A Little More About Being an Insider or an Ousider
Some five or six years ago, when I decided to put my writings out in public, in this thing called a blog, I had to promise myself that I’d publish the postings and then forget about them. They were out in the public and they were on their own. If anyone made comments, acclaim or disclaim about them, it was for them, not me. My ego would not be attached to them, for better or for worse. I took this stand to protect myself, to keep my nervous ego detached from the result of my story telling being presented to the public.
I’m a story teller. I’m not a Jules Verne or a Herman Melville, creating or enhancing grandiose tales of nearly impossible human adventures. I don’t write about such things. I tell stories about what I have personally and actually experienced. Other than that, I’m not very inventive.
Recently, my credibility has been called into question. This is something I was not prepared for nor not knowing how to relate to it. This is something that caught me off center, and spun me into a haze of self doubt and depressing self analysis.
But I worked through it and came out all right. Some old places had the dust shaken off the old, moldy leaves. I remembered some things, and here is one that I never speak of or hardly remember, but now, seems appropriate.
When I was growing up in the Almaden orchards, there were two very basic truths that even us toddling laborers were very aware of; you pick prunes from the ground (after they have dropped from the trees) but you always pick the cots (apricots) from the tree. You have to understand, our hills were only covered with orchards of prunes and cots. We had no cherries, no apples, no pears, just prunes and cots. And each of these two ripe fruits had their own peculiarities that we youngsters had to respect.
When it came to prunes, we maintained their orchards, we prepared their lands, but none of us local, land holding kids ever picked the prunes up from the ground. Prune picking was always, and we mean ALWAYS, was left to the migrant workers. Though I shuttled entire families of prune pickers in the back of pickup trucks that I was too young to legally drive on the few public roads in our neighborhood, I never picked one prune.
On the other hand, when the cots (apricots) got ripe in the early summer, we wee, little kids had to drag anciently old and overly long, orchard ladders, along with the dinged up, old harvest buckets through our well groomed apricot orchards for the picking of the ripe fruit. The three legged ladders would be propped up within the branches of the cot trees, and the bucket would be hauled up and down the ladder until all the ripe fruit was collected. You’d take the buckets down the ladder and dump the fruit into what we generically called “prune boxes” which would hold about 56 pounds of fruit each. We filled up those boxes, endlessly, until the trees bore no more fruit. Then we loaded those large collections of prune boxes onto the bed of a flat bed truck and then we’d jump into the driver’s seat and haul eight or ten tons of fruit to a processing plant miles away, at the edge between the farms and the city (for us, San Jose).
Late in the summer, when the prunes got ripe, we wouldn’t pick the prunes, as we mentioned before, but we’d load the filled up boxes standing in long lines in the orchard onto the flat bed trucks and drive the loads of prunes to the dryers all over the valley to make the plump, ripe prunes into wrinkled up, dried prunes to be packaged and shipped all over the world. I remember when I was in the sixth grade, our teacher, Mr. Teshera, the only sixth grade teacher at Almaden Elementary School, told us that two thirds of the world’s dried prunes came from Santa Clara Valley. Back then, such an awareness was the source of great pride. Today, such a statement, is the source of a sleazy joke.
But these are the four of five months of the harvest, essentially from mid June through late September. The rest of the year, we were turning over the used lands, prepping the fields, tuning up the trucks and tractors, sharpening the disc blades, greasing the hubs of the plows and growing and reaping various row crops in the flat lands of the little Almaden Valley. Year after year, we are staying just a little bit more busy that we have time for, but, year after year, we make it work.
By the time we Almaden farm kids were about ten or twelve years old, we were pretty well experienced fruit pickers. There wasn’t much more else for us to do on those ladders with the really old buckets. At this age, we were just learning to drive the trucks and tractors. It was now that things were getting more interesting. Within a couple of more years, we could drive on the public roads. We were starting to set our sights higher and higher. If I remember correctly, you could drive farm implements on the public roads if you were 13 or 14, but only if you were the son of the land holder. It was about this time that my landlord, my surrogate father, started using his last name as my last name, so that we could cheat the law
and I’d be the one to drive the tractors and trailers up down the paved, county roads. We were already driving the trucks and tractors all over our own lands, sometimes dashing across the county built, paved roads, but we never really broke the
law outrageously, so we didn’t drive straight down the county roads for very long, not until we were legal. Changing my last name was a little break in the law, not an outrageous break. I always felt uncomfortable about such stuff, but I never voiced any dissension about it. I just wanted to do a good job, satisfy the boss and I kept my mouth shut. I simply did what I was told.
When we were about twelve or thirteen years old, a bunch of us were having lunch,eating our bologna sandwiches and the red apples out of our brown paper bags, in the middle of the cot picking day. Our ladders and buckets were strewn around but we were clustered together in a narrow little circle, comparing our bag lunches, so little varied. We were in our plaid, flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up, sitting in the cool shade of a big leafed fig tree. Pretty soon, we’d only be wearing our white t-shirts, if any shirts at all. It was going to get hot, just like every other summer here.
This year, however, there was something new to talk about at the lunch break; the dairy on the curve near Redmond Road had sold out. And they had sold out to a developer, not to another rancher. All of the adult land owners, up and down
Almaden Road, were talking about this. Was this the start of something new, or what? We kids didn’t understand what all of it was about, but we did feel the stress and tension when such things were spoken of. If you asked an adult if there was any bad things going on here, around us, they would just always tell us that the bad stuff was happening near the boundaries of San Jose, and we were so far out, it would take them a half a century to bother us. Though there was some solace in such words, the fear was still there, haunting us.
During this lunch, before we started picking more cots, we kids were discussing the sale of the dairy on the curve. This wasn’t ten miles away, it was right here, right in the middle of us. A couple of years before this, the owner of the dairy on the curve had retired and turned the operation of the dairy over to his son. This was no big deal, as the same thing happened all the time, up and down the road (Almaden Road), one generation taking over from the other. This time, however, the next generation, the son, had some unusual ambitions. He had gone to a bank and borrowed a whole bunch of money, something none of our farmers would never do (we called it “betting the farm”), and bought himself a super special stud bull, to start raising beef cattle as well as milk cows on the family property. In our little valley, this was generally considered quite foolish. Our little valley wasn’t set up for large scale beef farming. Beef farming was meant for the flat lands of the great plains, and even us little kids knew that.
Sure as hell, the son of the dairy farmer lost the farm, the biggest of all sins. In our neighborhood, there was no greater sin than this. His foolish bet never paid off, and the bank loan went into default. The farm was lost to a development company, putting four houses on each of the lost acres. This made all of the other residents along the road shudder. We wanted no part of such land deals. This was the paranoid topic of our lunch time conversation, finishing off our simple lunch meal on this cot picking day.
After all, we were just young kids, with little exposure to anything but our own farms and the adjoining woods. We were certainly no experts about the complicated land laws and exotic political machinations that were at work all around us in downtown San Jose, way beyond our limited, farm boy comprehension.
Just the same, we respected, and indeed, we cherished our homelands, and wanted to make sure that they would be maintained and held in good stead way into the future, just as we knew them on this day. This is what we were discussing at this simple, little, normal lunch under the fig tree.
We had all seen millions of war movies, we’d read hundreds of books, and we knew a whole lot about this and that, that we only imagined. Sitting under the fig tree, talking about the loss of the dairy on the curve to the developers, we got ourselves all worked up. We started talking about things that our fathers wouldn’t talk of, resisting and stopping the developers. Our childish imaginations took on a nasty, little spark and our enthusiasm fueled the flames. We talked about dousing the road graders with their own diesel fuel and setting them afire. We considered ways to ruin and wrest the tracks of the yellow bulldozers and bust and bind the workings of the ditch diggers, so righteously unwanted on our age old farm lands, so verdant and productive. Why should anyone want to tarnish or do away with these quiet and productive lands? We didn’t understand how anyone would want such a thing.
Before we broke up to start our afternoon’s fruit picking, one of the boys suggested we make a pact to fight the developers, no matter where or when. We should have a formal and well spoken agreement to keep the tools of the developers at bay and at ill effect. One of the guys came up with a concise but adequate declaration of our intents and commitments regarding the developers. The guys all clasped hands and swore to uphold this newly devised declaration. I held back. I wasn’t one of them. My dad was from Chicago, as they all knew, and I was only one of these farmer kids because our landlord had taken me under his wing. I was an adopted farmer’s kid. I couldn’t honestly be a member of this newly formed brotherhood. They all stared at me, and I stood under the fig tree, feeling naked and useless while wearing my flannel shirt and faded levis.
Then someone came up with one very hair-brained idea. Every week, we all watched the Walt Disney program on TV, every Wednesday night. And then we also watched the Daniel Boone show on some other weekday night. We learned so much about stuff that was not from Almaden Valley from these TV shows. The new idea was to use an Indian ritual to we’d see every now and then on Daniel Boone. Just like in the TV series, they would make me a blood brother of the whole bunch of these landowner’s sons, using the methods that we saw on the black and white TV screen. I was taken aback. What was this? What are we talking about? I hated being the center of attention.
One of the guys pulled out his pocket knife and another pulled out a lighter to sterilize the knife’s edge. We all looked round to each other, in the dark shade of the fig, and wondered how to do this. Then one of the guys started unlacing his black tennis shoe. Then it all became clear.
Just like in the movies, we would all draw blood from the end of our index fingers, then join all of fingers together and then loosely bind them with a sacred wrap. Well, we didn’t have a sacred wrap, but we did have a shoe lace. We didn’t have all the special words the Indians used, but we made a promise to each other.
This all, only took a but a minute or two, and the shoe lace was reintroduced into its appropriate shoe, but as we separated, each of the guys patted me on the back as they made their way into the orchards. Now, as far as we bunch of guys were concerned, I really was one of them.
No longer was I an outsider, now I wasn’t on the fringe, neither here nor there, neither an neighborhood insider nor an outsider. Finally, I was a bunch more comfortable. Finally, my young, little friends made my inclusion official, if only by their own childish, little standards. But it was good enough and real enough for me.
The tiny, little cut on the end of my finger didn’t hurt at all. Indeed, that little cut was now a badge of honor, to fight off the encroaching money loving, heathens from the city who wanted to rape and pillage our fruitful and plentiful lands, lands which could never be replaced.