A WASTREL IN THE STRAWBERRY FIELD
A Wastrel in the Strawberry Fields
My publisher and friend Winston Williams recently forwarded to me an article about a British pilot who was ordered to shoot down a UFO in 1957. Talk about unilateral action.
The pilot reported seeing the blip as a radar image and that the UFO took-off in a hurry and thus, in the pilot’s opinion, must have been an alien spacecraft.
I replied to Winston that radar could be intentionally fooled by human technology. Chaff and pulse waves can be used, say, to mimic non-existent aircraft during bombing runs. Certain seismic events have produced radar images, as have some weather conditions.
If the pilot not only had a radar image, but had also seen a spacecraft, I might be less skeptical.
I would really be less skeptical if the pilot took a photograph, preferably one with the blue-skinned creature from Alpha Centauri thumbing its nose at our primitive aircraft.
As I told Winston, I recalled a little incident in seas off Vietnam with SONAR that led to my being sent to Vietnam. Blips that weren’t there led our government to believe the North Vietnamese had attacked our vessels when it was probably just waves.
But I really don’t think it was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that got me sent to Vietnam.
It was strawberries.
If this doesn’t make immediate sense to you, read Philip Roth’s new novel INDIGNATION. A series of collegiate misadventures, including a panty raid, sends a man to his death in the Korean War.
To this date I blame strawberries.
Late in the year 1965, I found myself unloading heavy flats of strawberries in a field off US-19 in Dunedin, Florida. There is currently a mall at the very spot were I labored my way to war.
There were many mistakes in my family’s ill-fated strawberry venture. One was the assumption that the soil in Pinellas County’s Dunedin bore any similarity to the soil in Hillsborough County’s Plant City. Oh, well – it was dirt.
Another bit of bad judgment was my father’s belief that success in the home-building business automatically translated to success in any other kind of business. This is a mistake I have friends making to this day, so I understand this fault – although you would think my father had learned his lesson in pro-shop business at local bowling alleys or his window company.
Then there was my father’s misjudgment of me.
My Dad figured that I, a 19-year-old lad, could plant strawberries as efficiently as Mexican father of three who needed to send money home.
So I was to do the work, and now let the errors multiply.
Not knowing what I was doing, the driver and I unloaded the flats near the national highway and far away from the sprinkler system. It was already past noon and hot.
The strawberry field had been previously cleared and the dirt put into neat rows separated by straight ruts. Down the first row, I did what my father had showed me. I planted berries and put a metal spike next to each one.
At day’s end, I unrolled black Visqueen over the row and pulled it over the spikes, drawing the plants by hand through the new holes. This allegedly would prevent weeds.
The first day, I managed to plant one of what looked like a million rows. Meanwhile the berry plants at the edge of US-19 had cooked in the sun.
Alarmed by my apparent lack of progress, on the second day, my father hired two of my friends for the underwhelming sum of fifty cents or so an hour – certainly no more. He wrongly assumed that three middle-class white boys would be as motivated as one or two migrant workers with families to support.
The addition of more boys had the inverse effect of producing more work. For one thing, the sight of so many young men without a Port-o-let so enraged the patrolling deputy sheriff that we were forced to hike one mile to the convenience store several times a day.
And at the convenience store – guess what? Cold beer was sold.
Kitties of the Fields
By the third day, my father suddenly realized that berry plants he had paid good money for were dying in the sun.
We carried the flats about the field and set them down where the planting would take place and where water could fall from the sky upon them from our irrigation system.
Soon my father, his partner Don Cressman, his son, Tim Ohr, and my friends were all laboring in the field to complete planting what still look liked half-a-million rows.
Seven days later, the field was entirely planted. It was finally, thankfully over, and my life could return to normal – or so I wrongly believed.
I thought I could go back to weekend visits with my girlfriend at FSU. I could return to playing midnight poker games and drinking beer with my fellow wastrels. I could return to the recently acquired local girlfriend weeknights.
Oh, yes, I could even return to college. My attendance was all that kept me from being drafted.
There were weeds, my father said, choking the life from the plants that would produce the precious berries we were going to sell for the enormous profits.
Back into the fields I went to pull weeds that were unfazed by our black Visqueen. Weeds growing so prolific that by the time I seemed to have finished weeding the field, fresh weeds had sprung up where I had started.
One of the reasons I couldn’t pull weeds fast enough were the plentiful pygmy rattlesnakes that had moved into the fields. Nothing slows down a weed picker like rattlesnakes.
Then, like a Biblical plague over Egypt, one God might have sent so Frank Ohr would set his wastrel son free, great flocks of birds arrived to eat the berries. Blackbirds. Mockingbirds. Doves. Seagulls. Ibis. Catbirds. Wrens. There did not seem to be a species of bird that did not find my father’s small but new berries delightful.
Up went scarecrows. We had always believed scarecrows kept birds from the fields.
The birds made perches on our scarecrows.
Thereupon my father hit upon the idea of rescuing cats from the local shelter. They would be bird-eating felines to slay the berry-stealing birds.
This idea would have worked better if all the cats had been male.
Once the cats gorged with their quota of bird, they began mating and fighting, like cats do when they have no real need to slay birds and are not neutered or domesticated.
Then there were the pygmy rattlesnakes that slew the cats that slew the birds.
Do you see how it was going?
You are thinking this story can’t get worse. Ha ha ha ha.
Came that winter an early Artic blast, creating a freeze of record-low temperature – it was headed into the teens. My father’s berries could freeze and die.
By this time, I was already sunk at college. Except for summers, when my high-school sweetheart returned from Tallahassee to keep my nose at the grindstone, I rarely carried a full academic load.
How could I play cards, keep two girlfriends, read books, write short stories, listen to music, and still carry a full academic load? Clearly it was impossible, but I was crafty.
My strategy for avoiding the draft had always worked flawlessly before. I registered for enough classes to keep me out of the draft, but when the academic drop deadline came, I dropped all classes but the easiest. Then I quickly registered for the next semester or trimester with another full academic load.
While laboring in the fields, however, I had inadvertently missed the academic drop deadline. Instead of passing one class and dropping three, I received a whopping three F’s and one B.
I was put on academic probation and became prime draft bait.
Still I fought the freeze to save the berries for my father.
Off we went in search of hay. We had no idea where to buy hay. Hay wasn’t in the yellow pages in those days. We went to farms. Finally someone sold us hay.
There were, we learned, different kinds of hay. I am not sure to this day that we bought the right kind of hay, but it was hay.
We covered our fields in the insulating hay. We took kerosene pots into the field and burned them to generate heat.
No, we didn’t set the hay on fire. That was probably because we forgot to reset or unplug the timer to stop the sprinklers, which ended both the risk of fire and the benefit of heat.
Come morning, we had a field of tiny, under-developed, frozen strawberries under a layer of frozen hay and ice.
An early harvest was clearly called for.
It was a pathetic sight: my father, Don and Johnnie Cressman, and me stood on various street corners about Clearwater and Dunedin. We were hawking microscopic and bitter strawberries. Our clients were righteously all skeptics. It would take a lot of sugar to make those berries sweet.
Yet the sour, red-green strawberries could not be wasted in our frugal households. Into the Ohr and Cressman freezers went jar after jar of brutally bitter berries we would consume with deserts and cereal far into the next year; berries my parents would continue to eat long after my feet were on the red soil of Vietnam.
That’s why I blame strawberries for my life being altered in a war, not the failure of SONAR creating the false images mistaken for PT boats that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Celebrate the Berry
The Florida Strawberry Festival began as a local celebration in 1930. The growers in Plant City do know how to grow strawberries, unlike my family. Seventy-nine years later, the festival is a major event in Hillsborough County drawing big-name entertainment and hosting such wonderful events as the strawberry-shortcake eating and cooking contests. In 2009, the annual event will occur from February 26 to March 9 in Plant City, easily reached from I-4 east of Tampa. Information can be found at www.floridastrawberryfestival.com. Hillsborough County has 2,600 farms generating $400 million in sales and 5,000 acres of strawberries, none of which I will come anywhere near. On the other hand, I never miss the festival - great fun and a spectacle unto itself, as well as a chance for berries to make amends.