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Flying Spray Rigs, 1980

March 26, 2012

Mediteraenean Fruit Fly Spraying, around 1980

The arrows are pointing out the individual helicopters

There are movies where you see a phalanx of helicopters buzzing over the landscape, making you look for cover for their menacing and provoking posture and teeth rattling auditory emanations. Think of “Apocalypse Now,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Fire Birds,” and such specialized flicks where the monstrous bumble bees fly all synchronized in a tight formation, their noses pitched down, ready to torch and strafe the placid landscape just a few feet under their Gatling gun laden skids.
Does anyone remember when such a phalanx could be seen just a few dozen feet up in the night skies of Santa Clara Valley? I only experienced it once or twice myself, and that was quite enough for me. I transitioned into adulthood with the Viet Nam war constantly reverberating in the subconscious background, with the big whoosh-whoosh of its always present helicopter blades just over the reporter’s shoulder.

In the very early 1980s, the state of California hired a bunch of Viet Nam era helicopter pilots to lead the very public and unpopular war to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly from particularly precious agricultural areas in the state. Santa Clara County was one of those precious areas. Lucky for Los Gatos, all of our agricultural endeavors had been long abandoned to residential and commercial interests, thus the state funded helicopter war never zoomed over our heads in the middle of the night. But, every evening at 6:00 o’clock, and again at 11:00, the local news broadcasts would update everyone on the fruit fly spraying and how harmless it was, except to your car’s paint; the spray could pock your car’s paint job. To my mind, there was always something illogical and self serving when those two observations were made in very nearly the same sentence; the spray eats paint but not your nasal passages or your esophagus and lungs? I guess our bodies are tougher than I always thought.
Looking down from the mountain sides facing the Santa Clara valley, when the choppers were spraying in the nearby flatland neighborhoods deemed vulnerable, you could see the low flying wedge of helicopter lights buzzing just above the street lights in a strict and tight line, totally ignoring the familiar grid work of street lights and blinking stop lights. The formation had its own track and no one knew what that was except they used the same back and forth overlapping strokes that we use when mowing a large lawn. We Los Gatos folk had to wonder what it was like to have that menace break up your night’s sleep for an hour or two, back and forth, back and forth?

Well, it was not really a big deal for us living in the mountain side town. The choppers stayed away from us.
On the Saturday when we presented the first big time Juice Newton concert, a bus boy came up to me and said a couple of ladies wanted to talk to the manager. I didn’t appreciate the interruption in my meticulous preparations for the afternoon’s concert, but, “the customer is always right.” But then, only up to a point. That’s why we have bouncers.
There were two very attractive and well heeled ladies, about the same age as myself, waiting for me out on the back deck. They explained that they were from Palo Alto (about 20 miles north of Los Gatos) and they were going to attend the Juice concert but they had come to town early to do some shopping. They had shopped, they had lunch and now they were a bit tuckered out. Not knowing town real well, they simply wanted to have a place to wait out the couple of hours before the concert started, maybe have a glass of wine. They were obviously professional and didn’t have any sort of obnoxious intentions. Usually I would have told them to simply go across the street to Carry Nation’s, but one of these ladies struck me as particularly interesting. And, of course, I was the manager, the owner not being present, I was the top dog here. I did have certain prerogatives after all, didn’t I?
There were a few local concert patrons already lining up but they were paying no attention to us. I told the two ladies to follow me and I took them into the foyer. Employees and roadies were bustling about in all directions. I told the ladies that the band was setting up for the big concert and our staff was prepping the house for dinner. It was a busy place. But, if they’d sit at a corner table and not get in anyone’s way, they could have a few glasses of wine, the first round even being on the house. We like to treat out-of-towners real well (yea, like Palo Alto and Los Gatos were practically in each other’s back yards, but I was trying make a few points while on the run!). I introduced the girls to the bartender setting up for the concert, Kenny. I told him that they were guests of the house until Juice started and to treat them right. As I said this, I shuddered. I was leading my lambs to slaughter. Kenny was a tall, very athletic Santa Cruz life guard with a “Dudley Do-right” jaw and the smile of the devil himself. Forty years later, we still call him “Kenny the Hound Dog.” And what a hound dog he was, and still is, with his curly blonde hair and big, authentic smile and playful blue eyes. The women fall to his feet. As I turned from the bar, Ken gave me a questioning look from under his eyebrows and I drew my thumb across my throat — kill it, these are mine! I’d known Kenny a long while, I knew I could trust him.

One of the girls was a long and lithe blonde and the other was shorter, brunette and with a rather serious demeanor. The brunette had an intelligent and inquisitive look in her eyes. I focused on her. Her name was Karen.
Karen was the managing legal secretary at a 40 attorney law firm in Palo Alto. Her serious demeanor fit her job but her sarcastic and punchy sense of humor fit me just perfectly. We went out for about a year before she moved back east with her son. I’d met Karen in late summer and her son spent every summer at her parent’s farm in Wisconsin. She and I were able to get to know each other in a comfortable, one on one basis and by the time her son returned we knew each other pretty well. The son was a really good kid.
In these days there were only land line phones. If you needed to be available to the world back then, you had to use these little beepers. People would call the beeper’s telephone number and the answering service would send out a radio signal to your beeper, or “pager,” and it would display the number of the person trying to get a hold of you. It was up to you to call them back. We rented two beepers for Mountain Charley’s one for the owner and one for me. We pretty much left them on all the time, they were basically just for emergencies.
As was the natural lack of decorum and seriousness at Charley’s, the beepers became the focus of lots of smart remarks, fanciful quips and sardonic mentions at every turn. They became an embarrassment. Jim ended up never turning his on and I changed my access number so only a few people knew how get in touch with mine, mainly the other managers.

For various reasons, I was having a hard time getting out of Los Gatos in those days. I made a big deal about spending my first night up in Palo Alto with Karen. I made sure that all my commitments were covered and there were backups all round. Everyone told me to quit worrying.
I got up to PA (Palo Alto) and Karen and I went out to dinner then to a very eclectic concert at Stanford. It was the music of Sandy Bull, a little known but very influential musician of the early rock days who hardly ever showed his face on the West Coast. To match the music, we had some late night cocktails that were thick, rich and sweet, maybe GranMarnier or Courvoisier. Gees, it was really late, . . . Karen discreetly invited me to spend the night. All went well. Then, about 3:00 a.m., the stupid beeper starts beeping. It was just about the time the guys would be locking down the Saloon. What could be wrong? I’d better check in. I call down to the bar in Los Gatos and the manager for the night, Linda, answers the call.
“Hello, Mountain Charley’s. Can I help you.” She knew damn good and well it was me. Who is going to calmly call the place at 3:00 a.m.? This was already smelling pretty fishy. All I said was “What’s up Linda?” She tried to tell me that the fire extinguishers over the cook top had popped off. This would have been a real emergency, probably closing the kitchen for nearly a week. However, having had a few drinks at closing, she was just way too giddy to come up with a really legit sounding story. They were just out to bug me during my night out of town. All of the closing staff in the background broke out into a roar of laughter that even Karen could hear over the landline. I hung up on them.
After that, someone called the beeper about every half hour for the rest of the night. I had learned that turning the beeper off was not such a good idea, it might take a week before someone tells you that they beeped you and there was no return call. That was about the only way you’d realize it was off. Personally I’d never ever remembered to turn the stupid thing back on. That is the night I learned to wrap the beeper up in my socks and stuff my socks into my cowboy boots. That worked fairly well. I didn’t hear the beeps, and as I had to put my socks back on in the morning, I didn’t have to remember to turn the beeper back on. It just fell out of my socks.

It didn’t take long before I was visiting Palo Alto once or twice a week. We were pretty much left alone by the Saloon’s late night jokesters. The very practical Karen got to where she refused to meet me at Mt. Charley’s for a date. She would arrive at the place very punctually but no matter if I was manager of the night or not, there would always be a number of little hangups that would keep me in the place way past the appointed hour of her arrival. Going to her northern end of the Valley took all that distraction right out of the picture. After a few months we had established a nicely comfortable routine. We had some pretty good times.
One night, though, I awoke in terror and dove to hide under bed, scrambling for the closet. Bright lights were flashing in the windows and there was this thunder flushing in from the ceiling. All I could think of is that it was a drug raid, having heard so many stories from my dope dealer friends (one more time: I never did dope, but I did know people. Don’t assume too much). I’m screaming at Karen to get on the floor, who knew if they might start shooting at every shadow and rustling drape in the apartment house. I’m trying to find my pants as Karen breaks into hysterics. She turns on a light. This horrible noise is getting louder and louder from above and the lights are getting brighter than ever. I’m telling Karen to get low when I realize she isn’t hysterical, she’s laughing. She throws open the drapes and pulls up the blinds, she points at the lights floating overhead and yells at me that it’s the fruit fly choppers. My jaw is hanging wide open as I scan the sky. There had to be a dozen helicopters in that phalanx and I couldn’t catch my breath. This was unbelievable. I was panting like a hound. I slipped on my Levis and ran onto her terrace. This was exactly like Apocalypse Now. I couldn’t believe it.

Those machines couldn’t have been more than two or three telephone pole heights above the ground. They were totally unholy. I was simply dumbfounded. All I could think was “what an abomination!” and I tried to appreciate the terror felt by those Asian farmers who weren’t the enemy, and saw a formation of these flying mac trucks bearing down on them from the sky, totally unannounced.

These are pictures of “spray rigs,” as we used to call them. These are earlier versions of what I used to drag over the fields and through the orchards to groom the crops. But, looking out from Karen’s terrace with this late night view of machines many times larger; five, even ten times larger, and fifty years newer, furrowing the sky itself in a precise military style formation, with all sorts of horrible noise, I could see I was way out of my element. The State of California was flying huge spray rigs all over these non-agricultural, suburban neighborhoods, up in the sky, spewing stuff that was totally benign to your mucous membranes but, cover your cars. It eats the car’s paint. None of this made a lot of sense to me.
One of my big time “literary heroes” was Henry David Thoreau, a man who advocated peace and simplicity. Boy, was I far away from peace and simplicity. I never felt comfortable just traveling through the suburbs and I could never ever tolerate the city life to any extent, except to party and listen to concerts. Now, watching the redundant sweeps of this flying jumble of mechanical hornets, all I wanted to do was get back to the placid mountainside and hide deep in my warm late night comforter and listen to my heart beat calmly. This was way too mechanical and surrealistic for me. Bring back the horse and plow.

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