The school year was over and the long summer of fishing, swimming pools and daytime TV was upon us. Is there some way for me to avoid summer band with Mr. Mcgraw? In my pursuit to be like everyone else, I was ambitious to get a job corn detasseling. I talked to my sister’s friend who did it, and she made $900! I was going to be a millionaire. She bought Jordan’s and roller blades, boy what I’ll be able to do with that kind of cash. My mom managed to get me an application, and there I was, as eager as a 12-year-old can be, copying the funny number off of my social security card onto the form. It didn’t take long before she talked to Brian’s mom at swimming lessons, he was on board too. Brian was sort of the weird kid in class, but our parents decided to take turns driving us to Cokato, where we had to be early each morning for those several weeks. I readied myself in the weeks prior, I could tell my little brother Nik was both proud and a little jealous that I was going to have a job. In our bunk beds each night, we talked over the Nintendo games we were going to be able to buy with all my money. Buster, our fat yellow dog, was a little peeved that he would be deprived of so much of my time. I assured him there would be many late nights of co-op Ninja Turtles 2 action to look forward to. Even he seemed excited for me. The days prior drug on for what seemed like a summer in itself before finally the day came.
It was so early, it was still dark outside. The cool night air hugged the ground and left a fog hanging over the slews and fields along the way. We stopped at Brian’s house, which was way out in the country in the opposite direction. We waited and waited outside. Was he crazy? Why wasn’t he outside waiting for us? We can’t be late on our first day. Finally, some movement inside. Here came Brian out the door. Darn he is so prepared, he has lunch box and a water jug. I only have a lunch box. We drove and drove down County Road 2 toward the Cokato city park. My mom showed us where the pay phone was, so that we could call her when we were done. She gave me a zip-lock with a bunch of change in it for the phone call. We finally made it to the park where we hustled out of the car toward the park shelter where many other kids already waited. All the other kids were strangers, many of them seemed to know each other already. Brian and I stood near one of the shelter poles where he told me about how his older brother did this when he was our age. All I remember from that conversation was Brian mentioning how his brother brought lemonade everyday, and how by the end everyone called him lemonade boy. Brian’s water jug was filled with lemonade. He was hoping by the end everyone would call him lemonade boy. I remember thinking to myself, “what the fuck?” It was cold waiting there. It reminded me of duck hunting trips I had made with my dad. We should have brought jackets, but it said in the brochure not to bring personal items. We waited and didn’t talk to the other kids. Everyone was eager and nervous, plus the other kids all seemed bigger than us and intimidating. The bus came and an adult did a short roll call as we all got in. He explained that the 15 year olds (that would be the 6 or 7 kids that were way taller than the rest of us) were the leaders. We were broken up into groups and all assigned to a leader. We never saw that adult again during the detasseling season. We took the bus out to the middle of nowhere, where our leaders explained and taught us the difference between seed corn and feed corn. A couple of other buses pulled up as well and dropped off a hoard of other kids and leaders. They showed us what the tassel was and how to pick it. Well they weren’t the furry things on the top of the corn I had expected, but oh well. We waited to start the adventure, laughing and jostling among the ranks began to grow. Then a few kids were screaming, “ouch!” and “what the fuck!”. Suddenly SMACK. A wet hard lump of something nails me in the ear. The green spike that you pull out of the corn-stalk can be slammed against your foot, causing the end to break off and fly through the air like a little torpedo. As the bullets flew, we were pelted on and off again for about 15 minutes in the crossfire. I wondered what I had gotten into. Finally the leaders took the time to stop laughing and tell everyone to quit. They started us on our rows.
We walked through the corn fields one mile at a time, for what seemed like an eternity, until we finally reached lunch. By this time we were all soaked with that very mist that had hung above the fields so innocently. Within minutes of starting, the gloves I had worn were drenched to the brim. I had to take them off, it was so uncomfortable. I didn’t realize that those wet corn leaves had edges sharper than razor blades. By the end of the first row my hands had little cuts all over them. My gloves weren’t drying, and it hurt even more to wear the wet cloth over my freshly wounded hands.
At lunch time the laughing had stopped, people were quiet sitting on that hot bus eating their lunches. Death hung in the air. We finished eating and left our lunch boxes on the seats. I thought to myself that I might never see that lunch box again. We waited to start the afternoon detasseling. While waiting, some of the kids gained their steam back and were wrestling, fighting and swearing. I think I remember a few of them crying. The leaders came back out and yelled at all the groups for missing some tassels. There was some spiel about quality mixed in there somewhere. The speech was effective, we were scared of missing tassels. We got back to it.
This part of the day was different from the morning. The dew had burned away and the sun was cooking us alive while we limped down the corn rows, yanking the increasingly tougher tassels out from their corn holsters. Every now and again a tassel bullet flew through the air and hit someone. Many of the kids lost it, there was yelling, cursing and odd rustling in the leaves here and there. The afternoon dragged and dragged. My gloves were never going to dry, I had to go on without them. Now my skin was rubbing off between my thumbs and pointer fingers, fostering blisters. I remember one girl was whining a lot and the leader had to go ahead of her and finish her row. She sat in the ditch and cried as we started what we hoped was the last mile of the day. It wasn’t. The fights and screaming died down again as everyone was slowly baked under the hot summer sun.
We finished and waited in the “crying ditch” for the buses to come back and take us to the park. There was a biffy on a trailer that they must have brought out as some point while we were miles deep in the field. An Asian kid who had been involved in a lot of the rough housing earlier went inside and closed the door. A group of roughians surrounded it and started slapping the outside and laughing. One kid held the door shut, while the others tipped it over while he was in there! The leaders rushed over and yelled at the kids (for only a short moment). The poor Asian kid crawled up and out the door. He was covered in shit and soaked in urine. I will not be pooping for the rest of the duration. I remember him screaming inaudible words. His will had been broken, he wouldn’t return.
The ride back was hot and quiet. We unloaded at the shelter, which was apparently donated by the snowmobile club as indicated on several signs. Brian and I walked to the payphone, which was dead. We went to the mechanic shop next door where an angry, oil dirtied man wouldn’t let us use the phone for a long distance call. So we had to walk to the Casey’s gas station on the far end of town. The whole while thinking there was no more home for us. Finally there, Brian produced a weird calling card which he said would save us money. I gave him the change bag and watched him pump nearly all of it into the phone while he pressed different numbers, eventually turning to me, handing the phone over and shrugging his shoulders. The automated voice on the other end was asking for an additional dollar seventy-five. We had a quarter and a dime left. I hung up the receiver, fuck no refund. I put the last of the coins in and dialed home. It worked and I told my mom to come get us.
After the long walk back to the snowmobile club shelter, there were only two boys left waiting around. We sat at one of the picnic tables when I remembered I had saved my Nutty Bar for later. As I pulled it out and looked at it in its melted glory, the two boys came over to us. They wanted to trade some shitty lunch leftover for it. I declined. Then the bigger of the two, who if I remember correctly had the last name “Boys”, swatted the whole lot of it off the table. Nutty bar and all went flying. We shot to our feet. A moment passed. Big boy and I stared at each other. For the first time in my life the overwhelming fight or flight adrenaline coursed through my 12-year-old veins. I rushed toward the lunch box. Somehow in the mess of it all, the smaller kid had managed to trip me. I fell hard on the pavement slab. I grabbed the Nutty Bar and pulled the small kid down to the ground with me. I grabbed his shirt, not sure how to fight, landing punches where I could. As we rolled around on the ground the bigger kid threw my lunch box onto the roof of the shelter. He then came over and started kicking at my side. At this point an old man who had been doing yard work across the street yelled, “Hey!” His voice hammered through the air like a shotgun blast. The two boys hightailed it toward the jungle gym on the other end of the park. Now we are in trouble. As I got up the old man walked over and asked if we were okay. I looked back to see Brian cowering on the other end of the shelter. Thanks for the back up lemonade boy.
After checking the situation, the old man brought a ladder over and I climbed up onto the shelter roof to get my lunch box. The two boys hid under the jungle gym and watched us like a couple of hyenas in wait. They didn’t come back. Brian and I decided it was best not to tell our parents about the fight. I’m not sure why, but we felt that it was one of those things to keep quiet. The melted, smashed up Nutty Bar was ruined, ripped and covered in grit from the ground. I put it back in my lunch box, instead of throwing it away. I was no longer a little boy.
My paycheck came long after the three weeks on Corn Island, and was only $286.00 after taxes.