The following article first appeared in the Winter 2019 (VOLUME 37 NUMBER 4) issue of the “Ojai Valley Guide” magazine on pages 146 & 147. The magazine was published by the “Ojai Valley News”. The article is reprinted here with their permission.
LOOK BACK IN OJAI
with Drew Mashburn
Contributed on behalf of the
Ojai Valley Museum
Go ahead and laugh! I would have laughed too.
DURING MY 1960’S HIGH SCHOOL DAYS, THERE WERE FEW JOB OPPORTUNITIES FOR TEENS. I TOOK A VARIETY OF JOBS TO MAKE A FEW BUCKS TO KEEP FUEL IN MY LITTLE YAMAHA 80 cc MOTORCYCLE, OCCASIONALLY BUY A NEW PAIR OF LEVIS, SEE A MOVIE, ATTEND A HIGH SCHOOL DANCE, BUY A CONTAINER OF FISHING WORMS, AND SO ON. I’D ALWAYS HEARD THAT THE VALLEY TEENAGE BOYS SMUDGED CITRUS DURING WINTER MONTHS AND MADE SOME DECENT COIN. NOW, IT WAS MY TURN TO DO IT!
Smudging entails lighting smudge pots that emit heat to prevent the citrus from freezing and ruination. A smudge pot has a 2-foot-diameter metal pot with a smokestack that sticks vertically out of it. The stack is about 4 feet high and 6 inches in diameter. A removable stack lid prevents rain from getting inside when not in use. A hinged regulator on the pot’s top sets the temperature. The pot is filled with diesel fuel and a drip-torch is inserted to light the pot.
Hangin’ with the guys was fun, and funny things happened. Both ranches we worked for sent us to local restaurants for breakfast, allowing us to order as much as desired. I could down a ton of grub in those days. Food equaled money to this boy!
The first season, we ate at the Topa Topa Restaurant, which is now the little deli between the theater and library. The second season, we went to the Boots ‘N’ Saddles Restaurant on the corner of Park Road and Ojai Avenue.
In 1967, school chum Richard May and I smudged at a ranch bordering the south side of Ojai Avenue not far from what is now Boccali’s Restaurant. I borrowed my parents’ 1958 Ford station wagon to get there. Had to because riding my motorcycle in near-freezing temperatures would have turned me into a popsicle!
Richard and I were the only teenagers on the crew. We gathered in an equipment storage building. The foreman instructed us how to light the pots, how he wanted the regulators to be adjusted, and what orchard areas to cover. He sent Richard and me out on the east side of the orchard. The foreman instructed us to light every pot down the row until we got to a narrow dirt road, then flip a “U,” come back down the next aisle and continue.
I took the aisle running parallel to Ojai Avenue and Richard took the next. I lit pots until I realized I was near the foot of the Dennison Grade, having overshot the dirt road. It’s dark out there and the dirt roads look quite similar to the dirt aisles. I quickly hoofed it back, located Richard, and informed him of my goof-up. Being behind time, we left the pots burning, hoping the neighboring rancher was happy for the free labor!
We kept lighting all the pots and moving toward the low mountains on the southern side of the orchard. At the mountain’s foot were several avocado trees. Richard and I linked up there, noticing a huge avocado tree with limbs so high we could easily walk under it. There was a pot 2 feet away from the tree’s trunk. I don’t recall which one of us lit that pot, but we both agreed it needed to be lit. The foreman drilled into us to “light every pot.”
Soon, Richard and I plunked down on a filthy old couch in the storage building. The entire crew was there when in charged the foreman. He was livid! He shouted something like, “Which one of you boneheads burned down my avocado tree?” Richard and I hunkered down even lower into that broken-down old couch as if it could offer us refuge and feigned being asleep. We fretted losing our jobs. Nobody copped to it, but I’m sure the foreman knew it involved the two youngest guys.
In 1968, the second season I smudged, I should have known better, but accidents happen, and it happened like this: About 1 a.m. on a 28-degree night, I was in the orchard. I got hot in my heavy jacket from all the exercise. I removed it and set it in a place I would remember. I was down to a T-shirt.
I moved down the rows lighting pots. Eventually, I lit a pot, but it didn’t seem like it was lit. So, I bent way down low to the base. I flipped open the regulator to see if the pot was burning. Flames leapt out of the hole into my face. It was quite dark outside. Those bright flames blinded me! I started to panic in my blindness. Had I damaged my eyes? As I stood there blinded, I began to get cold without a jacket. I feared going hypothermic. I knew nobody was anywhere around me and I was not familiar with the rugged terrain. I calmed myself.
After a few shivering minutes, my sight returned. I felt my face. I was okay! I finished lighting pots … unknowingly without eyebrows and eyelashes, and a lot less hair drooping down over my forehead. I was the last of the crew to return to our warm little shack at the ranch at the corner of Carne Road and East Ojai Avenue. Thankfully, I didn’t have any upcoming dates!