Workin’ at the Cannery
By Pat Edwards
I lived and went to school in Lebanon, Oregon in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was not located on the Highway 99 corridor but, being a neighbor to Albany, my family frequently ventured over that way. We used Highway 99 for our northbound trips to Salem and Portland and south to Eugene, where my grandparents lived, quite often.
In 1960, I graduated from Lebanon Union High School and immediately put in my application at the Flav-R-Pac cannery in Albany for summer work. I had enrolled at Linfield College in McMinnville and needed to supplement my tuition savings. My family had owned and operated a bean and strawberry farm in Lebanon during my high school years and we had connections at the cannery, so I wasn’t surprised when they called and told me to report for work the next night. Night?.. Yep!… I was being hired for the graveyard shift. Not only wasn’t I prepared to work through the night, I had an appointment in Salem the next morning to take my SATs for college!
Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity of the job, however, I agreed to report in a little before midnight. I have always been a hard worker, but I was used to working outside in the sunshine and, occasionally, rain. So, the experience of spending the night under bright fluorescent lights, standing at a dripping-wet conveyor belt and trying to focus in on the endless parade of green beans that slid past me was a new and traumatic experience. My job was to pick out any debris or problem beans from the millions that went by me every hour. I took an occasional break and ate my hand-packed lunch in the break room. I was always rather shy, so I ate alone. I was definitely not enjoying myself.
While working, I was dressed in a heavy rubber apron and rubber galoshes and wore a hair net, but at the end of the shift, my shoes were soaked, my clothes were damp and my hair was flattened into a not-so-becoming style.
When the time finally came to stamp my time-card and walk out to my car where my mother was waiting to drive me to Salem, the sun was up, but my feet were dragging. I was not only tired, but my brain was trying to focus on the upcoming and very important test that awaited me in less than two hours. I didn’t even have time to go home to change or shower.
By the time I entered the assigned classroom where I was supposed to take the SAT, I felt like I was dragging a heavy weight on my feet and all of my senses seemed dulled. It took all of my resources to focus on each question and somehow, I was able to finish all but a few problems that had me stumped, and I slowly made my way out to my car. My sweet mother drove me home and although I don’t remember, I’m sure I slept all the way home.
I reported back for work at midnight again that night, and was scheduled to be off the next night. But, after much soul-searching, I made the painful decision to quit the job at the cannery. I knew I could get work on one of the local farms, hoeing or “bean-bossing.” The pay wouldn’t be as good, I knew, but if I ended up sweaty and wet from my toils in the sun, it was a much better feeling than being eternally wet, standing in one place in front of a drippy conveyor belt all night long.
A couple of weeks later, I was notified of my SAT score and, although it was “good enough,” I retook the test later that summer and was able to enter Linfield with my head held a bit higher than it would have been otherwise.
Included in OREGON’S MAIN STREET: U.S. Highway 99 “The Stories” by Jo-Brew (2014)