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THE HARVEST : In Oak Glen, the Simple Life Isn't All That Simple

October 20, 1985|CHRIS HODENFIELD

Somebody's got to pick the apples. On a wet Thursday morning the job fell to the four men of the Snow Line Orchard who tumbled out of the pickup. They stamped their feet and looked at the silvery rain clouds that whisked along the mountain crest. It's the cold rain that brings out the red on an apple, and these were surely ready. "A perfect day to pick apples," said Doyle Kennedy in blithe disregard for the chilling, limitless mist.

"It's over 5,000 feet up here," said Joe Bowens, as he tossed the wooden crates to the ground.

"I find that very hard to believe," Kennedy said.

"When it's clear up here," Bowens insisted, "you can see almost 360 degrees. You can see Lake Perris out there, almost all of Riverside." He wheeled around and pointed out the invisible sights. All you could make out was an impenetrable gray wall of fog. We were in the San Bernardino Mountains. The rows of young red delicious and golden delicious trees rose and fell over the wavering earth, but you could barely see past the seventh tree. Two massive oaks bulked against the shortened horizon.

"Sometimes," Bowens went on, "you can even see the people sailing on Lake Perris, and everything that they're wearing, and . . . ."

"I find that very hard to believe," Kennedy said. Then he realized he was being kidded. He laughed like a loon and threw out some more buckets.

Behind his back, Kennedy's friends would say that he "just has too much enthusiasm." He has a rambunctious cheeriness, and with it he was a Pentecostal preacher at age 7, and with it he was later an Electro-Lux vacuum cleaner salesman. These days he guides a flock of 35 or so at the Bethel Temple in Banning, but to pay the bills he has to spend five or six days of the week up in the orchards. He can offer you a verse from Scripture that says that if a man does not care for his own, he's worse than an infidel. Kennedy would quote it with his usual unfettered, aw-shucks happiness.

Bowens, beefier and more intense, has a pair of dice tattooed on his arm. He transports prisoners for the sheriff's department and wears a little star on his belt. To him, the job of supervising comes natural. His father-in-law, Mert Hudson, owns the orchards, so Bowens helps out. "I sure don't do this for the money," he said, buckling on his gathering bag.

The other two men were doing it for the money. They were migrant workers, part of the agricultural system's jerry-built method of foreign aid. Eugenio, in a child's ski coat and Skoal cap, had a wide, toothsome smile. Alexandro, older, wore a double-breasted suit coat over his jeans, and with his solemn mustache and worldly bearing, he could have been a deposed secretary of state. Hoisting his green sack, he wedged between the limbs of the wiry young trees and began plucking.

Not much was known about them. They supported families somewhere. They had Social Security cards. They didn't like to talk.

I walked along the line of trees to get my blood going. The damp had seeped right through my boots. The drizzle was, however, a blessing on the blushing golds, a greenish apple marked by a warm burst of red. The water beaded on the waxy surface and collected at the stem.

"Go ahead and have an apple," Kennedy hollered. I fingered a clump sagging on a limb and knew that before this morning was over I was going to bite into the freshest apple in creation and that it was going to burst with clarity and perfection and grace and all the finest pleasures of Mother Earth. But for some reason I wanted to wait.

I turned around and could only vaguely see the pickers in the fog. But I could hear Kennedy's irrepressible voice calling out a singsong hymn, "I've Been Redeemed": "I met the Lord and we both agreed, / I love Him and He loves me."

This is what I like about Los Angeles. You can get in your car and leave the sun-wracked weariness behind and in 75 miles be in a land of complete surprise.

Kennedy, Bowens, Eugenio and Alexandro were harvesting for the town of Oak Glen, a quaint settlement among the mountain pines. The business of Oak Glen is the natural apple, the apple that has not been scrubbed and polished of its own protections by the supermarkets and coated with other, man-made waxes. The attendant lure of Oak Glen for the flat-lander, deprived of seasonal ebb and flow, is the chance to shop for apples where winter is a-comin', where the leaves are changing and where your coat is cinched up against the thin, cool mountain air.

It is no longer a shrouded hideaway of hardscrabble pioneers. In the '20s you could find teams of women wearing gloves and bonnets, wrapping apples in tissue paper and crating them for export around the globe. Where once more than 600 acres of apples spread across the hills, there are now about half that number--barely enough to satisfy the tourist trade. About 10 years ago, the simple pie shops and apple sheds were supplemented by antique shops and the mercantilism that promotes a kind of Christmas-in-July effect.

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