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by Frank Shortt
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She was raised in a tank house until she was a teenager, this beautiful Iberian lass. She lived on her grandfather’s apricot and walnut ranch in Fremont, California with her mother, daughter of the owner, and her father, a veteran of World War Two. This was the Warm Springs District where many folks of Portuguese descent settled in the early days.
Francisco Vargas, 2nd came from the Azorian Island of Faial, city of Castel Blanc. At age twelve, he immigrated to California where two sheep-herding uncles owned property in the Mission San Jose area. Today, Vargas road bears their name. Francisco’s father (the first) worked for the famous Curtner family of Fremont, keeping their large orchards up and running.
Later, Francisco bought acreage on Old Oakland Road in Warm Springs and began to raise apricots and walnuts as a minor crop. The subject of this article remembers running through the freshly plowed orchard in her bare feet, seeing the fertile soil squeezing up between her toes. As apricot harvest arrived, row upon row of drying trays were laid out like bare-boned faded skeletons. These trays awaited the carefully cut fruit, each apricot being deftly sliced in two to look like a picture on the drying trays. Sharon, for that is her name, was taught early on the art of caring for fruit and walnuts, sometimes riding on the tractor with her uncle Francisco, 3rd.
The apricots, after being carefully cut and sulphured, making sure no fruit had touched the ground, were sent through the drying sheds overnight. Next day they would be packed in wooden crates to be shipped to the chosen cannery that season. These would end up in packages to be used for man’s consumption and to assure man’s regularity. The overripe and fallen fruit was sold at a lesser price to be used for jam or eating raw. These were called slabs.
Oftentimes, hoboes would come to the front door asking a handout. The ranch house sat next to the busy boulevard which ran from San Jose to Oakland. Sharon’s grandmother never refused these down-and-out men who were probably veterans of the Second World War. They would always leave with a fruit jar full of creamed coffee or one of cold milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The train tracks lay not far from the ranch.
Nighttime noises were very common at the ranch. These could be prowlers, or even rats, as rats love the fallen fruit and nuts. Grandfather would cry, “leave them alone! They are not inside! Who’s in is in, who’s out is out! Those noises cannot hurt us inside these strong walls built by my own hands to repel weather and harm.”
Sadly, all good things have an end sometime. Grandmother passed away, and not long afterward, Grandfather passed away. The ranch was due to be sold to divide up the spoils of years of labor between all the siblings. Some of the in-laws became greedy, demanding their spouse’s share right away. Much to the chagrin of Sharon’s mother, the ranch was sold, the money divided between the siblings, to become a memory.
Also, there were memories of playing beneath the shady trees in summer, making playhouses by dividing the rooms with small stones that lay profusely about. She and her siblings played store, using leaves and empty nut hulls as merchandise. Many games were played with soda bottle caps from the combination restaurant and bar run by Sharon’s uncle Vee. During inclement weather the children resorted to playing in the basement, used for storage of Grandfather’s home-made Madera wine as well as other goods. All that remained were small handprints on the walls, scribbles of stick figures and chalk letters and numbers where eager little hands practiced their times tables and alphabet.
Now, an all-Asian shopping center walks on the souls of the departed. The warmth that is remembered of a childhood where there was love, security, and family gatherings will remain in Sharon’s memory until she is unable to remember.