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Featured Article

by Robert McCandless

Featured Article

   Don't care much for strawberries. Not sure I ever did. My mom helped ruin my taste for them by buying the frozen ones at Safeway and thawing the sugar laden mush to use in some dishes she prepared. But the real reason may have been that day we were picking.

   Fast forward to when I found myself working in the "garden squad" on the Darrington prison farm in Rosharon, Texas.

   I thought it was great that the prison doctors had found me to be unable in performing the duties required to work in one of the regular "hoe squads," where picking cotton, cutting trees down with axes, and other physically demanding task were expected. They moved me to the "garden squad" whose work was a lot less intense. That is until I learned the new job in the garden worked every day, no matter what. In the old "number two hoe squad" I was first assigned to, we only worked if there were enough guards, referred to as "bosses," to keep watch over us. When the correctional officers called in sick, the hoe squads were the first to be layed in from work, but those perishable crops in the garden had to be attended. One crop was the strawberries that sat behind a fence to keep varmints out. It was my guess that we were considered varmints too in that we were told not to eat them, even though we were picking them. They were for the guard's kitchen, separate from ours, that had a different menu, as you can imagine.

   The big swinging wooden gate was opened, and we filed in, picking up buckets just inside the confines of "berry dom." The officer in charge of us yelled out, "Don't let me catch any of you "ole' thangs" eating even one of those strawberries or you won't get out of the hallway for the rest of your sentence" referring to the punishment for not working hard enough or maybe for failing to pull up a clump of grass in the crops. Outside the back gate of the tall razor wire topped fence, those who failed to meet the expectations of the "staff" were pulled aside, marched past the showers, and into the hallway to have a meeting with the Field Major. These crimes of neglect were met with a bag of peas or peanuts to be shelled while sitting on the floor in the long hallway between the cellblocks, under the watchful eyes of those bosses working the night shift. It was specifically directed at deterring others from similar behavior. Yes, the extracurricular activity was done after a day in the field, working in the humid coastline Texas town, and ended when the bucket you were given was filled. Depending on the mood of the Major, the bucket size varied. Old timers could shell a gallon in three or four hours, ending their sentence by nine p.m. Others sat in the hall until midnight or longer trying to develop a technique that would let them get to bed sooner. Although if you finished too soon, you sometimes may get another bucket if your attitude wasn't right. 

   I am thankful that strawberries were not on my list of favorites. Had we been picking blueberries; this story would be about me instead.

   Barrientez was known to be a little of a rebel. Just enough to keep out of any major trouble which may have sent him to solitary confinement but today was too much for him. 

   On our knees in the sandy soil, we knelt and filled our buckets with the plump berries as the mounted guards watched over us on horses that were trained to bite or trample over you if prompted. When a bucket was filled, it was taken to a small trailer and lined up with the others and a new bucket was taken. On the way to dump the newly picked berries an officer would check everyone's tongue to see that it wasn't overly red. 

   We had filled about four buckets that afternoon and the sun was beginning to slide down behind the tree line when the Field Captain raised his hat. "Hat Time" meant the day was over and we were to drop off what strawberries we had and mount up on the trailers that had brought us out. Everyone was ready for a trip back to the showers, a meal, and an evening of watching TV, playing dominoes or some other activity we may have found to do within the restricted environment of our cellblocks.

   Just as Captain raised his hat someone yelled "Hat Time" and everyone stood...except for Barrientez. With his back turned to the nearest boss several yards away he seemed to be chewing. Another boss figured out what was going on and gigged the horse to close in on the crime being committed. Barrientez stood, knowing he was busted. Rather that succumb to the tongue inspection he quickly reached into the bucket he held in one hand and began shoveling as many strawberries as he could into his mouth knowing the consequences.

   Knowing the boss may ride the huge animal over him, command it to bite him, or pull him aside for the inevitable night in the hallway, everyone was surprised when the boss began laughing as he pulled short of contact with the criminal in the middle of the offense. 

   Barrientez's face was red with juice and falling pieces of strawberries flowing from his berry packed mouth, as all the onlookers, bosses included, began to laugh.

   A great cheer, mixed with laughter, sprung up as the "arrest" took place. Another mounted horseman and eventually, the field Captain, arrived at the crime scene. All were laughing.

   After a feeble "ass chewing" we loaded up to go in. Everyone laughed with Barrientez as the old rickety trailer pulled by a John Deere, moseyed back to the prison. He must have really loved strawberries or just got pleasure out of beating the "law" just one more time.

   As we later filed out to eat chow, we passed Barrientez in the hall, sitting against the red brick wall on a perfectly shined floor with his burlap bag of peanuts and a fairly small can in which to fill...the smile still on his face. I guess the Field Major got a laugh out of it also, for Barrientez only spent a couple of hours shelling.

   I guess I have to thank my mom for ruining my taste for strawberries. 

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