Sunlight streamed through the stormy clouds and a rainbow seemed to end over the field beside me. For a moment I remembered the childhood saying that treasure could be found at the end of the rainbow. I laughed, but glanced over the field anyway. There I saw tender green leaves in tidy rows, yet untouched by the weeds. Suddenly I saw millions of red gems sparkling with dewdrops, at the verge of bursting, and sitting proudly on a bed of straw. The first fruits of the season, the sign of summer and the beginning of the fresh fruit feasts were before my eyes. It was strawberry season.
I pedaled my bicycle further and came to a hand-drawn sign “Pickers Wanted.” I looked at the sign in awe—could I be paid to travel the sweet-smelling rows and to eat all the sun-warmed berries I wanted? That weekend, at the tender age of thirteen, I started my first summer job.
I pulled myself from bed before the sun rose and was pedaling along long deserted country roads by six AM. I arrived just before seven and was given crates and tags. I followed the field boss to a flooded row and I set to work. I was happy and the days began to fly by.
Each morning the cold, wet leaves would soak me and I would take off my shoes, to work barefoot in thick mud. I shivered for the first couple of hours, before the harsh sun began to shine relentlessly overhead. Soon I would long for the cool morning to return. I learned to fear the field bosses, who were employed to pick on the pickers. The berries I picked were either too green or I was leaving too many green berries on the plants. My crates were either too skimpy or too full. I couldn’t argue, though, or I would lose my job and, unless my crates pleased them, my card would not be punched.
Every worker longed for lunch break. We would all stand, stretch and head hungrily to our coolers in a shady orchard. There was always a long line for a repugnant outhouse from which gasping people would flee. You had to bring your own toilet paper and your own wash water. Lunch finished much too soon and, like prisoners, we returned to the endless rows. The afternoons were scorching hot and a cloud over the sun was something to savor.
I had never realized the diversity of field workers. As I worked I heard the chatter of the Portuguese, Chinese, Jamaicans and Mexicans. There was a man there who had impoverished Vietnamese workers working for him. All their picking money went to him and he gave each one a fraction back. The most amazing group of all, however, were the German Mennonites. Entire families came out each day, dressed in dresses and clothes that hid all of their bodies. They didn’t seem to mind that these clothes would be filthy within minutes. The children, as young as three, would pick for about an hour before tiring, and they would go and play on sandy roads. They were oblivious to cars and, forgotten by their parents, they were soon covered head to toe in dust. The Mennonites were a group to marvel at. They could pick double the speed of everyone else, taking frequent breaks. I tried never to share my row with them, because they always passed me and took the best berries. On Sundays the fields became strangely quiet, because no Mennonite would work on the Sabbath.
The days became weeks. Each day I bent my aching back over those abundant berries and picked with red-stained, dirt-caked hands. I earned a quarter for every quart I filled and I could fill close to two hundred quarts in a ten-hour day. Having no other experience, I thought it was great money. I felt so proud to stand in the long line of tired workers who all slaved together and receive crisp bills for my work. Every night I would ride the long, lonely farm roads home, often having to scrape the mud from my bike tires with a stick so they could turn.
My summer job ended with the harvest. I was upset and relieved at the same time. I would earn no more money and eat no more berries. On the other hand, I could sleep in and live in the comforts of home. The experience taught me to appreciate farmers, to value many novelties I took for granted and to see strawberries in an entirely new light.
I had been working on a strawberry farm for several weeks. The farm was heavily irrigated, resulting in ankle-deep mud along the rows. During the day, I would always walk past a young Mennonite girl, who played in the orchard while her parents picked. She was always in a dress, with two braids and enough clothes for the coldest winter day. She eyed me each time I passed, marveling that I could be immodest enough to wear a T-shirt, shorts and no shoes. Over time her staring grew more intense and it seemed like she wanted to speak with me. One day I ambled by in exhaustion, my back painfully hunched over, my hands stained red with black nails, my body covered in stains, sweat and dust, and my bare feet heavy with caked mud. The child looked up timidly and stated sincerely in broken English: “You look pretty.”