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The peaceful green rows of my raspberry patch today stand in stark contrast to my memories of the raspberry fields of my youth. Back then, raspberries were much more to me than just fruit; they represented danger, romance, and freedom. In 1957, when I was fourteen, I landed my first real job–picking raspberries in Puyallup, Washington–and it transported me to a world I’d never known.My adolescence in a placid suburb of Tacoma, Washington, was like a warm glass of milk: soothing, safe, and bland. Every aspect of my life seemed predictable and sheltered. To me, even a twenty-minute bus ride to downtown Tacoma was an exotic adventure. And teenagers from the legendary downtown high schools might as well have been beings from another planet.
In my well-ordered suburb, we were in the process of building a new high school year by year, and all my activities were carried out close to school and home. Thus, I had little contact with kids from the “outside world,” city kids who were perhaps not so well-regulated.
Working in the berry fields gave me an opportunity to observe them up close. To my fascinated gaze, they appeared to be light-years ahead of me in their attitudes. The girls wore jeans that clung to their thighs, jeans my mother wouldn’t have let me put in my closet, much less wear in public. Many of them wore make-up, smoked, and knew how to swear. Some even had pierced ears! They were a dash of Tabasco in the warm milk of my existence. I was enchanted.
The job itself was boring. After rising at dawn to catch a smelly, crowded truck for the long ride to the fields, I worked my way up one hot row and down the next all day long. The ripe berries were plentiful, but the task was monotonous, leaving me plenty of time to study the behavior of the strange new beings I’d discovered.
For example, all employees were threatened with instant dismissal if they were ever caught committing the heinous crime of throwing berries. Naturally, I never took part in the berry fights that erupted daily, but, oh, how I admired the kids who did. Was it possible to defy authority and survive? The thought had never crossed my mind. I peered through the leafy bushes, held my breath, and silently cheered on the bold ones.
My one direct act of defiance was to slather on the reddest of red lipsticks every morning–after leaving home, of course–hoping people would take me for one of the “cool” kids. My parents allowed no make-up, so I always scrubbed off the lipstick before returning home. I didn’t know how to swear, and I didn’t own any tight jeans, so the lipstick remained my only vice. It was enough. I felt wild and dangerous.
The leader of the berry wars was a seventeen-year-old city slicker named Larry. Where I came from, a crew cut was the only acceptable hair style for a boy, but Larry had long, greasy black hair, which he tended often with a comb from the back pocket of his jeans. He carried a pack of Camel cigarettes rolled up in the arm of his formfitting white tee-shirt, and, best of all, he had a silver front tooth.
To my romantic eye, he looked just like Clint Walker, the star of my favorite TV series, “Cheyenne.” My dream world merged with reality there in Puyallup, Washington, and I burned with unspoken desire. During the entire two or three weeks we picked berries, he never looked my way.
The next summer when the notice came about the need for berry pickers, my parents hid it and didn’t tell me. They later confessed that they had been afraid I’d be corrupted by contact with those rowdy city kids. I went on to more “suitable” jobs, closer to the safety of home, back to the soothing warm milk of my suburb.
Who knows? Maybe my parents were right. The first year in the fields, I dared to try lipstick. The next year, I might have dared to throw a berry.