Dan Holden's Creative Writing
In the fall of 1969 my father was reassigned from an Army post in Georgia to a position as the Army Advisor to the Air National Guard in Oregon. He drove my family – my mother, older sister, myself and my brother – all the way across country, towing a boat loaded with our possessions. We spent my 10th birthday at the Pendleton Roundup, watching the biggest rodeo in the West.
On that day, Oregon was everything I had dreamed it would be. There were cowboys and horses, longhorn cattle and beautiful Indian girls wearing fringed leather and feathers and beads. Old wood, cow manure on the street, alcohol in the air, sweat and sun everywhere…I felt like I had been transported back in time.
Then we pressed on to Portland and our new home, a chocolate-brown ranch-style corner house in an unremarkable suburb called Gresham, right across the street from a small patch of woods that was used as a Bluebirds camp. My brother and I pulled out our bikes and quickly surveyed the area, which was mostly suburbs with a lot of empty fields and some fishing and swimming holes here and there.
School was an easy transition; I was in fourth grade, I’d already discovered that I was partly deaf but there was nothing to be done about it. I spent a lot of time daydreaming, drawing and writing. Not much has changed I guess.
The next summer presented a challenge to my parents. When I was a few years younger, we lived on an Army post and daycare was readily available. Back in Georgia, we had purchased our first off-post home, and being at the edge of a woods in an area with many kids, my parents felt safe letting us roam the pine forests all day long.
Now we were in a much larger city, squarely in the suburbs. We were older, and with the Summer of Love just passed, there were many temptations to be found.
Still, as a military family, my parents were hard pressed to provide supervision for us. And my mother was pregnant.
Once, on a Sunday drive through the rolling hillsides to the east of Gresham, my father noticed signs recruiting for farm labor.
And that was how my siblings and I ended up picking berries with migrant workers throughout the Willamette Valley for the next several summers.
Every morning, we would wake up before dawn to old clothes and boots, a hat and a bag lunch, and walk a quarter mile or so to the corner of 172nd and NE Glisan, where the old converted school bus would pick us up, continue on for a few miles and then circling back up Burnside and then out Mt. Hood Highway, toward the fields where we picked strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peas and assorted other crops.
We were working shortly after dawn broke. The dew and fog were pleasantly cool, but by noon the sun would be high overhead and the temperature in the dusty fields rose quickly.
We were told early on not to eat the berries in the fields, as they might have been sprayed or perhaps contain bugs, but we were kids and it was hard to ignore the tempting fruit.
I couldn’t understand a word of Spanish but I knew by watching that the migrant workers were quite serious about their work. This was their income, and perhaps the best income they could hope to have, so they worked hard for every penny of it. Back then, migrant workers were paid for performance; every tray of strawberries or bucket of blueberries was weighed right there on the field and the workers were paid in cash for their efforts. At the end of each day you might have a sizable roll of bills in your pocket – perhaps $30 or more if you were good, although I think my high was probably around $17 in a day. Good money, stained strawberry red.
We were the only white kids in the field, most of the time. At some farms, the farmers’ kids or nearby neighbor kids would come out and join the crew, knowing they could earn a few dollars that way.
We traveled to many farms and many fields in those years. Even today I can drive along a hillsides east of Portland and the memory of working in this field or that will come back to me.
The migrants never had much time for us. I think they were amused by us, for a while, but at the end of the day they made more money than we did, so they regarded us differently.
I couldn’t put my finger on how we were different right away, but it dawned on me as we continued working with them.
When I lived in Georgia, the black kids in the neighborhood might play with us, but on the whole they would avoid white kids mostly because if there was an altercation, it was the black kids who would be called to task. I never liked that system but that was the reality of the time.
In Oregon, the migrant workers had their own system, and it was pretty well established. In that sense, we were the minority, not them. We were outsiders, we weren’t very good at our jobs, we spent a lot of time goofing around.
Even the grandkids that they occasionally brought along worked harder than we did.
One evening at home, I was reading an article about native American customs. I read that a favorite game of native children was to remain as still as possible, not moving until someone finally flinched. The purpose of the game was imminently practical; by playing it, children learned a valuable hunting skill. At the same time, they learned to listen, be patient, and observe.
The next day, squatting in the fields picking berries, I tried practicing quiet as I worked. My fingers moved, but I stilled my body. I resisted the urge to get up and run around or switch positions every few seconds. I began to realize this was the way of the migrants; quiet, focused, diligent.
They were good at their work because they stayed close to the earth.
I also realized that because they were better, they worked faster, and moved further away from us with each passing minute. So the opportunity to interact was lost.
I worked in those fields for quite a few years, but I was never able to catch up to them. When I was old enough, I went to work in the canneries and warehouses, scraping up money for college and eventually, a different way of life.
It’s often noted that a hundred years ago, the majority of Americans lived and worked on farms. Now, the majority live in cities, rarely seeing a farmer or farmworker, and probably never have a reason to interact with them. Which is sad, obviously, because these are the people who provide our food.
But perhaps just as important, our new way of life has removed us from the need to practice quiet, focus, and diligence, and to stay close to each other and the earth.
We have forgotten how to stay close to the earth.
Sometimes I wonder if, at the end of the day, we really have worked for our pocketful of cash, and if in doing so, we have lost our connection to each other.