Photo: Me in 1966.
As you might have discovered through my blog posts, my life has, and remains, long on the bizarre and short on the ordinary. Some time ago, as I was munching on one of my favorite lunch delights, pastrami with extra pickles, French fries, and iced tea, my best bud, David, suggested that I blog about my short career as a solanum tuberosum extract specialist (potato peeler).
I was first married at the ripe old age of eighteen (1966), right out of high school. Not having a clue about life, I believed that the Ricky Nelson family and the Cleavers of Beaver fame were the norm—only my family was distorted and dysfunctional. HAH! So here we were, Anita and Rick—two married and clueless children—starting out on a disastrous journey that EVERYBODY but us could see was, as my grandmother used to say, “A fast trip to Hell in a handbasket.”
So, I moved in with clueless, but pretty, Rick (he looked like the late actor Patrick Swayze) in his Van Nuys, California rented house. It came complete with a neurotic cat. This cat liked to trap mice and eat them on the bed while we were sleeping. But that’s another tale for a future story.
Shortly after our wedding, and with appropriate comedic mishaps, we decided to move to Vallejo, California and live with Rick’s mother, stepfather, brother, and sister—or as I called them, “the Bonzo family.”
It took us only one day (we were poor and furnitureless) to pile everything we owned into a trailer, hitched it to our 1962 Ford, and left smoggy Van Nuys. Yep, we were on our way to a new life in beautiful Northern California. We drove about five miles before the engine seized and the car died. It seems that whoever changed the oil for us didn’t tighten the bolt thingy that holds the oil in. It drained out and murdered the car.
On to U-Haul for “America’s Moving Adventure” or so it said on the back of the truck. Getting lost only twice, and almost running out of gas as we drove through the endless sea of farmland on Interstate 5, we finally arrived at my in-law’s sparkling new tract home in the original capital of California—Vallejo.
There I was, bright-eyed and shiny cheeked, not knowing what to do with my life other than play wife. I was clueless, living at my in-law’s, with a high school drop-out husband, who was, shall I say, emotionally and intellectually equal to a bull moose. Double Leo, with strong Scorpio tendencies. If you don’t know what that means, trust me; it is in the realm of extremely un-good.
WHAT WAS I THINKING???? That’s the problem, I wasn’t.
After about a month, my mother-in-law, Evelyn, decided that it was time for me to get a job. Also a high school dropout, she waitressed at the Home Baked Pie Restaurant. I had never worked before, so I looked in the local paper and applied for a few clerical jobs.
My young age and lack of experience was a no-go from the start, so Evelyn took it upon herself to get me a job. One day, she announced, in her best militant, southern drawl, “I don’t want no slackers in MAH house. I got you a good, decent job at the CHP.”
I was to report to the Gulf Coast CHP potato processing plant at 8 a.m. the next morning. Okay, what was I to do? At eighteen, I wasn’t the older and wiser curmudgeon I am now. I thought I’d better go.
I reported, filled out paperwork, was handed a rubber apron, a hefty potato peeler, and a pair of industrial rubber gloves. The office manager, a woman with brassy, blond hair, heavy make-up, skin-hugging jeans, and a tight blouse that showed off her prized possessions, ushered me into a cavernous building. I looked around, wide-eyed and stunned. It was piled with mountains of potatoes being shoveled by a determined-looking man into the automatic peeler. Surreal.
The potatoes were surface-peeled by a machine, then guided onto a conveyor belt that formed a river of partially peeled spuds.
There I was, all 98 pounds and 5’4” standing at a GINORMOUS table with three beefy women who looked like they spent their nights chugalugging cheap beer and filling their jaws with chewing tobacco.
Musty-smelling dust filled the already stale air of the cavernous factory. I had a bad feeling about this job. A CLANG and nerve-grating buzzer sounded. The platform I stood on shook beneath my rubber-boot clad feet. A near deafening roar brought a tsunami of partially peeled potatoes rushing down the chute toward us. We grabbed them and gouged out their eyes. We hacked at black, rotten spots, mold, insect damage, and anything else we didn’t like, then tossed them onto a downhill slide that chopped them into French fries.
The thick, pungent, and sticky smell coated the inside of my nostrils. A thick layer of slime covered the floor. The pockety, rackety, grindy noise of the machines crept into my head until I thought my brain would melt. One of the women shout-sang over the din of rumble, creak, clang, and bang, “Doin’ the work for Jesus. Making spuds for the Lo-orrd!”
Zillions of naked potatoes, like brown, spotted monsters raced toward us faster and faster. Visions of Lucille Ball at the candy factory loomed in my mind as I watched the three she-buffalos whittling away like beavers in a tree-felling contest. Stuff flew everywhere! Up my nose, in my face and hair, and down my shirt. The floor was slick with potato rot. AAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!!
After a day that seemed like a century, I dragged myself home in a trance-like stupor, smelling of rotten potatoes and so tired I knew my eyes were about to bleed.
I said nothing to anyone at home and headed straight for the bathroom. After hurling chunks of puke into the toilet, I filled the bathtub with hot, steamy water, and poured in a whole box of lavender-scented bubble stuff. I scrubbed and soaked for an hour. Did that remove the stink of potatoes? NO! I still smelled like the bottom of a garbage heap.
The next morning, I dreaded getting up. It was time to confront mother-in-law. “Evelyn, I’m know I’m not cut out to be a potato peeler. I can do better than a job from the depths of Hell. I’m not going back!”
She proceeded to give me a loud lecture about being too snooty for my ‘britches.” I didn’t care. That was a valuable lesson in the importance of education. I needed a college degree! Although my education was sporadic due to an unconventional but more-fun-than-anyone-dares-to-hope-for life, I eventually went back to school with the goal of earning a degree. In the meantime, I took jobs in a fabric store and in a Woolworth’s. I worked as a waitress and sold Avon. I made custom-designed children’s clothing, and worked as an in-home babysitter. I would do anything but a factory job.
Jesus can peel his own damned potatoes.
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