If you lived near fruit groves in California or Florida way back when, you probably remember smudge pots and smudging. I believe the practice fell out of favor in the 1970s, but for any of us who grew up around orchards in the 50s, smudging was a part of our cold weather experience.
It was a simple solution that saved fruit trees from being damaged when temperatures fell below 29 degrees Fahrenheit. The smudge pot had a circular, metal base with a chimney rising from its center. When weather reports indicated a freeze was imminent, the pots were placed between trees in an orchard, and oil was poured into the base. After they were lit, heat was created, along with dense, black smoke, which became a blanket around the trees, protecting them from frost.
There were some issues that came with saving the fruit trees. The heavy blanket of black smoke that hung over orchards knew no boundaries. It permeated and contaminated everything. Clothes left on the line outside? Black by morning. A practically invisible cobweb in the corner of any ceiling? It became a dark Hallowe’en prop overnight. And try to brush it, or wipe if off by any means known to man? All efforts merely smeared black, grimy oil onto the ceiling or painted wall. Furniture, carpet, linoleum, sinks; anything exposed to air inside or outside the home was covered with that black, oily residue which seemed to get worse the more one tried to wash it away.
Those were minor problems, however, to kids in elementary school who lived near an orchard. And, since my entire world was bordered by orchards, there was no escaping the challenge those smudge pots posed to me every single year. One’s social standing could be seriously impacted, and it required extreme skill and fortitude to out-maneuver and conquer the black mark of ridicule. Smudge Pot Nose.
Yes. When they were smudging, everyone who lived near an orchard woke up in the morning with black oil in their noses and around their nostrils. Washing vigorously, which meant until your skin was raw, helped clean it off; but even then, one was left with rather greyish tinted skin all day. And the dreaded bike ride to school ensured each orchard kid would arrive with Smudge Pot Nose all over again; a poor nose already scrubbed so raw, there barely was any skin left to wash.
One late winter morning, when I was in fourth grade, I thought the problem was solved. There had been smudging the night before, and I was ready. I sneaked one of my mother’s knit scarves she had left lying overnight on her chest of drawers, and setting off to school on my bicycle, I stopped at the end of our street, and carefully wrapped it around my face from beneath my eyes to below my chin. There! Even if I pedaled really fast, I would get to school clean as a whistle. I was certain there would be no more black nose for me!
I felt so clever as I rode into the playground, and parked my bike with all the others alongside the chain link fence. Since the scarf would have protected my nose, there was no need to run straight into the restroom for emergency washing. I took my time, and walked to my classroom. It was almost time for the bell to ring, so many of my friends and classmates were lining up along the wall in preparation for our teacher to lead us inside.
When I got in line behind a boy I had known since Kindergarten, he turned to see who was there. To this day, I do not believe I have seen such a look of shock on anyone’s face as I saw register on his when he saw me. This boy always had small, almost lidless slits for eyes, and at that moment they popped into huge, round orbs, seemingly unable to blink or fathom what they were seeing. His mouth dropped open, and he raised a hand, pointing at my face. I was dumbstruck, not knowing what was wrong.
Once he was able to draw breath, the laughter began. Which, of course, drew the attention of all the other kids in line. They turned, and followed his accusing finger-pointing right to my puzzled face. More laughter. A lot more laughter. Finally, he clued me in on the joke. “SMUDGE POT FACE!! SMUDGE POT FACE!!”
Oh no. I lowered my head, and ran as fast as I could, with all the kids’ laughter filling my ears and head, straight to the girls’ restroom. Breathless, I dared to look into the mirrors over a line of sinks, and there it was. Smudge Pot Face. Oh no. How could this have happened? How?
From my bottom eyelids down to my chin, there was a smear of black, oily, smudgy residue. I opened my mouth and saw white teeth and a pink tongue; everything else was black. I still am not sure exactly what happened, but evidently my mom’s scarf not only had been covered with smudge as it lay on her chest of drawers overnight, when I wrapped it around my face, and then pedaled my bike to school, smudge still in the air permeated her porous knit scarf, and mixed with my body heat, all of it sort of melting and smearing down my face.
I was too traumatized at my appearance to go to class. As fast as I could, I rode my bike back home, and tore into the house, swearing I was never going to school again. It took a while, but the smudge was cleaned off my face, and I did finally see some humor in it. Later in the day, there were some jokes made about me bobbing for apples in ink, and National Geographic wanting to come photograph me for a Freaks of Nature edition; just lame teasing kids in a family inflict upon each other.
When I returned to school the next day, my friend was waiting by the gate as I rode my bike inside the playground to park it. Always shy and quiet, I could not remember a time he had ever spoken just to me, alone. But that morning, he was on a mission. There was a sincere apology for pointing and laughing, and a solemn promise never to do it again. Then he stuck his hand out, and asked if we could shake on it. Of course we could. And we did. After our reconciliation was complete, he said, “Okay, we’re good; I’ll see you later.” That was it. He turned, ran off to where the boys were playing four square, and we never spoke of it again.
Yesterday, I saw my friend’s name in my hometown newspaper. He had a heart attack, and is gone, now. I think and write often of those long ago days in my little valley town. We had such a good life; orchards were kingdoms in which we played; school was where we learned how to be a community, safe, supported, nurtured; we were taught to resolve our conflict with words and a handshake, forgive, and move forward as we grew into our better selves; and we had friends, unswerving, steadfast, forever friends. It is with a profound sense of gratitude and affection that I remember it all, and believe in the hope of my friend’s words, “We’re good; I’ll see you later.”