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Playing with Marbles

June 18, 2012

I was walking through the farmer’s market this morning and I spied a small basket of apricots in one of the stands. They weren’t very big and kind of green, not very ripe at all. I got all hung up on my observation, “these are marbles.” I just stood and stared at these marbles.

Perhaps just over a mile north of the Calero dam face was a ranch we called “Spearings.” Calero wasn’t in Almaden Valley proper but in a long, low canyon just east of Almaden’s headwaters. Al, our farmer/landlord, had managed it for years after the Speraring’s family sons didn’t return from World War II. I never came to know why they never returned, perhaps they were killed in battle or they may have just gotten way laid in some exotic town between here and the European battlegrounds.

The really neat thing about the Spearings ranch was that it was a little exotic world just on its own. When going towards Calero, you would turn off McKean road onto Schillingsberg road. About a quarter mile down Schillingsberg you would turn right onto the Spearings driveway. This was a long, straight driveway and it was indeed, very, very long as it had to traverse the diameter of a knoll that sat next to the driveway in this very unique ranch. This knoll was the gem of this entire special plantation. We spent very many long lunch hours exploring the knoll.

While the knoll was way too big to be a man made feature, in every other aspect it was very intentional and man-handled. Long ago it had been planted with an assortment of plots that covered the entire knoll with small, mini-landscapes: an informal but well intended Japanese garden was sitting at the foot of the knoll, facing a soft and full cow pasture. Near the top would be a pile of native boulders once rolled and heaved into place imitating some imagined vista of the lofty Alps. Around some non-defined corner were the remnants of English topiary and hedges, long overgrown and losing shape but still showing the idea, the concept and effort, just subdued and blurred with age.

There had been no signs, no railings or scaled down buildings or any other sort of obvious ornamentation. It was an intensely personal place, private and quiet, but so expressive and full and so very, very understated. We always imagined the entire knoll to be some old maiden’s main canvas and each of the landscapes were one of her paintings. And we were never sure if any of the adults had ever slowed down enough to come to learn anything of these different paintings on the slopes of this mini- mountain, “our mountain,” as we came to call the knoll sitting next to Spearings driveway.

Before the war, the Spearings had been a very well-to-do member of the Almaden neighborhood, but I wasn’t around for that. When I was frequenting the ranch, the main house was occupied but the residents were very old and housebound, the house itself, in disrepair and barely maintained at all. When driving down the driveway from the turn at Schillingsberg, you’d pass “our mountain” and then come upon some fairly solid, large white stables that were still boarding several dozen horses. The white paint was fresh and the fences were all mended and strong. Al had hired a horse guy to run the stables and Al said the guy brought in a pretty penny.

At about ninety degrees to the old house and set back so its tail was nearly on “our mountain” was a very tall and well kept barn, also freshly white. It was of the old style, heavy and stout, with a lot of odd doors for many specialized functions. More than local, it looked like it might belong on the huge Midwestern hay and cattle farms that we’d only seen pictures of. All of the more local and recent barns, though a hundred years old, were smaller, simpler and seldom painted at all. The corner defined by the old, dusty white house and the barn was, indeed, the the corner of the “drying yard,” a huge, endless square of very flat, very bare, very empty brown dust.

As the house sat to the side of the driveway, the driveway continued on for for maybe a hundred feet or so and ended at the cutting shed, a big solid roof with no walls, just rough hewn redwood pillars every dozen feet or so, holding up this large roof. Under the roof was an ancient concrete floor with a curious layout of small steel tracks sunk into the concrete so as not to trip those walking the floor. In one corner of the cutting shed were a stack of small “trucks” that were used on the rail system in the floor. The trucks were about four feet on a side, a simple square of angle iron with two axles fitted on the bottom side with track wheels about five or six inches in diameter.

On the one side of the long driveway was “our mountain” then the stables and then the house and at the end of the driveway was the cutting shed. On the other side of the driveway way was a huge prune orchard that didn’t end on the one side until you got back up to McKean Road, and on the other side it went all the way up to Calero’s dam face. It was one of the largest contiguous orchards in the county. You should have seen it in the spring when it was in white prune blossom with yellow mustard blossom underfoot. On this side of the driveway, starting across from the old house was a string of monstrous, old fig trees with their gnarly bark and large, thick, milky leaves. This line of figs ended just before the cutting shed. When it got too hot, we youngsters learned to crawl through the draping leaves of the fig trees, squishing the over ripe figs on the ground through our toes and camp out in the cool and humid pocket of air next to the fig’s trunks. It was a gooey, dark cool, but it was cool. Nature’s own refrigerator for us kids.

So, the stage is set.

I was born in 1948. Before I started kindergarten I can remember using wheat paste to glue labels to the end panels of hundreds upon hundreds of tomato packing boxes. I was proud to help with the work all around me, it made me feel worthwhile and I am sure I was in no way “exploited.” I was strong, healthy, productive and worthwhile. Not bad for a kid just under five years of age. In fact, Linda, Al’s daughter was nearly a year younger than me and her and I pasted those labels as a team every day of the tomato season. Al would put our stacks of labeled boxes into his green Chevy pickup and run them over to his wife and my mom in his garage, packing our boxes with the tomatoes that had just been picked on the eight acres next to our old house, fifty yards away. It’s kinda a funny, now in retrospect, but there weren’t any juvenile delinquents in Almaden Valley, at least not until the tract houses started being built.

After my first few years in elementary school, Al finally took me on a tour of the Spearing’s ranch. For me, this was like going to Disneyland. What a bunch of very cool stuff. I was in awe. In these days, the school districts in Santa Clara County were dictated to by the agriculture. School started in the fall after the last prunes had been picked and processed. Prunes were the last major crop to come in for the summer so the opening of the school year had to wait for the of the prune harvest. On the other end of the summer, cots were the first crop of the summer, rather, apricots. The school year ended when the cots were ready for picking, screw any sort of schedule the bureaucrats had. The cots had to be picked and the kids and the migrants did the picking.

And, as well, the cots had to be cut and pitted for drying. The kids and the migrants did this too.

I don’t know at what age I started cutting cots but it was early on. Nearly all the kids in Almaden did it, cut cots at a very early age. As we got older, we graduated to picking the cots off the trees, when we could carry a ladder and a bucket. It was your capabilities that allowed you to graduate to picking (more money and much less boring), not some arbitrary age limit. When you started picking, all the guys would choose some sort of hat to wear for being out in the sun from sun-up to sun-down. I have never worn a hat, ever, not then, not now. That’s when I got the reputation for being contrary, critical and stubborn. Boy, am I ever glad I got over that stage!

Called prune boxes or lug boxes, they were traditionally made wooden boxes that generally would hold about 68 pounds of prunes. There were actually two different sizes that I encountered here in Santa Clara Valley and they were probably about within a 10% of capacity between each other, so, in the present, there is no pressing need to differentiate. When I started cutting cots I had to stand on a prune box to reach my tray. Boy, to understand this sort of discussion, it’s important to understand what two things were: prune boxes and drying trays. So, you have an idea of the prune box. Drying trays were these rectangular trays, about two and half feet wide, around six feet long and about two and half inches thick. Both the boxes and the trays had been around since the turn of the previous century and had been used and reused ad infinitum so we never had the need to measure them. They themselves were older and more familiar than most rulers that they gave us at school.

In the cutting shed, a drying tray would rest on two saw horses about the same height as a table top. You were given two tools, a paring knife and a pit box. The apricot would be cut in half and with your thumb, you would flip the pit (or some call it “the stone”) into the pit box. The two halves would be placed next to each other on the tray and you cut the next cot in the box of cots that was provided to you, usually sitting on the upended end of an empty prune box. You would cut every cot in this box, flipping the pit of each cot into the pit box. The tray would be very organized, the cot halves in very clean lines, but wavy, as the individual cots were of varying sizes. When you asked for a new box of fruit, they punched your card and they would bring you another box of fruit, apricots. Usually, everyone in the shed would do this, just about from dawn to dusk with a not very strict lunch hour.

This was tedious, mind dulling work. When I would watch my aunt knit a sweater or some such, for hours at a time, it made me think of cot cutting, endless, dumb work. But the thing is, my aunt would work on knitting a sweater after cutting cots all day. I never got it. When you filled the tray, it would be hauled away by the guy who ran the shed and it would be put onto one of the four by four trucks with the track wheels. Tray by tray, the truck would be loaded until it was more than head high with the thin trays. When it reached this level, a few men would be called from the fields and they would push the full truck to a small building, just big enough to hold the full truck, and they would close its door and seal it up. A small sulfur fire would be ignited under the truck to fumigate this stack of apricot trays. The trays would sit in the surfer shed over night and the next morning the sulfur shed would be unsealed and the stack would be pulled out, making you cough for the poisonous sulfur stench filling the shed and the stack would be switched to another track in the concrete floor and rolled out to the edge of drying yard. Men would unload the trays and overlay the edge of one tray onto the edge of the last tray laid out. The dusty field which had one corner defined by the house and the barn would be filled now with these trays loaded with cot halves. The fruit would be dried for about three days then the trays would be scraped clean, the dried fruit dropping into the prune boxes once more, to be shipped to packers, the people who would package and sell the fruit to grocery stores or food exporters.

The prune boxes and drying trays would be neatly stacked up to be used and reused all summer long for all sorts of fruits and vegetables, until September, when nearly all the crops were finished, finished because of the rain, not some bureaucratic schedule.

Just a few curious facts associated with this process . . . for instance, the pits were saved. They would be sold to brokers who sold them to factories that made nerve gas. The pits contained a chemical necessary for that era’s nerve gas . . . When I started cutting cots, I got a quarter per box of cots cut. The first summer I made $35 and they never paid you until the harvest was done. Too many people couldn’t handle the tedium and would quit within the first few days, just a lot of trouble for the farmer to pay them in the heat of harvest. The farmer’s job was to harvest each crop during every waking minute, not to do bookkeeping. He would usually hand the quitters a five or ten dollar bill for their trouble . . . When I was 12, Al made me the shed manager. I got to put the full trucks of trays into the surfer shed and get the the sulfur burn started. But, as I was so small, his wife had to help me load the finished trays onto the truck stack. I did everything a shed manager did but I didn’t punch cards. Al knew that the migrant mothers would be insulted to have a twelve year punch their cards, a very serious business . . . Within a couple of years I could carry the wooden orchard ladder and the bucket. I became a picker . . . When you got a empty tray, you would dump the fruit in your box onto the tray even before you cut it, as it so much easier and faster to cut from the tray than from the box next to you. However, when you dumped the box onto the empty tray, you were given a preview of what you would be cutting for the next half hour. If the fruit was average size, it warranted no comment. If the fruit was huge you would yell out some very positive comment, because this meant there were fewer cuts per box, less time per box. However, if you got a box of immature green fruit, all small and hard, this type of box would take forever to cut. These kind of boxes were really frowned upon by all cutters. We would yell out, “Oh no, I got a box of marbles!!!” or some such.

When I spied the box of marbles this morning at the Farmer’s Market, it was then that I was flung back into this ancient part of my life.

Last October I was handed a ticket by a Los Gatos policeman. While I had done nothing wrong but get entangled in a bureaucratic conundrum, I quit driving until we got the ticket resolved. I didn’t want to add any new issues to their already faulty perspective of my situation. My attorney has coached me for the last nine months through a bunch of research, cryptic DMV records and recursive logic, sent me an email Thursday evening, just after he went to court about the October ticket. To my understanding, he informed me the ticket issued last October was reduced to the extent that it is effectively dismissed. Whew!! Good job.

However, on the Monday of last week, before the court date, we had a lunch meeting to go over the last minute details, making sure that all the t’s were crossed and all the i’s dotted. We got through all that and then we relaxed into small talk. Our conversation comfortably meandered about, we were sitting in the welcome shade of an ancient delicatessen near his office. It was just so damned comfortable, even in the heat of the day.

We got into talking about the future, somehow politics came up, I always refuse to talk about politics as I refuse to pay any attention to it, such an emotional pseudo-intellectualism that runs rampant. Issues I pay attention to, but party politics is just way too pedantic to me, it’s too much like religion. He started lauding his teenage son’s proficiency with computers and I listened, and he started bemoaning his total lack of computer expertise. And I sat there, a million ideas come colliding in together in my head, ideas and thoughts long held at bay as they verge on political issues, and I sort of erupted.

“So big deal, he’s a computer savvy kid, wait, he’s not even a computer savvy kid. He is a savvy guy to all the “apps” and games and “online services” that have been bottle fed to him since the inception of “WWW,” the world wide web. What does he actually know about building a decent and useful computer based system? Probably zip. What I see in the modern computer industry is this ultra-competition to be faster, lighter, cheaper, and as self proliferating as possible, beating the other 3 or 5 or 7 other competitors in the market. None of this technology has any sort of goal, any sort of completion, any sort of ending. It is spinning and spinning faster and faster like a car engine with its accelerator stuck to the floor. Without some sort goal or purpose, the engine will spin out like an overpowered V-8 and explode because the bulk of its construction cannot handle the centrifugal forces produced by the speed and it flys itself apart. There is no governor on this industry except consumers. If no one consumes the product, there is no money to increase the product’s speed, or lightness or miniaturization. But, wait, with our asymtopical world population (exponential growth), there is no end of consumers, so this purposeless innovation continues endlessly, until the whole thing explodes.

What is the end, just speed and lightness upon speed and lightness? Are we talking about computers so fast they don’t worry about speed and so light that they don’t even exist in the real world? Face book is worth billions of dollars? No, not where I come from. Face book produces nothing and should be valued for what it produces.

My lawyer friend just stares at me for my outburst. Like not wearing a hat, I didn’t back down, I was on a roll.

In my life, we paid attention to seasons, to the life span of our providers, the trees we harvested and even the chemicals in the earth which fed the trees and how many generations our families lived on the land. When the rains came, usually in September, the fruit was ruined and there was to be no more harvesting for that year, a year, a cycle of many years, many cycles. It was the resting time and the rejuvenating time for everyone and everything. Now, you cleaned the tools, the boxes and the trays and put them away for another winter. In the slow season, when all the holidays came, you rebuilt tractor motors, repaired tires, fixed the barn roof and split a lot of firewood. We didn’t waste a lot of time worrying about alcohol abuse, elder abuse, spousal abuse and child abuse, as we never saw or heard much of it and we really didn’t have the time to go looking for it. We were pretty simple and unencumbered. We watched Lassie and Gunsmoke on TV, not Maury Povich and Judge Judy.

To my view, and I do view the tech industries, they have only one mode, pedal to the metal, keep it full blast ahead, always and again. There are no cycles, no years, no seasons. There is no breathing in and out. Apple releases a new and better version of major products every few months. And the foolish consumers stand in line waiting to get their hands on each “new” iteration of the same thing, it becoming old almost before the paint really cures. Where is the connection to reality here? Where is the economy here? Where is the responsibility here? What is the purpose of the everlasting new? This is the tabernacle of the new thing, always new, always new AND IMPROVED, improved, of course. It is always stress, the push, compete and compress. And it is unreal. Push the unreal.

I grew up differently and I’m glad of it. At least, we produced food. And we produced it every year, year after year. And we rested and repaired, year after year. And I’m know for sure we had a better life for it all.

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