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>On the Train, On the Farm, In the Store

August 22, 2010


For a few years, starting when I was eight or nine, I spent summers with my grandparents in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I always looked forward to these trips: the unaccompanied train ride from LA to Stockton, the opportunity to roam my grandfather’s and my uncle’s orchards and vineyards, experiencing a totally new way of life. This post, which starts with our  move to a farm outside Guadalajara, is a reminiscence of those early years.

My Grandparents’ Farm
In April, 1959, just after my sixteenth birthday, we moved once more, this time to a farm we had purchased some fifteen miles out of town. Two hectares in size (about four acres), it sat alongside Highway 54, one of the two principal highways into Guadalajara, and about a mile from Santa Anita, a small farming town. As with all our other moves, I have no memory of why we moved nor of the move itself. I know it must have had something to with Antonio because Mom, alone, never would have considered it, nor would she have been able to afford it or known how to go about completing the sale. I can’t even fathom why she did it. Maybe it was that, having been a farm girl herself, she romanticized the image of once again being among chickens, pigs, goats, cows, horses, rabbits and cats, all of which we had. Whatever the reason, the door to Santa Maria 87 in Colonia Chapalita simply closes and the door to Granja “La Rosita” opens and there we are, the three of us. And Felice.
Mom grew up with farming. An only child, she had lived with her father and stepmother in California’s San Joaquin Valley, an area with town names appropriated (misappropriated, some might say) from Spanish: Ripon, Escalon, Modesto, Manteca. (Manteca? Why would anyone name a town Lard?) Her father’s and uncle’s orchards and vineyards covered hundreds of acres. Starting at age seven I spent several summers with NeeNee and Pappy, as I, like Mom before me, called my grandparents, and so had some little farm life experience of my own. Those summer sojourns were idyllic.
SNAPSHOT: This is seven-year-old me on the train, kneeling on the soft, red plush seat, nose pressed to the window, looking for Mom and Dad so I can wave a final good-bye. Half a dozen new comic books are on the seat next to me. I have five dollars in my pocket and the expression on my face says it all: Life is good!
             They began with the train trip from Los Angeles. Mom always had everything packed ahead of time as we had to be at the depot early in the morning. I invariably woke up tired and cranky because the excitement of the pending adventure always kept me awake the night before, just as if it were Christmas Eve.
We got into the car for what seemed to me an endless drive to the station. When we finally arrived, the sight of the orange and red Union Pacific depot excited me. Another eternity passed while Dad parked the car, took my suitcase from the trunk and we made our way to the train platform. The Red Caps, their carts piled high with luggage, and the people who, like me, were impatiently waiting for the train, excited me all over again. I felt pity for those who had come all the way to this point merely to see others off and now had to turn around and go back to their humdrum lives and ways. Not me! I was getting on the train and heading off!
I heard the train before I saw it, the sound of its horn (whistles having passed into nostalgia with the steam locomotive) coming from around a bend. I stood at the edge of the platform, straining to be the first to see it, and when it finally came into view, its existence passing from mere promise to concrete certainty, I was excited yet again. I was filled with awe as the mighty tandem engines unhurriedly clanged and hissed their way past the platform, smelling of hot oil and faraway places. Even before it had fully stopped there was a flurry of activity. The conductor emerged from the train car in front of us, checked his watch, and swung down to the platform. The Red Caps began inching their baggage wagons closer to the tracks, poised and ready to begin wrestling loads of suitcases, trunks, bundles and hatboxes off the train and other, equally cumbersome loads onto it.
Then, another flurry of activity. Passengers suddenly emerging from each end of the car, stepping on the portable step placed there, the conductor taking the arms of the women as they stepped down, men in suits stepping down unassisted, confidently striding off. Knots of impatient passengers jostling, waiting to board. Final good-byes, hugs and kisses and here and there a few tears. The platform speaker blaring out details important only for the next few seconds and unintelligible in any case. Names shouted out by spouses, friends, relatives.
Finally, my time comes. The conductor has already been informed about me, who I am, where I’m going and would he please watch out for me?
“Of course,” the conductor says, taking and folding the money Dad gives him, slipping it into the pocket of his black conductor’s jacket. “I’ll take good care of him and make sure he gets there safely.”
* * * * *
There is no arrival scene in my memory, no getting off the train, finding Nee-Nee and Pappy, no memory even of which town it was. I simply recall sitting in the back seat of their car in my short pants, my thighs sticking to the yellowing plastic seat cover and peeling away every time the car turned.
 I watched the dancing waves of heat rising from the roadway ahead, distorting it, making it appear to twist and move. We’re in orchard and vineyard country now and all the roads in the area are lined with one or the other. Rare was the house that snuggled up to the road itself. But even with the sameness of the landscape, I always knew when to make the turn into the dirt drive that led to Nee-Nee and Pappy’s house. I simply looked for their big Quonset-hut mailbox standing expectantly by the side of the road with a large red RFD painted on its side. Their explanation that “RFD” stood for rural free delivery cleared up nothing for me.
We turned and traveled a short distance down the drive. One of my grandfather’s groves of walnut trees lined the drive on the left, their dust-covered leaves evidence of many car trips as well as the lack of rain over the past several weeks. The drive paralleled an irrigation ditch on the right, and when it curved left, so did we, pulling into the carport, stopping and getting out.
Behind the house and on the other side of the irrigation ditch were still more large walnut and almond groves. These, as well as some nearby vineyards, all belonged to my grandfather.
One morning my grandfather got me up early to come out and see how the orchards are irrigated. I enjoyed spending time in the orchards. I liked the symmetry and order, trees planted in neat rows, evenly spaced. Sometimes I imagined them a battalion of leafy soldiers in disciplined formation. Or a hall of mirrors maze, all the trees looking alike, a turn down one row being no different from a turn down any other.
SNAPSHOT: The trees in the orchard are perfectly camouflaged by the darkness of early dawn. Shadowy figures move purposefully around the trees.
There were already several men from neighboring farms and orchards out there with shovels. The sound of rushing, churning water told me the irrigation ditch was running full; the men had opened sluice gates to redirect some of the water into the orchard. Men shoveled earth into little dams to further divert the water down a particular row; when that row was irrigated, the dam was shoveled aside and another one made for the next row of trees. They worked quickly and competently, their cigarettes dotting the semi-darkness with their glowing orange tips. Few words were exchanged between the men and it wasn’t long before they finished. Then they got into their trucks and headed off to the next orchard to do it all over again.
I loved the irrigation ditch! It was the focal point of all my stays. Sometimes there was no water in the ditch, save for a few muddy puddles along the bottom, maybe harboring a clutch of tadpoles. Sometimes there was a shallow flow of water, two or three feet deep meandering along as if it knew there was no irrigation going on, no need to hurry. At other times it was full, almost to overflowing, and the water powered its way through the ditch. The sluice gates were wide open at these times and I liked to watch the water compress and shoot through, coming out with even greater force on the other side.
Drownings in these ditches were not unheard of and Nee-Nee warned me daily about the dangers. But I had too much respect for the force of the water and was never tempted to do anything foolish. I didn’t like the color of the water, anyway. It was muddy, the color of coffee and milk, from all the dirt and sediment carried along by the current. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it also carried the runoff of all the DDT used to kill mosquito larvae and other pests.
There were dragonflies around the ditch, lots of them, big ones with their iridescent green or purple-blue bodies and multiple translucent wings that allowed them to hover and dart, hover and dart. Frogs also were abundant and relatively easy to catch, although I left the larger ones alone – I didn’t know if big frogs had teeth or not. I could spend hours searching for polliwogs and then day-by-day watch them go through their magical transformation. I wondered why the bigger they got the fewer there were.
There were dozens, scores, of butterflies: swallowtails, coppers, skippers, monarchs. On occasion I played silent witness to the deadly interplay between patient frog and oblivious butterfly. Those days I felt particularly lucky.
There were ants, too, big red ones and smaller black ones. The black ants were never a problem except for when they got into Nee-Nee’s kitchen, and particularly when they got into the sugar, which their scouts always seemed to find. The red ones you really had to watch out for. They were aggressive and it took only one bite to teach me their painful lesson, although that never kept me from taking a stick and stirring up their nest whenever I found one.
 I hated the June bugs! They were harmless but big and they buzzed loudly and got tangled in my hair and clothes, their Velcro-like feet scratching when they landed on my neck or hand or arm. Nor were they particularly graceful in the air, giving the appearance of never having mastered the art of flying. Their flight paths were erratic, often flying into things, bouncing back and then lumbering off in some other random direction, only to bump into something else.
SNAPSHOT: My cousin Sandy and I are sitting on a blanket under a grape arbor reading. I’m reading my favorite comic book, Little Lulu. Sandy is reading a Nancy Drew mystery. The remains of a picnic are scattered around us. The scene is tinted a pale green thanks to the sunlight filtering through the large grape leaves.
There was a vineyard directly behind the house. It was extensive, covering many acres. I liked to pretend it was a maze as I wandered through it, taking a right turn here, a left turn there. Sometimes when my cousin Sandy, a couple of years my senior, came over Nee-Nee would make us a lunch with a Thermos of lemonade. We’d grab a bunch of comics and books and a blanket and head out into the vineyard, looking for just the right grape arbor, one that would shelter us. Finding one tall enough wasn’t difficult. What we were looking for, though, was one that also spread out wide enough to allow us to crawl inside and under. We thought of it as a hideout and we didn’t like to use the same one twice, forcing us to walk farther and longer each time until we found just the right one. Then we pushed aside the tendrils and crawled in, appreciating immediately the coolness of the shade inside. We spread out the blanket, unpacked the food and prepared to spend the next hour reading, oblivious to everything except our own little world.
One afternoon in the garage I found an old Civil War cavalry sword and scabbard that I wielded skillfully and with authority in many imaginary battles, all of which I won. (All but one, anyway – Nee-Nee was none too pleased when I successfully beat back the attack of a single grape arbor on the edge of the vineyard nearest the house, severing bunches of ripening grapes in the process. She won that battle.)
Two girls lived next door, one of them my age or just a little older, her sister a couple of years younger. I don’t think they lived there very long because I don’t remember playing with them very much. When we did play, the older girl (I’ve long since forgotten her name) liked to wrestle and roughhouse. I was chasing her across a cleared field one evening at dusk and I tackled her, bringing her down. I sat astride her and turned her over and as I did she opened up her blouse, showing me her little breasts, smiling, teasing. I had no idea what to do so I got up and ran into the house.
*    *    *    *    *
I can imagine this photo because the story has been part of our family history for as long as I can remember.
SNAPSHOT: That’s John Steinbeck. He’s leaning back, away from his desk, in the tiny upstairs apartment in the windmill on Uncle Walter’s farm. He’s writing The Grapes of Wrath.
Another treat was visiting Aunt Frances and Uncle Walter nearby. They had farm cats which often meant there were kittens to find and play with. Out back, behind their farmhouse, was a replica Dutch windmill that I enjoyed playing in. It wasn’t very big, maybe half the size of a real Dutch windmill, and it had a small apartment at the top, reached by a spiral staircase. John Steinbeck wrote part of The Grapes of Wrath while renting that room.
There were other things I enjoyed about being at my aunt and uncle’s. For one thing, there were numerous large trees around the house and outbuildings, so it was always shady and cool. For another, Uncle Walter had a lot of farm equipment I could play on. There were a couple of tractors, a large wooden wagon with a buckboard seat, an old junker car, a plow. I loved roaming through the orchards, picking and eating almonds, walnuts and apricots, although I usually ignored the walnuts: too hard to open, too much work.
The real treat, though, was during the apricot harvest. At the height of the season there were hundreds of crates of apricots temporarily stored in the barn, awaiting transport to shippers. To go in there in the late part of an afternoon was a transformative, almost mystical, experience. I ignored the cats and kittens, the orchards and farm equipment, captured instead by the moment before me. There was the heavy smell, rich and sweet, of thousands upon thousands of ripening apricots, a smell that took over the barn, wrapped itself around me and connected deep within me. The smell was heightened by the warmth of the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows and the cracks between the boards in the barn wall, sunshine that was itself the color of the ripest of the golden apricots. There was a texture to the sunshine, a warm heaviness that invited quiet contemplation, an invitation re-extended by the dust motes drifting and looping lazily in the shafts of sunlight. Everything else in the barn was draped in shadows, playing minor supporting roles to the moment, the shadowiness adding dimension and contrast.
Inevitably, though, something would break the spell. A distant voice, unaware of the magic and uncaring, summoned: David! We’re leaving, come in right now! Or: David, it’s time for dinner, come in and wash up! Right now! I promised myself that I would recapture the moment, that I would come back right after dinner or on the very next visit and experience it again, but it never worked out that way. After dinner there were no shafts of warming sunlight, no wondrous smell, no dust motes. It was just a barn with apricots in it. Or on the next visit the apricots would be gone, leaving the barn feeling empty, abandoned. There was a lesson there and I learned it. Moments of such quiet beauty and joy are unpredictable and fleeting; you can’t anticipate them and you can’t hold on to them. You have to be content with knowing that there will be other such moments, but only if you look for them.
The Store
SNAPSHOT: My grandparents own this combination grocery store/gas station on the two-lane blacktop highway between Modesto and Escalon. The gas station has a couple of bright red pumps, the very old kind, standing maybe eight feet tall, cylindrical, with a glass chamber on top and quantities marked off in regular intervals down the side: 1/4 gallon, 1/2 gallon, 3/4 gallon, 1 gallon, and so on. Gas is pumped into the glass chamber and then gravity-fed through a hose into a car’s gas tank.
The store sold groceries, seed, feed and other things needed by the growers and their families, and it held many rich and different smells for me. I liked to wander around picking up the distinctive smells depending on where I was in the store: the woody smell of sawdust in the butcher section, or the sweet smell of ripe peaches, apricots and grapes in the produce section, intensified by the heat the store absorbed all day. The smells of sweat, alfalfa, and tobacco mingled with other smells people brought with them from whatever they had just been doing: fixing the tractor in the barn, baking a pie in the kitchen, shoveling manure.
But I liked the back of the store best. There were a couple of table shuffleboard games there. They stood waist high to a man and consisted of a highly polished wooden alley, maybe twelve feet by two, and several heavy metal discs the size of hockey pucks. Scoring was the same as for regular shuffleboard. Periodically during a game players scattered a small handful of corn meal on the wood, for the same reason soft-shoe dancers do. I enjoyed watching the men play, their faces intent as they attempted to place each of their discs in just the right place. Eyes squinting, a player sized up the positions of discs already played, mentally calculated angles and determined a strategy. Sometimes there was an audience and when there was, it was a noisy game. Men wagered on the outcome, cheered, jeered, collected and paid off, swearing in either case. More often, though, it was just a couple of men playing quietly with two or three of us watching.
SNAPSHOT: A tall, gaunt man towers over me, angry, a bony finger in my face. I notice that he hasn’t shaved and that his overall straps are held together with safety pins. I look properly abashed.
Best of all, though, was when the back of the store was deserted and I got to play with the game myself. I’d make stacks or formations with the discs at one end of the table then run around to the other end and slide the last disc as hard as I could along the alley in order to watch it collide with the others, scattering them in all directions, making all the appropriate sound effects. Or if there was another boy we’d stand at opposite ends of the table and on the count of three we’d each send a disc flying down the alley, trying to make them collide, a game of shuffleboard chicken. We could cheerfully occupy ourselves like that for a long time but almost always our play was quickly brought to a halt by some adult yelling at us to get away from there, what did we think that was, a goddam toy? Actually, that’s just what we thought.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 27, 2010 10:43 pm

    >Why would anyone name a song Manteca? Probably had to do with John Steinbeck and some livestock fantasies.Ben Withal

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