strawberry fields forever

27 08 2008

It’s called stress eating.  I know it’s wrong but it’s stress. When I’m here in my dream world of a hotel room – alone – tv on – and it’s midnight and I have a mini 7-Eleven in the lobby, I do the wrong thing.  It was only one ice cream bar – not a box full.  About a bite in and I’m thinking of how this ties me to Billy.  It’s all his fault.

We joined the mass exodus from Gary to land in what seemed to me to be Podunksville – Valpo.   My brother and I laughed that kids probably would be coming to school with manure on their shoes.

It was summer when we took possession of our new digs and with working parents – there was no room for idle hands.  My dad was still commuting into his job some 25 miles away and his route – meandering of course, took him right by a big fruit farm. And I’ll be darned if he didn’t stop in there one day and talk them into hiring a 12 year old with zero experience to help pick fruit.  There goes that karma thing again – me thinking everyone was a hick, I suddenly became a farm hand myself.

My boss was an hispanic migrant who lived on the property in a very small trailer with his wife and a newborn.  With acres of land, you’d think that they could have found a shady spot for that little silver bullet but it was parked in the middle of the cracked earth – just like a mirror it seemed to intensify all the heat the sun could dish out.  

It was the tail end of the strawberry season as I quickly learned.  With the sun barely up, I’d have to search for enough berries to fill each small pint container.  There must have been something like 12 pints to a flat and when I got to that magic number I’d get a ticket.  Tickets were turned in at the end of the day and I swear they were worth pennies on the dollar.  But a couple of tickets could be redeemed for an ice cream bar at the farm stand.  Heath bars were new and they were my friend. I’m not sure I ever brought home any money – but I did eat alot of ice cream.

After strawberries came raspberries.  Bushes and scraped up knuckles.  It gave a break to the knees and back and punished the hands and arms.  We’d work from sun-up till about 4 pm.  So hot, so sweaty…our only break was 20 minutes at high noon to eat sack lunches on the back of a flatbed truck in the bald scorching sun.  One afternoon, as I awaited my dad in the lengthening shadows, the foreman invited me into his trailer where he handed his wife 2 pints of raspberries.  Before I knew it I was drinking a concoction of berries pressed through a sieve, some cold water, lemon juice and sugar.  I had discovered the nectar of the gods right there in the middle of that farm field from the hands of a sun-burnt migrant with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon.

It is not lost on me that 40 years later I’m working with these people again but in the context of a medical system that defies understanding even when a person is 100% red-blooded WASP.  I now have a greater understanding of those families that are bound together by caked earth, sweat and back breaking labor that this little guera couldn’t do in the prime of her life to save her soul.

My first paying gig did more to teach me what hard work looks like than all the other jobs to follow.  And I love raspberries – flavor, berries, preserves…not with chocolate though.  All around me are pieces of Billy stamped on my soul – even to my taste buds.  I can’t imagine that there will be many days that I don’t think about him a million times, in a million ways and with a million tears.