Monday, April 12, 2010

the lie and how we told it: The Flower Fields by John Kelly

The Flower Fields
by John Kelly

“Time to wake up, Kid!” my grandfather shouted, yanking the covers off me. “We got lots to do, and less time to do it.” Every day we worked together began in this abrupt fashion; and in moments I was in his truck, huddling near the heater for comfort while the engine warmed.

“Hold on to your socks, Squirt,” he’d say, and begin down our paved driveway, which gave way to a steep, dirt road. I remember watching him in awe as he held his full cup of coffee motionless, the truck shaking wildly down the hill, without spilling a drop.

Before work we often went to the airport for breakfast. He’d drive west on Palomar Airport Road, past the Carlsbad Race Track, until we crossed El Camino Real: here, he would tell stories of how, hundreds of years ago, the Spanish had traveled this very road along the length of California and established the missions, some of which still survived. And just beyond this sudden crossroads of past and present, we arrived at Palomar Airport.

The café was located at the top of an old, remolded communications tower, where we usually sat in a booth with a panoramic view of the runway. As I watched the planes land and takeoff, he would order me pigs in a blanket, my favorite. I learned many things in that booth, like how he’d manned a bomber during the Korean War, the history of our side of the family and their emigration; and also practical things, such as table manners. “You see, Kiddo,” he’d explain, “manners aren’t just silly little rules, they’re a way of showing respect to those around you.”

After breakfast we would head west again, toward the flower fields. In the summer, the fragrance came first, and then they would come into view: rolling hills, stretching endlessly to the horizon, blanketed in patches of red, yellow, orange, and blue flowers. It reminded me of the patchwork my grandmother knitted me for Christmas, which kept me warm in the winter.

The work we did together varied greatly. I learned how to use tools properly, how to lift with my legs and not my back, and the gratification of physical labor. “Hard work is character.” he loved to say.

In the evening, when we arrived at the base of the hill, he’d sometimes put me in the drivers seat. “Now take her nice ‘n easy.” he’d warn. I’d drive up the hill slowly, completely focused on keeping the massive truck under control.

We’d spend the rest of the evening casually, and after dinner, he would see me to bed. “Good job today, Kiddo.” he’d whisper once I was comfortably in bed. ”Love you. Goodnight.” Then he would close the door and turn off the light.


My grandfather passed away a couple of years ago. Recently I was driving south on the 5 Freeway, and, seeing the exit for Palomar Airport Road, I decided to make a quick visit to the flower fields. I exited and headed east, towards the fields – and my heart sank: here, where the fields once began, I now found car dealerships, gas stations, strip malls, and industrial buildings; the landscape of my childhood had been swallowed by the inexorable march of progress.

When I was a child, I saw as a child, and now, years later, at this impasse between remembrance and presence, the things I saw were unfamiliar, and my memories gave no solace.

John Kelly lives in Costa Mesa and is a wonderful man.

To read the other stories in "the lie and how we told it," click here.

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