(Continued from February 28–click here to read Part 1)
It was a fairly small orchard, and one in obvious decline. The owner, Royce Hyde, had inherited the orchard and clearly his heart wasn’t in it. He had a full time job selling insurance and ran the orchard on the side, keeping his expenses to a minimum, neglecting the constant upkeep that is the orchardman’s task. The trees, aside from the most popular varieties, were overgrown and unpruned.
The work crew consisted of three men in their seventies, retired orchardmen who picked fruit every fall for sheer love of the harvest, and me.
Two of them, Herb McKinley and Ward Runyan, were classic rural old guys, clad in overalls and workboots and ball caps. The other fellow, George Kunkelmann, was more the modern retiree type; he wore polyester clothes, loafers, and a white belt. He owned an RV and he and his wife went to Florida every year after the apple harvest was done.
Herb was tall and dignified, a Presbyterian of Scots-Irish stock, with a sharp wit and an ever-present twinkle in his eye. Ward was an Irish Catholic, wiry, blue eyed and quiet. His usual mode of conversation was to repeat the last phrase addressed to him, followed by a "yep":
"Morning, Ward, looks like it’s going to be a nice day."
"Nice day, yep."
"Radio says chance of rain later, though."
"Chance of rain, yep."
George was the irascible one, gruff and grouchy, a Lutheran of German heritage.
I had always gotten on well with my grandparents’ generation, so it was pretty easy to get on with the three old orchardmen. For one thing, unlike so many on the other side of the cultural divide of those times, they didn’t treat me, with my ponytail and odd ideas, with hostility. Rather, they were bemused.
Picking apples turned out to be the best medicine for body and soul I could have found: good hard work, lots of sunshine, the company of kindly old men (well, except for George), the serenity of working high in the trees, surrounded by green leaves and fruit. And the fruit! Understand that if you are picking apples all day the only ones you are going to eat are those that are stunning in their perfection.
The orchard was an old one, and a lot of the varieties that grew there are rarities today: Ranbos, golden with a rosy blush; Wolf Rivers, the size of small pumpkins, each enough for a pie; Russetts, with a rough copper-colored skin; Snows, named both for the white specks on their red skins and for their late harvest (I literally picked the last of them in a snowstorm), and many others.
We would work, and work hard. These old men were a challenge to keep up with. But at noon we would break for a leisurely hour long lunch. We would retreat to the outbuilding that housed the cider mill, pour cups of cider, and unpack our lunches. After the meal Herb and Ward would light their pipes, George would fire up a cigar, I would smoke cigarettes, and the conversation would begin in earnest. Much of this consisted of Herb, eyes dancing, gently teasing George, much to the taciturn Ward’s amusement. This would continue until the hot-headed George would let loose with a string of mild profanity, as his tormentors chuckled quietly behind their pipes.
But conversation would often take a more serious tone, ranging among local folk tales, nostalgia, and what I would now call cultural commentary. They spoke of a way of life, the farm and orchard economy that existed in the old days, before the freeway came through and brought so many alarming changes. They spoke admiringly of Royce’s father, a "fine orchardman" and spoke in understated disapproval of Royce. They clearly suspected that he was milking his neglected orchard for what profit he could squeeze from it and hinted that he would end up selling the land to developers, which in fact he did a few years later. They did not understand how he could neglect his trees and his responsibility to the land his father and grandfather had worked.
They spoke fondly of the times when all work was done by men or horses, before the noise and busyness of the automotive culture had intruded into their corner of the world.
The world they described sounded like an attractive one to me, and many of the exploitative attitudes they loathed, this neglect of land and trees, this hustle and bustle, were things I too loathed. It gradually dawned on me that these honest, hardworking old guys were a lot more admirable than most of the ragtag hippie characters I had met on the road. I had long considered myself a progressive, but it slowly occured to me that it was not, perhaps, progress I sought after all.
This is not a conversion story, exactly. It doesn’t end with coming to Christ or returning to the Church, not yet. This isn’t about the seeds in my soul bursting into blossom or laboring to bear fruit. It is more about how the Gardener prepared the soil. I still had a long way to go and I would travel a good part of the way still in the countercultural milieu. Nixon would unexpectedly end the draft as I was awaiting the conscription notice to appear any day in my mailbox. I had several more hitch-hiking trips in my future, a long stay in a commune, and much more, but something had changed that fall, working with these fine old men, a change of perception so subtle I didn’t even recognize it until long after it had happened. I had regained my strength and in some quiet way had begun to regain my sanity in the shadows of the apple trees that fall, in the company of these three thoroughly decent orchardmen, with their tales of a lost world, so superior in so many ways to the one that was then emerging and now reigns triumphant. These three old men, with their pipes and cigars, humor and memories, had opened a door to a rapprochement with tradition, an open door that led, eventually, to a reconsideration of the Faith I had rejected in my early teens.
But that is another story.