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A History Boy

I think all book readers experience that magical moment when they connect with a writer or character. I've heard many descriptions of that moment but nothing captures it as well for me as a scene in the movie "History Boys" does. It's a moment that takes place between a teacher and his student.

In the moment, the teacher explains that you find yourself reading a poem, a novel, or an essay and your feelings are mirrored on the page. He describes it as if a hand reached out from the page across space and time to grab yours in a moment of solidarity and understanding.

The moment where the hand reached out from the page came for me in 1986. I was 17 and spending the summer in Clovis, a small agricultural town in the Central Valley right next door to Fresno. That was when I first read Living Up The Street by Gary Soto.

Gary grew up in Fresno and he described scenes from his childhood that were exactly like my own. Waiting for the water to cool as it came out of the hose so you didn't burn your lips while drinking. The acrid smell of insecticide mixed with diesel smoke that was common around the orchards of my youth.

The way the skin of a Santa Rosa plum bulges in your mouth just before it bursts from the pressure of your bite, sending its sweet juice down your throat and trickling down your chin. The out-of-place scent of orange blossoms in late fall, the herald of winter oranges. Tule fog so dense you couldn't see your hand outstretched in front of you and so cold your bones ached after a couple moments standing in it.

His writing conjured a host of free associative thoughts that took me to my childhood growing up in the Bay Area. Recollections of the East Bay ending at the Ford Factory in Fremont, when 880 was called Highway 17 and was only two lanes from that point to San Jose. I remember the Santa Clara cherry orchards that lined the highway's side and where, in Milpitas, they yielded to Blenheim Apricots and Prune trees.

I remember my Grandfather taking out his long bamboo pole to knock cherries out of the tree that grew in his front yard in Campbell, and my brothers and I scampering around, giggling as we gathered the sweet treats to eat. I recall how peaches, cherries, apricots, plums and citrus grew in abundance all around me and how much better they all tasted.

Gary, like myself, grew up around the great raisin and table grape vineyards of the Central Valley. A picture of Cesar Chavez was in his household just as it was in mine. I can recollect the day table grapes left my grandfather's fruit bowl and how their absence lasted more than a decade. "A small sacrifice for our collective dignity, mijo," he said.

I understood. More importantly, I felt understood. Known.

It's a moment I still carry with me today.

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