Thursday, February 17, 2005

Strawberry Fields, No Longer

The Old Dell Baptist Boarding School Main Building, site of Delway Trading Company, ca. 1975.

I grew up in a dying community along US Highway 421 in southern Sampson County, North Carolina. One of my earliest memories is from about 1963. The highway was not in the same place then, at least, it was not as wide. There had once been a large dirt parking area encircled with huge magnolia and pecan trees in front of the main building of the old Dell Baptist Boarding School. Now, the highway comes within a few feet of the building's red brick walls—the ones that are left standing, anyway. Across the road from the school was a sprawling, green-shingle-roofed building that served as a general store--our competition--though I dearly loved its matron, Miss Marion Allen. She would always give me candy when I visited her at her place of business.

We generally called the school "the old store", though the official name of the business my father operated there was Delway Trading Company. It occupied an old, damp, musty main hall of the former Baptist school. Once a thriving campus, complete with dormitories, housing for the school administration, a church and a post office, the community had fallen into decay not long after the school closed in 1923. The post office, founded in 1902, had long since closed, and all that remained of the rest of the campus were the imposing red-brick, main building of the school, the church and a dilapidated boys dormitory building used to store cured tobacco.

The main building had once been divided up into a series of apartments. Among its three floors were three large auditoriums, and enough contiguously connected smaller rooms to constitute several apartments. My family has occupied one of the apartments from the late 1940’s almost until the beginning of the 1960’s. The county, at times, ran a satellite health center out of one room of the building to provide inoculations to the community. Delway Trading Company, my Dad’s business, was housed on the first floor and offered "Everything for a Happier Home".

The canopy of the store extended out to the highway that ran to Wilmington and covered the gas pumps so that one could "fill-‘er-up" in the rain without getting wet. A large Sinclair dinosaur, painted on a round metal sign that rose 15 feet into the air, announced to the tourists passing through that we sold gasoline. Inside the building as you entered, on the right, was the office. To the left for thirty feet and forward for sixty feet were shelves and tables stocked with shoes, clothing, fertilizer, food, medical supplies, and farming implements of all kinds, punctuated at the end by a long ceramic-white meat refrigerator with panes of glass through which you could point to the cut of meat that struck your fancy.

The room behind the meat counter was used as a stock room. There sat a fifty- five gallon wooden keg of molasses with a tap from which my father would drain the sweet treacle into Mason jars to be sold from the store. When canning molasses, my job was to catch the drops of molasses that formed on the tap while Daddy traded a full jar for an empty one. A sticky little 45 pound four-year-old, I would wipe the goo from the tap with my index finger and quickly swing it into my open mouth. A full set of rotted baby teeth and a neck ringed with dirt, enough to grow a row of potatoes, as my Mama would say, I looked like a refugee from the poorest of families. In fact, I pretty much was.

At the end of summer days, Daddy would back the old, rusted mail truck that he had bought at auction up to the front porch of the store so that we could gain access to the refrigerated drink box that sat inside the truck. My job was to take the cord from behind the box and to plug it into a long extension cord that ran into the store. Meanwhile, my father would be busy filling the box with assorted soft drinks. Our next task was to gather cans of processed meats, crackers, pork and beans, sardines, cookies, loaf bread, mayonnaise, mustard, Uneeda ® biscuits, potato chips, pork rinds and candy bars and to place them in the truck. Our ritual complete, Daddy would padlock the whole contraption, leaving just a crack for the electrical cord to shimmy through the panel doors at the back of the truck. We would finally go home to a night of sweaty sleep in the humid North Carolina summer nights.

At 10 a.m. the following morning, we would grab wieners, red-hots, cooked ham, luncheon meat and bologna from the meat counter and place it all in a special section of the drink box to keep the meat cool. When ready to leave, we would unplug the drink box, start the old truck, and head off toward Magnolia. A few miles out of Delway, we would turn right onto a sandy dirt road, and travel a few more miles after which we would turn down a sandy, pine straw-strewn road that led far back into the woods where vast strawberry fields were hidden. Pulling into the space next to the weighing shed, my father would park the truck, blow the horn a couple of times to signal our arrival to anyone who had missed seeing us driving up and then would open the panel doors at the back of the truck to begin selling his wares.

Our arrival would be signaled in the fields by the straightening of backs of the berry pickers and by a quiet rumble that it was time for a break. Soon, the workers would gather around the rear of the truck to purchase their lunch. My favorite part of the daily journey, I could now wander among the strawberry plants and choose the reddest, ripest berries to fill my stomach while the workers gathered around my Dad to buy their lunches, under the shade of trees that lined the acres of berries.

Wooden ice cream spoons, broken in half, served as skewers to extract Vienna sausages from their cans, shimmering with cold, gelled protein and fat. Whole wooden spoons were used to scoop sardines from their oily rest. A bottle of complimentary apple cider vinegar was available for those who liked their sardines with oil AND vinegar. Some people ate corned beef from the can. Others lunched on sardines, soda crackers and orange sodas. Pork and beans were the favorite of some, while only beans and franks were suitable for others. We had all kinds of soft-drinks, from grape, orange and root beer to the less popular peach and strawberry flavored sodas. I imagine that not too many people here wanted to see a strawberry soda after spending the day with nothing but acres of berries in their sights.

As for me, I was content with the strawberries and ate my fill. Some were plump, red and sweet, while others were deceptive in their appearance and would cause a spasm of the saliva gland just behind my jaw from their sour juice. When I had eaten all I could stand, I would wander back up to where the people that I knew were breaking for lunch.

Other than my Dad, myself and the owner of the field of berries, everyone there was black. They gathered in the shade of the trees that surrounded the field and in the relative coolness of the shade, they ate and relaxed for the half an hour or 45 minutes that they were given to eat. Once the meal was over, someone might begin a song, to be joined by others. "He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands" was one that I particularly liked and often I joined in the singing. One of the men, a young adult named Saul, had been brain-damaged at some point in his life and was known for dancing on command. All you had to do was walk up to him and say "Dance, Saul!" and he would grin largely, his crooked teeth yellow in the sun, and he would dance a spirited few steps right on the spot. In retrospect, it was not a very kind thing to do, but everyone did it and Saul seemed always ready to please us with his skill. I would follow Saul around saying, "Dance, Saul. Dance!" and would marvel at the movement of his feet and the furrows he left in the sand.

I can remember feeling completely safe and at home among the black people who worked the fields and saw little difference between us all. It is really quite amazing to think of the innocence of children and their view of love and life compared to adults. In so many ways, these people who were working hard to provide for their own children took me in as one of their own. In reality though, they themselves were viewed less as human than as a source of revenue and profit by the adults of my community. When we left the fields together, we went to separate lives, at least for a while. Our schools were separate, our churches were separate, our dreams were of different make-up. For the whites in my community, success was the goal. For the blacks, it was to be given the opportunity to succeed in America for the very first time. Elsewhere, Martin Luther King, Jr., was making a name for himself and asking America why we should tolerate separate lives for anyone in the land of the free. In our reality, we were all struggling against poverty, but some of us had a hand up in that we were not still shackled by racism.

The strawberry fields are no longer there in Delway. Their owner and his son both died years ago. Soon it was more profitable to grow corn, tobacco or soybeans than red berries. My Dad ran into financial troubles and had to move from the large old store to a newer Texaco station just down the road, next door to the restaurant that my mom had rented and started to operate with great success. Eventually, the general store across the street was sold and jacked up onto the bed of a truck and hauled away. The old school building began to rot and decay, and in the course of my life, the neglect of man and a succession of hurricanes have blown the building down to a heap of red bricks.

Interstate 40 opened about 14 miles west of US 421 about a decade ago and took most of the beach traffic with it, so the little town of Delway really has begun to decay, like a plant deprived of water. Among the populace that remains, little else has changed. People still live their separate lives, despite common schools. The people who can, leave. Those who stay now all struggle to succeed in the realities of a community that has not yet found its path into the new world order.

Originally written on 21 September 1989. Revised 17 February 2005.



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