Back then, it was pear country. In the summer of 1969, I was a college dropout, visiting a girlfriend in Minnesota. This was an unwise time to drop out of college, as a war was on, and dropouts exposed themselves to the draft, and thus to disembowelment at the hands of people in a faraway jungle. But in those days I was marching to a different, and as it turns out, a very stupid drummer.
The girlfriend had no use for someone matching that description, but her brother, who was planning a cross-country car trip out west with friends, invited me along. The idea was to go to Alaska, but halfway there we took a left turn and headed down the West Coast. When we got to the Bay Area, I told my pals to drop me off just south of San Francisco, in a sleepy orchard town called Cupertino.
Cupertino was a fruit town then. Nestled along the base of the Los Altos hills, it and neighboring Sunnyvale were a patchwork of vineyards and orchards, specializing in peaches and apricots, figs and plums, and apples but not oranges.
You see, I had a relative (sort of) living there. She was my stepfather’s stepmother’s sister–not a blood relative certainly, and not someone I had ever met, or who had ever heard of me. But it was my style in those days to drop in on people unannounced and hope to dazzle them with my feckless ways.
I knocked on the door, and Uncle Artie looked me over carefully before inviting me in. I had a ponytail and wore bellbottoms and who knows, maybe beads. Why he let me in is a mystery.
Liz and Artie looked like they had a lot on their plate, and did not really need the arrival of a stormy youth to enliven things. Lizzie was depressed and anxious, not having taught English in some years. Art was still depressed from being blacklisted a decade earlier for being outspoken against the McCarthy hearings. Blacklisting cost him his aerospace job in booming San Mateo. His free speech cost them a good standard of living.
They made me a sandwich and we talked. I was mega-full of myself, and burned their ears off with tales of reckless living, communing with flakes and gurus, and hitching around filling thick notebooks with bad poems. My hosts, whom I expected to be rebels like myself, only frowned.
Aunt Liz showed me around her ornamental crabs, her tea roses, and a single radiant pear tree by the pump house, loaded down with golden oblong fruit.
She also raised birds. Her yard was a moving carpet of ducks and drakes, geese and ganders, and peacocks and peahens. She picked up one duck, named Daffy, and explained that Daffy was a genuine hermaphrodite–one day he/she just changed sexes, went from female to male. That made Daffy special.
She also had chickens, but not your usual barnyard chickens. They were exotic crimson-crested chickens from China, raised not for meat, but for “100-year eggs” that were buried underground and allowed to molder, then dug up and sold for special holidays. They smelled to high heaven, but were an indispensable delicacy at Chinese New Year, and what with the blacklist, rotten eggs paid the bills.
But we couldn’t get along. I was accustomed to educated grownups being cowed by me. I saw myself as a mythical creature, with parts of Kerouac and Dylan. But Artie and Liz saw me as a foolish young man, and perhaps they worried about their liability in taking me in. They insisted I call my father and let him know where I was. I had not called in almost a year.
So I called my dad down in L.A., who informed me that I had been drafted two months earlier, missed my physical a month earlier, missed my actual induction earlier that week, and I’d better get down there right away and straighten things out, because I was officially AWOL.
Artie drove me to the airport, and as the commuter jet took off, I looked out the window at the valley, and the towns of Cupertino and Sunnyvale nestled against the foothills below.
Who would believe that, before too many more years passed, this dusty, bee-stung valley would be the high-tech center of the world? To me, it would always be 100-year eggs and hermaphrodite ducks.