In Little Italys across the nation there grew an evil society called the Black Hand. It was a gang of Italian thugs that preyed upon their own people. They required a bounty in exchange for security. Often people’s homes or businesses were destroyed by bomb or fire to convince people that it was in their best interest to pay the bounty. This society evolved into what we now call the Mafia.
But that’s not what this story is about. We didn’t have a Little Italy in Oxnard. We had us, and the Gringos, a few Chinese, and some other good people. We did, however, join the society of the Black Hand, when we went to pick walnuts.
John and my mother figured that we could all contribute to the family budget by picking walnuts. Figuring became going. John, my stepfather, had a funny way about him. One morning he got up early and loaded the wagon with supplies. My mama was helping him, also in a very quiet way. I did not know where he got the horses, it was a mystery, but whenever John needed them, he had them.
It was still dark that morning when we woke up. No one had to say anything. The wagon was loaded so we were going somewhere. My brother Bobby and I climbed aboard. Alice came along. My brothers Frank and Henry were still babies so my sister Natalia stayed behind to take care of them. Virginia also stayed behind.
We took the highway to Santa Paula and by the time the sun came up we reached the orchard. Those old wagons had no springs and we felt every rock and right we ran into. So by the time we arrive, we were happy to be there. The walnut season does not last too long and the walnuts were already on the ground so there were no ladders to climb or fall off of.
This picture shows the way walnuts look to him when you find them in a store. However that is not how you find them at the orchard. The walnuts are covered with a fleshy oily husk. At first it is green but later it turns black.
When we arrived at the orchard we set up camp near the barn. Other families were there. My uncle “Lo Lo” was there with his family. They had already set up their tents. They even used their car as part of their shelter.
We had two tents, our folks slept in one and my brother and sister slept in the other. The kitchen was out in the open. My mama cooked the meals over an open fire. For me it was fun. For her, probably it wasn’t much fun at all.
Picking walnuts was not easy. In fact it was extremely hard work. . Our arms, backs legs ached and became very sore from the stooping down all day. Our hands and fingers were stained dark brown and they became sore from pulling the husks off the shells.
The first two weeks were very pleasant. It was after that when the bad weather set in. The wind started, it grew cold. Then the rain started falling and it rained all night. The next morning everything were soaked. Our tent had water pouring in from every seam. Mama could not get the fire started, the camp fire-place was in the middle of a puddle and the fire wood was all wet.
We did not have breakfast that day. By noon the rain was still pouring down. We did not have lunch.
The rain finally stopped at about 5:00 in the afternoon. We had taken some fire wood into the tents so by now the wood was partly dry. We were able to start the fire so we had supper.
The rain continued for more three days and we lived through that wet misery. Bobby, Alice, and I snuggled together with our one blanket to keep warm. When the weather cleared we went to work at daylight and we worked until dark. This took place every day including Sundays until the job was finished.
My job was to shake the walnuts off the trees. First thing in the morning I would go shake the trees. With aching, muscles and sore hands I would lift the long pole with a hook on it, and hook a branch and give it a yank. The first thing that happened when I gave the pole a yank was to get bombarded by the nuts and they would hurt when they hit my head and face.
Next there would be an ice-cold shower of dew; this would be followed by a rain of spiders. It would make me very nervous when the spiders fell on my face or inside my shirt.
When the season was over, about 6 weeks, I returned to school. I was behind in my lessons and I had a lot of home work to do to catch up with the class and make up for lost time.
I suffered a lot of teasing at school because of that and because of the stains on my fingers. I wore a new pair of trousers. I had on a new shirt and a new pair of shoes. The teasing did not bother me too much because of that.
And those of us who went up to the orchard to work, became closer friends, those of us with the black hands.