One summer around 1965, the Old Man decided on the spur of the moment to drive us out to California and visit relatives who farmed out of Pixley. Bill and Ethyl Orr, if memory serves. It was my first experience with their type of crops, and the area in which they lived.
I remember Cousin Bill scratching his nose early one morning with a thumb on the hand holding a thick mug of coffee.
“You afraid of ghosts or dead people?”
The Old Man and Mama were still asleep with Little Brother after the long drive out. It was me and my great-cousins having breakfast before daylight.
The question didn’t seem too odd to a ten-year-old.
“A ghost, or a dead person?”
“Nossir. I saw one in Uncle Cloyce’s house once.”
“Well, there’s a graveyard back there, and I didn’t want you to be scared.”
Stocky, with work-hardened hands, Bill Orr was the epitome of a farmer. He asked those questions through a cloud of cigarette smoke while Ethyl sipped her coffee.
I took a swallow of my own coffee doctored up with two pounds of sugar and a quart of cream.
“Why are you telling me about that?”
“Because on the other side of this little family cemetery back there’s a plum orchard, and they’re ripe. You kids go on over there and eat all you want before we start harvesting ’em tomorrow.”
There was a girl about my age, but again, the mists of time have almost wiped her from my memory, except for one brief recollection of sitting on a tree limb with her as the day grew warmer, eating plums and surveying the cemetery below.
Later that day, we suffered the consequences of too many plums, but I occupied the porcelain throne long enough to qualify for 160 acres and a mule. It was a good thing there were two commodes in that house, because she perched on the other one the same amount of time.
The shadows grew long before we were finally staggered out into the yard. The Old Man gave me a quick appraisal.
“You gonna live?”
“I’m pretty wrung out.”
“You look about ten pounds lighter.”
“You should see her.”
“Well, she’ll be out in a minute. It’s cooled down. Let’s go for a ride with Bill.”
The evening light was golden and full of backlit bugs. Old Man and Bill rode in the truck’s cab while us kids sat on the tailgate, facing where we’d come from, watching dust boil up around our bare feet as we rolled down dirt roads. I’d never seen fields like those. Some were low row crops, while orchards broke up the landscape farther away.
I wonder who those other kids were…
No matter, it was an education to see how they irrigated the crops with ditches running full of water. The one thing I’ll always remember clearly is that California mosquitoes that live in Pixley ditches weren’t wimpy like those we have here in Texas.
Those little blood suckers chased us down the road as Bill drove, landing on our arms and bare legs and doing their best to drain us dry. I was pretty dehydrated as it was and couldn’t afford to lose any more fluids. We finally yelled loud enough to get the adult’s attention. Bill stopped and we jumped off and met them at the door.
I don’t believe I had to say anything, because the Old Man saw the swarm overhead and the welts rising on our arms and legs. Adults were different back in those days. Instead of putting us in the cab with them, Cousin Bill produced an industrial size can of spray and held the nozzle down until we dripped bug juice.
The Old Man studied the results of the spray for a moment before grinning.
“All right. Y’all get back on and let’s go.”
We re-occupied the tailgate and held on as the pickup rolled down the dirt road once again. The spray worked, and not another mosquito landed on any of us (though by that time, I’m not sure they could fly that fast). By the time we arrived back at the house, we were caked in drying dust. I distinctly remember thinking that the girl (what was her name) looked like a fish filet ready to fry.
Mama latched the screen door and refused to let us into Ethyl’s clean house until we’d done something about the crust that was cracking and falling off of us.
Again, these survivors of the Great Depression had an idea.
Bill led us to the side of the house.
“Y’all stand right there.”
The next thing I knew, he turned on the faucet and picked up something that looked like a fire hose. I didn’t see pressure like that again until I watched the movie Planet of the Apes three years later, where one of the talking monkeys picked up just such a hose and blasted Charlton Heston against the wall.
The water knocked the dirt off all right, and maybe a mole or two. I think I had a wart on one finger that disappeared in a flow that blasted off the caked on dirt, a button or two, and what industrial bug spray that hadn’t soaked into my body.
I firmly believe that insecticide is why I’m like this today.
But you know, I’d like to find that little California farmhouse and get up early in the morning to sit at a tiny three-chair table huddled against the wall to drink coffee while the sun brings on another day.
I can do without those California skeeters, though.