I Dream in Orange

In the spring of 1965 my mom and dad transplanted our family to the outskirts of a burgeoning young city where housing developments were springing up and orange groves were falling down. Our sparkling new neighborhood stood at the edge of town on the front lines of the advancing new world. The homes were huge, hulking two-story monoliths, every one painted white, and under contract by the new homeowners to remain just so preserved for the next ten white years.

At the time, I was under the naive illusion that my house did not, itself, supplant an orange grove. That, I think, is why I was always alarmed and offended when the next grove fell to became another construction site. We were newcomers to this agrarian world – outsiders, even – living on the west side of a boulevard that delineated our new world from the the old. While my neighborhood was named Meredith Acres by the marketing group that sold my folks our home, across the street my friends lived on real acres, with real roosters and chickens and cows and horses.

But at school, all boys were equal, and I, the newcomer, was invited to spend an afternoon on the property of the legendary Guzman family. We called the place Fernando’s – my buddy’s name – as if he owned it. Fernando’s was a string of orange groves a half a mile wide and five miles deep. His dad tended the groves, and that, to me, was as good as ownership, because it entitled us to adventures that simply weren’t available to kids on my block.

Fernando’s family lived in a small clapboard home built around the turn of the century. The house was positioned at the end of the paved city road and stood as a kind of sentry, guarding from intruders the countless acres of fruit-laden trees, bee hives and meticulously assembled irrigation systems. As one approached the house, much could be understood from the dirt road. The lawn, littered with small children’s toys, indicated that a large family, maybe too large for the house, lived there happily. The days’ laundry fluttered in the breeze. Around back, chickens and roosters wandered freely, pecking at the ground. A sweet smell of Mexican food hung in the quiet stillness, mixed with the somewhat unfamiliar odor of a septic system that needed some attention.

A typical excursion at Fernando’s started slow and ended even slower. Since we were still too young for motorcycles, we traveled by sneakers, starting out along the southernmost service road that pointed directly east toward the back of the property. Bordered by eucalyptus trees planted as windbreaks, the dirt roads served only as a means to work the groves. This was an unpaved, unpopulated and positively magical place for an afternoon adventure.

When I showed up at Fernando’s, Casey and Fernie were chasing chickens around back. Well, Fernando made it look like he was chasing them, but it was little Casey who was doing all the catching. Fernando was a well-fed kid, to say the least, and at twice Casey’s size, was simply out of the running. Not that it mattered to anyone – it was just a matter of fact. Fernando seemed to be comfortable in his roll as the biggest kid in the entire 8th grade. Heck, if my mom cooked like Fernie’s, I’d be that big too.

I’ll have to admit to being surprised to see Casey and Fernando both pick up their 22s, which they had left leaning up against the side of the house. I shot a gun once at Y camp with my dad, but that was on a shooting range with adults all over the place and rules for every move. Out here in the country, even kids had guns. I marveled.

What happened next was insubstantial, but to me, otherworldly. We started out on the southern road, bordered by a chicken farm on our right and endless orange groves on our left. The palette out there was simple and tidy – light blue, cloudless sky above our heads, deep, rich brown earth under our bare feet, and surrounding us everywhere, dark green foliage punctuated by thousands – maybe millions – of bright orange fruit. The smells of the eucalyptus and citrus mixed and mingled, and even the slightly putrid odor of the chicken farm was a delight to the senses, because it meant freedom. It was a kind of abstract, personal freedom, but all the more important to a 12-year old. It was the smell of the country.

So what were the guns for, I wondered. They were for plinking — not hunting, plinking. Plinking cans. Plinking bottles. Plinking lizards. As soon as Casey took his first shot, I got it. I heard the plink, and saw immediately that in the right hands there was nothing to fear from a 22 rifle. Casey and Fernando knew their guns. They had obviously been well taught and had taken their lessons seriously. As we walked they cradled their rifles in the crooks of their forearms with the barrels pointing downward. If either of them wanted to shoot, we stopped, the shooter advanced forward a few steps and when all was in order, the shot was fired. It was as though they had both read the same gun safety book, a book unknown to me.

But of course I was reading their unwritten book as we walked, and soon it was my turn to take a crack at it. Fernando handed me his rifle in a way that told me that he took gun safety seriously, but at the same time proved his trust in me. The gun felt heavy and solid in my hands. Casey and Fernando stood behind me and coached as I took aim at a can next to a eucalyptus tree. Plink! I felt a surge of pride as I saw the can jump – I hit it on my first try! Casey and Fernando burst out in excited approval at my marksmanship. I couldn’t hide my smile, and didn’t want to.

The mystery of gun play melted away as I realized that it was no big deal to draw a bead on an unsuspecting beer can and then to take it out in one smooth action. It would be hours before we made it back to Fernando’s house, and along the way there would be orange fights, a minor skirmish with a lizard and an abortive dove hunt. Any one of those activities would have been entertainment enough to keep a kid occupied for an afternoon. I felt energized and renewed in a way that seemed to propel me ahead as we ambled down the sun-dappled dirt roads. I was far from my neat, upscale, bleach-white suburban neighborhood, but I was accepted here. I had learned to shoot and tote guns around as if it were nothing at all. Out there in the orange trees, in the kingdom of the boy, we were all equals.


One Response to “I Dream in Orange”

  1. Tom,

    Great story. I do remember walking around that property with you. Fun times and would be great to go back there if it was not houses now.

    Keep writing. It is a nice escape back to when times were much less stressful.


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