The Strawberry Pickers


“Hurry and finish breakfast, Tom,” David cried impatiently. “If the farm trucks go by, we won’t have a ride out to the strawberry fields and we’ll miss work today.”

Tom moaned as he stood up and reached for his straw hat. He was so stiff and sore from squatting and crawling along the rows that he only wished the delicious berries grew on trees instead of slithering along so low on the ground. At first Tom had been enthusiastic about his job, but he hadn’t realized what hard work it would be. He was from the city and was visiting his aunt and uncle. His cousin, David, was used to farm work, but Tom certainly wasn’t.

Tom thought about his friend, Mike, whom he had met yesterday while picking berries. Mike had to work hard every day. His whole family were migrant farm workers who traveled all over the country to harvest crops when they were ripe. Even their small children helped in the fields. They were very poor and lived in tents or whatever shelter was provided by the people they were working for. The family moved from job to job in an old pickup truck. The children were seldom in one place long enough to go to school, and that was the only thing he had heard Mike complain about.

Tom and David climbed onto the back of a big truck that stopped for them. It was already crammed with pickers so they sat on the tailgate. Most of the workers were boys but there were also a few women and girls, all eager to earn extra money during the short picking season.

The area around the packing shed was crowded but Tom searched until he found Mike. He wanted to work beside him again today. Each worker was given a flat carrier with eight empty strawberry boxes. Tom envied Mike’s speed. His nimble fingers finished a tray of boxes while Tom was still filling his third box. Mike’s younger sisters were fast workers too. They often laughed and teased each other, but they never stopped working.

Tom stood up and groaned as he straightened his aching back. Mike had gone for more empty boxes when Tom heard a strange sound and glanced down at his feet. He froze. A large rattlesnake was coiled between the rows, head raised, only a few inches from his tray! Afraid to move, Tom stood still, his heart pounding with fear.

“What’s wrong, Tom? What is it?” Mike shouted. He had started back from the end of the row when he noticed Tom’s white face.

“A rattler! A big one!” Tom called back tensely, still standing perfectly still. Perspiration was trickling down his forehead and stinging his eyes but he was afraid to move and wipe it away.

Mike dropped the boxes and grabbed a heavy stick, then raced toward his frightened friend. He leaped into the next row and warily approached the snake. After Mike had killed the snake, he lifted it with the stick and carried it to the edge of the berry patch. Tom sagged down and wiped his face with his sleeve. His breath came in ragged sighs and he was ashamed of his trembling. He had never been so afraid.

When Mike returned, he could see that Tom was embarrassed about being so frightened. To put him at ease, Mike said, “You did just right, not making any sudden moves, Tom. That snake was in striking position. I’m used to them and I wouldn’t want to kill a ‘good’ one because they eat grain-stealing mice and other pests, but I’m deathly afraid of rattlers and any other poisonous snakes.”

Tom appreciated his new friend’s tactfulness. Someone else might have laughed and made jokes about his fear. I owe Mike my life! he thought, shuddering.

He and Mike worked side by side for two weeks. After work they sometimes went to the large fenced area where the big geese were kept. Tom had been surprised when Mike told him that the big birds saved the growers a lot of work. They ate the weeds but would not bother the berry plants.

Tom’s muscles gradually adjusted to all the stooping and duck-walking between the long rows. He also became much better and faster at the work. His sunburn had peeled and now his face, arms, and legs were nearly as tanned as Mike’s.

Besides the physical benefits gained from his first job, Tom had learned a lot about people, not only about Mike and his family but about the other migrant workers as well. He had learned respect for the hardworking, nomadic people and had gained a new appreciation for his permanent home and the opportunity he had of going to school regularly. He had never really thought of these blessings before meeting Mike.

“I have enough money for my new bicycle, for the county fair, and some for my savings account,” David said on payday, proud that he had earned it himself. “How much do you have, Tom?”

“None,” Tom said softly. He had been staring out their bedroom window. He knew Mike and the other pickers had moved on north during the night. He would never see his friend again.

David was surprised. “How could you work for two whole weeks without getting paid?”

“I didn’t collect any pay,” Tom mumbled awkwardly.

“Why not?” David persisted. “You earned it and it was hard work. We’d better go over to see Mr. Grant and collect while he still has your work record.”

“He doesn’t owe me any money,” Tom said. “I didn’t want to tell anyone, but I gave it all to Mike. You see, his family is trying to buy a house where his grandmother lives so he and his sisters can stay in school. They hope to have enough money by this fall. Mike saved my life and I wanted to help them. I told Mr. Grant to give his parents all my pay.”

David looked down at the bills and change scattered across his bed. He was silent for a minute, thinking of all the hard work Tom’s money represented. Then he said thoughtfully, “I guess I could have given them some of mine too. I hope you won’t be sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Tom said cheerfully. “I’ve never felt so happy about anything in my whole life. It’s the first time I’ve ever helped anyone all by myself and that’s a good feeling.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull