SANTA CLARA VALLEY – 1964
John struck a match, lit a cigarette, and looked out across maintained rows of green leaved plum and apricot trees under the midday sun as he tossed the burnt match to the ground. Past the trees he saw a construction crew in the distance on a recently cleared lot. He watched as the workers paved new streets and laid foundations for future tract houses, and felt encroached upon. He heard the back screen door of the family farmhouse open and then his mother’s footsteps as she ambled out into the backyard. He sensed her looking at him with concern as he faced the western mountains.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” John asked sullenly.
“We couldn’t get a hold of you,” mother said. “You’ve been away for close to three years now. And with all your moving around after your discharge, we didn’t know where to find you.”
“I would’ve come back sooner if I knew this was going to happen.”
“I’m sorry you had to find out like this,” mother consoled. “We were hoping to keep the orchard, but your father isn’t as young as he used to be. His doctors are telling him to take it easy.”
“And Richard is okay with this?”
“Richard just got promoted to foreman at Owens Corning. He could probably get you a job there,” mother suggested.
John looked across the property. “I would’ve taken over the farm.”
“There’s just no more money to be made from fruit trees,” mother said sympathetically, “at least not around here. All the new housing and shopping centers are driving up the price of land, and our property taxes are going up with it. A lot of farmers are selling out.”
John took a drag of his cigarette. “This is all wrong.”
“I don’t like it either, but we don’t have much of a choice.” Mother moved a little closer toward John. “And your father and I aren’t the only ones getting older, most of these trees are at least fifty years old or more. How much longer do they have?”
John looked back at their rows of fruit trees, and was pained that they would soon be gone. “I thought this would always be here. Growers made this valley.”
“Yes, yes we did.” Mother came up to John and stood next to him. “Farms and orchards used to cover the entire valley, as far as the eye could see,” she said nostalgically. “When the trees were in bloom, people from all over would come here and visit just to see them. I always thought it’d be that way too,” she added forlornly.
Jason shook his head. “Our way of life is coming to an end.”
“The valley is a big place,” mother reminded. “I’m sure some of the orchards will remain. People will always have to eat. And the south valley is still unbuilt upon at least.”
John took another drag off his cigarette as he wandered away further from the house still feeling crestfallen. “So what do I do now?”
“We didn’t think you’d be back anytime soon,” mother said, “we were even figuring you’d end up settling some place else. You always were restless,” she recalled maternally.
“Yeah, I did some traveling around, but I’m back now.” John paced around a bit more. “And the whole time I was away, I thought there would always be a home to come back to, that a future here was possible. Looks like I was wrong.” He looked back at mother. “So what are you and Dad going to do? And Scott and Erin?”
“Well, we don’t have to move out just yet. We’ll get one more harvest. And with the money we’re getting we can buy a new home somewhere.”
“It won’t be like this,” John said disappointingly. “Just a little house that looks like all the other little houses.” He looked back at the construction site in the distance as he leaned up against the backyard sycamore tree. “Where are you all going to move to anyway?”
“Willow Glen might be nice. We have some time to look around, and we don’t need a big house anymore. I’m kind of looking forward to it to tell you the truth. Just a nice, modest house and a little garden to take care of.”
John was unmoved. “I still can’t get used to this.”
“Oh, it’ll be all right,” mother tried to assure. “You know, there are a lot of new jobs here now. Your friend Jim is working at Westinghouse, doing well I hear. And remember FMC? They used to make cans for all the canneries? Now they’re making tanks for the army. With your service experience you’d be a shoe in.”
“I didn’t come back here to work in a factory,” John declined as he stood back up. “I always liked the openness here, and I am not liking this,” he said as he nodded toward the construction site.
“Are you going to leave us again?” mother asked mournfully.
John took another drag and exhaled. “Don’t know what I’m going to do yet.”
Mother put her hands on her hips. “And when did you take up smoking?”
“In the service. Guys who smoke get a cigarette break.”
“The doctors say it was cigarettes that caused your father’s health problems.”
John dropped the cigarette butt and crushed it into the dirt with his boot. “I don’t smoke that much anyway.”
“I just don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”
“When did cigarettes become bad for you all of a sudden?”
“Everything is changing,” mother pointed out. “You know, I can remember when they built the hangar at Moffett Field. It was so big you could see it from miles away, but the land is filling up. Now you can’t see across the valley the way you used to.”
John continued watching the activity at the construction site resentfully and thought of the formerly open land that was about to be closed off, built upon, and occupied by strangers. “I just can’t believe that all of this is going to be gone soon.”
“Sorry you feel that way, son. We didn’t think you’d take it so hard.”
“I didn’t see this coming, that’s why,” John said with some anger. “Would you have done the same thing if I was here?”
“I don’t know, but you would’ve been part of the conversation. What would you have done? Or said?”
“I would’ve tried to hold onto the farm. This is ours.”
“But how would you have kept it going? You never ran things, you don’t know what that’s like. It’s a lot of responsibility, all the harvesting, and bringing to market.”
“I took part in all of that,” John reminded. “I picked a lot of fruit and loaded a lot of crates over the years.”
“But it’s different when you’re in charge. There are bills, expenses, employees to pay, equipment to maintain, loans to pay off, taxes, rising costs.”
“I would’ve at least tried,” John insisted.
“But for how long? Especially with every other farm and orchard selling to developers and builders. It just feels inevitable.”
John looked again at the earth moving heavy equipment. “I suppose you’re right,” he said cynically. “I think it all started when they built those high end department store on Stevens Creek.”
“I don’t think they’re so bad,” mother said. “Just the other day I bought a new dress from The Emporium. Your father said it makes look like a million dollars,” she smiled.
“You too, eh?”
“Well, sometimes you want nice things.”
“Hart’s has nice things.”
“Yeah, but the new stores are bigger, and have parking.”
“The valley is all about growing food for the people,” John asserted, “especially for the city people who don’t know how to farm. They depend on us. We don’t need to be like San Francisco.”
“Well I don’t think we’ll ever get that big, but we do have more businesses and industry here now, and all those new workers need places to live and shop.”
“But do you like what’s going on here?” John asked sincerely.
Mother sighed. “I’m too old to fight it.”
“So it’s just me?”
“I guess we never thought you’d want to stay. As soon as you could walk you were off and running. You must have roamed over every square inch of this valley.”
“And someday there will be nowhere to run around or fish or hunt,” John said dejectedly.
Mother came up next to John and put her arm around him. “So what are you going to do next?”
John took a long look around as he put his arm around his mother. “Think I’ll go over to Phil’s and see what he’s doing.” He looked at her needfully. “Is it all right if I take the Dodge?”
“Keys are in the usual place.”
John cruised along the two lane blacktop in a 1953 Dodge Coronet. Phil sat on the passenger side of the front seat. Rows of plum, cherry, apricot, lemon, and almond trees bordered either side of the street, interspersed with tomatoes, peppers, squash, other crops, and plowed fields. Long, unpaved driveways led to two story Victorian era farmhouses. A line of wire strung telephone poles were on one side of the street.
“Nice to have you back,” Phil began. “You must have missed home.”
“I’m going to be missing it more.”
“Are you leaving again?”
“My parents are selling the farm.”
“Oh no. All of it?”
“All ten acres.”
“I didn’t know they were looking to sell.”
“I just found out myself.” They approached an intersection and came to a stop. An old, rural produce stand was at one corner. John looked down either direction, then turned left onto the cross street. More orchards and farms lined the street.
“Getting one last look before it’s all gone?” Phil asked.
“I suppose,” John said dismally.
“Say, why don’t we grab some beers and head down to Almaden? We’ll go for a hike, maybe even do some fishing. You’ll feel better.”
John considered the idea. “A hike sounds good. Maybe it’ll clear my head.”
They drove along further.
“I don’t know what to say,” Phil finally said.
“I’m still in shock myself,” John admitted. “This changes everything.” He pondered his future and wondered where his next path was.
“My parents are talking about selling.”
“It’s the taxes,” Phil explained. “They don’t think they’ll be able to hold on much longer.”
“What are you all going to do?”
“My parents are thinking about buying land out near Gilroy or Hollister, maybe even all the way out to the San Joaquin Valley.”
“They want to move away?”
“They’re growers, only life they know.”
“How about you?”
“Well, this is the only home I know. If we sell I’ll have to find a job. I’ll see how it goes. How about you?”
“Haven’t decided.” They came to another intersection. A flashing red light was strung over its center. John tuned right and parked in front of a liquor store, a wide nineteenth century era white clapboard building. They got out of the car and John heard tractors in the distance. He looked toward the noise, saw a clearing where he remembered there used to be cherry trees, and was disheartened by their absence. They entered the store and got a six pack of Falstaff beer from a refrigerated case. They went to the front counter.
“My friend here just got back into town,” Phil said to the middle aged woman behind the counter.
Oh, glad to be back?” the woman asked John.
“My home has been sold to developers,” John answered.
The woman’s expression saddened. “Well that’s too bad,” she consoled. “That’s been happening all over.
“At least this old place is still here,” Phil added cheerfully.
“Don’t know for how much longer though,” the woman said. “The planning department want to turn Almaden Road out there into an expressway!”
“That could bring in more business,” Phil pointed out.
“It’ll put us out of business because the expressway will go over all of this,” the woman said with arms held out.
“Why do they have to put it right here?” Phil questioned. “Can’t they pave around you?”
“No can do,” the woman answered. “If they expand the road the other way it’ll fall into the river. Their mind is made up.”
“Can’t you fight it?” John asked.
“They’ll use eminent domain. The best we can hope for is a good price on the land. I also heard they’re going to build a new shopping center down at Almaden and Kooser.”
“Well there goes the south valley,” John said exasperatedly.
“Everyone is fleeing downtown for the suburbs,” the woman said.
“Suburbs that haven’t been built yet,” John added.
“They’re building them as fast as they can,” the woman informed. “And I’ll be glad to be gone when they do.”
“I can’t imagine the valley without places like this,” Phil said. “This is a landmark.”
“It sure was,” the woman said wistfully. “Back when this was a saloon, this was the only stop between San Jose and Almaden where you could come in and wet your whistle. Now San Jose is swallowing the whole place up. Can’t wait to get out.”
“That’s got to hurt,” Phil sympathized.
“Breaks my heart,” the woman said sorrowfully. “All the old families that grew and farmed in this valley are selling out and leaving. In ten years I’m not going to recognize my hometown.”
“Where are you going to go?” John asked.
The woman leaned forward onto the counter. “My husband and I have a beach cottage down in Capitola. That’s where we’ll be.”
“Sure won’t be the same here without Robertsville Liquors,” Phil said.
“No it won’t,” the woman shook her head. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
John and Phil paid for the beer and a couple of sandwiches, then got back into the Dodge and drove south on Almaden Road. They passed more orchards, an expansive cornfield, an occasional market, an old, Spanish designed elementary school, and a large billboard announcing a future housing development.
“So they’re really going to widen this street,” Phil wondered. “Can’t imagine what that’s going to look like.”
“Guess we’re going to find out,” John replied.
“Who decides these things? Nobody asked us.”
“Somebody higher up than us.”
“Yeah, much higher,” Phil said. “I thought we were safe from all that. People need to eat, and we supply that.”
“California is a big state with a lot of agriculture. They’ll find a place.”
“Just wish they asked us.”
They passed a roadhouse tavern as they drove further into the south valley. The fruit trees began to give way to ranches and open fields. The straight road started to wind around knolls and climbed into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The farms and ranches became sparse and gave way to forest and black oaks, bay laurels, madrones, and various firs. John lit up a cigarette as the road weaved higher into the mountains and gradually curved to the right. A creek appeared below the left side of the road.
They came to a turnout and John parked the Dodge. They got out of the car and crossed the road as John dropped his cigarette butt and stepped on it. They took in the surroundings as they entered the trail head and crossed into the woods.
“When was the last time you were down here?” Phil asked.
“Before I left home,” John answered. “At least this looks the same.” His mood improved as they hiked further into the thicket of trees. His worries dispersed into the natural surroundings as he fell into a more primordial conscious. The trees blocked out some of the sun and he felt a little cooler. They got through the trees and came to a reservoir. The late afternoon sun reflected brightly off the surface of the water.
“Well this looks as good a place as any to drink some beers,” Phil said. He set the six pack on a large rock along with a small paper sack. He pulled a church key from his pocket, opened two bottles, and handed one to John. “Glad to have you back, my friend,” Phil said as he raised his bottle in a toast.
John clinked his bottle against Phil’s. “About time, eh?” They both took a drink.
“Some of us were wondering if you were ever going to come back,” Phil said. “We figured you were on some kind of adventure.”
“In a way I was,” John relied as he looked out across the reservoir.
“Can’t say I blame you. When you grow up here, every direction you look there are mountains, kind of makes the world seem small.” Phil reached into the paper sack and pulled out a cellophane wrapped sandwich. “You want your sandwich?”
“Later.” John wandered around the edge of the water as he considered what Phil had said. He remembered thinking the same thing when he was growing up but had never expressed it. He wondered if all he ever wanted was to see what was on the other side of the mountains, and then asked himself if he wanted to remain on the other side now that home as he knew it was about to end. He pondered some more then spotted a hawk in the far sky, and followed its hovering flight path.
“No way they build up here,” Phil broke the silence. “Too far away from everything.” He took the last bite of his sandwich. “At least some things don’t change.”
John watched the hawk as it circled in the distance. “I do wish more things would stay the same. Right now I don’t know whether to stay or leave.”
“Well I’m going to stick it out for the time being,” Phil declared. “The valley is still a good place to live. And even if we end up selling the farm I’ll still be able to find a job here, and there’s a lot more of them than there used to be.”
Neither spoke for a moment. John sipped his beer as he looked around at the natural surroundings.
“But I do know some people that are leaving,” Phil continued. “They just can’t compete. And now my sister want to go to college up in Berkeley. If she does I can’t imagine her coming back here to live the farm life, assuming we still have it by then.” Phil took another drink as he moved closer to the water next to John. “At least you don’t have to worry about being drafted now that you’ve done your time. Weren’t you stationed in South Vietnam?”
“Oh, Vietnam is what I keep hearing on the news. Maybe the Army will come after me if that builds up.”
“We’re only there to support their government against the Communists,” John informed. “At least that’s what they told us.”
“You were in that part of the world. What do you think?”
“It’s been over a year since I was there. A lot has changed.”
They looked down toward the water line. “You mean since the president was shot?”
A memory of shared trauma was triggered. “Everything is on edge now,” John dreaded. “Hard to tell what’s going to happen next.”
“Well, whatever the future holds, we sure had some good times,” Phil reminisced.
John thought back to their growing years. He felt a yearning for that time, a sorrow over its passing, and frustration that he wasn’t more appreciative for what he had. He then finally saw his varied and episodic past in its entirety. “I may not know what the future holds, I don’t even know if I’m going to stay here or not, and maybe everything I remember from home as I knew it is going to disappear.” He looked upward. “But I do know where I came from, where we came from, and no one can take that away from us,” he stated proudly.
John held up his beer. “To our little Eden.” Phil toasted along with him as they looked out across the water.
©2015 Robert Kirkendall