Organic strawberries and yarrow, a beneficial insect plant, at the UC Davis Student Farm 4-27-12.
I always remember loving the mysterious melody and lyrics of the Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a song released in 1967, the same year I visited agricultural strawberry fields in Orange County on a sixth grade science field trip. In my mind, the words had always been linked to the plants with beautiful red berries dangling below evergreen, glossy leaves. Later I discovered ‘Strawberry Fields’ was actually a place John Lennon had visited as a child; evidently sort of wild ‘secret garden’ on a property next to a Salvation Army children’s home in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool. But does it matter? Each place was beautiful in its own way and linked to childhood happiness. The title is symbolic and the song a masterpiece—still haunting, engaging, fresh and sweet after all these years.
When we lived in Orange County in 1963, my father had been working as a technical writing editor at the North American Rockwell facility in Downey. Unfortunately, this involved a grueling commute in freeway traffic gridlocked in each direction. I distinctly recall the stress and unhappiness this caused him (and by extension all of us); fortunately, new job opportunities closer to home were opening up. A June 11, 1989 Los Angeles Times article by David Olmos, “County Has Rich History of Attracting Aerospace Firms” sheds some light on the explosive growth of the aerospace industry in Orange County at this time and how this in turn impacted my family. Olmos explains that when North American Rockwell’s Autonetics Division moved to Anaheim in 1960, “The initial work force of 250 people, housed in one building, grew to 4,700 in six buildings by the spring of 1963.” This expansion must have been what allowed my father to transfer to the newer facility in 1963 and my parents to buy a brand new Eichler home in a small tract just being developed about 3 miles south east of the city of Villa Park.
Olmos continues: “The grounds [of the new Autonetics Division] were designed to resemble a college campus, with gardens, trees and lots of open space, which company officials thought would help them recruit Ph.D. researchers to the facility.” I do remember my father being very proud of this new working environment and taking us on a number of occasions to the large Autonetics employee recreation pool located in a park-like setting. On a summer Saturday the concrete deck would be crowded with chatting parents and the water so crammed with enthusiastic children that you could literally have walked across the pool on bobbing heads.
During this time I was not exactly clear on what my father did all day when he left for work in Anaheim (a much shorter drive away), but Olmos explains: “Over the years, the Autonetics Division has been involved in such work as guidance systems for the Minuteman nuclear missile and submarines, and navigation and control equipment for aircraft. Autonetics employees also have worked on NASA’s Apollo and space shuttle programs and on the Air Force’s B-1B bomber.” Later I remember my father explaining that he helped write and edit the many technical manuals and handbooks the engineers needed for these programs.
Eichler homes brochure from UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives (all photo credits listed at end).
Here is our floor plan although built as the mirror image, with the garage on the right.
After we moved to Orange, our parents would turn us out on weekend mornings with the instructions: “Go outside and play. Come home for dinner.” It was a safer world then and we did not feel neglected or abandoned, rather we felt proud of their trust in our ability to take care of ourselves. I remember roaming about in packs with siblings and friends, breaking trails though tall stands of ferny anise, exploring a shallow abandoned mine shaft on a rocky hill above the old avocado grove, building forts and shacks and teepees and always, every day climbing trees: orange, avocado, eucalyptus and oak. Of course we could have been in danger during some of these adventures (particularly the ones involving swamps at the ends of remote drainage ditches), but for some reason this never seemed to cross our minds.
During this time period I attended Villa Park Elementary School. This 1922 photograph from the Orange County Historical Society shows the wonderful circa 1890’s Spanish Mission Revival building where I spent my fourth and fifth grade years. It looked much the same in the 1960’s.
I recall absolutely loving this building. I remember long cloakrooms with low hooks where you could hang your sweater and shiny, squeaky, waxed wood floors. Big banks of pane windows and high ceilings made the rooms airy and sunny and high up on the ivory-grey plastered walls, a portrait of George Washington looked down upon our efforts to memorize the capitols of all fifty states, his expression serene and wise. Nearby was an open courtyard formed by the older buildings and the two wings of more modern classrooms. This area included picnic tables and a group of very old California pepper trees (Schinus molle) with thick, gnarled, twisted trunks and dry, rose colored berries that hung in pendant clusters from the weeping branches.
It was Mr. Frankendahl , my fifth grade teacher at Villa Park Elementary School, who recommended me for a special sixth grade program at Taft Elementary school. That next year I remember as being fantastic— a Renaissance experience in literature, drama, history, science, math, art and music. Our group had a separate building with four classrooms and a botany lab where we had the opportunity to do many very interesting experiments with seeds and plants. Taft also provided two large open spaces for gardens and each student assigned a 10’ x 12’ plot in September. We chose plants from catalogues and a nursery, made a small planting design then planted, watered, weeded and tended our gardens the rest of the year.
That year (1965-‘66) our science teacher took us all on a field trip to the South Coast Field Station, a 200 hundred acre agricultural research facility established by the University of California in 1956. There we saw many crops, but the strawberry fields and groves of citrus trees on the beautifully maintained property stand out.
Present day avocado grove at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center.
At the end of the tour one of the staff offered to donate strawberries to our garden project back at Taft, and the following week a pick-up truck arrived with about 20 large plants. The man who delivered them helped us create a long raised bed, plant each strawberry and cover the whole with clear plastic to keep out weeds. I recall we used furrow irrigation and were all completely thrilled with our new acquisitions. On Google Earth it is possible to see the open space directly to the south of our building where they were planted, and a Taft school employee told me the garden program there had continued strong for over 20 years before it was discontinued in the 1990’s. At the end of the sixth grade school year in June, those who wanted to keep a strawberry plant were allowed to take one home in a pot, and I planted mine in a small garden space I cleared in the corner of our back yard. There the plant lived for another two years providing my first introduction to perennials.
Many years later the past started to connect with the present, like the two ends of very long mobius strip. In 2010 I got involved with the UC Davis Student Farm and ended up being able to help grow organic strawberries there as an experiment. It has been a fantastic opportunity for me especially since I am not a farmer or a scientist, although fortunately we have many of those on hand. In the Beatles strawberry fields, “nothing is real,” but at this farm everything is real. There you experience plants, soil, air, water, sun and rain… they are not dreamlike illusions. And because they are real they are very satisfying.
Another connection point for me with my elementary school years is the blend of old and new on this 20 acre section of the UC Davis campus. The land has been used for agricultural research for over 100 years and not all that much has changed in all that time. In many ways the farm reminds me of the 1890’s gracious, sturdy, still functional rooms at Villa Park Elementary School; there are also aspects of the farm that remind me of the living in our Eichler house and neighborhood. Maybe it is something about the clean, straight lines of rows of crops, or the wide open spaces with fields, fences, trees, clouds and sky. Or maybe it is the comfortable community feeling there, the sense we are working and learning together.
A happy déjà vous with the trip to the strawberry fields is that it was also in sixth grade that I wrote my first detective story. Now 45 years later I am growing strawberries and writing my first mystery novel. It also has a detective in it, but that’s another story.
Image and information credits:
-Photograph of strawberry beds at UC Davis Student Farm, 4-27-12 by Laurie Gates
-“Strawberry Fields Forever” by Lennon-McCartney. Source: beatlesbible.com
-Photograph of Eichler home from brochure, photographer and date unknown. Source: Berkeley Environmental Design Archives Exhibitions, ced.berkeley.edu
-Eichler Fairhills #OC-274 Floorplan, 1953 square feet (house). Source: eichlersocal.com
-Photograph of Villa Park Grammer School, 1922 courtesy of Orange County Historical Society. Source: orangecountyhistory.org
-Photograph of California pepper tree leaves and fruit, date and photographer unknown. Source: distinctiveturnings.com
-Photograph of avacado grove at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center. Source: ucanr.edu