Thursday, February 12, 2015


It's a gorgeous Tennessee morning: 
light snow, frigid temperatures, a sharp, crisp wind. A trio of whitetail deer bounded across my back yard and gracefully leaped a fence. Where is my camera when I need it? 

I'm drinking a cup of tea and unpacking a box of books. I found a volume of my poetry that was published long ago. One particular poem, Seventh Winter, caught my eye. I haven't seen it in aeons. It was written when I was only nineteen years old and depicts winter in Southern California when I was seven.

Reading it again has ignited a surge of memories - - and a poem that I previously never cared about suddenly seems alive and almost endearing.

Seventh Winter

Long after the others sleep

I lie awake counting
the frost-bitten stars
that fill my window, listening
to the dry rustle of palm trees
against a desert wind.
The stars shiver and blink,
as if long-ago lives
still watch from a distant place.
Last week near the boxcars
they found an old man's body
wrapped in layers of newspaper,
gnarled hands
still clasped in prayer.
Now the Mexican children
leave the fields early,
going home before dusk
in groups of no less than three.
Tonight the smudge pots are lighted,
smoking furiously
between fat rows of orange trees
as though cold January had not
already picked through the leaves
and ravaged every fruit.
Beyond the groves
restless dogs shred the night
with lean howls,
threatening the moon,
knowing that dawn will come
too late.

by Jon V.
from Dreams of Escape

Truth has never escaped my poetry. I remember the events clearly: 

the chilly winter nights, the nearby orange groves - - fruit glazed with frost, the acrid smell of eternally smoking smudge pots, the gentle wind rustling through the tops of palm trees.....the Mexican migrant workers....
..... the old man, found dead among newspapers in the boxcar. The mournful whistle of late-night freight trains.....

Smudge pots burning all night
in a feeble attempt to keep
the oranges from freezing

My parents moved to Southern California when I was five. We lived in Glendora (the first of many places) which is located in the gentle foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

At the time, it was as close to paradise as anybody could get. I lived in Southern California for nearly thirty years and can attest to the fact that rumors of paradise were no exaggeration.

An idealized scene
which wasn't at all far from the truth

My early introduction to California was steeped in the stuff that dreams are made of. The fact that it was viewed through the eyes of an imaginative child did not fictionalize the absolute perfection of the environment.

Our house was surrounded by orange groves.  I'd pick the huge, fragrant navel oranges and eat them right from the trees. There was an abundance of lemon trees, persimmons trees, avocado and walnut trees. The ripe walnuts, with their hard green shells, would fall on our roof....the occasional plunk, plunk,plunk was a sound that we were used to day and night.

There were seemingly endless rows of tall, majestic date palms everywhere - - and vast fields of the biggest, most magnificent strawberries I've ever tasted. Beyond the orange groves loomed the mountains, and  distant snow-capped Mount Baldy was a very familiar sight.

Colorful, fragrant flowers abounded - - roses, poppies, lilac, calliopsis, hollyhocks, gardenias, geraniums, bird of paradise.
And if the winter had been a particularly wet one, the desert flowers in early spring would be breathtaking.

The mountains, the desert, the ocean. The Great Southland offered an intoxicating array of unforgettable experiences.

This scene is so typical of my childhood memories

Southern California has a way of spoiling people. Once you've experienced it, no other place can possibly compare. At least that's how it used to be.

Life has changed drastically since I was a child and the things I loved the most about California have largely vanished - - or at least been corrupted beyond salvation.

To be brutally honest, I was corrupted beyond salvation during my wild & reckless years in Hollywood - but I admittedly loved every minute of it. It was an adventure beyond all others, and a lifestyle that few people were privileged to experience.
It was the other side of Southern California.

I left California when I was thirty-four and never looked back. I was burned out and yearning for new adventures. In retrospect, California didn't burn me out - - my destructive lifestyle did. My years in California were the golden years, the very best of my life, and I treasure them.

Why didn't you ever go back, Jon?

 Despite being a hardcore sentimentalist, I've never had a desire to repeat the past. It's a complete impossibility. I can only savor the memories and the delicious rumors of the paradise that I once knew.

Downtown Glendora, looking almost exactly as it did
when I lived there. My Mom and I often walked downtown
and shopped in the stores on this very street.
San Gabriel Mountains in the background.

Was this post to long? Hell, no........


  1. California sounds wonderful. Do you still like oranges or did you get enough of them? Hope you write more about Tennessee.

    1. I still love oranges and am biased enough to believe that California oranges are better than Florida ones. I definitely plan to write much more about Tennessee. I just thought I'd give everyone a break from my long-winded descriptions of the mountains.

  2. Not at all! In fact, I felt a bit disappointed when you stopped.
    Personally (selfishly) I appreciate what you said about going back. So often, I've considered returning to Los Alamos ... or Abilene. But like the line from one of my favorite songs: "The door marked 'nevermore', that wasn't there before."

    This poem? Wow! The image of the old man's body, his hands still clasped in prayer, hit me hard.
    Not so sure why, but that's OK. "Frost-bitten stars" I'll not forget anytime soon!

    1. I'm delighted to know that you were disappointed when I stopped. I'm always concerned about being boring and too full of myself.

  3. You paint pictures with your words that speak volumes. They are now etched in my memory too.

    1. I truly appreciate the compliment.

  4. Excellent poem, Jon, and beautiful description of this garden basket of a state. It has changed, as you say, and many of its wonders have got paved over. There are forces at work across the country to develop and homogenize what used to distinguish different regions. So yes, its true one can't go home again --or even find a parking place.

    1. Geo, it's my humble opinion that we are being developed and homogenized directly into obliteration. One can never go home again. Too many detours and too much construction.......

  5. I have come to accept that, having been born and raised in S. California, that I will probably never move away, even though I did try to think I would for a period of years. But you are right--where do you go from here?

    I read recently that the original navel orange tree that was brought to California is still standing and is fenced in to protect it. I would like to see it someday. I also would like to time travel back to when La Brea was lined with citrus trees.

    1. Tony, Once Southern California has been experienced, there is no other place. As you said -"Where do you go from here?" I'd love to see that original navel orange tree.

      Ron's recent trip to L.A. has resurrected many memories for me.

  6. No, no, no, Jon, not too long. Never too long. You transport us with your words, and make us see the world through your eyes. (And that's a good thing!)

    Your poem is wonderful. Even at nineteen, your talent was impressive.

    1. Susan, glad to know that my verbosity doesn't annoy you. Sometimes it annoys me.....but I can't control myself.

  7. Loved the poem. You put us there with your description. Hope you are staying warm. We are very cold here too. Take care, Sheila

    1. Sheila, I hope your husband is doing well after the surgery. Take care and keep warm.

  8. Jon,
    I've only visited California twice in my lifetime. In 1979 I flew to San Francisco for a weekend (on my own). I was very impressed with the beauty of the city but very lonely and left after only one day. The second time was Los Angeles last month, which I'm posting on my blog now. Both areas of California, very different but both a bit of Heaven as far as I'm concerned. Now if I was visiting or going to live in California to find fame and fortune (or in the case of my San Francisco visit, I was told by many that I would be "a hit" in SF, but I found that I was just one of many and went unnoticed, thus really knocking my ego down), I might have a different attitude about the state. This last time, when I visited with my good friend Pat, we both enjoyed each other's company and the many diversions of the city we were visiting. And yes, I think I could live in California, so accepting of my and my "lifestyle". As beautiful as North Carolina and Tennessee is (and they are beautiful), I could not and will not live with the barely concealed animosity from the God and Guns crowd. At least not at this time of my life, having lived most of my life with the barely concealed vail of threat from those people. I'm just tired of the hate, the hiding, and lying and being somebody I'm not. I think what I especially liked about California, especially L.A., it's warm! I could definitely live that way the rest of my life.

    1. Your recent visit to California and your subsequent blog posts are what inspired me to write about California again. The great climate and freedom of lifestyle are just two of many positive assets. When I left California and was confronted with the redneck prejudiced attitude for the first time, it was a real wake up call.

    2. Jon,
      Probably the two things I liked most about California, the climate and the freedom of lifestyle. Other things that I liked was the history, movie history, which I felt every day we were in California. Also, all the different things to do. You're so right about being lulled into a sense of comfort living in California and then, when you leave to go to another part of the country (the Midwest, South) and confronted with that mindless redneck prejudice, it is a culture shock for sure. Even here in the so called Gay Summer Capital of the East Coast, I don't have to venture far inland until I hit that redneck attitude face on.


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