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Some Old Country Wisdom

ON CALIFORNIA

September 12, 1993|PETER H. KING

FRESNO — Late in a September afternoon, three old men sit in the den of a dusky farmhouse, a place full of life's clutter. The faded Naugahyde furniture is patched with duct tape. Mongrel dogs wander in through a screen door, sniff around, scratch and collapse in sleep on the linoleum floor.

The men are brothers, the sons of Armenian immigrants who came to this valley almost a century ago to escape slaughter in their homeland, to grow grapes, to work. They each stand about five feet tall and wear sweat-stained work clothes. The oldest is named Hodge Kandarian. He is 85 years old and has just finished another full day in the vines. He occupies a rocker in the middle of the room and does all the talking.

*

Another brother slumps in a corner chair, motionless, his face blank, the victim of three strokes. It is mentioned that this one once had a knack for the stock market. For a moment his eyes lose their fuzziness. He straightens up a bit. "Hanes underwear," he says, and then he is gone again. The third brother, named Ashod, sits near the door and acts as an echo, punctuating Hodge's wisdom with nods and raspy grunts.

"They used to call us dirty Armenians, filthy Armenians, every name they could think up," Hodge says.

"Ggnnhh," Ashod grunts. "Filthy."

"We were even afraid to take our own kind of bread to school, because they would laugh at us. When I told my father what they called us, he laughed."

"Ggnnhh. Laughed."

" 'Son,' he told me, 'don't you listen to those foolish comments. You work a little harder. Get good grades in school. Someday we'll make our farm better than the next guy. And then he might not like you, but he won't call you so many names. He will be wondering why you are passing him by.'

"And that is what happened."

A freight train rattles nearby and the dogs howl in a remarkable harmony. Ashod hushes them in Armenian. Hodge proceeds. A poetic soul, he quotes the Bible, Tom Brokaw and Old World proverbs. You have come here for the long view, which is his specialty. This is a crazy season in California, full of fear about the future, full of misguided hatred toward people who have come here, as immigrants always come here, to survive, to better themselves, to work. Hodge has lived the immigrant experience. He has survived a depression and several recessions. He has lost crops to early rains and late frosts. He also has known booms, watching in wonder as neighbors forget past cycles and squander in fat times what they will need to survive the lean.

"Make hay while the sun shines," he says.

"Gnnggh. Make hay."

His main theme is frugality and work. His vineyard is paid off and worth more than most of his competitors could afford to pay. But he can still remember what it's like to work for 10 cents an hour. He regards restaurant coffee and new cars as equally foolish luxuries.

"A man's stomach shouldn't be full all the time," he says.

"No. Gnnhhh."

He turns to current affairs. California's economic slump, he says, should remind the state of the importance of agriculture. "These manufacturers pick up and move on you," he says. "I can't move these vineyards." He is asked about immigrants. He pauses a beat, thinking. Yes, he says, they are coming in too many numbers, and the system encourages them not to work as hard as he did. "Work is what built this country," he says.

*

But then, he also has noticed how the Hmong refugees spend all day in their tiny strawberry patches around town, and it reminds him of old times. And he has worked alongside enough Mexican field hands to know what drives them north, and it is not welfare or public schools.

"A man has to feed his family," he says. "A man has to work."

We go outside to admire his grapes. He has worked in these vines since 1929, and he intends to die working in them. He explains this is a "nerve-racking" time. The grapes have been picked and placed on the ground to dry into raisins. Should it rain before this ancient process is completed, the crop would be ruined.

"There is nothing you can do about it," he says. "All you can do is hope that Mother Nature is on your side."

"Gnnhhh. Hope."

It is almost twilight now. The sun drops fast, throwing shadows down the vineyard row where Hodge Kandarian stands and studies his grapes. "An average crop," he says. Seen better. Known worse. He shrugs, a man at peace in his place and time. It is a peace born of perspective, of memory. This is a man who knows seasons, who knows that they come, and that they go.

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