Learning to love the Strawberry Festival

This is the beginning of a Ray Bradbury novel.
This is the beginning of a Ray Bradbury novel.

I’m afraid of hulling night.

I have to admit it and I’m very sorry to the Mattituck Lions Club and to all the people who love the Mattituck Strawberry Festival. I will learn to love this festival some day.

You see, my fear of hulling night dates back to a time, a long time ago, in Mattituck, when there was a little place called “The Smokers’ Corner” on Pike Street in front of the tennis courts by the high school, where all the bad kids in the 1990s went out to smoke at lunch. Back in those days, Jim McKenna was still the principal, not the superintendent. He hadn’t yet moved to the school’s administrative building on Depot Lane and he could see every one of the kids on The Smokers’ Corner from his office window. I’m sure he kept tabs on all of them, and well he should have.

Casey Rugnetta, Valentina Hommel and Colin McCoy like to help out.
Casey Rugnetta, Valentina Hommel and Colin McCoy like to help out.

Back in the days when the Strawberry Festival was much smaller, they held hulling night under a small tent not far from The Smokers’ Corner. All the kids in the high school went to help out. Invariably, my sisters and their Smokers’ Corner friends would get into fights with the cool kids and end up spending the night crying in the soccer field, with their shirts stained with strawberry pulp and their egos as bruised as fruit that had been shipped across the entire country. We’d look back into the tent and see the strawberry queens and their soccer star cronies and know, just know, that there was no place in the world for us.

My family moved to Mattituck when I was in the sixth grade, and I have to admit, even though I’d lived on the North Fork my entire life and even though my father’s family goes back to the founding of Southold Town, we always felt like outsiders in Mattituck.

I tried to play soccer. You have to play soccer if you want to succeed in Mattituck. I ran around a lot and had a lot of fun, but I couldn’t see the ball because of my astigmatism. I also couldn’t tell members of my team from members of the other team and often passed the ball to players on the other team. It was all the same to me.

I tried to deny that I was being raised by a single mother, but the guidance department wanted to know all about how it felt to be a child of divorce and they wanted to know about it in front of everybody. My parents had been apart so long that I didn’t even remember a divorce.

No one wants to admit they’re a member of Generation X, but in hindsight, the early ’90s were just a horrible time to be young. I can’t help but associate it with Mattituck.

They say marijuana is a gateway drug, but that nicotine corner must have been the gateway to more drugs in the 1990s than any marijuana could have been. When I think back to all those hulling night heartbreaks, I can’t help but think of the downward spiral of the lives of the kids who hung out on The Smokers’ Corner, and how hard it is to find a niche and be yourself in a small high school.

The Mattituck Lions moved the Strawberry Festival up to the North Road right after we left high school. It was a good decision, I think.

Last night, under a big big big top tent, people were bopping and hulling like maniacs. Chubby Checker was in the speakers and virgin daiquiris crowded with discarded strawberry hulls for room on the picnic tables.

Outside, members of the Mattituck High School boys something-or-other team were taking turns jumping on top of strawberry boxes that were piled high in a dumpster.

The boxes all said “Driscoll” on them. People inside shrugged their shoulders. Yes, the strawberries were probably from California. What could you do about it?

“With this event as big as its gotten, they’d probably use up all the strawberries on the North Fork,” said one happy huller.

Kids in red shirts were running back and forth through the tent with big white buckets full of hulled strawberries. They were the Mattituck Leos and there were 23 of them.

They’re kids from Mattituck High School who want to grow up to be Mattituck Lions and you could tell they were big on helping out. They never stopped moving, running back and forth with their strawberry cargo, helping clean off tables, getting covered in sticky strawberry goop and never complaining.

Hulling night starts at 5 p.m. and it’s supposed to go until 9. But by 7:30, there was barely any work left to do, and the good, hardworking people of Mattituck were wiping the sweat from their brows and heading home to dinner. The rides and the cotton candy, well, those things weren’t for them. To the people who live here, the Strawberry Festival will always be about hulling night.

Nicholas Deegan and Ron Rothman. These guys are both Democrats and one of them is running for town board. On the North Fork it's very important to point out who the Democrats are in every crowd in order to avoid the appearance of bias.
Nicholas Deegan and Ron Rothman. These guys are both Democrats and one of them is running for town board. On the North Fork it is very important to point out who the Democrats are in every crowd in order to avoid the appearance of bias. They also both apparently like to hull strawberries.

I waited in that tent for a while to see if a fight would break out. I saw a couple kids, all grown now, whom I used to know from The Smokers’ Corner. They came in quietly and hulled their strawberries alone, looking around for the soccer bullies. No one bothered them.

I watched the kids working there for a while. They all seemed to be friends. There were no strawberry queens and there were no soccer cronies. I studied their faces, looking for outcasts, and there were none to be found. I listened to the way they talked to each other, the way they joked and the way they complained. All I could discern was that they were a caring, supportive bunch of kids.

There’s a lot of bad press out there about how lazy kids are today, about all the time they spend with electronic devices and about how they’re disconnected from their communities and the troubles of the world they are going to inherit.

All that bad press is a bunch of baloney. Come to hulling night. Have a daiquiri and pinch the tops off of a bunch of berries. It will give you back some faith in this big crazy world.

The Strawberry Festival runs all weekend. You’ll have a good time. And, I think I can safely report, they’re not going to run out of strawberries for a long, long time.

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on June 14, 2o13)

Kids crying on the soccer field at hulling night circa 1994. Kurt Cobain had just died.
Kids crying on the soccer field at hulling night circa 1994. Kurt Cobain had just died.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

5 thoughts on “Learning to love the Strawberry Festival

  • June 14, 2013 at 9:44 am
    Permalink

    As much as I have some mixed emotions about some of the changes that the “newcomers” have brought to the North Fork, their presence has changed some of the insular attitudes that were not always a positive influence in the community.

    Reply
    • June 14, 2013 at 9:57 am
      Permalink

      Mr. Petrucci, the band room was always a safe haven at Mattituck High. Thank you, and thank Mr. Lester, wherever he may be. :(.

      Reply
  • June 16, 2013 at 11:14 am
    Permalink

    In my high school, in North Miami, we had the frog pond. Same deal. But I think it’s gotten worse. Maybe a strawberry or mango festival is in order. Great article. I enjoy your writing a lot.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please prove you're human:

%d bloggers like this: