Strawberries in The Snow
Almost everybody on our block had what we called a victory garden. With the garden we augmented our wartime diet with the corn, beans and tomatoes that we grew in our gardens. We went a step further with a dozen or so chickens in a makeshift coop adjacent to our garage. I remember the gardens and the chickens not only because of the food but because it was my first experience with sex. When a chick was identified early in life as male, it was killed. If it slipped by my father’s inspection, it was first pick for Sunday soup. Female corn was planted adjacent to the male plants. Without cross pollination we got corn stalks but no corn on the cob. When our strawberries had trouble being pollinated, the berries were small and misshapen. I regret being so young that I didn’t extrapolate these sexually driven plant machinations to their corresponding human interactions; but that was the limitation of being 8 years old. The kitchen also adapted to the war effort. Fats and oils were brought to the butcher shop to be recycled into ammunition. At the time, and even now, I have no idea how chicken fat becomes bullets. But we felt a little noble when we joined with everyone on the block to recycle anything that could be recycled. We closed off our windows with blackout curtains and we colored a white fat which replaced our butter. Mother helped the effort by drinking something called ersatz coffee. Us school kids brought in dimes to buy war stamps that was supposed to help win the war. We spoke in whispers about the war because posters all around the school cryptically warned us that “Loose Lips sink Ships”. We were taught patriotic songs, none of which I remember. Our view of the war was actually fun, and of course, we had no idea of what war was really like. To me, most of the war was about strawberries.
Strawberries are a late spring and summer crop. In modern times we can import early spring strawberries from farms in warmer climates. During WWII imports were limited and besides, people worried about other things besides strawberries. We found a way to extend the growing season. We had a secret strawberry patch that yielded strawberries from the last winter frost to the first freeze of fall. The secret was in plain sight. Just to the side of our backyard garden, Dad made a compost pile of leaves, kitchen garbage, and chicken manure. To keep the smell down, he covered the pile with a mix of dirt and sand. The pile grew to about shoulder (my shoulder) high before he started another one. In a few months, we noticed something happening. The dirt surface was warm but if you dug in a little, it was hot. Even snow melted on the piles. In the warm, sandy dirt that covered the compost heap, dad planted strawberries and they really grew. We had rich compost for our garden and lots and lots of fresh strawberries for the family.