It was the summer of 1990 and I was spending my first summer in the Illinois Valley since 1985. Two of the big summer movies were Die Hard 2 and Ghost. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August and almost overnight the United States was starting a massive military buildup that would become the First Gulf War. My very dear friend Michelle Mignone—who I had not seen since 1988 when we spent a week together in Chicago—was home for the last part of the summer. Sadly, it would be the last time we would see each other. I took the train down to Macomb a few times and hung out with some friends. Fans of the off-the-wall and already cult TV program Twin Peaks were anxiously awaiting the fall season to find out who had shot FBI Agent Cooper.
I taught an adult education class for Illinois Valley Community College (actually at a church in Streator, Illinois. One very hot and humid afternoon while driving to class (I enjoyed taking the back roads from LaSalle to Streator through small towns like Leonore and Lowell) in my grandparent’s car I had a blow out (probably a good thing that I had taken the back roads on that day instead of the more heavily traveled Route 51). While I was fixing changing tires and cursing the weather, an Illinois State Police car pulled up behind me. The State Trooper was a female with a broken arm. She asked if I needed any help. I thought that was kind of funny. No, I told her. I was just about finished. Okay, she said, I will follow you into town. That was pretty cool of her.
I applied for a teaching position in Malaysia; had gone through two interviews—one on the phone and the other at Concordia near Chicago—and was waiting to find out when I would be going (I felt so sure of myself).
And now I was going to be working at Del Monte for a few weeks.
Things were definitely looking up for me.
I never let on about my educational background and that I had taught in Japan and at IVCC when I went out to Del Monte. Of course I did mention that I had gone to college on the application form but I didn’t mention anything about my work experience. However, I think someone must have noticed because on my first day of work, I was told that I would be working outside and responsible for keeping track of the amount of corn (tonnage) that was dumped by trucks every hour (which in turn gave the shift supervisors inside some idea as to how much corn was being processed) as well as making hourly and nightly reports. In addition I would also help the tractor drivers who pushed the sweet corn onto these conveyor belts that led into the plant. I would also be working nights from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am.
The plant had just about finished packing lima beans for the season and now had turned its attention to sweet corn. Mendota is famous for sweet corn and every August they hold a Sweet Corn Festival (with all the corn being donated by Del Monte). And once the festival is over is when the Del Monte plant begins its around-the-clock sweet corn pack—first with corn from surrounding communities and, by the end of the pack around the middle of October, with corn trucked in from as far away as northern Wisconsin.
I was really fortunate to get on the night shift because the supervisors I got to know and work with were pretty cool. They took an immediate liking to me for some reason (maybe they had found out about my application) because they were really cool to me. And I just wanted to keep a low profile and not let on that I was only going to work as long as it took to find out when I would be leaving for the teaching gig in Malaysia. I just wanted to do my job, make my money and get on with my life, which of course was going to be back overseas.
Sometimes I have wondered how things might have played out differently if I hadn’t applied for that job in Malaysia? I did quite well teaching over the summer at IVCC and I probably could have taught a class or two there in the fall. I know it would have only been part time and not exactly what I wanted, but it could have seen me through a year or two. Who knows? I was just so obsessed with getting back overseas that I might have missed out on some other opportunities (later, I would find out just how many).
My job was quite simple: I had to tell the truck drivers where to dump the corn, keep track of how much sweet corn was “pushed/loaded” onto two long conveyor belts (which were actually in a shallow concrete groove) on either side of this monstrosity piece of machinery that cleaned the corn of any stalks and other chaff before the slender, green-sheaved ears of corn went inside, and give the two tractor drivers breaks now and then. Knowing how much corn was dumped and how much was still left outside soon made me quite popular with people who wanted to know how long we would be working on any given night especially after the last trucks dumped their loads. (In the beginning we worked all night, but later we were able to finish early). Also the night supervisors who wanted to know how much corn was processed at any given time, made it part of their nightly routine to ask me how much corn had been unloaded during the shift. I got to know a lot of people that way.
There were a lot of people employed at the Mendota plant and I could see that many of them were migrant workers from Mexico. I don’t know how many were legal or illegal, but someone told me that when—then President George Bush senior was running for office in 1988 and stopped off at the plant, many of the illegal workers were supposedly kept inside, away from the press. Whether that really happened or not, there were a lot of Mexicans employed at the plant (in fact I even noticed two of my former students from the adult education ESL class I taught that summer). Many could not speak English very well and many were given the most dangerous and difficult jobs inside (like working the cutters—these huge steel blades that cut or sliced the corn off the cob).
Some employees were between jobs or working at Del Monte for as long as it took to find something better. There were a couple of ex-cons who had just gotten out of the joint and took the first job they could get. One night, one of these ex-cons who drove one of the tractors said he was going to get something from his car and never returned. There were some rough-looking types who obviously had some issues about something and were just waiting for the wrong person to cross their paths.
For some people, this was all they had for now. This was what put food on the table and paid the bills. These were people not looking to get out, just trying to get by for now. There were a number of single moms working there and when I saw these women it reminded me of when my brother and I were younger and our mother worked at Spiller and Spiller in Peru, Illinois. Later I would find out that our mother and even our father had worked at Del Monte.
I didn’t realize this at the time though. I was just working there until I left in a few weeks, maybe a month. For now, I was just going to do my job and keep a low profile. The thought never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get hired to teach at the school in Malaysia.
It should have.