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.
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,
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,
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
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
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
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........