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Mozart in the Garden

Forgotten Valley | Mozart in the Garden

EARLY DAYS: Frank McMillan, Tom Liggett's stepfather, watering a newly seeded lawn in September of 1960.

Frank and Lita began to look at houses. That process took months. Why? Because house-hunting in the 1950s and '60s San Jose was quite different than it is today. Modern home shoppers surf the net, then drive around to look at homes that are scattered across the valley. In 1960, we drove around to look at new cities. Everywhere we looked, massive housing developments had sprung up like mushrooms after a fall rainstorm.

Ah, but those new cities exacted a deadly toll on the landscape—and on me. I was a child of nature. Orchard, field and stream were my domains. My day was spent seeking, harvesting and memorializing interesting plants.

When I was three years old, I could identify every type of stone fruit tree. Leaves on, leaves off. I knew them all. I cherished Carpathian walnut and Royal Anne cherry trees that towered and spread 80 feet. They had trunks like oak trees. Each tree produced hundreds of pounds of superior-quality fruit. I watched in horror as puke-green World War II army-surplus bulldozers pushed the trees over and smashed them into 50-foot-tall piles that were 100 feet wide. Some of the trees still had ripe fruit on their branches. Dirt is best graded when the soil is dry in the summer. Fruit time.

I asked some of the destruction workers, "Why didn't you pick the fruit? Someone could have eaten that. Aren't you bothered by the waste?" The workers scoffed at my youthful ignorance and said, "There ain't no time to harvest the fruit. The contract's due. A few tons of damned fruit ain't worth nowhere near what a crop of houses is."

Callous men poured high-sulfur diesel oil on the fleshy green foliage. Covered the delicious fruit. Soaked the 100-year-old bark. The killers lit cigarettes, then threw the burning matches onto the fuel-soaked mountain. When they were sure the fire was burning hot, they walked away. They farted, told crude jokes and wondered about their next job.

50100100My family sometimes found occasion to drive up into the mountains that surround the Santa Clara Valley. We were drawn to the steep terrain and wildland beauty. We always stopped at several places on the long switchback grades. We got out of the car and looked down at the valley floor. I remember seeing pillars of smoke rise into the sky from various points around the valley—burning fruit trees. They were the funeral pyres of a vanishing way of life. They were the signal beacons that heralded the Santa Clara Valley's entrance to the modern world, to becoming Silicon Valley.

The fruit tree ashes smoldered for days. Their white remains were ground into the dirt. They became foundation markers for legions of cheap suburban houses.

Ah, mankind never seems to outgrow its youth. We are like children, always crying for new toys. My white relatives killed my Indian relatives to clear the way for a new way of life. They wiped two continents sparkling clean with a lily-white cloth. A hundred years later, new generations of white men killed off the now old American way of life to make way for another new one.

I call this behavior the Kleenex effect. When you want to cover a big ol' wet sneeze, a sheet of tissue is the most important thing in your life. After you blow your nose, the tissue goes into the trash, forever forgotten and never brought to mind.

What redeeming value can be found in a culture that demands something must die so something can be built? Can't we build onto the old so that we can incorporate it into the new? That was a rhetorical question, folks. I was there. I already know the answer. The fruit trees were ritual sacrifice of the highest kind.

THE MATRIARCH: Tom Liggett's mother, Lita Snow, with her son.

The development of my beloved valley went on and on. I watched shaded two-lane country crossroads become arterial intersections. Tacky strip malls replaced fruit trees on their corners. I was devastated. Everywhere I looked, things I loved were destroyed or changed. But it happened in bits and pieces, not all at one time. It was as if a massive ice cream scoop removed individual orchards and replaced them with houses.

A blob of a house was laid down here, then another one there. Before long, heartbreaking beauty was replaced by cookie-cutter suburbia. A few orchards remained here and there, but they had the haggard look of condemned men standing on the gallows. They know they are alive in name alone.

Most people believe the malignant growth of modern San Jose was accidental, the result of market forces and demands. But it wasn't. It was driven by corrupt, greedy politicians who saw urban growth as a revenue stream. Much of the modern deforestation and development of the greater San Jose area was orchestrated by City Manager "Dutch" Hamann. That demon was raised in Orange County during the first great Southern California housing boom. He saw ugly suburban sprawl replace the finest citrus groves the world will ever see.

Dutch put his childhood imprinting to work when he moved to San Jose; he declared war on the nation of fruit trees. He did more than any other person to change the Santa Clara Valley from a tree-covered paradise into a miniature Los Angeles. The call, "Buy where Dutch buys," led countless insiders down the orchard path to ill-gotten riches.

It jarred my senses to ride down all-new streets that were lined with homes and shopping centers. The smelly black asphalt. The blinding white glare of new driveways and sidewalks. It was horrid.

Many builders added a cynical touch to their new homes. They left tractor-damaged, water-starved fruit trees in the bare-dirt yards of their little ticky-tacky homes. The builders saw them as selling points. They told potential buyers they could "own a piece of valley history. Own your own fruit tree." I'm a fruit tree lover. I didn't see it that way. I thought it was like using Jewish gravestones for pavers in Nazi death camps.

In July 1960, Frank and Lita took me to see the unfinished building that would soon become our new home. I was not surprised when I discovered that pace was built on the edge of a partially demolished prune orchard. I knew the field well. My family had picked strawberries there, seven years before.

I followed Lita and Frank into the house. They gave me the grand tour. Frank pointed to an open doorway and said, "That's gonna be your room, over there." I walked into my future room and looked around. A full-grown prune tree stood just outside the unfinished window opening. I reached through and touched the downy leaves. The branches were laden with immature fruit. I remember thinking that tree set a bumper crop of fruit, but no one will ever eat a bite. I also knew that it would be the worst kind of folly to fall in love with the tree. Surveyor's stakes indicated a stucco wall would stand in the tree's place when I returned.

I was just ten, but I found great symbolism in that moment. I knew I was about to have my own room. That had happened only once before. I knew this home promised more stability than I had ever known. I was supposed to be happy with those eventualities, but I wasn't. I knew that fruit trees died to provide space for my room. I felt like a young Zeus, whose father was learning to savor the taste of his own children.

When Frank McMillan walked into his new home, he wasn't thinking about fruit trees. He was pleased that he had finally secured his piece of the American dream. In that regard, Frank had a lot of help. He bought the home on Senter Road on the G.I. Bill. He paid for the closing costs and fees. No down payment. The monthly payments weren't much more than the rent on our shitty ghetto apartment. That's why everybody loved the rapacious development of the Santa Clara Valley. The buy-in for the sucker was cheap. But the dividends for the planet came dear.

Mozart in the Garden: Silicon Valley and Me. We Grew Up Together
Printer's Devil Press
Out Now
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