the orange trees
Updated: Jun 7, 2021
My mother was the one who named our acreage Twilight Acres. A name I didn’t quite think fit, but then my idea, as a little kid, would have been something like Orange Land. Truthfully orange land it was, with thirty-five old orange trees, three grapefruit trees, one navel orange tree, one tangerine tree, and one monstrous rough lemon tree that was the size of a small house. The lemon tree had a huge arch of a trunk with branches that hung down creating a huge open space underneath it. It was like a cavern of leaves. It would have surely been adopted as a potential fort by my friends, if it hadn’t been for the many, huge thorns that hung deadly all around you. Some of the other trees were also full of thorns, but most, like the grapefruit trees, where smooth, with trunks large enough to easily climb. They were old trees. My father estimated they were around sixty-five years old at the time we bought the property. By the looks of many, I’d say he was right. They might have been even older than that. Their branches were thick with time, rough and covered in patches of light gray lichens that would give way to thinner, newer branches ending in a burst of green leaves. Many were in need of a farmer’s tender care, but my parents were no orange growers. My father was a service technician and my mother a housewife, so the trees had many dead branches in need of pruning and no one ever discussed fertilizing the trees at any time that I remember. We even filled the deep ferrous between rows of trees with shell rock we had left over from digging a huge lake. My parents hoped to level out the land for easier mowing, but they probably harmed the trees cutting down on water that would collect in the ferrous for them. Surprisingly without knowledge and special care, these wonderful trees still continued to live and bloomed each spring, with their branch ends becoming heavily laden with purple buds that burst into clusters of white flowers. When I’d wait for the school bus, one year lucky enough to be picked up just out front of our fence, the air would be so thick with orange blossom fragrance you could taste the sweetness when you inhaled. Florida's heavy humidity was the prefect carrier for the rich, citrus scent. It is a fragrance I can never forget. So sweet and heavy floral like marmalade air, with a hint of bitter that lingered in your mouth and nostrils at the end of your inhale, like the rind of an orange peel. One sniff at a local nursery brings me back to that moment waiting for the bus in the pale early dawn of spring.
One February, my parents took note of the large number of juice oranges our groves produced that first year living on the farm. With their thin rinds, these oranges got so soft and laden with juice, us kids used them as make shift water balloons, throwing them at each other in mock fights or sometimes real ones. On impact the rind would rip, leaving a torrent of juice sprayed across the victim, which dried in the hot summer sun into a never ending stickiness that you never seemed to completely wash off. The rotten oranges made even better bombs. A combo of sticky, pungent juice combined with many mini ground bugs. A fermented cocktail you’d be sampling all day with a forced bath that night. It was gross to get hit with one of those, but even grosser still, the cow pie fights that came later.
So it was February and the trees branches hung low, heavy with fruit. My parents saw an opportunity to sell their produce. My father owned a huge 1969 Chevy truck, its olive green paint oxidized in the Florida sun. It had a huge cargo bed and could haul a large trailer without any issues. So my parents hitched one on and gathered our friends for a day of citrus picking followed by a pit barbecue to celebrate. I guess my parents had called around beforehand and agreed to drop off their cargo to a local juicing plant. In preparation, my father and mother created what we coined “orange pickers.” They were long wooden poles with a half arched metal hook at the end. Modern ones had baskets on them as well, so the fruit would drop into the basket, but ours were not that modern. The hook just pulled the fruit from its branch and it would fall all the way to the ground. I guess it didn’t matter, since these oranges were one their way to juicing instead of eating. The kids would gather them up or even try to catch a few on their direct decent and run them over to crates which we’d dump directly into my dad’s truck's cargo bed. My mom was so protective of the trees and would grimace when an orange would come down with a whole stem and a bunch of leaves. She was careful to teach our friends how to position the hook with care, as to minimize the branch breakage. This bothered her for years, especially when we’d allow friends or people that would stop along the road seeing our “pick-your-own” signs to come over and pick fruit unsupervised. The trees provided so many fun stories over the years. One year, much to our complete surprise, one tourist stopped to pick, asked us with all sincerity, that she couldn’t see the “Sunkist” stamp on our oranges. She must have though the oranges grew with the stamp on them already. We laughed about that for years to come.
The day wore one and we continued to pick all the ripe oranges off each tree. The truck's cargo bed was filled, so we started on the trailer behind it. It was hot, sweaty work. Arms got tired of holding poles and repeatedly jerking fruit off branches. Finally, late in the day, we had filled both the truck and trailer till they could hold no more. Tired friends sat down completely exhausted to a chicken barbecue that my grandmother had created while my parents were picking. It was a fun time, but didn’t last long with all our tired guests.
The next morning my parents drove our treasure to the juicing plant. We kids went off to school, so I wondered what happened that day. I got home, passing an empty cargo bed, sticky with orange juice to see my parents sitting at our huge picnic bench style dining room table. In front of my dad was three twenty dollar bills and three dollar bills, totaling sixty-three dollars. This was all they got for the load of oranges back in that day. A look of disappointment was on both of their faces. Clearly they thought they had a gold mine. However, it really turned out to be not worth the effort. From then on we never picked the entire grove again. We gave away much to friends and family, and as I mentioned, and hung signs to attract the pubic to “pick-your-own.” We’d do our part to make a lot of our own juice, but much of the fruit would fall and rot on the ground. This of course led the warring children to partake in the “Orange Wars”. Most always boys against girls, any close by objects were fair weapons. This luckily meant the rotten oranges, but sometimes meant a hot, steaming cow pie. As bombs go, I must say there’s a particular kind of stench in an orange that’s bug-filled and splats on the side of your face, disintegrating on impact into a perfect, sticky bomb that immediately covers your clothes in a gnat swirled, syrup explosion. You’d swear the juice fizzed on your skin it was so fermented! The sticky goo was hard to get rid of too. For days it seemed everything you’d touch would smell sour and have a tacky surface.
Those rotten oranges will also play a big part in another upcoming story with Sugar Foot.