Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Pomegranate Grove

From the age of 7 to 12, I lived in Walnut Cove, a San Fernando Valley sub-division made up of ranch style houses with big front yards. There were lots of kids in Walnut Cove and we all loved the trees. Walnut Cove had real walnut trees at almost every house had a mature walnut tree in the front yard. The trees were all that was left of the grove that had been bulldozed to create the subdivision. At least the planners had left enough trees to shade the wide sidewalks. They were big trees good for climbing. Walnut Cove's trees were all grafted, they were cross-bred between English and White Walnut. Each tree had a white trunk and a black body. Cross bred trees had strong roots and the best walnuts.

These piebald nut trees would fill up with green speckled pods every spring, then the heat and light of summer would darken and shrivel the pods into a thin black leather. The pods dried, gradually exposing the wrinkled veined details of the walnut shell. You knew the walnuts were ripe when you could snap the husks from the shell. You could collect a wagon full of walnuts!

All the kids in the neighborhood, all my pals (Dave DeCamp, Judy Corn and her sister Sharon, David Olsen, even the evil and weird Reynolds) would gather bags of walnuts. We'd crack the shells and extract the brain-like walnut meat. Occasionally a shell would be filled with bitter dark fibers and spider webs. It made you shiver if you'd cracked the shell with your teeth. But most of the time the delicious light brown nuts could be plucked from the shell almost whole. You could always find a snack in Walnut Cove during the late spring and summer.

Walnut Cove was bordered by two big valley streets, Balboa Blvd and Nordhoff. These were major commuter roads filled with fast moving traffic. I wasn't allowed to cross these streets. It was just too dangerous. Across Nordhoff Blvd were farmer's fields filled with acres of pomegranate trees. The valley was quickly filling up with sub-divisions and people. But Walnut Cove was still surrounded with groves. There were oranges to the north, pomegranates to the south, and walnut groves to the east. To the west across Balboa were bull-dozed, weedless, treeless lots sliced by fresh black ribbons of asphalt. A new sub-division was going in.

We could get into the orange groves without crossing the big streets, which meant their allure was minimal. The oranges were usually small, greenish and bitter. Besides the farmer hated kids and was always on the prowl. It was the pomegranate groves on the other side of Nordhoff Blvd that seemed the most mysterious, remote, and irresistible.

Even though I wasn't supposed to cross the street I planned a raid on the pomegranates with Judy Corn. Judy lived down the block, she was part of a Jack-Mormon clan that seemed to have no trouble playing cards and breaking all the basic Mormon rules. I'd go to Judy's house to watch American Bandstand with Dave DeCamp and Judy's older sister Sharon. I was the youngest of the group and always got fidgety waiting for the program to end so we could go out
and play. The older kids, especially Sharon and Dave, who must have been at least 13, were fascinated by the dancing couples on the screen. It was boring, but neat to be included with the older kids.

I think Judy was probably bored too, but she wasn't going to admit that around her big sister. Judy was a tom-boy, and one of the toughest kids on the block. She had a hot eleven year old's temper. I fought her once and she won. She must have hit me ten times while I tried to wrestle her arms down. It was hard to hold her arms, she had muscles as big as mine. I told myself that I held back during the fight because she was a girl. You weren't supposed to hit
girls. But she punched harder than any boy in the neighborhood except Arty Guftason, the worst bully on the block. I liked Judy, but I was a little afraid of her. Her punches really hurt.

She wasn't supposed to cross the street either, but Judy dared me, and I couldn't back down from a dare. Besides I wanted to go. We waited a long time for a break in the traffic, then sprinted across the street, through the gully over the wire fence and into the forbidden groves. We wanted to get out of sight quickly before a driver spotted us. A faded no trespassing sign hung on the wire fence, the sign made me feel like we were on the verge of getting caught. There was probably a farmer as mean as the guy at the orange grove just waiting for us.

We went far into the grove between the neat rows of trees, moving deeper into the mysteries of this banned place. We were far enough from the road that we could barely hear the traffic on Balboa. The trees were planted in ordered rows, a tractor width apart. The leaves created a canopy that kept the hot valley sun at a distance. It was hot enough to soften the asphalt at the edges of the street, but it was cool, shady, and secret here. Dust swirled slowly, suspended in the shafts of sunlight that cut through the leaves of the pomegranate trees. We were absolutely alone. It was better here than either of us had hoped.

The trees were filled with odd shaped fruit, a pomegranate's skin is an alien bumpy terrain, pods like pale purple wasps nests hung heavy from the burdened limbs. The overripe ones had fallen to the ground, and lay half hidden in the tall grass. These were insect laden universes, purple, blood colored clusters swarming with ants where the skin had split. The air smelled rich with growing things, backed by a cloying scent of decay. The color of the skin told
you which pomegranates were ready to be eaten. A baseball sized pomegranate with a pale purple exterior, firm to the touch, wasn't ready yet. You needed to find the fruit that was dimpled and swollen, bigger than your fist and almost violet. It should be just a bit soft to the touch.
Those were the ones ready to burst with scarlet seeds and sweet juice.

Judy and I jumped up o steal the fruit, snatching them from the low limbs. But the best ones were out of reach requiring a scramble up into the high branches. Pomegranate trees are hard to climb, none of the branches are low enough. I made a step-cradle with my hands to boost Judy up into the tree. She was surprisingly heavy and it hurt my hands and shoulders when she climbed up over me. From up in the tree she laughed and teased, bombing me with dozens of pomegranates. I chucked back rotten, ground softened, ant covered missiles, but never hit her.

Eventually we called a truce, the battle field was littered with fruit. We stacked pomegranates in pyramids like lumpy cannon balls. We lay back in the grass gorging ourselves. Cracking the sweet fruit open, peeling back the tough fibrous skin, devoured the thick scarlet seeds, biting into the massive clusters, chewing the pulp and swallowing the juice. The crimson drippings ran down our chins and stained our t-shirts. We spit the seeds out and bit again. We ate only the best part of the seed pod. After a few mouthfuls we'd be left with the difficult part of the fruit. With the seeds in small clusters it took to much patience to root them out. We tossed the half eaten carcasses aside, took a fresh pomegranate from the pile and began again.

We spent the late afternoon eating, talking, watching the sky through the tree tops and reveling in the special secret of the place. It was neat to spend time with a girl, even if she was a tom-boy. It got late quickly. The sky started to darken and the shadows grew between the trees. We had to get home. All around us were the split, smashed and broken remains of pomegranates. We ruined more than we ate. When I looked at vacant husks and wasted fruit I began to feel uneasy. If the farmer caught us now, he'd have a right to be mad. Suddenly I felt bad. I'd used a fine place poorly. But there was no way to clean up. It was a hopeless mess. I turned my back on the grove and left.

I came slinking into the house. My conscience was hurting. I'd disobeyed, crossed the street, taken the pomegranates; worse I'd wasted as much as I'd eaten. My face and hands were stained juice and guilt.

Mom's radar was on maximum. It was dusk, too late to be getting home, she was waiting for me. My furtive slump shouldered skulk towards my room tipped her off. She took one look at me and knew something was wrong.

"Dennis, what is it?" that was all she needed to say.

"I, uh, I ... crossed the street ...took pomegranates.... stole them I guess."

My story tumbled out. My shame at wasting so many of the farmer's pomegranates demanded a confession. It was a relief to deliver it.

For some reason Mom wasn't really upset with me. She actually had a smile on her face as she nodded her head and told me not to cross the street again.

I never returned to the pomegranate grove. I never took another of the farmer's pomegranates, even when Judy brought me an extra. I'd lost my taste for pomegranates and the ones bought at the store just weren't the same.

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