Secret Places and Hiding Spaces

We all need somewhere to escape

Jay Mantri, “Pexels”,

In almost every aspect, Abilene, Texas and Ventura, California are totally incomparable. The former is my hometown, and the latter my adopted hometown.

As kids in Abilene (proclaimed “the most boring city in America” by comedian Steve Martin) , our most exciting pastime was hunting for horny toads. I caught and released. I loved them, but I wonder if my displacement of them helped lead them to near-endangered species status.

I know — I am the reason for all the world’s problems. Only once did a horny toad shoot blood at me (it is a unique defense mechanism). But it was at that point that I decided to move on to other pastimes.

“The creek” was our hiding place. There was no running water 95% of the time, but when there had been, small pools would form, creating a culture for tadpoles to emerge. To get there, we had to cross a vacant lot full of mesquite trees which, in turn, were full of 4–6" thorns. Once one went through my shoe into my foot so deep that the shoe had to be cut away. West Texas is harsh.

Mom and my first stepfather divorced in 1968. I was still pre-pubescent and it was already her second marriage, with several more to come. But who’s counting. Dad was working in the oil business in Ventura so it was decided that we would move and live close to him. But not with him. Ventura is a bedroom community to Los Angeles, but not quite a suburb, as a mountain range separates the two.

Compared to Abilene, Ventura was absolutely exotic.

The population at that time was about 50,000, and it had thrived from the oil industry, both on and off-shore, as well as from agriculture. We moved into a totally groovy and, at the time, almost sybaritic-like apartment complex right above the downtown area, with magnificent views of the Pacific. They were called the Hawaiian Village Apartments, and ours was on three levels. Unfortunately, they burned to the ground in 2017 in the “Thomas Fire”.

The Hawaiian Village Apartments, before and after the 2017 Thomas Fire.

Sadly, we were only there for a month. Something wasn’t sitting right with Mom and the Dad situation, so we moved back to Texas, this time to Dallas. Let’s just call that move a mistake; an annulment if you will. I did manage to get in one week of the fourth grade at Preston Hollow School.

Returning to Ventura, we lived on the top floor of a duplex near the Pacific in a development called The Ventura Keys. Mom met and fell in love with a gentleman who happened to be the downstairs occupant. Later, unbeknownst to me, they ran off to Las Vegas and got married. What I quickly learned is that overnight, I had three step-sisters. Combined with my real sister, that was a lot of estrogen. But kids are resilient, right?

CC Zero by Jay Mantri

Four schools in five months in the fourth grade was hard. We moved again in the fifth grade — another new school, and again in the sixth grade, for an average of one school a year.

By that time, mom was overwhelmed with us kids, and felt that we needed some stability, so we were handed off to Dad. She moved to Los Angeles, and my sister and I remained in Ventura. Staying in one home from that point until I graduated from high school seemed surreal. It didn’t seem normal not to move. From that point forward, we were parented by Dad. (Well, let’s call it half a parent, as he was usually working for months at a time in Alaska.)

It was here in my “forever-home-for-now” that I discovered a huge new playground, otherwise known as the lemon orchards. Our sub development was surrounded on three sides by these masses of trees. Avocado orchards were nearby, as were bean fields.

Parts of Ventura County are known to have the most fertile soil anywhere for growing citrus, particularly lemons. The orchards were a safe haven to use as an escape. It was there that the boys would hunt for rabbits using BB guns. Now, I doubt that a BB could kill a rabbit. (I mean, I got shot several times and lived.) I didn’t really want to kill a rabbit, but I had succumbed to peer pressure. I would always intentionally miss.

Being a new kid, the older kids, which is who I hung with, would tell me stories of “the farmer”. We were to watch out for him. He’d have a gun, probably a .22, and he’d shoot kids. I imagined an old rickety man who was carrying a sickle in his other hand in order to cut the heads off of little boys. The one time I saw him, I quickly zig-zagged my way between the rows of trees to make my escape to the street.

In the lemon orchards, we could do what we wanted to do, and be what we wanted to be. Which spells mischief.

Lemon-bombing cars on the Santa Paula Freeway was always fun, until one of us came too close to hitting a California Highway Patrol car. He skidded to a stop, and we hightailed it to the adjacent avocado orchard, never to be found. Whew!

As we entered adolescence and grew into other forms of entertainment, were we simply trying to emulate our parents, or rather trying everything once? The orchards were a great place to have smoke a cigarette or a joint in peace. Then came alcohol. How many Boone’s Farm hangovers did we have from drinking gatherings in the lemon orchards?

Ever played “spin the bottle”? The orchards were a great place to play that game (after we had finished the first bottle of Boone’s Farm). I still wonder why I was the loser a disproportionately number of times. There were boys and girls involved, and at 12, it was horrifying.

Many a girl lost their virginity in the lemon orchards — at least that’s what the boys said. That was only validated once by an older boy who had hurriedly bicycled his way to my house. He said that there was a girl pulling a train in the lima bean field. He then uttered, “smell my hands, it’s pussy!” I thought it smelled disgusting, but that I better play along and act interested, so off on my bike I went.

The look on our faces when our eyes met. “The girl” was one of my classmates!

All I remember hearing was “No Art, No!!!”, and thank god she said that, as I was not prepared to lose my virginity in a lima bean field!

Fiona Art —

Graduating to junior high school (now known as “Middle School), what some of us did was way more experimental than a bottle of Strawberry Hill. Psychedelics, such as mescaline and LSD, became more accessible. Mescaline was only $2 a capsule, and I decided for my first time, I was going to trip alone in the lemon orchard. The most memorable thing from this journey to the cosmos was Jimi Hendrix singing “the trees are looking back at me”. However, this line was never in any of his lyrics. Who knows where those hours went? Just another child exploring the universe.

The orchards continued to provide protection as a place to get high before school. But before long, we all had cars or at least access to one, and the orchards no longer served a purpose. It was time to turn them over to Generation X.

By 1976, the population of Ventura had doubled from 1960. Farmers could get more for their land than they could get growing lemons, and one by one they sold.

Eventually, the preservation of fertile land stopped many housing projects so that at least some of the lemon orchards could remain standing. My orchard is gone, but there are enough left to still provide the night air with the sweet smell of lemon blossoms.

Aromas remind us of the past. Whenever I return to Ventura, I am reminded of all of our shenanigans just by breathing the aroma of lemon blossoms, far removed from the dirty, dusty West Texas town from where we had immigrated.

My life in the context of 20th-century history and pop culture — infused with a dose of fun (where appropriate!) More to come when I get my sea legs on here.

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