SANTA CLARA VALLEY – 1964
John stood outside in the back yard of his family farmhouse and lit a cigarette. He looked out across the maintained rows of green leaved plum and apricot trees under the midday sun. In the distance he saw a construction crew on a recently cleared lot paving new streets and laying foundations for future tract houses, and felt encroached upon. His mother came out of the back door of the house and stood behind him. He sensed her looking at him with concern as he looked toward the sky’s end at the western mountains.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” John said sullenly.
“We couldn’t get a hold of you,” his mother replied. “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 returned sooner if I knew this was going to happen.”
“I’m sorry you had to find out like this. 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’s doing well. He could probably get you a job there.”
“I would’ve taken over the farm.”
“There’s just no more money to be made from fruit trees, 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 off his cigarette. “This is all wrong.”
“I don’t like it either, but we don’t have much of a choice.” Mother moved toward John. “And the trees are getting older, some of them are at least fifty years old or more.”
John continued to look at their rows of fruit trees, and he was pained thinking how they would soon be gone. “I thought this would always be here. Farmers made this valley.”
“Yes, we did.” Mother stood next to John. “Farms and orchards used to stretch as far as the eye could see. People would come here and visit just to see them. I always thought it’d be like this too,” she said forlornly.
“Our way of life is coming to an end.”
“The valley is a big place, 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 from the house still feeling crestfallen. “So what am I going to do now?”
“We didn’t think you’d be back anytime soon. We just figured you’d settle some place else. You always were restless,” mother said with maternal nostalgia.
“Yeah, I did some adventuring around, but I’m back now.” John looked back at mother. “And the whole time I was away, I thought there would always be as home to come back to, and that a future here was possible. And I was wrong.” He paced around some more. “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 disappointedly “Just a little house with a little yard. Where are you all going to move to anyway?”
“Willow Glen might be nice. We have 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 little garden to take care of.”
“I still can’t get used to this.”
“It’ll be all right. You know, there are a lot of new jobs here. Your friend Jim is working at Westinghouse. 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 shoo in.”
“I didn’t come back here to work in a factory. I always liked the openness here, and I am not liking this,” John said as he nodded toward the construction site.
“Are you going to leave us again?” mother asked somberly.
John took another drag and exhaled. “Haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“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 heart attack.”
John dropped the cigarette butt and crushed it into the dirt with his boot. “I don’t smoke that much.”
“Just don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”
“Nobody used to say that cigarettes were bad for you.”
“Everything is changing,” mother pointed out. “I remember when they built that hangar at Moffett Field. It was so big you could see it from miles away. But the land is filling up. You can’t see across the valley the way you used to.”
John watched 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. “Can’t believe this is all going to be gone.”
“Sorry you feel that way, son. I didn’t think you’d take it this so hard.”
“Because I didn’t see this coming,” 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. A lot of responsibility. All the harvesting, and bringing to market.”
“I remember. I took part in all of that. I packed 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.”
“But for how long? Especially with every other farm and orchard selling to developers and builders. It just feels inevitable.”
“I suppose you’re right,” John said cynically. “I saw that big, new, ritzy department store over on Stevens Creek and Winchester. Never thought I’d see one of those here.”
“You mean The Emporium? That is a grand place,” mother said happily. “Your father bought me a dress from there.”
“What’s wrong with Sears?”
“Sometimes you want nice things.”
“The valley is all about growing food for the people, especially 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 workers need places to live and shop.”
“But do you like what’s going on here?” John asked as he gestured toward the construction site.
Mother sighed. “I’m too old to fight it.”
“So it’s just me?”
“Like I said, you always were a restless child. 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’ll be nowhere to run around or fish or hunt,” John said dejectedly.
John’s mother moved closer to him. “You know, we were never sure if you were going to come back or not. It’s just your wandering ways.” She stood next to him and put her arm around him. “So what are you going to do next?”
John took a long look around at their property as he put his arm around his mother. “Think I’ll go over to Phil’s and see what he’s doing.” He looked to her. “Can I take the Dodge?”
“Keys are in the usual place.”
* * * * * * * *
John cruised along the two lane blacktop in a 1953 Dodge. Phil sat on the passenger side of the front seat. Rows of fruiting trees, plums, cherries, apricots, and almonds, bordered either side of the street, interspersed with plowed fields, at the end of which were old 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 twenty five acres.”
“I didn’t know they were looking to sell.”
“I just found out myself.” They approached an intersection and came to a stop. A 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.
“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.”
“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 said. “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 wooden building. They walked in 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 is too bad,” she said consolingly. “That’s been happening all over.”
“At least this old place is still here,” Phil added cheerfully.
“Don’t know how for how much longer,” the woman lamented. “The planning department wants 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 this,” the woman said with arms held out.
“Why do the have to put it right here?” Phil asked. “Can’t they pave around you?”
“No can do,” the woman said. “If they expand the road the other way it’ll fall into the river. Their mind is made up.”
“Can you fight it?” John asked.
“They’ll use eminent domain. The best we can hope for is a good price for the land. Everyone is fleeing downtown for the suburbs.”
“Suburbs that haven’t been built yet,” John added.
“They’re building them as fast 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 said sympathetically.
“Breaks my heart,” the woman said. “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, some cornfields, an occasional market, and an old, Spanish designed elementary school.
“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 on the totem pole.”
“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 wished they asked us.”
They passed by a roadhouse tavern as they drove on 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 sparser and gave way to forest and trees, 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. They took in the new surroundings as they entered a trail head and headed into the woods. “When was the last time you were down here?” Phil asked.
“Before I left home. At least this looks the same.” John’s 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 of the 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. We figured you were on a great big adventure. You know how it is growing up in a valley, every direction you look there’s 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 thought about what Phil said. He remembered thinking the same thing growing 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 considered if he wanted to remain on the other side now that home as he knew it was about to end. As he pondered he spotted a hawk in the far sky. He 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. “Not everything changes.”
John watched the hawk as it circled in the distance. “Things won’t be the same, whether I stay or leave.”
“Well I’m going to stick it out for the time being. The valley is still a good place to live. Even if we sell the farm I can find a job here, and there’s a lot more jobs than there used to be.” Neither spoke. “But I do know some people that are leaving. They just can’t compete. And my sister wants to go to college up in Berkeley. If she does that 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 Vietnam?”
“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. 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 across the water together. “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 said affectionately.
John thought back to their growing years. He felt a yearning for that time, then sorrow over its passing. Then he began to see his varied 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. But I do know where I came from, where we came from, and no one can take that away from us,” he said 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