I bit when she said they had 111-year-old orange trees at their house.
“100-years-old?” I said, thinking I’d heard wrong.
“No,” Sally Shuppert said, correcting me. “One hundred and eleven.”
One hundred and eleven was worth getting out of the chair for. Sharpening the pencil and flipping open the notebook for. Taking a long drive on a warm day.
I like East Bakersfield, home to Sally and Gordon Shuppert (married 50 years) and many other east side loyalists. Other than money, the usual considerations and perhaps some political sleight of hand, it is still baffling 45 years later that CSUB was built in the flatter, less remarkable southwest rather than in the rolling hills on the east side. We could have had one of the prettiest state universities in California.
“Glenn, I’m lost,” I said, on my way to the Shuppert’s place. “Their address on Pioneer is not showing up on my GPS.”
Glenn is like a human version of GPS when it comes to the east side. He grew up there, went to school there and road the hills on his bike and dirt bike when he was younger. If Glenn doesn’t know where it is, it’s time to short your Google stocks.
A few minutes later he had straightened me out (I’d flinched before Morning Drive, pulling up like a show horse before a jump). The Shupperts were well past Anxious Acres, home to my dad’s favorite oranges, and east of Foothill.
I walked down their driveway lined with orange trees. This used to be orange country (Goerhing, Lehr Bros, McKay), but many of the groves have been torn out and replaced with houses.
The front yard was homey and beautiful. Homey was a play area on the right with a swing set, slides and sandbox that had grandchildren written all over it and beautiful was magnolia trees, rose bushes, mandarin oranges, geraniums, holly bushes, camellias, lantana and Alstroemeria.
Somebody was in charge of watering, pruning and keeping it beautiful. “Somebody” was spending three to five hours a day there. “Somebody” was Gordon Shuppert, retired high school math teacher at Arvin and Foothill high schools.
“Here are the 111-year-old orange trees,” Sally said.
I thought trees that old might be 60 feet high but maybe orange trees (Washington navels on a sweet root stalk), are like people. As they get older, they grow smaller. Another 100 years and the Lilliputians will be swinging from the branches like little Tarzans.
“This fruit is like candy,” Sally said. “During the season, we sell boxes off our front porch. They go fast.”
I learned there are two universes. The Shuppert’s and the other one. After spending an hour and a half with them, I wondered if they would consider making me their fifth child. I could fit right in with their three sons, one daughter, six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
In Shuppertville, you have 276 fruit trees in the back of your two acres, your wife makes quilts, you drink strawberry lemonade, eat homemade strawberry shortcake for your afternoon pick-me-up and at night, sit in your Jacuzzi and smell whatever is blooming and something always is.
Shuppert gave me a tour of his fruit tree kingdom. Every tree seemed to have a story and it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had named all 276 trees. They might as well have been pets, but better behaved.
Friendly at the beginning, Shuppert became more animated as we strolled through the orchard. These were old friends, old friends he visited once in the morning and once at night.
Varieties include nectarines, pluots, apricots, Cara Cara oranges, Kishu mandarins, Pixie mandarins, Owari mandarin, four different kinds of pomelos, Meyer lemons, strawberries and grapes (Flames, Globes, Concords) for the grandchildren and sweet corn.
In the middle of the orchard was a workshop for woodworking projects. Outside the shop was a grinder, that is always plugged in so he can sharpen hoes, shovels and pruning shears.
Shuppert is a natural sandbagger (fitting because he plays golf three times a week with retired coaches) and his favorite expression is “You know, I’m not the smartest guy in the world.” For somebody who has solved a bewildering number of horticultural problems, built a sewing room at the house for Sally (she taught sewing and quilting at BC and the Bakersfield Adult School) fashioned camelback trunks lined with cedar for each child and who can fix lawnmowers and coolers, you’re thinking, "I want to be this dumb."
Shuppert is modest about his trees and credits their success to the soil.
“The topsoil and silt has washed down here from the foothills for eons during wet years and floods,” he said. “I can dig down two feet and never hit a rock.”
Soil may have something to do with his favorite summer tree, a Splash pluot, that has afforded him a Jack in the Beanstalk and magic beans moment.
“I pull off four to five thousand pluots a year off this one tree,” he said.
After the tour, we sat at their kitchen table and ate strawberry shortcake and drank strawberry lemonade. I’m surprised Ron Howard didn’t show up. Ron Howard and Aunt Bee.
As I was leaving, I was reminded of a story I’d read a long time ago about a man who loved his garden. The older he got, the more time he spent there. One day, he disappeared into his garden and never returned. He had gone where the water tastes like wine and the fruit tastes like heaven.
Not a bad place to be. Not a bad place to go.