Sometimes I recall an incident in which my father and another man were talking about a fifth wheel. This was over thirty years ago, when I was in my late teens and when fifth wheels were not common features of recreational vehicles. They were used almost exclusively with large equipment such as trucks and farm tractors. I asked what a fifth wheel was, and instead of just explaining, my father took the occasion to criticize me for not knowing. “It’s a fifth wheel. That’s what it is. Don’t you know what a fifth wheel is?”
Of course I didn’t, or I wouldn’t have asked. And I didn’t think that if I had never heard of a fifth wheel before, it was my fault for not knowing what one was.
When my father got over his exasperation, which was probably brought on by the presence of the other person, he went on to explain that a fifth wheel was a large, round, flat hitch that a trailer rested on and hooked into. I had seen them before (which was quite a bit different from knowing what they were called), and as soon as my father explained enough to form a picture in my mind, I understood.
A few years later, I was referred to a job from the farm labor office. I went to a big corporation farm to drive tractor in the tomato harvest. I knew how to drive large tractors by then, so I presented myself as a Cat skinner, or operator of a Caterpillar tractor. My job, as I had it outlined for me in the labor office and as I had seen it performed in fields I had driven past, would be to tow a pair of large bulk trailers alongside a slow-moving tomato harvester. The harvester would cut the plants, convey them up into the machine, shake the ripe tomatoes off the vines, pass the fruit along conveyor belts to be sorted by human labor, and convey the fruit up a chute, where it would fall into the trailer that crawled alongside the harvester. Although I had not driven a tractor in that kind of harvest before, I knew how to drive a tractor and understood the general procedure.
Tomato harvest was always a sprawling, messy enterprise. When a harvester broke down, the sorting crew sat by idle until the repair crew fixed the problem, and then the machine crept along again, leaving a swath of green, damaged, or otherwise unusable tomatoes in its wake. Even though field tomatoes were destined for the canneries, which were famous for accepting fruit in just about any condition, there was still a large percentage of waste strewn behind. Big operations would have two, three, or more harvesters creeping through the fields, plus one or two repair trucks, with portable welders, that would race out to a harvester that had broken down. The crews often worked shifts, around the clock, so in addition to an area where all of the workers’ vehicles were parked, there was often an area given over to floodlights, portable outhouses, trucks, empty trailers, and full trailers. The full trailers, waiting to be hauled to the cannery, were usually leaking watery tomato juice by the time they got parked, and if they had to wait for very long, huge puddles formed at the ends where the drain holes were located. These trailers, letting out a stream like a cow with her tail lifted, served to remind anyone nearby that time was passing. The whole scene, then, was given to chaos and tension, especially visible in whoever was in charge.
His name was Manuel Sandoval, and he had the general air of a person who carried the weight of the whole operation on his shoulders. I showed him my referral slip.
“Cat skinner, uh?”
“Well, go get that engine there, and pick up a dolly, and go hook up a set of doubles.”
“What’s a dolly?”
He gave me a look that was a mixture of impatience and disgust. “I thought you were a Cat skinner.”
“Well, I’ve driven Cat before, but I just don’t know what a dolly is.”
He pointed to a row of single-axle vehicles, each with a tongue for towing. “Those are dollies,” he said, as if he was wasting a lot of valuable time with me.
I looked at them, and by golly, I knew what they were. They were fifth wheels.