Rick Bierman wants people to understand that not everyone who supports a secure border is racist. That’s the narrative he sees perpetuated, and that’s why he invited me to sit as his kitchen table on a recent Thursday afternoon.
Because of time he spent working in the farm fields around Muscatine as a child, he sees it differently. He wants a secure border because he feels empathy for the people who put their lives at risk to come to the United States to work at any number of jobs that are readily available to an able-bodied, willing worker, papers or not.
“My concerns are about people getting stuck in the desert and dying, about the murders on the border, drug trafficking.” He isn’t sure a wall will do the trick. “If people are desperate enough, they’ll find a way. I’d like to see things in other countries so great that they don’t need to come here.
“There’s one simple thing Americans to do to help the immigration problem: Obey the laws we have. Don’t do drugs and don’t hire people illegally.”
Rick Bierman’s grandfather, Bill Bierman, was a sharecropper in Muscatine, mostly growing organic melons and cabbage. He had a way of planting with the phases of the moon, Bierman remembered.
Bierman, now 67, was in the fields as an 8-year-old cutting cabbage by hand with a knife. It’s back-breaking work (“you’re bent over all the time”) and his grandfather had a hard time finding people willing to do it. Bierman would be in the fields by himself most days. His grandfather would drop him off early in the morning, pick him up for lunch and then return him to the field until supper at 5 p.m. His grandfather sharecropped 25 to 30 acres on Stewart Road and Bierman worked for him for 75 cents an hour, 10 hour days.
“He couldn’t get Americans to do that work,” Bierman said. He never worked alongside them, but when his mom and dad took the family for rides through the country, he saw Mexican children his own age out in the fields doing the same work. At some point, Bierman admitted that he wasn’t cut out for a life of farm work and he got a job that he loved carrying out groceries.
When he graduated from high school, Bierman enlisted in the Vietnam War as U.S. Army Airborne infantry, paratrooper. When he came back to the states, he returned to Muscatine and never thought about leaving. “My family and friends are here. It’s a nice, quiet town, and it just always felt better coming home than leaving.” He worked first for The Hon Company, then for Monsanto as a production technician before taking a buyout in 2001. “One of the things I liked about that job was that you could see what you did at the end of the day,” he said.
Bierman isn’t a staunch Republican or Democrat. Like many Iowans I’ve met, he takes his responsibility to listen to all candidates from both parties before he caucuses.
“I vote for both,” he said. “That’s the only reason I register, so I can caucus.” He caucused for Democrat Bill Richardson when he was running against Obama in 2008. In the most recent election, he caucused for Jeb Bush. In November, he voted for Trump. “I wasn’t too happy about it, but it was more a vote against, than a vote for.”
“I’m more interested in politics lately, as I’m getting older,” he said. “I want to see the government headed in the right direction.”
What does that mean to you? I asked.
He said, a balanced budget, as little debt as possible, high employment with good paying jobs and health care. “I don’t think anyone should suffer.” He also worries about overpopulation and its impact on the planet and the economy. “We need to figure out a way to make birth control available,” he said. “Politicians used to talk about it all the time, and now you don’t hear much about it.”
“I worry about my grandkids,” he said. “I don’t want to see a future where there are no jobs and a food shortage.”
In his retirement, Bierman is an avid student of history. He keeps up with current events, and compares them to what he’s read or reading about world history. He’s especially interested in ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean cultures. He’s always been that way, he said. He read the Iliad three times in junior high and again as an adult.
From his study of history he’s learned: “There are certain civilizations that you can go in with the biggest army and not defeat them. They are guerrillas who just fade into the general population.” Like Vietnam, he said, or Afghanistan. “I’ve written Letters to the Editor about his,” he said.
Our conversation continued, wide and ranging, from blue collar jobs to trade to treaties. Rick’s grandfather was the last generation of the family to farm. Rick’s father, Richard Bierman, worked on the linotype machine at the Muscatine Journal for 50 years. So, we talked about that.
When I stood up to leave, he said, he was surprised at how much ground we covered.
“Me, too,” I said. “It was a good conversation.”
Autumn Phillips is the executive editor of the Quad-City Times. If you want to be part of this “What They Don’t Know About Us” series on what we believe and why we believe it, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 563-383-2264.