Show Business Farming
Mrs. Largent was annoyed with me.
“The horse,” she said, with a toothpick in her mouth, “is moving THAT away. Why are you looking to the side like that?”
I couldn’t tell her because even at six years old, learning how to ride a big Arabian mare for the first time, it seemed too vain and silly a thing. What was I doing? I was pretending to film a western commercial of some sort, looking sideways as I rode at the imaginary camera on the imaginary dolly track–mouthing something serious about a new movie, or a new Chevrolet. I had no idea what I was pitching, only that the cameras were rolling in my mind and I was a horse-borne celebrity. This would have been about 1966 — the era of Bonanza, The Big Valley, Gunsmoke, the Rifleman, and I associated horses, saddles, and dusty trails with show business, and not with any pioneering, real-life task. Perhaps Audra Barkley was on set, (in my mind again), because there were no pretty teenage girls to impress out there on that stretch of the San Gabriel River bed, where my dad kept a warehouse and rented a few acres to the Largent family for keeping horses.
“You gotta keep your head in this game,” Mrs. Largent said, picking something out of her teeth. “That’s a thousand pounds of horse flesh there. Drifty could squash you like a lady-bug, Jimmy.”
The Largents were real horse people, taking care of real horses – with all the flies and horse manure to prove it. There was absolutely not a thing romantic about the single-wide trailer in which they lived. It was no Ponderosa. Even the stables were pole corrals with shade structures made of disintegrating plywood and scrap tin.
“Hector will take you up the river a bit and back,” Mrs. Largent said.
“When do I get to gallop?”
“Not today,” Mrs. Largent said.
We rode maybe a half mile up the river and came back with the horses never even breaking into a trot. We encountered no bandits, no cantinas, no Comanche war parties, no 7th cavalry. We never broke through any fog layer into any alpine meadow. We rode past discarded license plates, old cans of Bubble-up, a half-eaten hamburger picked at by crows. The ride seemed to be mostly about weeds, and sand, and rocks emblazoned with graffiti.
In my mind, along the trail, I switched to musicals and began humming, softly, “Oh what a beautiful morning” under my breath.
“You singing, Jimmy?” Hector asked.
“I heard you. You were singing. Oklahoma. Jimmy the singing cowboy.”
“I was just humming.”
“Sing it, Jimmy.”
The sound of Hector breaking into song felt like mockery, and I felt, absurdly, like crying as he began to belt it out: “..the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye!”
Hector looked back over his shoulder at me. “We’ll make a campfire and you can sing for all of us, Jimmy.”
Back at the trailer, Mrs. Largent handed me a piece of beef jerky and told Hector to lay off. I was the landlord’s kid after all.
“We got a little hitch in the plan,” Mrs. Largent told me. “Your mom called. She can’t pick you up, but the Callen boy is coming back from the beach and he has to get some boxes at your dad’s place, so we’ll be able to flag him down and you can ride home with him.”
I had been bothering my dad for a horse riding lesson for a few months, but, now, sitting on the porch of the Largents trailer, and facing another hour of dust and flies and Hector humming “When I Take You Out in the Surrey” filled me with new resolve never to ride a horse again.
I rode home that night standing in the back of a truck full of discarded corrugated boxes. Pat Callen was seventeen. He had two girls with him, towels wrapped around their bikinis in the front seat of his truck. In those days, kids could ride in the back of a pick-up truck on the California freeways, 70 miles an hour at night, without making the news, or catching the eye of the highway patrol. We didn’t think of it as particularly dangerous.
Every generation gets a little weaker, and a little less romantic.
A few years later, I broke my vow never to ride a horse. My brother Denny opened a place called “Stone Soup Farm,” a five acre field near Pasadena with an old barn and a stable. The creature inside the stable was majestic – a deep auburn mane, chiseled features, green eyes. The horse was okay too, but the woman taking care of the quarter horse, brushing him down, might have been twenty-three or thirty-three or forty-three. There was something eternal about her, packed up tight in her tank top and faded jeans. She made this assessment of her horse: “he’s a pretty good old boy, calm, except when a mare comes around.” She smiled off at no one when she said that, and that smile left me a little light-headed.
Stone Soup Farm was leased land, owned by country music star, Stuart Hamblen, and Denny’s concept went something like this: city folks paid $10 a month for a 1,000 square foot patch of dirt, where they could grow what they wanted. Across those five acres a kind of agricultural quilt rose up – potatoes, onions, corn, lettuce. It was the horticultural equivalent of a membership gym, with muscle-tone hierarchy expressed as different levels of gardening success. You saw everything from the weedy patches of people with nothing but good intentions, to trophy plots dedicated entirely to Brunswick Cabbage, all of them too beautiful to imagine harvesting. At the center of this experiment was a collectivist myth: “stone soup.” A man with nothing but a pot of water and a stone succeeds in making a tasty stew by allowing his neighbors to contribute a carrot here, a side of beef there, a pinch of salt there. If everyone in the neighborhood put something into the pot, all could share in the feast.
In a way, though, the Stone Soup farm was really about music, the sort of music people earned after a little sweat in the fields. Denny and his friends were among that generation of young Americans knocked up and born anew into the folk music revival of the early 1960s. Somewhere, in one of our family scrap books, there is a picture of two year old me sitting on Joan Baez’s lap, on a beach in Santa Cruz. We grew up with my mother’s Glen Miller and my sisters’ Lovin Spoonful, but Denny’s version of Everly Brothers, Burl Ives, and Kingston Trio came to feel something like the music in the walls of our home, the music that would play if you took a stethoscope to a rafter. It might be because tunes like the Escape of Old John Webb really weren’t just about a mere folk music revival. They really were America. They stretched back through the centuries and held a kind of ancestral title.
As a thirteen year old, sitting on a bench up against the barn, pondering the clip-clop of the stallion and the denim-saunter of beautiful woman that held his reins, and smelling the corn simmer in a pot as someone serenaded all that farming with a guitar, I came to think the rhythms of the raw land lent themselves to so much “show business,” because this was natural show business. You could feel it – something like the spice in the air before a big concert. I know there are people like my own father, beat down by the misery of a Great Depression farming, but for the generation who grew up on convenience store asphalt and freezer cases full of branded dinners, how could you NOT love the sight of a mother, in the far distance, teaching her little boy how to pick strawberries?
It tickled me then, as it does now – something like the memory of a pretty girl tracing my neck with her fingernails. I think I began to add the word “mystical” to my vocabulary on Stone Soup Farm, because there’s some other, interior language being spoken when we get close to the ripening fields. Sitting in the sunset, salting a tomato, taking in Fischer’s hornpipe, it felt like rivers of soda pop tickling me from the inside out. Whatever it was, whether it was “mystical” or not, it had far more raw power than the rows of steel lockers we were assigned at junior high. Our suburban world was full of so much uniform cement, so much corporate pop, so many steel guard rails, so many dress shirts delivered in plastic-wrap, well, who wouldn’t want to trade all of that for dirty jeans and a walk in a grape field?
I was falling then, as most teenagers do, into a sullen, apathetic funk. I can remember looking at my big wing-tipped shoe in church and experiencing an existential crisis pondering its goofy, ugliness. I can remember thinking something like “there is nothing more or less important in the whole universe than my stupid foot.” This was late 20th century suburban teenage despair, an existential crisis, but I didn’t feel anything like that on Denny’s farm. Still, I was wrestling with a saving version of my future that felt “lawyerly” or academic, something respectable. Farm living felt at least potentially backward. It would have been too simple, and too obvious, to just look up across the fields, smell the cider, and conclude, “this is utterly pleasant.” But that would be like admitting to your mother the artichokes and melted butter actually taste pretty good. I was enjoying that little farm immensely, but I couldn’t quite admit it.
It did make for pretty good bragging rights in junior high though. Safely away from horses and plows and tractors, I could imply farming/cowboy credentials I didn’t possess. I’ve always had a healthy fear of being caught in an outright lie, so I didn’t tell tall tales, but I’m guessing more than a few of the popular kids at Foothill Junior High School, might have concluded I had a little Fess Parker in me. When you are fast on your way to being 6’2″ tall and 120 pounds, when you are so skinny some of your relatives think you might be sick, you do anything you can for an identity larger than life, and I wasn’t above using this one.
“They have this neat little farm,” Liz Pendo would say, “on Foothill boulevard, by Pasadena.”
“Right,” I said, “that’ my brother’s place.”
“Yup. They keep a few horses there. I’ve been learning how to ride.”
“Oh, that would be SO COOL!”
Liz Pendo was our Marcia Brady. The idea of being able to say anything that even remotely pleased her felt like a religious experience. She was utterly out of my league, and here she was fascinated by a farm, a real farm, with real horses. Weirdly, some of this fascination, some small sliver, was redounding to my benefit. If a movie were made of this scene, the young man might have summoned the gumption to ask the young lady if she wanted to see the old place, but I was too shy, too willing to make sure a remote fantasy remained vaguely possible without pressing the point and blowing it, decisively, to smithereens.
I could have learned something on those occasions that might have made me a little more dangerous on the froggy-went-a-courting front. Women really are impressed by cars, homes, horses, waving fields of wheat, and that heavy, sure sense of means. They really do want men with grain in their barns. I always thought women were as superficial as I was, but on some level they are always thinking about safe, sure nests and their maternal role in forging baby links in the chain of history. They like big castles with draw-bridges to protect their young. For some reason, I never thought a nice car really meant anything to a girl, but I was wrong. I should have sensed something when Liz Pendo got so excited about Stone Soup Farm, but I missed it entirely.
By the way, if you think women occupy too prominent a place in this narrative, it’s partly personal and partly vital to a true picture of farm life, particularly a “show business” farm life. My wife of more than three decades has observed on occasion, “to Jim, every woman is a flower.” As a little boy I never went through that period of aversion to little girls that psychologists describe as common. One of my first memories, as a child, was leaning over in church, as a three year old, admiring the nineteen year old Gaylene Lynch. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. My fascination with her was so constant, so transparent, so complete, that it made my sisters laugh and my mother chuckle. Gaylene was so well endowed, she probably thought I was hungry, but it really was sheer fascination with the brunette mystery at the other end of the pew. To this day, my abiding revulsion at the unnatural and the gender fluid is just this: what man would take a calloused, whiskered, big-jawed DUDE when he could have Eve? What woman would want a weak, carping shrew-sister, when she could have a man kindling her fire?
As to farming itself, I ponder those sturdy 18th century young men blazing their way into the wild western forests of New Hampshire. After burning and clearing two hundred acres of old growth forest, after braving bear and Abenaki, after bleeding through the summer and freezing through the winter, after building a rude cabin, the prospect of a virgin farm makes no sense without a woman, without family, without future. The absurd longing I had for Audra Barkley as a six year old out on the San Gabriel River, the giddiness I felt watching that unnamed Stone Soup beauty tending her horse, the rush of witnessing Liz Pendo’s farm glow, it all contributed, somehow, to that mystic sizzle of music greeting the harvest. There was a reason people needed to dance when the berries come in from the field, why fruit crate art featured the orange queen and the apple princess. The earth was giving birth to wine, and cider and bread. You could feel the deep rumble of life itself here. Corn was greening in the fields. Roosters were barking at the morning. Somewhere two sweethearts were finishing the dance with a kiss.
I understood it – Riley’s Farm – before I understood it. It would never be, in the end, just about farming. It was going to be about life, and the parts of life we all lost when we left the land.
Author’s Note: I have a habit of starting projects I don’t finish, but I think I would like to finish my version of our history here in Oak Glen. More coming. Question: would you read this book?Tags: Chapter One, Show Business Farming, Story of Riley's Farm
Categorised in: Farm Journal
This post was written by Jim Riley