A Child’s Garden of Animals

Hoop Snake’s can put their tail in their mouths and roll like a wheel.
Image by Alpo Barkfest

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

Part One: The Fear of and Reverence for the “Hoop Snake”

I don’t know when and how Joe Caron (I have slightly altered the name) moved to our farm in the 1950s, or maybe it was earlier right after the war before I was born. My earliest memories of living in our 800-square-foot house (My dad moved the ancient farmhouse to our place after buying it at an auction) were water shortages. We had an ancient pressure system in a 50-foot well, shared with two farm labor families nearby. (I think those memories are why when my present 90-foot well started failing during the last drought, I went down 440 feet with the new well and with eight-inch casing, even though the water table was 94 feet).

Of the two nearby houses, the Carons lived in one, and, closer to us, Carlos Silva (name also altered) occupied the other that my great-great grandfather and great uncle had once lived in—no more than 600 square feet in size. 

As for the Carons, sometime in the late 1940s my grandfather had bought a Quonset hut from a war surplus warehouse, turned into a house, and put it next to our home in a nearby small shady walnut grove on the farm. The Carons were there when I came of the age of memory (4 or 5?) in the mid and late 1950s. They were a couple in their 50s. She had arrived 20 years earlier during the peak of the Grapes of Wrath, great Dust Bowl exodus to California, and had lived a life of farm work and impoverishment typically endured by the “Okies.” (Those in Menlo Park who now bark “white privilege” have no inkling of the hardships of the Oklahoma diaspora in rural California).

Joe, the husband, was a 100-percent Navajo Indian, quite proud of it, and often entrusted by my grandfather to have us small boys help him on the farm. (From our age of “systemic racism” that condemns the past, I don’t remember even in the 1960s anyone noticing much that Joe was quite dark and his wife, a “white” non-Indian, almost without any color at all, in her pale and sallow “whiteness”).

Why did Joe assume to oversee our farming educations? Because as my grandfather later told me, “You will never meet a man as honest and truthful as Joe Caron.” That was it? Looking back 60 years, I think he meant that we would emulate Joe’s bearing, work ethic, and would be entirely safe with him if strangers threatened us (given some of the pruning or thinning crews had what he called “hard men” in them).

 Joe worked nearby as we were picking grapes. It was awful dirty work, especially when we were assigned the rows next to the road. You cut bunches into a small pan under the vines in 100-plus temperature of late August. The rows were dusty and terraced to a slant for drying. Then you dumped the pans onto a paper (or initially wood trays still used in the 1950s) to dry.

Pay was by the tray, at 5 cents each. The picker, of course, wanted to lay as light a tray as possible, even if sloppy, to get 400 trays a day ($20 dollars, or more than the minimum 1960 wage for an 8-hr day). The farmer wanted “perfect trays” of about 23-pounds: no grapes on the ground; no bunches left on the vine; no crushed berries to attract insects; no “milking” the bunch (pulling off bunches quickly rather than cutting the stems carefully). Too light a tray did not just cost the farmer too much money, but would turn the grapes into caramels rather than raisins as they burned up on a 110-degree day. But a too heavy (rare) tray meant the crowded berries might rot if unseasonable temperatures dipped below 80.

We sometimes picked with Joe. His trays were perfect, not a berry on the ground, not a bunch left on the vine. I asked him once, why we didn’t just pick fast and light trays to get more money? And he replied, “Why, that would cheat your grandfather, and he’s a good man, right”? 

In the evenings after work, we were charged with counting the day’s trays of every 5th or 6th row to make sure the number that the pickers wrote on the first tray with their name actually matched the number of trays in the row (usually they added 10 percent—a “surcharge” I suppose). We all fought over to get Joe’s rows, which always had the fewest amount of trays and the only perfect job. 

As far as the counting? It was always the same: if Joe wrote 176 trays, there were always really 179 in the row. If he had written 200, there were 203—always undercounting his work to allow a margin of error in my grandfather’s favor to ensure we in our ignorance might not mistakenly miscount and suggest he wrote more than he picked. 

In the spring, we suckered vines under his lead, up and down the rows for hours. In the early summer, we dug and sacked Johnson grass with him. And he taught us how to drive a Ford Jubilee with the feet, as he steered with his work boots on the wheel struts, while putting a new batch of chewing tobacco in his mouth. 

We spread boxes during the Burmosa plum harvest, as pointed fingers to us to throw x and y amount of small wood boxes out for the pickers on each side of the row: too few boxes and they ran out; too many and we had to come back and pick up empties; throw too hard and they broke up; throw too softly and they didn’t get clear of the wheels. He usually looked at the trees and examined the crop—and got the boxes right—and became as good as my uncle the pomologist in assessing a crop on the tree.

In all of this, I remember his tales of animals. One was the “hoop snake.” On rare occasions when suckering we’d encounter a coiled gopher snake at the vine’s base. He once said, “Did it grab its tail, and roll like a wheel down the row? Did you know, boys, they tend to do that?” We had never heard of such a beast! And he added, “When those ol’ hoop snakes in Oklahoma go hunting, they get rolling right after you!” (To Be Continued in Part 2)

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20 thoughts on “A Child’s Garden of Animals”

  1. Thanks for the education on early San Joaquin Valley farming practices. I found it very interesting and informative. Keep up the meaningful work!

    1. GREAT WOW what a moment I lived and grew up on a centennial farm owned by my adopted grandparents bought the last 40 acres from grandma- heres the WOW part- I was sorting my office today and in a tub were pictures of the farm and a history of me farming with them-HARDddd work but good work!!! FFA 4 H fair projects we had it all!!! My family and neighbors were the foundation of this country!!! Grandpa had a college degree in 1932 I have his diploma- he always felt we should be helping each other more! Its all gone now- but I hope someone in your family keeps the memories. I pray can get some of the peace we had then!!

  2. Patricia Heng

    Love your stories – it takes you back to what everyone should have experienced.

    Working with your hands is a Grace from God.

    Thank you for sharing what you write.

  3. John G Barratt

    I too. once had a Joe. Now, at 77 years of age, when I remember the “real” men I have known Harry Morris always ranks in the top 5. My children and grandchildren know of Harry

  4. Dr. Robert L. English

    I teared up a bit reading this…reminds me of an old “Black” man (though as kids we didn’t really know he was “Black” he was just uncle “Charlie”). My dad managed a cherry ranch in The Dalles, Oregon, where Charlie lived in one of the migrant picker’s cabins. Dad & Mom told my brother & I to stick near Charlie we could learn a lot from him. Strange, I didn’t feel like a racist…I suppose, my brother and I were too rural(country bumpkins) to understand those things and just took people as they are

  5. I especially love reading these memories of yours, reminiscent of my time on my grandparents walnut orchard, sheep and cattle ranch in the Sierra foothills. My great grandfather and Grandmother homesteaded the original 40 acres circa 1902. I grew up thinking everyone experienced something similar. (Like the outhouse down by the cabin.) Nope. Lessons learned then while we were young are rarely taught now. I tried with my kids, still trying with my grandkids. To say we are lucky is an understatement.

  6. Ah, the story about the hoop snake and picking grapes and farm activities are wonderful memories. Of course growing up in the midwest and farming there was usually alfalfa, corn or soybeans and mostly done with machinery. All the other chores, chickens and eggs, barnyard shoveling of manure, moving livestock from one field to another was duty for the youngsters too young to operate expensive machinery. Helping with the vegetable garden was a daily chore until harvest. We had garter snakes and black snakes that helped to keep mice and rodents in control. The shotgun kept in the barn was for the raccoons and opossums and the occasional fox worrying the chickens.

  7. Melody Ramsey

    Thank you so much for writing about your life growing up on a farm. I also had the privilege of growing up on a farm in Missouri in the 50’s and 60’s. My parents were all about the value of hard honest work. So I understand exactly what you are writing about!

  8. Carolee Wilson

    What a fun childhood you had. Today your parents would probably be hauled away to jail for employing minors & parental abuse. I don’t know you transfer this knowledge & understanding to another generation. It’s about so much more than picking grapes. I guess the only way to do this is to find a remote cabin in the woods.

    I saw this on American Greatness this AM & thought it was forth passing on to your readers. Scary times. Why aren’t all of our Congressmen screaming their heads off.


  9. Michael Susano

    Victor-after Rush made a reference to you years ago, I read the article he referenced, and since then, cannot get enough VDH. You are a true American classic.
    thank you

  10. Despite growing up in Oakland, I had similar experiences to those you write about. Our school custodian, a Black man named “Sam” was someone we did not want to cross despite his never exhibiting any intimidating behavior. Rather, his mannerisims, countenance and dignified confidence brought about our admiration, respect and utter devotion and we longed to be in his company. The last thing we wanted was to disappoint him in any way. He knew what made boys tick and we scrambled to be selected to assist him setting up for special events or any other requested duties. Secondly, living at the southeast edge of town bordering grass hillsides and eucalyptus groves, our weekends and summer days were often spent hunting gopher snakes and blue bellied fence lizards. Your memories remind me of my joyful youth. Thanks!

  11. Pat Mack was my “Joe”. He came to ND from Iowa during WWII to help with harvest and continued to work with my father for 25+ years. He worked with us, he lived in the same farm house I grew in, he ate with us, he was “just part of the family”. He was a “quiet” influence on my life, which I didn’t totally appreciate until years later!

    What is the future of the Hanson farming operation? Is there another generation coming back to operate the farm or is Victor Davis Hanson the end of the Hanson family directly operating the farm?

  12. Keith Francis

    Thank you, Victor. What a wonderful memory with so many life lessons. My Dad and Mom married when Dad returned from the war, and I came along in ’47, followed by a sister and two brothers. I too have fond memories of summers in the 50’s at my uncle and aunt’s farm in Flat Rock Michigan. My uncle had a tremendous work ethic. His day job was at Monsanto Chemical. In the evenings, after dinner, with a pinch of Copenhagen, he would haul water to fill the cisterns of residents in the rural areas and I would go with him and my cousin in his old Ford pickup. On the weekends, he worked his farm and in the evenings he worked at the Flat Rock Speedway and he would sneak Dad and I in to watch the races. Memories of family experiences form the foundation for character and integrity and instill the value of hard work. Unfortunately, much of this is lacking in today’s world. I hope we can return to the “good ole days”, but it doesn’t look good.

  13. Elana Donovan

    Thank you Victor. you are a beacon of light spreading knowledge of common sense and history when we need it most.Elana

  14. It’s ironic how racists always reminisce about the “Good ” Indian Black or Mexican as a means to proclaim that they are not racist. I worked fields and organized in the valley and saw the squalid conditions if the workers. I also attended UC Santa Cruz too. Around the same time as you.Where I was in a diverse multicultural college unlike lily-white Cowell. My Chicano classmates spoke of the shit they had to put up from the racist Okies you nytholgize . My question is where you a reactionary racist before you got to UC or dud you develop it in college?

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