The Orchard


As a child, I can remember being awakened by the sound of an irrigation pump, sucking the water from the nearby artesian well to the surface and out to the ditches that I called canals.  I was excited to hear it.  It meant that there was movement in the orchard and things would be changing soon.  The mustard plants were already a few feet tall.  Soon they would be taller than me, providing a bright yellow carpet beneath the prune trees that were blossoming their way out of dormancy.   With the onset of summer, the orchard would become much darker, much cooler from heavy new growth.  This was my first memory of spring, growing up in post WWII Santa Clara Valley.  From my bedroom window, I could look past our new lawn, through a small vacant lot right into the orchard, my personal forest and an ever-changing playground for the kids in this first new neighborhood

Early in Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” he describes “the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley” through the image of “an endless array of outhouses, long grape arbors, green pastures, orchards and berry patches.”   This was still true in 1955, even the old portable toilets that seemed to magically appear just before picking season.  My family was among the thousands that pioneered the growth of suburbia in west San Jose, California, proud, at the time, to be called “the second fastest growing city in America.”  My father installed hardwood floors in new homes, start to finish.  He was harvesting a different crop and the bounty was endless.

I was happy.  I had my orchard,  a place to play with my friends, a place to be alone.  Here, I could become Davy Crockett,  the rugged historical character portrayed by actor Fess Parker on the Mickey Mouse Club television program in vivid black and white.  The coonskin cap was a nice touch but the orchard, along with my imagination, brought him to life.  We built forts or formed multiple room apartments in the mustard plants, adding more space when needed by tucking and rolling our bodies to smash the plants down.  I was small, the perfect size for creating a hallway.

Now that the water from the pump was running, Steve, Eddie and I would curb our boredom by challenging each other to stick races in the canals.  Personalized sticks or whatever would float, were placed in the water near the pump for a boost, then we would all run to a place far upstream and wait for the results that were seldom accepted without argument.   Sometimes we would watch the end of a race from one of the large walnuts trees, dispersed among the rows of blossoming, soon to be fruit-bearing, prune trees.

The walnut trees gave us high ground, a look-out and a place to be inconspicuous.   Climbing up first, I had the element of surprise and ammunition, fresh from the tree.  While young, the hard, wrinkly walnut shell is encased in a soft, green, pulpy husk that fit well into a young hand, good for throwing at others, firm enough to sting, but not damage.  The unripened nuts were perfect projectiles and every kid on the block had survived a walnut fight.   Eddie was the smallest but could throw harder than anyone else.   “C’mon, stop,” I yelled, “didn’t you hear me call truce?”  He would eventually stop, reminding me, once again, not to start a walnut fight unless I could finish it.

Periodically we would hear strange music in the distance and rush to climb another walnut tree to listen to the Colonel play bagpipes.   The Colonel was a short, bald European-looking man who, while sitting on a bench under a small arbor, would unknowingly serenaded us with his unusual, haunting melodies.  We always had a perfect spot, we could see him, but he couldn’t see us.  Steve thought that the Colonel had been in the French Foreign Legion, something he thought of anyone with an accent.  “It’s just what I heard,” he scowled, defending himself against our insistence on proof. We should have introduced ourselves to the Colonel and, hopefully, heard some of his stories from the past.  Maybe we would have been disappointed.  He would forever remain a mystery, but the sound from his bagpipes formed a lasting memory.

While the walnut trees gave us so much, they had a way of consistently taking their pound of flesh, mostly in the form of long, deep, hard wood splinters in our hands and feet.  We could push the small ones out by squeezing our skin together, but the deep ones required a quasi-surgical procedure that involved a sometimes sterilized sewing needle, tweezers and my double-teaming parents, one holding me steady while the other performed the extraction.  My father was ex-Marine and a survivor of two battles in the Pacific.  He only knew one way to remove large splinters and each time he would declare, “This is going to hurt, but I will do it as fast as I can.”   It did hurt and always seemed to last longer than it should.  Splinters were an inevitable consequence of life among the walnut trees, but the fun was worth the pain.

One day in 1957, grading equipment appeared and soon a small paved street separated us from the orchard.  They named the street Forest Avenue, which seemed fitting.  It was installed by the city of Santa Clara which meant that we had lived on the undesignated border between the two cities all along.   The short-term pleasure in playing catch with neighbor Billy, each of us standing in a different city, was short-lived.   The graders didn’t leave and our lives were about to change.

Within a few weeks, large trapezoidal mounds of dirt appeared, the tops as wide as a road.  Still not fully comprehending what was happening, we quickly discovered a thrill in running off the top of the mounds to see how far we would sink into the sloping banks.   One time the dirt was above my knees, making it nearly impossible to escape without some tugging from others.  I joked that little Eddie would surely sink all the way up to his neck.  He jumped anyway, flashing me a familiar hand gesture as he thrusted his legs forward, landing on his butt and sliding quickly to the bottom, tearing his jeans.  From a large family, he had younger brothers waiting for those future hand-me-downs, and his mother would not be happy.

Late in the afternoon, the large earth movers were abandoned by the workers and Steve discovered that, without keys, we could still make them lunge forward a few inches simply by pushing the starter button.  We spent nearly an hour taking turns pushing the button until we had moved the behemoth maybe five feet forward.  That was my last memory of playing in the orchard.   Many more graders and other large equipment appeared, much more activity ensued and the reality set in that Forest Avenue would be a connector street for the new neighborhood, hundreds of six-thousand square-foot parcels replacing one orchard.  Less food, more people.   The pride in being recognized as the nation’s second fast fastest growing city came with some harsh physical truths.  In those days, no one protested or chained themselves to a tree.  Growth was progress.  Safely into my ninth year, maybe it was time for me to move on from the orchard.  Besides, Davy Crockett didn’t make it.  His battles were over.

Everybody went about their business as the new neighborhood progressed from sticks to walls.  Coming upon a fallen walnut tree made me briefly sad and nostalgic, but, for the most part, our lives didn’t change.  Some of the prune trees, those not in the way, were spared to help sell homes.  Buy a house, gain a free fruit tree.  Our orchard had become a sacrificial lamb to the American Dream.

Each spring revealed fewer blossoms.  The beauty of Jack London’s Santa Clara Valley could now mostly be found on postcards.  The new neighborhood unveiled scattered prune plum blossoms, but was now focused on the large production of a new crop that would later be called “baby-boomers.”  At first, they were nicknamed the “orchard kids,” but we welcomed our new friends as seamlessly as we said goodbye to the orchard.  Newbies Cindy, Paul, Budd, Tim, the Long sisters and others integrated with Steve, Eddie, Susan, Jill and Glen from the old gang.  As we progressed through adolescence, it became one community with hardly a memory of what once was.

My sister, born in 1965, grew up, then raised her daughters in that old house, all without any reality of my treasured playground.  A few years ago, I was talking to my youngest niece about the way things once were and she asked, “Where was that orchard you were talking about?”  Getting into the car on our way to the mall, I pointed across Forest Avenue toward the aging homes and  answered,  “Right there.”

Things that never exist to some, survive in the minds of others.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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