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An Orange Grove Memory

James P. Blaylock

Orange County, California, was a literally wonderful place for a kid to grow up back in the early 1950s. My family moved into a four-bedroom ranch-style house in Anaheim in 1956, when much of Orange County was still rural, including most of Anaheim. A decade of so-called progress would utterly change the nature of the place, but when you’re a six-year-old, there is no such thing as a “decade,” and the world is your oyster, or more usefully your orange, since oranges were yours for the picking. 

A billboard on the corner of Syracuse Avenue and Magnolia Street advertised our small tract as “The New England Rustic Estates,” although the houses weren’t rustic, nor did they have anything to do with New England. The neighborhood comprised three streets at that time, each a block or two long, with perhaps half a dozen houses on each side of the block – a tiny island of new houses in a sea of orange groves and small farms. 

At the east end of the street there was an egg farm owned by the Bokelheid family, who had lived there for years and where newcomer families like ours bought fresh eggs. Directly behind our house lay a two-acre orange grove with a farmhouse in the center, owned by the mysterious Pullman family, who were rarely seen, since their house was hidden and the acreage was sheltered by a windbreak of enormous eucalyptus trees. My best friend in the neighborhood lived across the street, and behind his house lay a five-acre strawberry “patch,” as we called it, where the Kusaka family lived. On beyond the strawberry patch were freight train tracks, and beyond the tracks and a hedge of dense shrubbery lay another orange grove, with its ubiquitous eucalyptus windbreak and hidden farmhouse – another isolated family that must have considered our little tract of homes an invasion, the beginning of the end of an actually-rustic way of life. 

Our house had three Valencia orange trees in the back yard, which meant fresh orange juice six months out of the year, the trees being mature when we moved in, remnants of the grove that was cleared to build the tract. There was a concrete incinerator out back for burning indoor trash, and plenty of room on the ground for my father to burn piles of leaves and pruned limbs in the fall, raking the burning debris into a smaller and smaller pile, a garden hose standing by. I still have a mental picture of that incinerator with its boiler-plate hatch and ashy concrete, about as tall as I was, smoke issuing out of the top. It remained a common feature in my nightmares years after my dad knocked it to pieces with a sledgehammer.

My memory of those days includes the smell of wood smoke in the autumn, along with the smell of fallen eucalyptus berries, leaves, and swathes of old bark that littered the ground around the groves. In the spring the air was full of the heavy scent of orange blossoms, and in the fall the desert smell of Santa Ana winds. Train whistles and rolling iron wheels were particularly loud at night – freight trains running east or west along the tracks, heading for who-knew-where in the wide world. There were peacocks living in the neighborhood at the time, which would walk around on the roofs of houses, knocking rocks down from the painted-rock roofs popular in those days and waking a person up with their strange, plaintive crying.

In the morning there were front-porch milk bottles from a local dairy in wire baskets, and around breakfast time or shortly thereafter, a bread truck would come jingling up the street, the bread man pulling over to the curb in front of our house (my good luck), tooting the horn, and opening the back of the truck to reveal long wooden shelves and drawers of fresh bread. The Helms Bakery truck had an enormous drawer of doughnuts, and my mother was generally willing to give us a nickel to spend on one. The Paul’s Bakery truck didn’t have any doughnuts, but they had a candy drawer, which, along with Abba Zabbas, Neapolitan-colored Turkish Taffy, and edible necklaces of hard candy on elastic string, included baseball cards with slabs of bubble gum.

If all of this sounds like a glorification of the place, I can tell you that it’s not. I’ll admit that I’m choosing details carefully in order to capture the effect that strawberry fields and orange groves and peacocks on the roof had on me as a child, but that fleeting decade of charmed living doesn’t need any glorification. Nothing lasts for long, as the song tells us; luckily I didn’t know that, and wouldn’t have understood it if I’d been told.

Virtually every house in our small tract had baby-boomer children living in it, so there was always someone to play with, and I can picture the faces and recall the names of a dozen boys about my age from the neighborhood. I gambled away my best baseball and football cards playing what we called Zingo – half a dozen or so kids frisbeeing cards down the street, the kid with the farthest-flying card collecting all the cards on the pavement. Police cars routinely patrolled the neighborhoods in those days, the street being a playground, and it was fun for someone to yell, “What are dirty pennies made of?” when the patrol car cruised past, clearing the street, and then a chorus of “Dirty Copper!” from the rest of us, which we thought was hilariously funny and which the copper never seemed bothered by, although it could be that he was already moving away and so didn’t hear us.

There were summer vegetables in the backyard garden: beefsteak tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, and whatever else my dad had planted, along with endless fresh orange juice and Fuerte avocados. My grandfather lived on a one-acre farm down the road in Tustin, the house in which my father had grown up and where we spent every Sunday after church. On summer afternoons we headed back home with the trunk of the car full of cantaloupes, honeydew melons, and watermelons, saucer peaches and freestone peaches, Santa Rosa and Green Gage plums, and a pile of other fruits and vegetables in a cardboard-box cornucopia.

I have a sharp recollection of my father opening the trunk of the Pontiac in our garage on one such Sunday, revealing seven enormous Rattlesnake and Black Diamond watermelons, too heavy for me to carry indoors. It’s impossible to believe that our family of four ate all of them – some must have gone to the neighbors – but I remember those summers as a time of endless watermelon. 

All of this sounds as unlikely as stories from The Arabian Nights now that once-common small farms are gone from Orange County, and the land west of the Santa Ana Mountains is one vast suburb. I loved the place beyond measure when I was growing up – a dawn-to-dark playground with endless room for adventure, some of it interestingly dangerous.

School was the great interrupter, of course, but it had its charms, and now and then I could be convinced to like it. Because of the vast number of small farms and groves in those days, and the comparative absence of paved land, foggy days were common, the fog sometimes so dense that the houses across the street appeared to be ghosts – perhaps my favorite weather. One morning at Jonas Salk Elementary School when I was in the second grade, it was so foggy that the vast majority of the playground was invisible. When the recess bell rang, we simply disappeared into the fog. Daring older kids jumped the chain link fence at the back of the school, climbed down into the drainage ditch, and hauled out dozens of immense tumbleweeds, which they heaved over into the school yard. A couple of dozen kids (or twice that many) rearranged the tumbleweeds into barricades, and (for reasons that made perfect sense to boys of that age) a rock fight ensued. 

There weren’t any real targets because of the fog, unless someone invaded enemy territory, in which case he became a target and came running back into the safety of the fog. The bell rang, but being invisible, wild-eyed older kids ignored it, and intrepid teachers had to wade out into the fog to round up mischief makers. I’ll admit that I answered the bell and evaded punishment, but that half-hour recess still ranks high in my memory of why it was great to be a kid. (I can’t recall anyone being injured by a rock, but my apologies if they were. And of course, being an adult now, I can see that the entire thing was shameful.) 


This is a useful place for a necessary disclaimer: life back then wasn’t a mid-century television sit-com. People’s troubles were the same as they are now: child abuse, bullying, violence, unhappiness, racism – add what you want to this list. None of these problems have been solved, by the way, and we’ve added some nightmares to the threat-list over the years (too obvious and tedious to talk about here). But no one with any sense would suggest that kids have an easier time navigating the world today than they did in 1956.


The three streets of our newly-built tract partly surrounded another orange grove, half the size of the original grove that had been plowed down to accommodate my house. This leftover grove was doomed to be cut down to make room for another three-streets-worth of houses. One morning out of nowhere the orange trees in our neighborhood’s own small grove were bulldozed. The air was full of dust, and the street was full of kids on bicycles riding up and down. On Saturday, before the fallen trees could be hauled away, my father rounded my sister and me up and the three of us walked into the grove with a chainsaw to cut limbs into sixteen-inch sections for fireplace logs. While my dad worked, my sister and I climbed into the roots and branches of the fallen trees, my dad reminding us now and then to carry an armload of logs to the trunk of the car. When the trunk was full, we drove two blocks home to unload it before going back out for more.

In the back yard we built a dam of logs in a quarter-circle against the corner of the cinderblock fence, two or three logs deep, pitching small logs and kindling-size sticks into the contained area until it was full and nearly as high as the fence.  The dammed-up firewood quickly became a palace for alligator lizards, fence lizards, and occasionally horned toads (as horned lizards were popularly known at the time). Horned toads are friendly creatures, small ones riding around happily in my shirt pocket, coming out now and then to take in the view from my shoulder. My sister, who was (and is) crazy about lizards of all sorts, spent hours sitting on top of the woodpile, having claimed it as her “thinking place.” 

My memory of these things is suspect, of course, given that I was something like seven years old at the time. I don’t actually recall how useful I was to my father – whether I actually helped build the pie-piece, beaver-dam, log-pile, or spent ten or fifteen minutes getting in his way before sneaking off to play. In Dylan Thomas’s poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” the narrator says, “… I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” I admit to this same time-muddling of memory. In those days I was scarcely aware of time passing at all. Summers fled by, school seemed never-ending, and there were orange groves enough to last forever.

As soon as that small grove was cleared, a second tract of homes was built, doubling the size of the neighborhood, which meant that it took six minutes rather than three minutes to circumnavigate the entire island of houses on a bicycle. Our street became twice as long, maybe two dozen houses along the length of it.  Soon there were twice as many kids running around, twice as many potential friends.  Almost all of them – the boys at least – lived an outdoor life four seasons of the year.  In summer months I was out hunting up friends after breakfast, home again for lunch (or on Saturday mornings to watch morning cartoons) and then outside again until dinner and often after dinner for another hour or so.  

Syracuse Avenue dead-ended at the edge of a vast orange grove, plenty large enough to lose ourselves in, which we did routinely. We could tell who was already out in the grove by identifying the bicycles that littered the pavement at the far edge of the cul-de-sac. An “abandoned” farmhouse stood on the south side of the grove.  The shotgun-toting farmer who owned the grove no longer occupied the farmhouse, but he could be seen lurking off through the trees now and then and would chase us out of the grove if he saw us. His shotgun was rumored to be loaded with rock salt. 

The rumor turned out to be true when our friend Hatley found himself peppered with salt after shouting obscenities at the farmer and not being fast enough to get out of range despite being given a head start. Hatley was two years older than me and was famous for his ability to cuss, effortlessly using a certain taboo verb four different ways in a single sentence. Hatley (maybe unfortunately) didn’t “learn his lesson” from the experience, unless the lesson was to run faster.  And in fact, one of the great lessons of my own childhood was that the phrase “Hey, you kids!” simply meant “Run!”

You’ll wonder what we were up to, horsing around in the grove, constantly looking over our shoulders for potential trouble. Simply put, we were motivated by nothing at all beyond potential adventure, which (looking back) seems like the best of motivations. To my mind there was nothing better to do with my time than to sit in an orange tree deep in the grove, eating a borrowed orange, hawks and vultures circling beneath moving clouds, the breeze picking up in the afternoon, reminding me that the day was wearing on. There was the sound of unseen crows or ravens, or of a solitary dog barking away off in the now-hidden neighborhood. Dark clouds of crows flew overhead in autumn months, bound for nowhere, all of these things creating a pervasive, wonderful loneliness.

On spring or summer or fall afternoons, when I had turned into a confirmed bookworm, bingeing on the books of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, I’d take a paperback book along to read in my favorite tree.  How often I did this I can’t recall – ten times when I was eleven?  Eleven times when I was ten? 

In my memory, I’m still sitting in that tree on a lazy afternoon these sixty-five years later, spending time that a doubtful Miss Watson would argue should have been spent more usefully. The common notion of “spending” time implies that we should be profiting from our outlay of seconds and minutes and hours – using the time “wisely.” Time, however, will be spent no matter what a person is doing. I’m spending it right now, writing about how I used to spend it, and what it was worth to me. I had no idea that while I was sitting in a tree reading, wiping my orange- juiced hands onto my jeans, thinking about lost cities in the jungle and watching a stinkbug amble past on an adjacent limb, I was actually hard at work, developing the habits of a writer, studying what would one day become my “work.”


When we walked past the NO TRESPASSING sign back through the orange grove and along behind the strawberry patch, call it a couple of hundred yards, we’d come out of the trees at the railroad tracks, along which we could walk forever, stepping from tie to tie, or, if a freight train was approaching, stepping off into the sandy dirt along the edge of the eucalyptus and shrubbery windbreak that hid the adjacent grove, where we’d watch the train hurtle past. If we had a penny or a dime, we might put it on the tracks for the train wheels to smash flat, except that a penny at that time could buy a three-pack of Chum Gum from the U-Totem store or a handful of jellybeans from that penny candy machine at the Shopping Bag market up the street.

The tracks were slightly elevated, running atop ten or fifteen feet of banked dirt and road-bed, the sandy dirt along the verge of the tracks being a handy place to find ant-lion dens – little cones of loose sand angling down into a pencil-lead-sized hole at the bottom. The trick was to entice a red ant onto a stick and flick it off into the ant-lion’s lair. (This was perhaps a lousy thing to do, but for barefoot kids walking along railroad tracks, red ants were on the Enemies List along with hot sand, tumbleweed burrs, and broken glass.) The ant would try to scramble out, but couldn’t get a foothold in the steep-sided hole, the loose dirt carrying it down to the secret door in the bottom where the ant-lion would lunge out and eat it. The ant lion den reminded me entirely of the human sand-traps in the film Invaders from Mars, which were another thing that was giving me nightmares in those days (maybe karma for being mean to the ants).   

We’d wander down the tracks, usually heading east, whiling away time, until we got to a railroad right-of-way – a wide dirt path that angled away to the southeast into Garden Grove. As often as not we turned off onto Katella Avenue, which at the time had no curb or pavement alongside, just a couple of strip malls and big vacant lots head-high in mustard and tumbleweeds and carpeted in irritating foxtails. This was in the years of rampant, free-wheeling littering, (weird, it seemed to me even then), and our goal was to find empty pop bottles to cash in for the two-cent deposit at the grocery store on Brookhurst Street, looking to buy a two-pack of Hostess Snowballs or a Coke – both if we were lucky – and then repeat the process on the way back to the neighborhood. If we had plenty of time to kill and an extra dime in our pocket, we’d head farther south down the right-of-way into Garden Grove to buy a comic book at Sav-On Drugs.

Now and then we ignored the right-of-way and headed east along the tracks, skirting the edges of unexplored orange groves and the tomato field that allowed neighborhood folks to glean leftover tomatoes after the harvest. Soon we’d find ourselves out of our territory and into the environs of other new neighborhoods and other gangs of kids, including (unknown to me at the time) the neighborhood of my wife Viki, whose housing tract – very much the size of mine – lay on the south side of those same railroad tracks. 

Viki’s family had moved from a small house in Encino into a newly-built house in Anaheim around the same time that my family had moved from Lakewood. A vast cornfield sat adjacent to her neighborhood (we had no cornfield), in which she and her friends could lose themselves in the spring and summer. There was an immense orange grove across Euclid Street, which bordered her tract. She has these same stories to tell about running around the neighborhood after dark, riding her bicycle for hours at a time, heading here and there and the other place, sitting on someone’s front yard in the summer moonlight talking with half a dozen friends, growing up with a degree of freedom that seems shocking today.

When I was sixteen and Viki was fifteen, we would meet for the first time at a Valentine’s Day party at a mutual friend’s house in her neighborhood, never having seen each other until we found ourselves in the crepe-paper decorated room, and not imagining that our paths would merge that night, that we would come to share the same lives, married in a few short years, happy together through the decades that are still unreeling. 


By the time I was fourteen and in junior high school, that intermittent forest of orange trees and checkerboard acres of small farms in our part of Anaheim had disappeared, mowed down by progress. My own neighborhood remained pretty much as it had been, many of my friends still living in the houses they grew up in, but by then most of my childhood whimsies had gone the way of the orange groves. 

Unlike in popular stories and films, there was no particular incident or specific point in my young life when I realized that I had drifted out of childhood and “put away childish things,” to borrow from the famous verse in Corinthians. I had no idea I was putting anything away. My childhood disappeared incrementally, as did the orange groves and small farms and weedy vacant lots that had made up rural Anaheim in the 1950s and early '60s. I had been too busy living that orange-grove life to understand the loss – looking ahead, as children do, and not looking back.  


World Fantasy Award-winning author James Blaylock, one of the pioneers of the steampunk genre, has published thirty novels and story collections as well as scores of essays and articles.  Despite his close association with steampunk, most of his work is contemporary, realistic fantasy set in southern California, typified by novels like The Last Coin, All the Bells on Earth, and The Rainy Season, which was listed by Orange Coast Magazine as one of the ten quintessential Orange County novels.  His latest novel is Pennies from Heaven, published by PS Publishing and available from JABberwocky in ebook. A sequel, The Invisible Woman, is due to be published in 2024.

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