No. 12, Corn Detasseler (Age 17)

INFLORESCENCE: A flowering or blossoming.

I longed to be a corn detasseler ever since my days as a corn roguer. There is no logic for this desire beyond the speculative delight of not having to carry a hoe. That, and most people I knew who’d done it came away with fistfuls of cash. It was a two-boon job: money and hoelessness. Searching for anything more interesting will likely prove futile.

Sure, I could tell you how the corn dust made my fingers swell to the size of quality German sausages. I could tell you the spicy skin problem then spread to my arms and legs, making me look like I’d gone skipping naked through an acre of poison ivy. I could tell you detasseling is the second step employed by farmers to assure the genetic purity of seed corn, performed by riding machines or by walking the fields on foot. I could teach you how the male portion of the corn plant—the pollen-bearing inflorescence called the tassel—is removed from all female plants to avoid self-pollination or contamination. I could start with this (and it appears as though I have), if only to lead you through the details and on to the next transition . . .

My friend Sampson was working as a crew chief the summer of ’86. I was recruited to help a small team with half a dozen acres, a job too small for professional riding crews. He said he’d pay me $5.75 an hour. I signed on pronto, imagining detasseling corn to be far easier than rogueing it, and knowing that working with friends made even the worst jobs manageable. Besides, I thought if I had a great tan no one would notice my dimpled thighs.

Sampson was transitioning from an unrewarding first year at a state university to a musical theatre school in New York City. We were both on the fringe in our small community. Sampson’s family lived in a trailer park, and it was no secret that my family kept tarantulas and hermit crabs as pets, not to mention the prolific bat population in our attic. We were both in swing choir.

Sampson was a terrible crew chief and together we were the world’s worst detasselers. He thought nothing of shirking his responsibility to the farmer who’d hired him. He, too, was in it for the tan. When the rest of his crew was working, Sampson and I would duck out of view and run ahead a couple hundred yards. We’d trample a small area of corn and make a fort, sitting down to rest and eat melted jellybeans until the other detasselers were within earshot.

After a couple days I tried (and failed) to cajole Sampson into actually working. I liked horsing around just as much as the next girl, but I was embarrassed by our performance and concerned that our shoddy detasseling might come back and bite our asses.

There was little motivation (melanin or otherwise) to continue after the first week. Never mind the corn rash. It was loath to be remedied, my skin far too traumatized to make any money worthwhile. My solution, as always, was to tender my resignation and work more hours at McDonald’s.

I whined to Lisa about my suffering. She half-listened, simultaneously chewing her fingernails and smoking.

“I don’t have any near enough money for school and I don’t even care. Detasseling sucks.”

“You know,” Lisa cut in, “if you don’t mind putting off college we could join the military and do the buddy system.”

“The buddy system? What the hell is that?”

“Well, if we sign up together we can attend the same boot camp and get a bunch of money for college when we’re done.”

“When would I be done?”

“Four years.”

“Four years?”

“Yeah, and I can get stationed near Jeff.” Jeff was Lisa’s new husband. He was in the military.

The following week Lisa and I filled out our paperwork and sat for the mandatory tests. Shifts at McDonald’s dragged on interminably as I waited for news about the status of our applications. A week later Lisa and I went in for the results. We waited on a dusty tweed couch, holding hands as we giggled about the haircuts we’d have to get for boot camp. Lisa was called in first. I was called in less than five minutes later. She rolled her eyes and flared her nostrils on the way out the door.

In the office I sat ramrod straight in a metal folding chair, the only chair in the room other than the one the recruiter sat in. His hands gripped the sides of a manila folder. He wasn’t smiling. “I’m sorry, Miss Breiner. The United States Military is denying you entry.” My mouth fell open and his voice faded into a soft drone as it listed my positive qualities, weaving in some benign indication that I was a slight psychological risk. Slight.

“Lisa!” I screamed across parking lot outside the recruiter’s office. “They said I can’t join the military! Can you believe it?” She stubbed a cigarette out on the sole of her boots and flipped her Farrah hair from one shoulder to the other.

“Well, I got in but I can’t go because apparently I’m pregnant. Can you believe that?”

I let out a tiny scream. “Oh my god, let’s go tell Mom!” We hopped into her aging Fiat and drove home to share the news. Before we reached the town line I’d forgotten all about the military.

Lisa and I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the kitchen table drinking milky tea with Mom. She was excited about her first grandchild but not about becoming a thirty-eight-year-old grandma.

“Well,” Mom sighed, chugging the last of her tea and wiping her mouth on the shoulder of her T-shirt. She lifted a cheek and let out a fart. “At least Sandy’s going to college.” Mom winked at me, “You’ll make us all proud, won’t you, Sandman.”

(No pressure or anything.)

Sure Ma, I thought, I’ll make you proud. I’ll just pave that road to riches with money from student loans.

Sallie Mae was destined to be my new best friend.

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One thought on “No. 12, Corn Detasseler (Age 17)

  1. You write very well. I wish the army thought I had an impediment and allowed me to remain in NY or even go to Iowa and pich corn. Funny, while I would like to wish it away it was the army that gave me the discipline and confidence I never had and got me back to finish my degree.

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