Picking Strawberries

Chapter One: The Tommy Gun

Reading the local newspaper, Harold learned about how Al Capone was just sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion.

Harold Picking’s parents didn’t have a lot of money so he left school a year ago. Still, he loved to read and even at the tender age of 13 his neighbors looked to him for advice about things. He was known to be smart. He never charged for the advice he doled out, he did charge for milking cows though. Oh, and he milked cows. He knew the just right way to massage the milk out of the utter of a cow. He became so good at it, he was through with his family’s herd hours before sunrise and went to the neighbor’s next where they paid him to milk their cows daily. Sometimes someone couldn’t pay him so in exchange he had them read the newspaper to him while he milked their cows. He mostly liked them to read about the gangster Al Capone. He loved reading about him.

In the evenings when the sun went down and the house fell asleep he imagined himself wearing a pinstripe suit and black fedora. He carried a machine gun. Not just a machine gun, a Chicago typewriter. This automatic machine gun known as the Tommy gun garnered him respect.  In his imagination, he adorned his gangster clothes and carried his weapon while him and some other gangsters drove from Battleground Wash. where his family farm resided. They made their way in their Ford Model T following the Columbia River. They then drove north to a bustling railroad town called Spokane. This town that made its money with trains also made some extra cash shipping booze up the edge of eastern Washington. Sometimes, cargo loads of homebrew made its way to the western part of Washington and to places like Seattle.

Al Capone was on the east coast. He was on the west coast. Plus, Al Capone was wearing inmate stripes now, not suits and hats. He’d never get a chance to meet him. Someone like Al Capone would never look at puny Harold anyway. He was tall and lanky and still a kid. Al Capone would walk right past him. For a second Harold thought maybe Capone would notice him if he carried a Tommy gun and walked like a gangster. Harold knew he had his own sweat wages to make before someone like Capone would even notice a kid like him. All Harold was, was an uneducated farm boy who milked cows for extra money and the chance to learn more about the gangsters of his time.

Chapter Two: The Winter

During the cold winter when the fields didn’t grow, they worked on machinery. He thought about last summer’s harvest. For hours, they picked strawberries for the market. Strawberries if grown right could get you some nice cash. What they didn’t sell in stores, they sold out of the back of his dad’s rust-colored International Farm Truck that was manufactured in 1919. They also had an original Ford Model-T. They kept it in the barn for special occasions. Back then having one of these was a sign of prestige. They were poor farmers. Still, his dad wanted one so they got one.

It was during this summer of 1931 while sitting on the back of his dad’s International farm truck that Harold thought about his papa’s Ford Model-T. He thought about how to make it bleed cash and still look fancy. He also thought about how during strawberry picking days his mom would end the day on her back laying on the couch. The constant bending over and picking really took its toll on her body. It even made young Harold ache. Picking strawberries was back-breaking work. Still, they were farmers. They made food. They made food so people could eat and then go about their lives. This is what they did. This is what they would always do. However, he couldn’t stand seeing his mother in pain. He rubbed her feet in the evenings and made her hot salt baths to rest her aching muscles. She still would complain about having an aching back – especially after days picking strawberries in the vast fields of the berry behind their house.

When Harold’s dad decided they would be berry farmers he started with one strawberry plant. He watered it and watched it spread out into a field of berries. He then started a small business. He sold berries from the back of his truck, then he brought boxes of fresh berries to be sold at the markets. Berries became their life.

Eventually, they grew strawberries almost exclusively. They became the berry farmers of southwest Washington. They lived and breathed berries. Berries were what kept clothes on their backs and food on their table. Still, as the summers went on, the picking process became so laborious day-after-day. Harold picked berries until he felt callouses growing on his hands. He was able to move past the pain of the callouses, but watching his mother grimace with a bad back made him want to cry. That’s where he began to think about how he could make the work go faster and take the load of bending over off his mother’s back.

With a fireplace poker, he grabbed it and walked outside where a small smattering of snow had coated the ground. He took the poker and began to imagine the trailer he could build. He would use his dad’s welder and even attached a hitch to the Model T. He drew the blueprints in the snow. A breeze suddenly whooshed past him and swept the snow away and erasing the icy blueprint that now only remained in his mind.

Chapter Three: The Strawberry Machine

While he built it, he imagined he was standing in front of the vast field of strawberries behind his family’s farm house. Holding his Tommy gun, he wore a pin stripe suite and a black fedora hat. He shot his Chicago typewriter at the berries, causing the ripened berries to blow up in front of him spraying pieces of sweet red flesh to fly into the air and drop to the ground. He shot so many berries that his family’s farm field looked like a massacre had taken place there.

Maybe he didn’t own a machine gun. All he had was his father’s rusted-out shotgun they used to chase away predators coming for the chickens. It often got jammed. It didn’t matter how much they oiled it, the shells sometimes got stuck. He knew would never have that problem with a Tommy gun.

Now, his dad’s welding machine never misfired.  The flame that came out of the handle always reflected the correct temperature for melting metal. He used it on the frame of an old wagon that his mama used to decorate the front of the house. He figured that she wouldn’t notice its absence until it was too late. Until his tool was finished and the damage was already done.

His dad had an old saying, “If you have to use a sander at the end of welding, then you are sanding not welding.”

What his papa meant was that the process of welding required a calm concentrating hand that knew the right way to manipulate the metal with the flame so it looked good and worked correctly. When the trailer was finished he moved on to the Ford Model T. His papa kept a dust blanket over the car. With both hands, he yanked and revealed the shiny car that they used only on Sundays for church and town visits. He cranked the engine and heard the motor start. He drove the car to his welding spot. There he used his papa’s welding machine and attached a hitch. He then added a railing on each side of the trailer and attached it to the Model T. Now he would just have to wait until berry season.

As the long winter months continued, he thought about how Al Capone was once considered a Robin Hood for his charity work for the poor. That ended on February 14, 1929 after the Valentine’s Day massacre. Seven men were gunned down during a rival gang fight and Al Capone went from savior to Public Enemy No. 1. After this incident, his days were numbered. He would be sentenced to prison a few years later and his reign as head gangster would be over. On February 14, 1932 − three years after Chicago’s infamous Valentine’s Day massacre − Harold bought his mama a silk red rose from the nearby grocer and handed it to her and told her she was beautiful. This brought a smile to his mama’s lips.

Chapter Four: The Spring Rain

When the rains came down on Battleground, Washington they didn’t stop. This was great for strawberries, bad for people. During the rainy season after a month or so moods shifted from happy to ready to spare. March alone saw five inches of rain. By the time it came to pick the ripened berries in July though, it would start dry out. July saw less than an inch. But it was only May and it still rained nearly every day.

When it came time to weed berry plants, Harold left the gang of farmers and went into the vehicle shed. He drove out the Ford Model T and saw the confused looks on the faces of his family who all held crates in anticipation for the backbreaking weeding they would soon be doing. The most confused look came from his mama and a look of anger spread across his papa’s face.

Harold continued and eventually parked the machine and stepped out of the car and in front of his baffled clan. He asked his papa to control his anger and give him a chance to show them his work.

Attached to the Model T, was his picking masterpiece. He used his body to model how a person would get in the trailer and lay on their stomach. Below, the trailer was bare. The biggest opening was where a picker’s hands would come down to pick berries. He even had welded a tray that the berry crate could be placed. He said he wanted his mama to try it first. She got in a laid down on her stomach. He told her to keep her hands inside while he drove the car out to the berry patch. The angry look on his dad’s face changed to interest as the car drove out to the strawberry field.

Harold watched his mama at first seem hesitant when she entered the trailer. She laid down on her stomach wearing a speculative look and embarrassed rosy cheeks that matched the red cherries that were patterned on the dress she just made from some fabric they sold at the grocers. Her incredulous look became inquisitive as Harold drove the Ford Model T slowly among the rows of strawberries. Many of the strawberry plants had already begun to develop budding white flowers. They would soon open and bees would pollinate the plants and there would be strawberries forming. His mama’s look changed to joy as she weeded the berry plants with ease as she lay on her stomach. That joyful look shook with the emittance of laughter that he hadn’t heard from his mama since the summer of 1928.

It was then that the rain came down. It came down like showers do sometimes in summers at this spot in Washington State. It came down like a flood or like a spout from the sky had just been opened. Harold was quick to fix this. He stopped the car and got out taking with him the dust cover that now resided in the backseat. He used the cover as a sort of umbrella, attaching it to the railings of the trailer. Now his mama could pick berries with almost no interruption. Plus, the dust cover would shield her from the hot rays from the sun as well as the rain. His berry picking machine was a success. His mama wouldn’t be in pain this evening.

Chapter Five: The Car Maker’s Promise

At the end of May the circus came to nearby Vancouver. Not just any circus, but the Al G. Barnes circus. This circus had recently been purchased by John Ringling of Ringling Bros. fame. While the acrobats and juggles were spectacular, it was the conclave of wild animals they showcased that brought in the money. Since the financial crash of 1929 they – like most businesses – struggled to keep the tents up.

Harold’s papa wanted to show off his son’s newest invention. A makeshift fair selling kettle corn and apple butter had formed outside the circus tents. Harold went with his papa to show off the strawberry picking machine he had built. His mama had even painted a sign to hang in front of the makeshift farm machine. It read “Pickings’ Berry Farm Strawberry Picker.”

His baby sister handed out dried berries to everyone who stopped to chat about the farm vehicle that Harold had made from scraps this last winter. One man especially struck young Harold when he stopped to look at the invention.

The man was very thin, had hair that was turning white and bright blue eyes. This man carried with him a look of deep intelligence that Harold instantly recognized. “You’re Henry Ford, sir,” Harold commented.

“Why yes sir, I am,” the man replied.

“This is your automobile Mr. Ford. I used it to make a machine for picking strawberries,” Harold commented.

Mr. Ford then approached the vehicle. He walked slowly up and down the Model T and then looked at the joints Harold had welded the trailer together and the hitch on the car. He then pursed his lips and straightened his back. He then looked at young Harold. “This is a fine creation young man.’

Harold looked at Mr. Ford and gave him a smile.

“However, I really don’t appreciate my work being used as farm equipment,” Mr. Ford stated.

Aghast at this famous man’s disapproval, Harold at first looked down at his feet. A thought came to his head and he looked back up and into the piercing blue eyes of Henry Ford. “Please excuse me Mr. Ford, but if you manufactured your own farm equipment then people like me wouldn’t have to use your automobiles to make their own.”

Henry Ford stood upright. He seemed shaken and disturbed by this young boy’s impudence. Instead of replying, Ford simply nodded his head at Harold, then turned around and walked away.

Chapter Six: Driving to the Rock

Harold took off his baseball hat. He scuffled his feet on the ground beneath him. He wore a look of disdain. Disdain at himself. He couldn’t believe he had said what he said to America’s greatest inventor. The man who changed the way people traveled and got to work. Before him people never ventured out and most lived their little lives never venturing more than 10 miles from their homes.

The wind suddenly swooshed to him. It blew to his feet a newspaper. He looked at the front page. It was about Al Capone. The headline read “Capone Goes to the Rock.”

Compelled by this headline, Harold reached down and picked up the paper and began to read. He became so overcome with emotion that he read the paper out loud. The paper was weeks old. Harold couldn’t believe he didn’t know.

It seemed that Al Capone had recently been transferred to a new prison off the shore of California. The name of the prison was Alcatraz, and it got its nickname The Rock from its location – being built on a rock formation that stuck out of the ocean just enough to build a prison on it.

He couldn’t believe it. Scarface was on the same coast as Harold. Harold may get to meet him. See the gangster in the flesh.

Harold unhooked the trailer from the Model T and got in the driver’s seat. He cranked the engine on and pressed with his foot the gas pedal. He left behind the trailer he had just welded with caution and care. He also managed to knock over the sign that his mama painted that read “Pickings’ Berry Farm Strawberry Picker.”

He drove past the many venders camped outside the circus tents and got on the highway that led down the west coast and towards California. He drove for hours and saw the many evergreen trees of Washington and Oregon change into the redwoods that signaled he was in California. He drove into San Francisco and saw that many structures were still being rebuilt this long after the big quake in 1906. He saw a clearing of trees happened in one spot. He wondered if maybe they were planning to build something there – like a bridge.

He maneuvered his papa’s Ford Model T until he saw it. It was The Rock. He saw the building that was the home for Al Capone. Harold wondered what Capone was doing in his jail cell. He wondered even more if he went to Alcatraz if they would let him talk to Capone. Harold thought about getting on a ferry and going there. He then decided against it and went back in utter disappointment to the Model T. He was about to get in when a man’s voice rang out, “You there, kid. Thinks I can get a lift?”

Harold turned around and looked into the darkened eyes of the voice that stopped him. The man had a scar on his left cheek. The man looked disheveled and wore a large black trench coat. Harold noticed that the man didn’t wear shoes and his pants were striped and at the moment wet. He thought about it and decided to give the man a lift. He told him to get in.

“Thanks son. Call me Al.”

Conclusion: The Truck

Harold drove Al back up the coast of California and into Oregon. Going past him were several buses full of people. The people wore looks of pain and sadness. He drove past several of these busloads as he made his way up the coast with his barefoot passenger. Al asked him to stop at a store. The man with the scar on his cheek got out of the car and was in the store for what seemed like hours. Things happened so fast that Harold could hardly comprehend what was happening. All he heard was Al get in the car and yell at Harold. “Step on it kid!”

Harold did just that and they took off at full speed. During this time, he saw his passenger open his coat revealing a striped prison suit. He watched Al remove the suit and put on some clothes that were in the bag Harold imagined he had just pilfered from a general store. He watched his passenger take off his prison suit and put on a pair of jeans and a white button shirt. His passenger then took out one final thing from the bag: a brown fedora hat. He put it on the top of his head. He then told Harold to “hit the brakes.”

His passenger then opened his door and got out leaving behind a stack of bills.

Now alone and in bewilderment, Harold again stepped on the gas and headed home. When he got there his mama was wringing her cherry patterned dress with her hands and his father wore a look of complete disappointment. Harold thought about backing out the automobile, but instead decided to face his parents. He put the brake on and stepped out. He tipped his baseball cap to his mother and looked at his papa, “Hello ma. Hello pa.”

His mother embraced him and his father enveloped them both. “Don’t ever do that again Harold. We were so worried.”

“I won’t,” he replied.

It was then that one of the busloads of people pulled up to their farmhouse. The door opened and outstepped a dozen people with calloused hands and sad expressions.

“Harold, I have to tell you something,” his papa said.

Harold returned his papa’s look with that of confusion. “What papa?”

“We sold your strawberry picking machine.”

“That’s great news!” Harold replied.

“Umm,” his papa hesitated. “It is and it isn’t. We sold the patent for the machine in exchange for it never being used.”

Harold continued to look confused.

“Harold. Ford didn’t like your machine. He thinks it depreciates his automobile. He bought the patent in exchange for these workers. See, they’ll be doing the picking this year. They’ll be breaking their backs. Your mama won’t. This is a blessing Harold.”

Harold looked at the men and women getting off the bus and heading out into the berry fields with their sacks in tow. He then looked back into his dad’s shop and saw his recently welded trailer sitting just inside. He knew it would never see daylight again. From this day on it would sit in the shop rust and collect dust.

Categories: Historical

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