The Choppers

For two summers I worked on a cotton farm. A native american owned (in name only, all the management of the farm was caucasian men who had married into the tribal leadership) farm in the Gila River basin, just south of Sacaton, the capital of the Gila River indian community (home of a variety of poverty that few people in the United States understands exists much less exists inside the borders of the US). I was a supervisor for a team doing cotton bollworm moth control, a vicious pest that eats the fruit of the cotton plant before it can bloom, capable of ruining entire crops. We would stake out catch cups, just paper coffee cups, filled with old oil from the farm machinery, with holes cut in the sides, and a strip of red rubber stapled to the inside of the lid. The rubber was impregnated with a pheromone that attracted the males whose flutter would inevitably touch the oil and the bug would drown. Every thirty steps, every thirty rows. You’d load up a big bundle of the stake cups, and fill a watering can from the 500 gallon trailer of old oil. Then you’d slowly drive the truck down the rows, counting them out, pointing the next kid out into the field. They’d walk and stake out the length of the field, then count fifteen rows up and stake back toward the road, finally jogging to catch us some 90 rows down the road, then jump in the truck bed to drink gatorade and nap until it was their turn next. When the order was over, I’d jump out and do my turn. I liked it. Sometimes I took extra turns. The exercise was good for me.

It was boring. It was also very illuminating. I learned what life was like on the reservation. A young boy taught me how to steal “any chevrolet” with just a flathead screwdriver, prying off the column cover and using it to jam out the ignition interlock cable. “I can do it one handed.” he told me, proudly. A frequently antagonistic boy, who had moved to Sacaton from one of the Apache nations in eastern Arizona, lopped open a sun warmed watermelon with a foot long knife, while telling me how easy it would be to cut somebody’s head off. He later taught me how to swim in the irrigation reservoirs and how to tell when it was about to get activated so you wouldn’t get sucked down into the intake and drown. They were all educated in religious school, so when adults or people of authority were around they never used curse words, and even when amongst only themselves swears were whispered. If threats were made or jibes, they were made in low voices. I rarely understood why fights were breaking out simply because things had become very calm seeming and quiet before they occurred. Fights were infrequent, as was discussion about the home or family. Family was sad territory. Stories about who liked who and who screwed up at school were popular.

The physical territory was vast and not as boring as initial glances would impress. Lots of snakes. Rabbits. Feral dogs. A dust devil in town was frequently large but in the open fields they became monstrous, scary. Worthy of the name. Sometimes my boss and I would take a long lunch and go to Indian Cultural Center, look at the exhibits. Eat a Pima Taco. Think about Ira Hayes. See all the white crosses on the roadsides. The furthest fields were close to where the japanese internment camps were, just visible on the hill. Further out in the wasteland were the defunct uranium mines. Defunct copper mines. The desert is a good place to put things you don’t want people to see.

When we were on our rounds, very occasionally we would work in a field adjacent to the cotton choppers, a migratory group of 40 or so adults and several dozen children who performed the intensely hard stoop labor of chopping weeds out from between the cotton plants. When on the farm, they were given free reign of several working houses pocketed in between the fields. Usually nothing more than an open doored shack with a few metal burn barrels out front, and a nearby hand pump for drawing up water, but as far as I could tell they largely lived in and out of their cars; a motley caravan of full sized trucks and inexpensive and misshapen used sedans. The cars, either for reasons of expedience or disrepair, were usually towed, sometimes two or three in a chain, behind one of the trucks, a small scale locomotive. The trunks housed long ice chests that comprised their larder. Pots and pans. Propane stoves. The cars were heavily loaded with the scant possessions of the tribe, and the aforementioned children, dozing in the seats or helping steer the towed vehicles straight. Mothers worked with their infants slung in threadworn bedsheets, swaying gently back and forth as the woman chipped at the hard earth with a pointed hoe. My spanish is limited to bathroom and library seeking phrases and the ability to order a lunch for a team of 20, and knowledge of any native north american language nonexistent, so communication with them was limited. Infrequent. Merry. Only the men talked to me, at me. The inchoate but unmistakable timbre of schoolyard taunting. They made fun of the long fatigues I wore to cover my delicate skin, and my large brimmed gardener’s hat. They saluted me a lot. And even the women seemed to like to laugh at that. The kids didn’t like to talk to them, and I got the impression that the choppers made fun of them as well, but they could understand it.

When their work was done, one of the white men with the honorary names would show up in their air conditioned luxury truck and shake hands with whoever was in charge, thank them for the work and hand over the predetermined cash payment for the work done. The choppers would load up whatever they had put into the worker houses and drive off into the horizon, to the next farm, or maybe back to some of the southern farms whose seasons would be starting next, winding their way from gig to gig back toward Arizona to chop at the next stage of growth, then back again. I wonder where they went. Where are those children. Where is that boy who steered the Stanza with his ankles hooked in the steering wheel?