I grew up knowing my grandad, Charles “Vic” Morine worked for Del Monte which was one of two pineapple companies in Hawaii. He came to the islands from California in his twenties as an inventor. He was the person who ended up designing the pineapple picking machine you regularly used to see out in the fields. The trucks would appear with a long boom followed by busy pineapple pickers bending over with their straw hats. The workers would follow along the moving boom and place the fruit into the moving conveyor belt that led back to the truck. Prior to this invention, the workers would have to put the fruit into gunny sacks and walk the fruit to the end of the rows.
My father born an raised on Oahu remembers working in the fields for 15 cents an hour. At that time all the pineapple were hand-picked, put into gunny sacks and stacked into large boxes at the end of the rows which weighed about 90 pounds. A flatbed truck would come by and pick up the boxes and transfer them to a steam engine train which led to Iwilei to the cannery. The train station wanted a 50-year contract with Del Monte to assure enough business to offset the cost to build tracks in order to guarantee a return on the investment. There once was a cannery in Wahiawa however, there was not enough people to man it, so it was moved to town where the larger population was. Growing up in Hawaii typically teens wanted summer jobs. The two choices were picking pineapple or working in the cannery. When I was 17, I decided to get that summer job working at Dole in Wahiawa. I think we got paid 3.10 cents an hour. I was curious to experience a part of the island heritage just like a lot of kids. I was looking forward to working in the pineapple fields just to say I did it. When I started we all met at 6:00am in Wahiawa and were divided into gangs of 18 workers. There were many trucks and many people who generally jumped into any truck.
We would load up into work trucks and were driven into remote fields the first week. At first, they put all the new hires in the really old fields with rotting pineapples, overgrown plants with old decaying fruit that came all the way up to your chest. Think pineapple bugs, spiders and the stench of rotting fruit. They told us to “bust the lines” by hanging on to the long boom and separate the pineapples that grew together with our bodies as if we were part of a human plow. We didn’t pick fruit for at least three days. Most people did not come back after two days. Finally, after a week of dragging through old fields in our garb, we started to learn how to pick.
First of all, you wear long pants with canvas coveralls and boots. You also wear long sleeves with cut off pant legs attached to the top of your arms covered by massive canvas gloves for added protection. You also wear a hanker-chief over your nose and mouth and have goggles which make you look like a human fly. On top of that, you need a wide-brimmed straw hat. It is so incredibly hot out in the field with all that on, not even eyebrows could keep the sweat from dripping into and stinging your eyes. The pineapple plant has sharp spikes and is not to be taken lightly. The mornings would always involve food. All the regular workers would bring food to share with all of us in the truck, think cupcakes, spam musubi etc. The old timers were paid very well because they had about 30 years doing it. The rate for a 30 year experienced worker was about 29.00 per hour. The company would also make quota incentives. If you could exceed a number of trucks in a day they expected you to make you would get a bonus. This was usually enjoyed by the night gangs, not the day gangs who essentially cleaned up the fields the night gangs picked to get all the fruit that might have been missed.
I was a little late for work one day and I got to work with a gang of old timers. They were impressive. Each person could grab two pineapples with one hand and use both hands to get four at one time. They could flip their wrist expertly hoisting the fruit into the conveyor belt and repeat the same maneuver every few seconds. Meanwhile, I was trying really hard to keep up. I needed to bang the crown on the boom to loosen the fruit where the experts just flipped the pineapples on to the belt. In that kind of harvest, you separate the crown while you pick. It is a tricky flip of the wrist that jerks the crown away from the fruit. It is not as easy as it looks you have to have really strong wrists because you are doing it thousands of times a day. Meanwhile, the old timers took pity on me because they could see I was trying hard. They showed kindness in helping grab some I was missing. Generally, you feel deep shame if you can’t keep up especially if you have youth. The truck travels at a fairly brisk pace through the field, but yes the truck drivers sometimes tended to fall asleep which caused more yelling and chaos from the workers. I won’t forget trying to keep up with that gang. Despite it all the old timers seemed to reveal smiling eyes towards me at the end of the day. I was always on time after that. I liked the subtle ways lessons were imparted upon us teenagers regarding punctuality. The first day I had to use the bathroom I decided a far away ravine was practical and user-friendly. The truck does not stop for such luxuries. It took me a while to catch up to the truck so later I was amused to see how the older gang dealt with this situation. Everyone just seemed to look away if someone had to go and they did not walk very far at all. One of the classic lesson for tardy workers was the hoe hana gang. Basically, they take a truck of people to a field with weeds and the next 8 hours in the hot sun are spent digging out weeds with a hoe.
The message I got was that it is a privilege to pick pineapple so don’t forget it. Some people thought dealing with weeds was better than picking pineapple but it was pure torture. It was interesting to meet the people and be part of it all. Everyone was generous. This is real Aloha and local style is about sharing. They always brought enough for 18 people so everyone was included who might be on the truck. Everyday you were on a different gang so on one particular day some of the gals were rascally and tried to break the machine to stall the truck. These girls laughed a lot and caused a lot of hysterics and mischief but soon they switched to the night gang to make more money. The fields and crews at night had a better chance to make money. I was often surprised or impressed by the old timers. There was a course feeling of stamina enduring the heat and the workload. Looking to my left I might see a stoic elderly lady smoking a cigarette backward with the ash facing inside, the cherry hot part inside her mouth. I noticed too many of the old timers would suck on candy to pass the time and seemed happy to work the outdoors.
I looked forward to the small intrigues of the job. Who would I meet, what would happen this day, and what field would we be picking. The trucks traveled all over the place so it was fun riding in the cool early morning out to some unknown destination. After every shift, we gladly would shed the sour-smelling garb. I would jump in the old 65 Buick special and drive home with all the windows rolled down. I think my parents were shocked I stayed the whole summer. They said they were proud of me for sticking it out. A lot of kids growing up in Hawaii had similar experiences. It didn’t matter that I was a haole girl from Ewa Beach who wanted to pick pineapple. The sugar and pineapple plantations were the first to embrace diversity in the workforce.