Smudge Pots

il_570xn-502046747_ruryProbably since the 1890’s citrus crops in California were protected during freezes by smudge pots, little black pots with wicks that had to be individually lit in the groves. The smoke would keep the citrus trees warm, keep the crop from freezing.   On cold mornings you would wake to see a granular pall of smoke from the smudge pots lying low over the landscape. That’s probably how they got their name; the air stayed grainy for hours till the wind came through. Imagine what they did to the already smoggy Southland air quality.

One morning, pre-dawn, I had occasion to out with one of the crews that lit the smudge pots. An Ag Operations boss drove out into the groves, the headlights of his truck bouncing on the ruts between the rows. There were crews of young men already gathered, some college kids, some Mexican kids. Under expert direction they moved in an orderly fashion among the trees lighting the little pot-bellied black vessels, with a cap like a chimney on the top that held oil to be lit by these crews. You had to be trained to light smudge pots, so I merely watched, staying with the Ag Operations truck. The smell was unmistakable, and though I cannot conjure that smell, I know I would recognize it should I ever again smell it. (Not likely.)

I went out only that one time and because I had requested to be included. I worked in the office at Ag Operations. Crews were called when, pre-dawn, temperature alarms went off at the Main Vein’s house and he called the others who assembled the crews. Ag Operations was one of many college temp jobs I got through Miss Rohe (pronounced Roy) who worked in Personnel, non-student hiring. She knew I was a student, but she hired me just the same.   Perhaps these were jobs no one else wanted. They were all of short duration and low pay. But when one ended, I’d go to Miss Rohe and she’d find me another. I was grateful to her. They gave me glimpses of campus I would never have otherwise seen.

Ag Operations, however, was not on campus at all. U C Riverside had got its start as a Citrus Experiment Station c. 1910. (The university didn’t open till the mid 1950’s.) The Citrus Experiment Station building—set apart from campus proper—was beautiful, set up high, with red tiled roof, mission arcades and gardens. Agricultural Operations was perhaps a mile away, plunked down in the orange groves themselves.   Ag Operation had no arches or gardens. We worked out of a utilitarian, stucco, one room hut attached to a massive garage that housed vehicles and machinery. The office was all drab metallic grays, desks, filing cabinets, walls. They always had coffee on the hotplate burner, strong coffee. I typed and filed, boring stuff, but I enjoyed the people and all the things I learned there.   Experimental Citrus was no mere title. They grew some really strange fruit, not just weird and ugly citrus, but downright science fictiony fruit. One orange I vividly remember looked like an awful goiter.

The Main Vein of Ag Operations was Bill, a stout guy, perhaps fifty years old. Flushed of face (maybe from drink) fleshy, loud, genial. Bill lived right there at Ag Operations in a small frame house with his wife. He had probably worked or lived in one citrus grove or another since he was a boy. He might have had some sort of academic credentials, but maybe not. He was a font of experience, expertise, all of it learned the hard way.   There was a coarse energy about him, probably insecurity (as I now see it) knowing he had to keep this job till he could retire because someone like Bill would never again get such a job. Director of Ag Operations would go to a more academically endowed man.

His second in command was that person, more educated, younger, maybe early forties, named Paul. Soft spoken where Bill was blustery and energetic. I remember Paul oddly with a streak of quietude that struck me as melancholia, but what do I know? I was eighteen. Paul lived in a housing tract not far from my apartment and would sometimes come by and collect me in his truck and drive me to work. How I got to work the other days, I have no notion or recollection. No recollection at all. I didn’t have a car till much later.

I assisted the secretary at Ag Operations, Floy Jarzabek. She was a thin, sharp featured woman, no nonsense, but fair and just, a pleasant office companion. She was the mother of another student I knew, a friend, Jim Jarzabek, who always just went by his last name. Jarzabek was enigmatic, solid, quiet, very good looking. He probably bedded 3/4 of the women of my acquaintance. (Not me, though it wasn’t for want of trying, and nothing to do with my virtue, more to do with my ego. Such was his ego that he didn’t care that I didn’t sleep with him, and we remained friends.) He was older than I. Like Animal House’s Bluto, he had been in college forever.

His mother was of my parents’ generation and Floy one day told me the story of not recognizing her husband when he got off the train in Union Station after World War II.   She had married him in Nebraska, and had a baby, Jim. Her husband joined the Navy because the navy recruitment poster showed palm trees. With baby Jim in her arms, Floy up and left Nebraska, moved to California where she worked in an aircraft plant. She thought in Southern California she’d be nearer her husband when he got leave, but she did not see him for four years. When the war ended and his train came into Union Station the two of them milled around in the crowd, but not until the platform had cleared and they were the only two there did they speak. “Floy?” he said. He had not recognized he either. She said his name. They were utter strangers to one another.

A year or so later I mentioned his mother’s story to Jarzabek. Just conversationally, but as I spoke, I got the feeling this was a story he did not know. He said with some bitterness, “She should have left him then.” And that was all he said, but never forgot this anecdote, nor the remark. I re-imagined the whole in “Wine, Women and Song” published in my first short fiction collection, Fair Augusto.

I marvel to think all this was fifty years ago and that I’m still here to tell the tale, not that anyone would care. Even I do not even care. But one morning not long ago when I read of a freeze in California the recollection of the smudge pots and low lying smoke over the Experimental Citrus Station groves, all that came to me with such sensory vivacity, I had to write it all down.

And now, in Memoir Month, I had to revise.

Comments (3)

  1. Anne Ciochetto September 20, 2016 at 1:13 am

    Laura, I grew up in So. Calif. in the 50s and so remember the smudge pots. I was never close enough to recall the smell, but one thing I’ll never forget is the wonderful fragrance of the orange trees in the night air. Years later I would drive home from my job at Saddleback hospital around midnight and I always took the route through the Irvine orange groves with the windows down, just to capture that heavenly scent. There was nothing like it then or since. The trees are gone now, replaced with houses and other buildings. The orange groves and smudge pots are gone but definitely not forgotten.

    Thanks also for the WWII vignette. I am currently writing about that era and one of the questions I always ask veterans is why they joined. Someone’s life was changed forever by the image of a palm tree. Powerful stuff. Thank you.

  2. Linda Benson Cox September 20, 2016 at 1:15 am

    I remember smudge and I know that it came from smudge pots. I was a kid going to elementary school and my nose would get all clogged up with black boogers. I believe the word smog must have been smudge combined with the everlasting fog that permeated the Los Angeles basin. (Remember “tule (tool-ie) fog?”).

    My dad was a milk-tester for the dairies that were sprinkled around the Hines, later named Cerritos, area. He would sometimes take me with him on afternoon jobs. Los Angeles, at that time, had an immense amount of orange groves, sugar beet farms and dairies. The dairies disappeared in 1950 when the farmers sold their land to developers. Beet farms must have gone that way about then, but orange groves persisted.

    So yes, smudge pots bring back memories.

  3. Linda Morrow September 20, 2016 at 5:45 am

    I know about smudge pots, but not sure why as I grew up on the east coast. Maybe they were used in some eastern fruit orchards?

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