The Courier News from Blytheville, Arkansas on June 17, 1966 · Page 14
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The Courier News from Blytheville, Arkansas · Page 14

Blytheville, Arkansas
Issue Date:
Friday, June 17, 1966
Page 14
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FourtMB *• (Affc*) GOOFM* MWS . «•• i Ant Wi 77ie Scene; Third In • Sarltt Ixamlnlng Tht Life of the Arva't Field Worker Amid the Berries: The Sound of Music By Jack Baker Staff Writer The strawberry fields of Lee Wilson and Co. are reached by means of a narrow gravel toad — last of a series of tributaries leading from Highway 61 past a vast private empire of industrial buildings and storehouses — all of which bear variations of the words "Wilion" or "Delta." (Impressive as this concentration is, it's the merest picayune in the total count of tie fabulous enterprises — owned wholly or in part by Lee Wilson Co. — which string out for miles on either side of a town which exists, it would seem, solely as an all-purpose shopping center for the company and its employees.) David Brinkley once called Wilson a feudal kingdom. He should have added the adjective "Managerial," for the scene here — as elsewhere in the nation — is rural technology. Robert E..Lee Wilson III, more commonly known as Bobby, takes a great personal interest in things. And he is assisted by a hard-headed bunch of managers led by shrewd and affable Hudson Wren. Much obligin' farm hands are something of an anachronism here. When we got off the bus, at about 7:15 a.m., we were met by a clipboard-toting young white man, who assigned each of us a number. Uh huh, a number — emblazoned in bold black numerals on a large white button some two inches in a diameter. The button also contained the words "Lee Wilson & Co, Wilson, Ark." My number was 848, which was the nearest'thing to a'name I had all day, and I was only that for approximately 50 minutes. We were told by another white in a n — a prototypical straw boss — to "be patient" and "hold our horses" and "be ready to start picking in about another hour." The fields were still wet, and nobody wanted a repetition of the smushed - berries incident So everybody slumped around idly waiting for the sun to square things away. In t*> hundreds of people sitting and standing about in this semblance of a d.p. camp, I saw for the first time some youngsters — boys and girls from about 12 and up. There was some messing around. * * * Masses of people were pouring out the door of a grocery store located on a little path leading from the fields — it was the old frame kind out of Erskine Caldwell, and the customers seemed to have invested mainly in five-cent pastries and cold drinks. Some of them actually had Moon Pies and R.C. Colas — and who knows- how many bad jokes are based on the alleged appeal of this combination to Negroes. 1 wondered whether the reality fed the cliche or whether it was the other way around. I entered the store and picked out a round cellophane - packaged piece of pastry called a "Flying Saucer" and waited in a crowded, somewhat rowdy MILLENNIUM—A new five- cent commemorative stamp marking Poland's 1,000th anniversary goes on sale July 30. Poles date the founding of their nation from 966 when acceptance of Christianity brought them into the main stream of western civilization. and irregular line before plopping my nickel down to a polite and harried-looking white girl. Flying saucers should stay in space and out of cellophane wrappers. This one tasted just awful. I threw the Kiing away after a couple of bites, and, since (he other breakfast possibilities looked just as dreadful, I made up my mind I would just have to stay hungry. Outside the hands were keeping up a brisk traffic in such topics as what Brother Brown said to Aunt Jessie, who was laid up with tile chills; how young Lester sure has growed; what a shame it was that Leroy and his wife was fighting so bad — that kind of thing. Eventually Charlie, who had been fooling with 6e motor, came up to me "all black and smiling," as John Lennon would put it. "The rest of the folks been lookin' around and say they don't look like many berries here." he said. "They want to go on to Joiner. What do you think?" What I thought was immaterial, since I was dependent on Charlie for a ride back to Blytheville. "All right with me," I said. So, off to Joiner. None of us were Number Anything any more. On the road to Joiner I decided to make some conversation. Since we all took the same seats we'd had before, Charlie's giant - back driver's chair was still a nuisance to my legroom. "You got enough room for your legs?" I asked my seat- mate, a friendly looking man who strongly resembled Lightning of Amos 'n Andy. His name was Roosevelt, I learned later. "Oh, yassuii, I'm doing fine," he answered, self - consciously for a reason I didn't understand until we debussed. My other attempt at conversation was directed to Ralph the Big-Timer, who sat right behind me. "How many quarts do you usually pick a day?" I said, after some preliminary small talk, "Hmmmm. I cain't pick no berries. Twenty, maybe." That answer disappointed me greatly in Ralph. I had been told by Jim Statler that a good bard - working man (or woman or boy or girl) could easily pick 75 to 100 quarts a day. I knocked off the conversation and dozed until we got to Joiner, when I was waked by that eerie collective tremor of go-to-work consciousness I had noticed at Wilson. When we climbed out of the bus, I noticed with shock that Roosevelt, whom I had asked about leg-room, had no legs. His waist-line began about 14 inches from the ground, and he propelled himself by means of what appeared to be blocks attached on either end to shoe- bottoms and his leg-stumps. All of this was, of course, wrapped in overalls. I could not help but wonder how his pickings would compare with Ralph's—or with mine; The twenty-odd of us started on a 180-degree circuit on a dirt road around the field — which, I knew from my conversation with Statler, was some 75 acres and was overseen or managed or owned — I didn't know which — by a man named Wilbur Johns. The end nearest to where our bus was parked was apparently filled. The prevailing practice, I was told later, is to start crews from either end of a strawberry field, having them meet in the middle, at which time they are started again in another plot. So we latecomers had to take the long walk, which separated the long legs at the head of the pack from the short legs — and Roosevelt — at the end. I tried to stay with the former. * * * At the very head of our column was, surprisingly, a short, chubby little woman, who was clipping away a good ten yards ahead of the next person — a tall man limping in clean, long strides . "Hey, gal," he called after her. "I know why you in such a hurry. You bought something back there at Wilson." He probably meant it. And it was probably true. We stopped where a man was handing down crates from a pickup truck. Each of us got one and moved down the line. I found myself toward the periphery of the field in what looked like scrub land. A Negro who was apparently some sort of sub-foreman held us all at the edge — each of us standing in front of a row, like racers before <t race. After the passage of a few minutes, he hollered "Go!" I looked at my watch. It was 9 o'clock. * * * Strawberries are "a juicy usu, red fruit produced by a plant of the genus fragaria and being an enlarged pulpy re- ceptable bearing numerous seed- like achenes rather than a true berry." If "usu." means 'uncomfortable scrambling underneath,' I believe it. As for those achenes, I know about them; my head was aching after I'd been at the job two hours. I discovered, both from watching others and from my own experimentation, that there are four positions one may use to move down a row of strawberries. 1) The stooping method, very conducive to headaches, whereby you straddle a row of strawberries, with a foot in the grooves ("middles") on either side. To see the berries, much less to pick them, you must incline your head downward ostrich-like; 2) The kneeling method, whereby you creep along on your haunches in only one middle picking berries from the row on your left (or right). This method inflicts a strain on your leg-joints and muscles similar to that imposed on an automobile motor by an absence of oil; 3) The knee method, which is exactly what it sounds like, its chief disadvantage being the throbbing pains that begin in your knee-caps and end in your cursing silently to yourself; 4) The seatpants method, also self-explanatory, which ultimately creates pleasant sensa- tions similar to those resulting from a sudden whacking on the backside by a cactus leaf. But of them all this is probably the most comfortable method — an the slowest. It struck me that Roosevelt was not entirely disadvantaged for this kind of work. I tried variants of all methods, ending with the end method and finally coming to a stop after three hours of picking in the unrewarding scrub row I'd been assigned. During this time I discovered that, although the leaves of a ORIENTAL ENTRY-Fasli" km model Atsumi Ikeno receives her crown as Japan's Miss Universe candidate from Mari Katayama, last year's winner. Atsumi, 17, will represent Japan in the worldwide Miss Universe competition in July at Miami, Beach. Fla. strawberry plant stand nicely upright, the berries themselves cringe lazily on vines very low to (lie ground. It is for this reason that no machine lias yet been devised that can pick strawberries — none except the human hand. On this particular day two- thirds of the berries, it seemed, were pulpy in the truest sens* — they came apart in your hands. * * * The crates assigned to pickers contain 12 quart containers, exactly like those in which strawberries are sold in grocery stores. Carting these crates down a row is frustrating in itself, and eventually 1 seized upon the expedient of removing individual quart containers and making forays on neighboring and more foliant rows. I considered this ethical because the pickers who had been assigned to them had picked through and gone ahead, but, even at that, these rows er« fairly abundant. I experienced at least one fairly surrealistic moment when I suddenly became convinced I was hearing Little Stevie Wonder (again) singing "Up Tight" — and from several directions. That was when I b e c a m e aware of not one but several transistor radios--all of them blaring out Little Stevie Wonder—sported by adolescents who were not picking but hopping back and forth across the rows being social. That was my first inkling that there was a class of loafers in the fields and my first suspicion that, superimposed on the grim labor of the rows was a frivolous picnic crust. I was to find out more about that later. Meanwhile I had a headache (from staying too long with the stooping method) six quarts of strawberries, and a sweet wish to get out of the sun and take a breather. But mainly I had a headache. 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