Charlie’s apples – a gift that keeps on giving.
We had this wonderful neighbor once, an old codger named Charlie. He lived with his nice wife Suzy up in the hills, next to a little place my family owned. He was an old veteran, moved up to Northern California after living most of his life in Los Angeles. He remembered LA when it was “just a regular town.” He had led an interesting life, fought in a war, come home without any job skills and ended up running several successful businesses, married a nice lady, raised some kids. But all he ever really wanted to talk about was his life here, in a single wide trailer with his wife and dogs, his truck garden, and his fruit trees.
I was shocked the amount of gardening Charlie did in that poor soil. He had a corn patch, which I had always assumed required valley bottom and lots of good water from the Sac. But Charlie always had corn to spare. And his tomato bushes were almost as big as ours, he was always taking bags of tomatoes to folks. But the prize was his little orchard of different kinds of apples. Charlie had been in the fruit selling business in LA, he’d always wanted to grow the stuff, and boy, did he.
The problem with gardening in the hills is, first of all, you have to have a clear, sunny spot. Second, you have to bring in good dirt, that red stuff won’t grow anything but trees. Third, you have to have a reliable well, and lots of the wells in the high country go dry toward the end of the year if you over run them. Fourth, you must build a very high fence to keep out your natural neighbors, especially the deer, who will certainly lay waste to a corn patch in the span of minutes. Charlie had conquered all those problems with diligence and patience – a 70-something year old man, he cleared the overgrown brush next to his house and made a big sunny space, then brought in dirt, then carefully laid out drip lines. Did all this work himself – his children all lived far away in LA. Finally, using huge heavy sections of wrought iron, he fenced the whole yard, and for good measure, strung chicken wire all around his truck garden.
That certainly took care of the deer. But we have a certain character up in our neighborhood – we just call him, Bear! He’s a pretty carefree brute – at 300 pounds, I guess I’d feel some confidence about myself too. We have never laid eyes on him, but we often see the remains of his raids on the neighbors scattered across our place – shredded garbage bags, surrounded by bits and pieces of food wrappers and other junk. And, a big hollow spot on the ground where he slept off his adventures.
Bear is a determined pillager. When I went up to the town where my folks used to live recently, I noticed the bears had just come in to raid the fruit trees – bear plop, full of half-digested fruit, lay in the middle of the street, on front stoops, and even on a picnic table over at the river park. The trees are really old – nobody grows fruit there anymore, it’s a tourist trap. People have pruned the trees up to show off their old houses, so the fruit grows so far off the ground, the people don’t even bother with it. There are apple trees, pear trees, plum trees. There ‘s a pear tree in the yard at my family’s house, and I think my aunt is trying to kill it. But it still puts off a few dozen pears every year, and there come the bears to climb up and get it. A relative of mine once woke up in the middle of the night to see an enormous bear sagging from a branch in her yard. “I went back to bed, and in the morning, I found he’d broken off whole branches, and there was plop all over the driveway.”
One year Bear let himself in to Grandma Costa’s back porch. He was trashing her refrigerator full of groceries when she wandered downstairs at about 5am. She had a shotgun, but knew better, and went back to bed. When she woke up later the porch looked like a wreck, but at least he didn’t break the refrigerator door – Bear is so smart, he just opened it right up with his people fingers. Grandma Costa also noticed, he didn’t break any jam jars, he just helped himself to the easy-open items. She cleaned up the mess and started shutting her back door at night.
When Bear came for Charlies’ orchard, it was like two strike-anywhere matches bumping heads in a dark room. You know how territorial old people get, and they don’t like you messing with their stuff. Charlie wasn’t just annoyed with Bear, he was OFFENDED. Who did this animal think he was, messing up Charlie’s beautiful corn, tearing out those perfectly straight drip lines, STEALING A MAN’S APPLES!
Of course, Charlie could have laid in wait with his .50, and nobody would have been the wiser, including Bear. Charlie had been with the military, and he knew his firearms. But that seemed “chickenshit” – he had a peer feeling for Bear, a big old curmudgeon like himself. So, he decided to scare or annoy the beast away – show that guy a thing or two. He set a trap, a convoluted mess of car batteries and wiring. Bear liked to announce himself by coming onto Charlie’s stoop, where his dogs were penned just inside the door. Charlie’s dogs were no match for a bear, old and crazy, so he locked the dogs up and wired that porch. Then he warned us and all the other neighbors – don’t come over to my house after dark without calling.
Weeks went by, no sign of Bear. Then one day we came over and Charlie came immediately out of his place to call to my husband – we don’t have a phone, so he would just holler from his stoop. Bear had finally come, just about the time Charlie had almost forgot to turn on his trap. Oh, sure, it worked alright! Bear came right up on that porch and “ka-POWIE!” He got himself a shock alright, and stood on the porch howling and dancing around for a minute before he busted himself loose. “Boy he was mad,” Charlie reported. “You could hear him ki-yiying all the way down the canyon!”
That was about five years ago. Not long after, Charlie started to have health problems. His wife was even more fragile than he was – and fearful of the woods all that time. She kept to herself inside, and traveled a lot to see friends. So, when it looked like Charlie was not up to taking care of the place, his kids came and loaded them up and drove them to their house at Lake Almanor. Charlie called us once after that, to tell us he was moving back to LA. That was a loss as far as I’m concerned, I felt a big hole in my life after that, and I didn’t like any of the new people that came to live on the place. They came and went – it’s a tough lifestyle.
Then this new fellow came along. He has family but lives in Charlie’s place alone. He likes it, a great place to retire he says. He had cleaned the place all up again, and has a nice garden. The other day he brought us a bag of apples from one of Charlie’s trees. They smell so good, they freshened up our whole apartment.
And Bear? Oh yeah, he’s still around. We were biking up and down the roads and we found a place where he had left a few plops and scratched off one side of a pine tree. On trash day you can see where he has helped himself to the food-storage containers known as “flip top garbage cans.” But, he’s a smart enough bear to stay away from Charlie’s place, he knows when he’s met a bigger, meaner bear.