When Randy Carter read my June 2, 2018, column about Japanese Americans incarcerated in Poston, Ariz., during World War II and forced to live in hastily erected barracks in intense heat, it sparked a memory of his own summer living in a barrack in intense heat.
Carter’s story took place in Blythe, about 40 miles south of Poston and just over the border into California in the summer of 1965.
He was 17 years old and had finished his junior year at University High, an all-male Catholic school in San Diego.
Here’s his story as told through recent emails and newspaper accounts from that summer.
In 1965, the Bracero Program, allowing Mexican citizens to legally work on farm fields in the United States, ended abruptly, Carter esaid.
The Johnson administration saw an opportunity to solve the labor shortage and provide summer jobs for American high school students through the A-Team Project.
“This program (Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower) was designed for high school sports teams,” he said.
“The obvious thinking was that they’d be the strongest kids and have a basic teamwork mentality. In reality, there were lots of very average youths … looking for a summer job … time away from home … adventure. And sometimes the scrawniest kids turned out to be the hardest workers.”
He added, “Growing up, I played lots of baseball, Little League and Babe Ruth League, but, as a recent New York transplant, I was mainly fixated on getting familiar with the 9-foot, 6-inch surf board I had purchased.”
In the first week of June, 34 “energetic and eager young men” left by bus for a month of cantaloupe picking in Blythe, wrote San Diego Union reporter Dick Bowman. “All wore big straw hats and wide grins.”
Many were outstanding athletes at University High. Some said they were taking the job to “get in shape,” but most listed “money” as their motivation.
Bowman quoted Carter as saying that the $1.40 an hour he’d be making was “better than I could possibly make in San Diego.”
In one of his emails, Carter described Blythe as “Hell on Earth. The growers there, mostly second-generation Armenians relocated from Fresno, just wanted their crops harvested, and they had some experience with local boys working in the fields.”
The young men, along with students from other San Diego schools, were closely monitored by local newspaper reporters. A week after they arrived, Nancy Ray, also of the Union, went out to see how they were faring.
“The boys, blistered by merciless sun, spend their days stuffing the cantaloupes they have picked into sacks. There are 119 San Diego high-schoolers in Work Camp 22 here, a former bracero living quarters,” Ray wrote.
The boys slept in barracks relocated from various sources. Some were from “defunct California air units from the ’30s and ’40s. Still others were from WWII internment camps,” Carter wrote.
“If it was 95 degrees out at night, it was possibly 100 degrees in the barracks. Two-man bunks, upper and lower, 25 guys fighting for position. Latrine facilities were in another building, with trickle showers of rusty brown water. It was a six-day work week … Sundays off for laundry,” he added.
In late June, reporter Ray returned to interview one of the growers, Martin Bedoian. He felt the boys were doing a good job but wondered if they could “stick through the peak days of back-breaking work or if the first 115-degree day would cause them to waver and quit.”
To this day, Carter has vivid memories of the heat. “I can tell you what 116 degrees feels like at 9:30 in the morning when you are working for a minimum wage of $1.40 an hour,” Carter wrote.
The experiment (which was not repeated) had mixed results. In some locations, students left because of the harsh working conditions. But, Carter wrote, he and his fellow classmates “stuck it out. This is the source of enormous pride for everyone who took part in the program that summer.”
Carter graduated in 1966, attended Loyola University in Los Angeles and made his way to San Francisco for 1967’s Summer of Love before returning to San Diego and the Old Globe Theatre to begin a career in the entertainment industry. “Seems like 20 minutes ago,” he wrote.
“But more important to your piece,” Carter concluded, “the experience was a life changer for all of us who participated. Even now after 50 years, it is the first thing we talk about at our reunions.”