was it. Pretty easy and menial and back in 1971 worth every penny of the $1.25 an hour minimum wage we got.
First detasseling machines were used to detassel the corn—which detasseled about 50 percent of a field. Then that’s where the detasselers came in. Some of the older kids got to ride on these huge machines that carried eight to twelve detasselers for taller corn; however the majority of us would be walking the fields and snapping off those tassels that had been missed by the machine.
The first row was a piece of cake. This was going to be easy, I thought. Easiest money I had ever made. Unfortunately Jim and I were not in the same crew so there was no one to talk to as I slowly walked down the rows reaching up and snapping off those tassels. The two detasselers on either side of me must have been old hands at this because they left me in a cloud of pollen as they quickly moved down their rows.
It was right about now that I had wished I had brought along my transistor radio to listen to some music. It got pretty lonely out there.
That’s when I started to think about all the money I was going to make. Let’s see that was $1.25 an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week for three weeks. Yeah, that was going to be a nice lump sum of money. And to think I would have missed out on this had I gone out west with my grandparents.
I thought about what I was going to buy when I got my paycheck at the end of the detasseling season. First, there was this really cool electric guitar that I had my eyes on. Never mind that I didn’t know how to play the guitar; I would learn later. Next, with the money that was left over I would pick up some bell-bottomed jeans from Arlan’s Department Store. Finally, if there was any money still left, there were some cool beads at the 9th Circle Stonehenge Head Shop in LaSalle that I would like to have. And when I started 8th grade in the fall, I would be so cool in my new jeans, beads and playing my guitar.
And that’s what I thought about as I walked down that long, seemingly never ending row of corn snapping off the tassels. The day had gone on forever and when I asked my squad leader, who checked in on us from time to time, what time it was, he told me it was only 8:00.
I had only been working for one hour.
And then it started to get hot. July, sweltering, sticky, hot. It was a good thing I had remembered to wear a cap with that July sun blazing in the sky. It seemed hotter in those tall rows of corn and any breeze, was a welcomed relief. Suddenly it wasn’t so easy reaching up and snapping off those tassels. My neck started to hurt. My shoulders grew stiff. Pollen rained down on me and got inside my sticky, sweaty shirt and began to itch and itch and then really itch.
I never thought corn could be so tall.
When is this row going to end?
Thirty minutes later I emerged from the field. Fortunately, I was not the last one out. That would have been doomed me forever in the annals of corn detasseling not to mention make the other kids angry at me for having to make them wait. This time it would be some other poor soul. Once we had finished that field, we walked across a blacktop road and started down another one.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the day got hotter and more humid. I heard one of the crew leaders yelling at one of the detasselers for missing some tassels. My crew leader was pretty cool and spent most of the time hitting on a girl working the row next to mine. He was going to be a junior at LaSalle-Peru Township High School in the fall and she was going to be a sophomore. She had stripped down to a bikini top and made quite the impression on the crew leader. He had no time to check my row to see if I had missed any tassels. Good thing, considering how my young mind was wandering the few times I did get a glimpse of her snapping off them tassels.
Lunchtime and those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches never tasted better. And my Mom’s brilliant idea to freeze the Coca Cola the night before gave me an icy cold beverage to wash down those soggy, warm sandwiches.
After an hour, it was back to the fields and back to another seemingly endless row of corn with tassels waiting to be snapped off, but now with my arms, shoulders, and neck sore, it wasn’t as easy as it had been in the morning. My mouth was dry, my body was itching from all the pollen and the shimmering waves of heat that blanketed the field I was working in made it all the more miserable.
I thought about the guitar, the bell-bottomed jeans, Stonehenge, and the girl in the bikini top. I started to calculate how much money I was making with every tassel I snapped.
One more row finished. Then another. And then one more.
Finally, it was quitting time and a long bus ride home. Jim and I didn’t say much. We had only seen each other at lunch and he looked and felt just as beat as I did on the bus home.
When I got home I took the longest cool bath of my life and for dinner had BLT’s and iced tea. Good thing. I was too tired to eat.
That night when I went to bed and closed my eyes, all I could see was corn. Fields and fields of corn stretching as far as one could see into the distance. Corn, corn and more corn. Not exactly what you would call a field of dreams, either. I never saw so much corn in my life. And that was the last thing I remembered before I fell asleep.
“Jeffrey. Jeffrey. It’s 5:00.”
“Huh? What? 5:00?”
“Jeffrey, honey. It’s time to get up.”
“Just five more minutes, Mom.”
I rolled over and slept for another three hours.
That night my Mom didn’t say anything when she came home from work and made my favorite meal, spaghetti. In fact, she never said anything about whether or not she was disappointed with me for not going back to work. She would have something else to be disappointed with me by the end of that summer.
Jim never made it to the second day either.
My grandparents were disappointed when they returned from their vacation the following week and found out that I had quit after just one day. I wouldn’t hear the end of it for the next year—until they went on vacation again. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be inviting me along.
The following year I went corn detasseling again and that time I lasted the entire two weeks and made enough money to buy a cassette recorder, tapes, and some other cool stuff. I never got that electric guitar though but I did see the girl in the bikini top in high school two years later.