When we moved to a small logging community in Northwest Oregon, we were introduced to a new lifestyle. The city swimming pool was a couple of logs damming the local stream. The pool even had a life guard. At 2:am every workday, the diesel motors of the many log trucks began idling . 50 or more trucks each day would find their way up the narrow roads to the landings where they were loaded with massive fir and hemlock.
The strawberry bus had also become a tradition among the young people of the town. Just picking strawberries two weeks in the early summer , a kid could make enough money for school clothes and then some.
For extra money in the summer while not teaching, I drove the strawberry bus. The first few days the trip down the hill to the berry farms was a noisy affair, noses painted white with sun screen, lunches that would feed armies, and over-sized hats. On the way home each afternoon, these rugged pickers were sprawled all over the seats asleep. Exposed faces and arms were fried red to medium rare.
Upon arrival to the farm each day, our platoon was assigned a field of berries and each eager money maker given a row of their own from which to pick. Some kids slid along in the dirt next to their row of berries, Others would spraddle the row and bend from the waist.
Everyone in the field was paid by the number of flats (2 feet by 3 feet by 4 inches) they filled. At the end of the day, their punch card gave evidence of the number of flats filled. Some students collected their pay daily while others collected at the end of the season.
The two week period was determined by the berries themselves. Everbearing strawberry plants produced all summer, but it was the June bearers that were in commercial production, the harvest time was about two weeks. Farmers had to have picking crews enlisted far in advance to make sure picking of their fields could get done.
So much could be read into each picker’s background. The best pickers came from families where each dollar mattered and each family member was expected to contribute. At the other end of the spectrum were kids that never worked before. They were soft, by noon in the shade somewhere.
Two teenage sisters were sent to the fields by the parents as a life lesson. Cute and made-up the first days, later that first week, they were waddling like old women out the bus door. Some of their golden hair made it into the pony tail, the rest flying around about them all day.. They would never again laugh at the pickers in the field as they drove by on the way to the mall.
One of the boys found love amongst the berry juice. Always aligning himself next to a cute little farm girl two years younger. He carried his heavy flats back down the row to the wagons, but also carried hers down to be punched. She knew what was going on and was willing to play the game. The second week , they were riding together.
Three memories come to mind.
One morning we were placed next to a Vietnamese crew. They were adults from California and good pickers. One of our boys stood like a statue for at least minute. I told him to get busy and he bent back to his work. The next time I looked out at my berry troops, he was again staring at the other crew. He saw me and ran across the rows to me with eyes wide. I thought snakes or something.
” Do you see that woman with the green shirt?” Before I had time to nod. ” She just took a dump in the row!”
He wanted an explanation and I would have if I could have. The thought that I sent with him to his berry row was , ” Well, stay out of that row.” He looked with squinted eyes as if sharing one of the truisms of life.
The last day was the biggest of the fields. It went up a rise and disappeared out of sight. The manager told me that a Mexican crew would be to our left. I suggested as we moved toward the starting place we might give them a real run for their money.
The Mexican field boss came over, shook my hand, and commented on my troops, we looked rough and ready. The picking began, we had never picked this well. That went on for 30 minutes or so, then we stopped. Every kid there that day would never forget the moment. The Mexicans were out of sight. These men, running back down the rows with the full flats, then running back up the rise with empties were amazing, We were stunned by their effort. Some time this winter in Hermosillo or Torreon, their families would be fed with money made by running up and down this field.
Before going over the rise, the Mexican boss waved his big hat at me smiling, ” Adios, my friend.”
At the end of the final day, the accounts between the farmer and the kids resolved and I was shaking hands and the last goodbyes. Our bus was the last in the lot and not a picker could be seen. A bit preoccupied, I climbed into the bus and sat down in the driver’s seat. It was too quiet and the powerful smell of a certain jam was overwhelming. I glanced at the overhead mirror. Our two blond sisters were hidden by a layer of sticky, red strawberry pulp. The blond hair now had a spaghetti look to it, yellow strands showing through a red sauce.
When I spun around, it be came evident that the inside of the bus and all of it’s inhabitants had been overcome by this same dread disease.
“What in the heck is this?”
The older boy suppressing a smirk, ” We had some extra strawberries,” a coy smile broke out, ” we didn’t want them to go to waste.”