The Beautiful World of a Smudger

AT 2 a.m. the phone rang. It was my high school friend, Don. "The foreman at the orange grove just called. I'll pick you up in five minutes."

I threw on my jeans, sneakers, sweat shirt, and my old Army jacket. As I opened the kitchen door, I glanced at the thermometer on the porch. It said 27 degrees. Time to light the smudge pots.

Waiting at the end of the driveway, I gazed at the San Bernardino Mountains, a black wall rising against a brilliantly clear win- ter sky. Don pulled up in his old VW, and we headed out of town. Soon the beams of the headlights found the orange groves, and we careened into a parking area beside storage sheds. Outside the foreman was giving several men instructions. He handed us each a torch and directed us into the lanes between rows of trees.

At each smudge pot, I stopped, threw open the damper and lit it, then jogged to the next. Beside me on either side moved others. When we reached the far road, we paused and looked back. The mass of orange trees now glowed with lights, a giant torchlight procession. We crossed the road into the next grove.

When we had lit all the stoves in all the orange groves, the lights stretching as far as we could see, we returned. Back at the storage sheds, we stood in the yard talking, surrounded by the luminous trees. Then we went inside, flopped down on the wood floor near the stove, and waited. A few men sat on benches or stretched out on bunk beds against the wall.

While we waited for morning, for the sun to warm the valley and the temperature to climb, we talked, or listened to one of the old timers tell stories.

A thin, white-whiskered man punched tobacco into his pipe with his thumb, then began talking about the valley. These orange groves will all be gone some day, he said. They'll be cleared to make way for supermarkets and housing tracts. Already they were cutting into the valley orchards on two sides. He remembered the way it was when he was a kid. The Santa Ana River flowed above ground, then. You could bring a boat right up into the valley. A farmer could drill down 10 feet and hit water. Now everything w as irrigation, and you had to go down 200 feet.

It was hard for me, then, to imagine the disappearance of the orange groves that stretched from San Bernardino to Redlands, then north to the mountain range. I thought of the oranges now out on the trees. Would they survive the freeze? Would the smudge-pot fires raise the temperature the few degrees necessary to keep the crop from spoiling? Would the valley ever look as beautiful as it did that night?

All I knew was that I was happy. Happy to be on the smudge crew so I could be called in the middle of the night to help save the orange crops. Happy to be out in the cold night with the torches and lights. Happy that we'd probably be kept busy well into the next day, so we'd be late for school. Happy to be making a few bucks.

Warm, I rolled up my jacket for a pillow and stretched out. Then the foreman opened the door and dawn streamed in. Time to shut down the pots, he said. Retracing our steps, we now worked at a slower pace, putting out smudge fires. Then, Don and I followed a tractor pulling an oil tank on wheels. From the back of the tank extended two long hoses that we used to refill each stove, preparing it for the next cold night.

THE oranges on the trees, pale and colorless in the darkness, now regained their color, as if they had absorbed the hues of the fires. Above the orchards, the mountain summits thrust up in massive brilliance - frosted peaks bathed on their eastern slopes in the sunlight: San Bernardino, Santa Ana, and to the northeast, the tallest at 11,502 ft., snow-capped San Gorgonio, also known as Grayback.

The sun was high above the valley when we finished. We walked back to the sheds, exhausted. We picked up our jackets in the shed, then returned home. At my house I threw my clothes, reeking of oil smoke, into the washroom, showered and put on fresh jeans and a shirt, and walked, hours late, to the high school.

Over the years, I've had many jobs. Some of them even amounted to something. Yet how many times, while sitting at a desk or driving to work, have I remembered those cold, bright nights 30 years ago when I worked as a smudger in the orange groves.

Work in our fast-lane society is usually complicated and sometimes stressful. There are constant responsibilities. Sometimes it feels as though people with hidden agendas are trying to use you. A rising manager once said to me: There are only two types of people, those who manipulate and those who are manipulated.

I choose to think otherwise. I choose to believe that there are many people who simply want to do the task at hand and do it well - people who have learned to enjoy the process as well as the outcome, the journey as well as the destination.

Sometimes when I'm stuck in traffic, I watch executives in expensive cars talking on their phones, or banging the steering wheel in frustration. I doubt that they know what it's like to run like Gideon with a torch through an orange grove at 2 a.m., an army of lights emerging.

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