Light the Pots

The Vagabond

HARD BOILED New Englanders may snort at tales of California winters. Let them; California has heard Eastern snorts before. Granted, "cold Spells" that lead to mid-winter lows of 25 or 26 degrees may not sound too impressive to people living east of Palm Springs. They don't really sound that impressive to most Californians, since many of them once lived in states with snow and real winters.

But when a California Big Freeze hits the Southern citrus region, it's serious business. After a pocket of air from the North Pole descended on Southern California last month and gripped the orange groves in its 25-degree chill, nearly one half of the crop was lost. Local newspapers ran editorials to moan about the loss of what appeared to be a bumper orange crop, and grumbling orange growers could find consolation only by scanning the papers for reports of freezes in hated Florida.

But kids in the orange regions don't have to worry about the grim fiscal implications of Big Freeze time. For them, the cold is the beginning of the winter's fun, the Western equivalent of A Child's Christmas in Wales, the fulfillment of a primordial yearning for mysterious and frosty ceremony to celebrate the death of land in winter.

WHAT the orange growers are all dreading, and the kids all looking forward to, is the winter ritual of smudging. Oranges are delicate parcels and need to be protected when the cold comes. Unlike hardy cranberries or pumpkins, oranges don't have their flavor improved by a nice brisk cold snap. Instead, the little cells that make up the orange all rupture when the juice inside them freezes; after the orange thaws out, the juice all runs away from the torn cells and leaves an orangey-tasting sawdust behind. Growers are understandably eager to avoid that fate for their crop, and so many years ago they developed smudging as a protection.

The idea behind smudging is ridiculously simple. Squatting in the middle of orange groves all over California are filthy black smudge pots. The pots have a ten-gallon belly at the bottom and a four-foot smokestack rising out of the belly. There's a hole on the top of the belly where cheap and grimy smudging oil is poured in, and there's a hole at the top of the smokestack where grimy smudging smoke belches out. When the pots are lit and roaring, they produce an astounding amount of smoke, some noise, and a little heat. The heat is why they're there; the pots are supposed to warm the neighboring orange trees and keep the fruit from turning into sawdust sacks.

It is probably this simple-minded attack upon the cold that gives smudging its heroic aura in the California winter. In another part of the country or at any other time of the year, people would see smudging as the grotesque menial work it really is. But in the winter, California teen-agers who shun lawn-mowing will lie on top of their beds, dressed in innumerable mittens and sweaters, waiting for The Call.

The Call usually comes at about midnight, when the orange growers and their Mexican foremen finally stop hoping and realize they have to light the pots. The growers, of course, hate to call out the smudge crew; one good night of burning pots can cost many thousands of dollars for oil and labor. But when it comes down to a choice of letting the whole grove turn into sawdust-sacks or calling out the crews, the growers send out The Call.

In the cozy suburban homes, The Call relieves a lot of anxieties. Many highschoolers have gone to bed or left for parties without doing any school-work, taking the calculated gamble that they will not have to show up in school the next day. Sometimes the smudging call doesn't come through, and frantic students have to dig by spontaneous excuses to get out of tests. But as soon as The Call comes, academic worries are behind and it's time to head for the groves.

SMUDGERS have thirty minutes from the time The Call comes until the time they have to show up at the smudging barn, and most of those minutes are taken up trying to find enough clothes to protect bodies against the unleashed natural fury of a smudging night. Experienced smudgers know that the unspeakable 26-degree cold will instantaneously disintegrate ears, fingers, heads, or any other parts of the body left uncovered, and so they dress with a ferocious passion, trying to save their lives. When they are finally bundled into two pairs of pants, five or six sweaters, a few sets of gloves and mittens, and an enveloping scarf or hat, they climb into the car and bravely set off for the groves.

In the smudging barn there are knots of unrecognizable figures waddling around and trying to get close to the smudge pot blazing in the center of the room. All the smudgers have to wait until Shorty or Reuben or one of the other foremen reports in that one of the groves has hit 26 degrees. It's always easy for veterans to pick out the novices in the waiting crowds: first-time smudgers stupidly wear clean clothes, not knowing that their whole body surfaces will be coated with a delightful smudge-oil layer by the time they get done. The novices also provide a few laughs for the crowd when they innocently try to drink some of the shed's "coffee," which tastes strangely like freshly drained smudge oil.

Finally Shorty shows up and the fun begins. The first two hours of the smudging night are the best. After the foremen dump out the smudgers in their assigned groves, the kids get to light up the pots. Brandishing flaming diesel torches, and looking like cavemen on a nighttime Mammoth hunt, the smudgers run down the long rows of pots. They run in groups of two, the first lighting the oil in the belly of the pot and the second adjusting the huge flames that spout from the smokestacks.

But after the exciting pot-lighting, things get boring. Boring and cold. From 2 a.m. until 5 the smudgers have no specific duties except to make sure that overheated pots don't explode. Taking a fatalistic approach to this job ("if a pot's gonna explode, it's gonna explode and there's nothing I can do about it so I might as well not get myself killed looking for it"), the smudgers usually try to get some sleep. That's not too easy to do. If one of the smudgers has forgotten how dirty everything in the groves get and brought his car, he can sleep there and munch on the doughnuts that his admiring girlfriends brought out to the smudge barn. But most smudgers face the night without the car and have to work on the tricky problem of how to work on the tricky problem of how to sleep on frozen ground without being burned alive by a smudgepot or killed by the cold air. There's no good solution. In the end, the smudgers grumble and form semicircles around a safe-looking pot, slowly turning themselves every few minutes so that each side of the body gets evenly baked by the pot and frozen by the ground.

It's almost time to go home when the sun comes up. First there's a 5 a.m. breakfast in the local all-night diner, where the waitresses groan as they see Shorty bringing up a truckfull of oil-oozing smudgers ("Oh God the smudgers-- close up quick"). Then back to the groves to put out the pots and clean up the ones that have exploded. The darkness is over now and so is all the mysterious excitement of the smudgepot fire-dance. The smudgers are tired and dirty, and maybe beginning to think that they won't be around when the next Call comes. But the doubt is as momentary as the cold: when the victorious smudgers make their 9 a.m. appearance at school, strutting through the halls in their combat clothes and bragging to everyone that they're going home to bed, they know they've found one good way to teen-age heroism.