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)