My Worst Ever Summer Job

Trials and tribulations of two weeks cherry picking.

My cherry picking job in the summer of ’95 began at 7 a.m. on a Monday with a fresh face, a mild crush on my friend’s picking partner, Josh, and visions of casually climbing a ladder to pluck ripe cherries from the tree.

My cherry picking job ended 11 days later, at around 7.15 a.m. on a Friday, with a peeling nose, a terrible fall, and a crushed nerve in my right leg.

In between, there was cherry-induced diarrhoea, several failed attempts to flirt with Josh, a touch of heat stroke, and the violent shattering of all my romantic ideas about cherry picking.

I grew up in the country and was taught to embrace hard work from a young age. I was chief lawn-mower and Huntsman spider-remover by the age of ten. If there was wood chopping to be done, soil to be shifted or structures to be erected, I was there to pull my weight. And I usually enjoyed it — I loved being outdoors and found manual labour satisfying, so I thought cherry picking was going to be fun.

On the first morning, we waited outside the packing shed to receive our instructions. We were each given a bucket to strap around our waist and a 6-ft tripod ladder. We would get paid $9 [AUD] per crate of cherries picked. We needed to be careful while picking, and not rip off bits of trees.

I was excited, especially since during the introductory session the only thing that separated me from Josh was my friend Jon. I daydreamed about how I would impress them both with my ladder climbing and cherry picking skills (I knew I was good at the former and was sure I was going to be brilliant at the latter). I was nearly 15 and hadn’t had much experience with boys, but had high hopes that my exemplary work ethic would get Josh’s attention.

We were split up into groups and spread around different areas of the orchard. Jon and Josh went to the gourmet cherry section. I went to the normal cherry section. My heart sank a little — Josh wasn’t going to see my ladder-scaling prowess — but I was still optimistic.

A few hours in, I was less optimistic.

Summer in this part of Australia smells like baked grass. It’s stinking hot and dry. There’s also the Antarctic ozone hole nearby, so the sun is fierce down here. By about midday the scorched air shimmers, and it’s unpleasant to breathe.

And then there are the flies. The clouds of little black bush flies, which hunt for moisture in the corners of your eyes and mouth—and up your nose. They’re relentless, and everyone knows they spend most of their lives on rotting cow carcasses and shit, which means they’re also really gross.

So there I was mid-morning on that Monday, at the top of my 6-ft ladder, slathered in greasy sunscreen, swatting flies with my free hand and trying not to think about where they’d been.

I was also playing ‘find the cherry’ because I’d been relegated to an area of the orchard where the trees weren’t doing so well. The cherries were dotted throughout the branches like someone had done some half-arsed Christmas tree decorating. I’d get a handful of cherries in my bucket, then have to climb down, reposition the ladder, jump on the ladder so the pegs on the ends of the three legs sunk into the ground, climb back up, and start again.

It took forever to get a bucket load, and it took several bucket loads to fill a crate. That $9 per crate, which sounded easy-peasy at 7 a.m. and was certain to lead to untold wealth for a 15-year-old, took around two hours to earn. To make matters worse (slower), I’d taken the order to be careful with the trees seriously. Meanwhile, the professional pickers nearby were leaving cherry tree carnage in their wake — it looked like their section of the orchard had been hit by a hurricane.

My one consolation was eating the odd cherry. They were sweet, firm, and juicy. The little sugar hits boosted my spirits and kept me going.

During the lunch break, when I met Jon and Josh down by the river for a much-needed dip, they told me how much fun they were having. It was all cherry fights and hilarity over in the gourmet section.

Jon had filled a small Styrofoam cooler with the golf-ball sized goodies they were picking and was planning on pinching them. He reckoned his cooler full of cherries was worth way more than what we were getting paid per crate. The gourmet cherries were all exported (perhaps to Japan?) and Jon thought it was unfair the best cherries went overseas. He was possibly going to start a gourmet cherry black market in town, too. All I could think about was how much quicker it would be to fill a crate with those ginormous cherries.

By knock-off time on that first day — 3 p.m. — I was exhausted. I felt faint from being out in the sun all day, and the single peanut butter sandwich I’d packed for lunch hadn’t provided nearly enough energy. My thumbs were bleeding from pushing cherry stalks off branches (apparently, you can’t just pluck cherries as I’d imagined). And my stomach was also telling me, with deep growls, that I shouldn’t have eaten so many cherries.

As the hours passed, my stomach got angrier and my sunburn deepened due to an inadequate sunscreen reapplication schedule. I spent much of that evening on the toilet with what Jon would’ve called the ‘squirts’ while radiating heat from my bright, red skin. The fact that I looked a bit like a giant cherry would have been funny if I hadn’t been so miserable.

I was back at 7 a.m. the next day, though. The next few days all played out in much the same way (except I’d learned my lessons about cherry eating and sun protection) until the following Friday morning.

I started at the end of a row near an irrigation ditch. The earth there was clay-heavy and baked hard by the sun. I tried to push my ladder into the ground, but couldn’t get the pegs right in. After wrestling with it for ten minutes, I thought it was secure enough, and climbed.

I sat on the top of the ladder. To stabilise myself so that I could pick with both hands, I hooked my legs in behind the top rung. This was a mistake.

With my bucket about a quarter full, I stretched for a cherry that was just out of reach. I felt the ladder wobble. I knew what was coming. I knew there was nothing I could do about it — I wouldn’t be able to unhook my legs in time. The ladder, my quarter-full cherry bucket, and I came crashing down. I fell backwards and landed on the ladder, so my bodyweight levered my shins hard against the rung.

I screamed. My right shin felt like it had exploded. There was some blood. A crowd gathered, and someone drove me to the hospital. I didn’t want to go to the hospital because the last time I’d been there was when I’d run over my foot with a lawnmower, and I was afraid telling them I’d fallen off a ladder while cherry picking would cement my reputation as a massive klutz (Josh would be so unimpressed). I was in too much pain to argue, though.

No broken leg, luckily. Just some split skin, a crushed nerve, extensive bruising, and badly battered pride. I still have the scars and no feeling in a large portion of my lower leg.

I went back the next year. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because I don’t like being beaten, and I wanted to prove that I was tough enough to do the job. Maybe I’m a masochist.

On the second day back, the owner of the orchard drove past as I was pouring cherries into a crate and said, “Hey, you’re the girl who fell off the ladder last year!”

That was it. When I realised I was famous for being the only person who’d ever had a bad fall in that orchard (they’re much more common in a nearby orchard, which is located on the side of a hill), I decided enough was enough.

I conceded defeat and got a less perilous job stacking shelves in the local supermarket.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

Emily Friedel is a freelance writer based in Victoria, Australia. She still feels some animosity towards cherries, but does eat them occasionally. You can follow her on Twitter via @ej_friedel

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