PART II – REMEMBRANCE
LEST I FORGET
Monterrey is Steinbeck country. John Steinbeck grew up in nearby Salinas. He won the Nobel Prize for literature for a body of writing that included Cannery Row about the sardine canneries of Monterrey and The Grapes of Wrath that became a wonderful movie starring Henry Fonda.
Time was when he was not admired. The Grapes of Wrath was one of the most popular novels of its era and, also, one of the most reviled. It was pronounced “obscene in the extreme” and was banned in schools and libraries and burned in the county where the mythical Joad family ended up because of its depiction of the conditions under which the migratory farm workers lived. A brave librarian, Gretchen Knief, heroically risked losing her job by fighting the ban. She said, “Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.”
The Grapes of Wrath depicts the lives of the farmers, the “Okies” and others, who migrated from Oklahoma to California during the horrendous Dust Bowl that extended from America’s Great Plains to Canada during the 1930’s.
The land of the Great Plains had been fertile because tall grasses protected the soil until it was deep-plowed by farmers who didn’t have modern farming techniques. Then years of drought and strong winds during the 1930’s desiccated the topsoil so that it blew away in clouds that could be seen all the way to New York City. Dirt fell like snow in Chicago.
It wasn’t just the Okies who lost their homes and their livelihood and became migrants. America was hit with the double whammy of drought and the Great Depression. It’s hard for later generations to imagine that era’s despair and grinding poverty.
My family would sit at the round oak table after dinner and reminisce about the bad old days. They talked about whether it was worse to be hungry or to be cold and said that being cold was worse. My father was the Manager of Moore’s Greenhouse in Rushville, Indiana, when the Depression hit. People don’t buy flowers when they have no money. The greenhouse went bust, and my parents lost their little home on Road 3 and became tenant farmers. Daddy pushed the plow, and my brother served as the horse. My brother had one shirt to wear to school, and my three sisters each had one dress that my mother washed and ironed every day.
Daddy was too proud to go on relief, so they didn’t have enough to eat. I was just a toddler, but one of my earliest memories is of crying because I was hungry. They gleaned coal along the railroad tracks. One time my brother, Earl, made a dollar and went to buy food. My sisters were ecstatic, anticipating chocoloate and good things. They were crushed when he brought in a fifty pound sack of rice.
My angel mother told about the many people who knocked on the door, asking for food. She related a poignant story about an elderly couple who were trying to ride a bicycle-built-for-two across the country. The lady was holding an umbrella over her head to ward off the August sun. “M’am we-uns’ is so hungry. Can you spare a little sumpin’ to eat?” Mother said, “I gave them what I had – sandwiches made of stale bread and bacon grease – us having no butter. They were so hungrey that they gobbled them up on the spot. I’ve often wondered what became of those poor old folks… Jesus said, ‘Feed my poor!’ never forget that.”
KINGS OF THE ROAD
Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let, fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets.
I ain’t got no cigarettes.
Ah, but hours of pushin’ a broom
I’m a man of means by no means –
King of the RoadRoger Miller – “King of the Road”
When I was a girl during the 1940’s and 50’s we lived near the Big Four Railroad on the west side of Knightstown. Hoboes frequently knocked on our door during the summer. These men were like migratory birds, heading South in the winder and summering up North. Perhaps they’d stay briefly in one spot until the restless urge would hit them, and they’d move on. We called them all tramps, but a tramp worked only when absolutely necessary; a hobo tried to work.
After the Civil War out-of-work, penniless soldiers started hitching rides on trains. Walter Ballard left home during the Depression because there was no food and no work at home. He said, “I loved that life. It’ll get in your blood. You’re not going anywhere. You don’t care – you just ride.” Art Linkletter, Louis l’Amour, Burl Ives, H. L. Hunt, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas were hoboes.
There was a subculture of hoboes who had their own lingo and traveled the length and breadth of America with only a bundle of a few possessions and a skillet called a “banjo.” Hopping on moving trains and living in “jungles” was dangerous. Railroad guards, called “bulls,” beat and sometimes killed them. Sometimes they rode on the couplings between the cars or even lay flat on top of cars. It wasn’t unusual for them to lose an arm or a leg. Sometimes they “caught the westbound” – meaning they died.
The word was probably passed along that my parents would feed them. They’d knock on the back screen door: “M’am, can you spare a little sumpin’ to eat?” If they arrived when we were having our noon dinner, they sat out on the back step and ate whatever we were having. Other times the menu was two fried egg sandwiches, a piece of pie and a glass of milk. “M’am, this is the best pie I ever ate!” After Mother went to work when I was a teenager, I fed them.
We didn’t learn the names of these anonymous men, where they were from or the stories of their lives. Al was the exception. He ate in the kitchen with us. He was around fifty years old, well spoken, clean, courteous and a raconteur of fascinating stories.
Ann Steiger, a member of our church, knew him and said that his brother was the Resident of a univeristy. Al never offered to work, considering that his companionship was payment enough. One day Mother asked him to rake the yard. We never saw him again. “That deadbeat!” she said.
That was a more innocent time when we rarely locked our doors during the day. Sometimes I was home alone when a tramp came. Never, not once, did any of those men misbehave or make me fearful. These days if a man knocked on my door and asked for food, I’d most likely feed him – but I’d lock the door while I fetched the grub!
Invariably, after a man left, my deeply religious little mother would quote scripture: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sup with him and he with me.” Then she’d add meditatively, “You never know, do you? That man may have been Christ knocking.”