Sunday, May 12, 2013

Strawberry Fields

Before and during the Great depression, my grandfather, William Emmitt Newell, was a small truck farmer, living and growing his crops in the red dirt near Marion, Mississippi, just outside of the Queen City of Meridian. Grand-daddy raised turnips, tomatoes, potatoes and corn, gathered fresh eggs and sold chickens to city folks who missed the farm and its load of special treats.

Somewhere along the way, Grand-daddy, along with his brothers and some other small farmers in the area, decided to get into the strawberry business. With large families, the Newells always had plenty of help in planting, tending and harvesting this cash crop. Although sex-role designations of the day usually steered girls to indoor work, an exception was made in the matter of sweaty strawberry cultivation; my father and every one of his nine siblings had a hoe and a row and everyone was expected to hoe rows of strawberries!

When the juicy red berries, which my aunt named Marion Beauties, were ready for harvest, they would collect them, place them in those small, wooden crates, affix the prized Marion Beauty label for which the Newell boys (Grand-daddy and his brothers) were known, put them in the back of a Model T (which had been converted into a truck) and take them to the nearby railroad spur. Within a day, the strawberries were usually loaded on a large, un-air-conditioned railcar that waited at the spur and, later, connected to a train such as the M&O (Mobile & Ohio) which was headed off to market in St. Louis and elsewhere. On another occasion, I’ll tell you about the time the train didn’t show up on time and the Newell boys’ strawberries spoiled during the wait.
Although strawberry production is ancient, modern strawberry farms were introduced in Greece during the 1960s in the northern section of the country. Over the years, cultivation on a large scale has extended to the south, developing especially in the Peloponnese.  Today, in Greece, strawberries are grown on large farms and harvested by immigrant laborers from nearby Balkan countries, as well as countries in Southern Asia and Northern Africa.

Recently, in the strawberry producing area of Manolada in Greece, nearly thirty immigrant workers were beaten and two were killed when they stood up to their bosses and demanded to be paid. Strawberry growers allegedly opened fire on the unarmed protestors who asked for a paycheck after working without pay for six months. It is an open secret that, in exchange for the tiring job of strawberry cultivation, workers are forced to live in long, low, unventilated sheds, required to pay rent to their employers and rarely compensated for their labor. Since many of the workers are undocumented, the bosses expect that they can exploit them for profit with impunity. This is another form of human slavery practiced, often with government turning a blind eye, in this part of the world.

In November, 1966, the Beatles recorded a song written by John Lennon, entitled Strawberry Fields. Most Beatle-ologists now believe that John was recalling and reflecting on his personal sense of not fitting-in, from his childhood. Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army orphanage located on Beaconsfield Road in Woolton, Liverpool, England was the site of a much-loved annual fair, attended by John with his Aunt Mimi, following the untimely death of his mother. In the woods nearby, the shy little John often played alone, perhaps finding solace from the trauma and upsets of his timid, tiny world. If this song is featured prominently in the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which seems to deal with a return to childhood, perhaps John was expressing his own sense of early estrangement from the ordinary world.

John seems to have discovered a desperate, personal coping mechanism for life’s confusions when he says, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” But, he also gives voice to his personal angst with the line, “it’s getting harder to be someone.” Acknowledging a potent sense of isolation and estrangement, he admits, “No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low.” Repeatedly, in denial and escapist lyrics, Lennon counsels that the struggles of Strawberry Fields are, “nothing to get up about,” because, “nothing is real,” suggesting that his only recourse was to cower inside himself, in this self-imposed pretense.

I wonder how my Grand-daddy, that uneducated, but supremely ethical and honest man and devoted follower of Jesus Christ, might feel about the treatment of strawberry workers in Greece? I wonder if my father, a one-time strawberry picker, sincere Christian and deacon in his Baptist church, would identify with strawberry workers and insist that they be paid for their labor. I wonder if, like the imaginative John Lennon, my Grand-daddy and my Pop would tell me to close my eyes and pretend that “nothing is real?” I wonder ….    

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