Tag Archives: Sacramento Valley


27 Mar

This are the beginning paragraphs of a short story called Prune–Why–Oh from my second book, Foleytown. It’s about picking prunes in the Sacramento Valley around 1970ish. This excerpt also explains somewhat why I call my childhood landscape of memories “Foleytown.”


Foleytown was, of course, not really a place, but a state of mind; my childhood landscape of memories, encompassing the domains both spiritual and temporal of the whole Foley clan, of which I was the youngest, the “baby” of the family. Like any family, we had our little rituals and traditions, including a rather important one we called, simply, Prune-Why-Ohing

Prune-Why-Oh was the title of one of my mother’s homemade songs; she had a lot of them, most of which were either eccentric or often, just very dopey parodies of real songs. But the term was also a kind of shorthand: it stood for the many childhood summers we of the Foley clan spent picking prunes for pocket money in the fruit orchards ringing UlloaCity.

My mother, Mary Foley, created the Prune-Why-Oh song and many others to keep us busy while we scooped up the prunes and plopped them into metal buckets on long summer days. The melody was the same as the standard church hymn, Kumbaya— the beloved tune strummed by countless guitar-playing nuns at the “guitar Masses” in the Sixties and early Seventies.

The lyrics to Prune-Why-Oh were simple enough, a simple parody of the original ones, and the chorus went like this:

“Prune-Why-Oh, My Lord


Oh, Lord, Prune-Why Oh”

Days in the fields usually started with me my mother singing the Prune-Why-Oh song very early in the morning, at 4:30 a.m. or so, while packing a picnic lunch to take with us to the orchards.

Now, we always called `the process prune picking—not plum picking—because the ripe raw, plums were all headed eventually for the SunSweet Prune Drying Plant near Sacramento. There, the plump purplish-reddish globes we picked were sorted, treated and dried into prunes.

Picking prunes was not really that hard; that’s why even a six-year-old could do it. A machine we called The Shaker detached the future prunes from their trees, and pickers like our family were employed to scoop them up, put them in buckets, and ultimately deposit the contents of the buckets into large, square wood-slatted containers called “bins.” We mostly got paid by the bin, although at least one establishment that employed us paid by the bucket—25 cents for a small one and 50 cents for a large one.

These were plum wages for the time.