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Monday, January 16, 2012

Unrest in the Forest

On the day of my fourteenth birthday, I started working at Jan Peirce Tree Farms, in the little city of Neillsville, Wisconsin.  I would work there on and off for the next five years, and for a couple of desperate years later on in my twenties.  Anyone could get a job on the tree farm, but few lasted more than a day.  In early June every year, Jan would hire a crew of about fifteen people, mostly young boys, with a few older guys, usually down on their luck, or maybe just getting back on their feet.  He would pack us all into the back of his truck, and haul us out into the country to one of his six fields to shear thousands of Christmas trees into a nice conical shape with a three foot long machete in each hand.  It was akin to trying to create fine art with dull steel blades in 100+ degree weather, with thistles poking in your armpits and bees buzzing around your head.  After the first day, Jan would fire nearly everyone, and the next morning there would be fifteen fresh faces to try their hand.  The conditions were torturous, heat unbearable, and Jan was an unrelenting test on a young man's psyche.  He would stand on the tailgate of his truck, screaming at us like a drill sergeant, individually tearing us down to nothing, and rebuilding us in his own image.  If Jan decided to keep you around, there was a sense of pride, you were a man.  It was always great when somebody like the star quarterback on the high school football team couldn't make the cut in Jan's fields, or the guy that used to bully you around in school.  Jan leveled the playing field.  There were other tree farms in the area, and they all knew Jan's rep as a spirit crushing madman.  He was the worst to work for, but you were among the elite as far as tree farmers went, if you made the grade.  Three months later, the shearing season would come to an end, and Jan would keep three or four of us around to do random jobs on the farm, and in the fall the harvest would begin.  No longer dying of dehydration and fatigue in the summer sun, we now found ourselves chilled to the bone, trudging through the same fields, this time through slush and mud, cutting, dragging, and loading the trees onto wagons, into the yard to be separated into piles, then reloaded onto semi trailers to be shipped out for sale.  It never occurred to me until years later what a strange trade this was.  As I got older, Jan would have me train the new guys, as well as fire them if they weren't good enough.  It was so sad and awkward to have to fire some guy twice my age, obviously down on his luck and nearing rock bottom.  No matter if we were five minutes or two hours from home, if you were fired, Jan was done with you, and you walked home.  Remember, this is before cell phones, so there was no calling for a ride.  Jan was cruel and unfair, and at the time we were too young and ignorant to see that he was trying to teach us lessons about life.  I think about him quite often.  We later became friends, or as close to friends as one can be to the man, and I went with him to Oklahoma to sell trees on one of his two lots.  I am so glad to have experienced those tortured summers, who knows what I would be like now if I hadn't.  Whenever I get bummed out because of some menial task I have to do, I remember the trees, the blisters, the heat exhaustion, the chafing, and the fear of the man.  Nothing will ever be that hard again.

1 comment:

  1. This post shows how two people can have the exact same experience in two totally different ways. I wouldn't have hung out with that dude for 3 seconds longer than I had to. I got yelled at at home, I didn't need any more if it.