The Grapes of Wrath
It was 1937, the dust bowl years. My family was living in Henderson, Ok. They were sharecroppers, cotton mostly. My father used to tell me how he chopped rows and rows of it in his boyhood, rows that went on for miles, and how much he hated it.
After that cotton season, the family set out in what was sometimes described to me as a beaten down old station wagon, sometimes as a truck. It held fourteen people, kids and adults, as well as luggage and dogs. My dad, Edison, spent the trip in the back seat, with a girl named ‘Pumpkin’ on his lap for most all the way. I guess I never thought to ask her real name.
A note. Papa (my father’s stepfather—his own father died in a streetcar accident in NYC when my dad was three) once owned a shiny new car. This would have been a few years before the move. But according to my dad, it stalled crossing the tracks one day and was struck by a train. Papa barely got out before the car was totaled. Apparently the kids in the area spent the summer playing on the wreckage. If this story sounds a bit far-fetched to you, so it did to me. But he swore it was true.
They spent the entire summer of 1937 making their way across Texas. They stopped often to pick cotton, were received warmly nowhere, and mostly sucked dust blown up by the tires as they wheeled down the road. They frequently picked cotton from first light to darkness. There was no school.
My dad never knew why they left Oklahoma exactly. Probably, he thought, because his parents realized they were getting nowhere as sharecroppers. That’s certainly the sense he had of it.
My dad is the oldest child in this picture, holding his youngest sister. My youngest uncle was yet to be born, c. 1937.
He remembered the state of Texas as endless, the cotton as endless. At night they parked on the side of the road, put up a tent or two (not enough for all of them) and ate a dinner of hoecakes. My dad described them as essentially nothing more than flour mixed with water and then fried in a pan until all the water was steamed out. The hard cake left behind wasn’t bad if you ate it with syrup. They also had plenty of vegetables and fruit, mostly watermelon. My dad couldn’t recall eating meat once on that trip.
He recalled the nights as difficult, mostly because one of his older sisters (he never said which one—he had six) had her boyfriend along and the sound of them secretly making love every night was a misery to his ears. He was afraid she would get caught and he was afraid to say anything to her directly because he didn’t think she knew he could hear her. He said this single issue nearly drove him nuts. He was fourteen at the time.
He remembered Arizona as more friendly (to the day he died he hated Texas) and hot as the blazes. The cotton grew taller, often over their heads I guess, and for some reason there were lots of people taking pictures of them. At least that’s how he remembered it.
Sometimes they encountered rattlesnakes in the cotton, but nobody ever got bit.
They passed into California at Blythe. Their reception was not kind. The place was filthy, full of homeless folks (like themselves) and at the border they were forced to dump all their fruit and vegetables. My dad remembered as appalling the mountain of fruit and vegetables on the side of the road there. In the days that followed, when there wasn’t always enough food, that sight haunted him.
They managed to leave what he called Okie camp fairly quickly and made their way to an uncle’s place. The man, his name remains unknown to me, somehow owned a sizable farm just outside of Indio, Ca. Later, they settled in Palm Springs and my dad attended the inaugural four years of Palms Springs High School, which he described as a blissful place where racism was unknown and the American Dream was still alive. He felt he owed much of his success to the four years he spent there. In his last year, he was captain of the football team and they won seven out of eight games. His letterman’s certificate is dated December 6th, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor.
In February of 1943, shortly after he graduated, he was drafted into the Army.
Nothing would ever be the same again.