Migrations: characters, circumstances change

December 27, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

John Steinbeck made a prediction back during the Great Depression that the migrants who came to California from Oklahoma would change the face of the state, that they would take over the farmlands, and that politics would move leftwards.

Hmmm. My sense of it is they did indeed change the face of California and, yes, many did become successful farmers, along with successful skilled tradesmen and businessmen and professionals. I don’t think the politics of the state moved left, though, at least not on their account.

Many people were desperate back then, not the least of which were the uprooted poor tenant farmers from Oklahoma and Kansas and Texas, and Arkansas, areas that were suffering from the double whammy of the Great Depression and the drought that had turned much of that part of the nation into what was called the Dust Bowl, where top soil blew away in the dry winds. Back then, among various groups from the various strata of society there was agitation to move far to the left (socialism, even communism – although you would have a hard time finding anyone admit to it now), anything to buck the status quo which was not keeping things together (sound familiar?). But a funny thing happens to folks. Once they settle down and life settles down and especially if they become successful, it is not uncommon for them to become somewhat to quite conservative. I quickly add that this is not always the case, but it does seem to be a quite popular occurrence.

What made me think of this is that while surfing the internet I ran across an interview a relatively young reporter did with John Steinbeck, who at the time was a young author who had already had some success, but was working on a novel that would become known as the Grapes of Wrath. But at the time of the interview, his working title was “The Oklahomans”. Steinbeck of course went on to eventually win the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes in literature.

That young reporter who wrote the story was my dad, Louis Walther. The story appeared in the Jan. 8, 1938 edition of the San Jose Mercury News. My dad would have been 32 at the time and Steinbeck 35. Dad was still relatively new in the newspaper business and I think that interview was one of the proudest of his career, because Steinbeck at the time was hiding out from reporters, being shy by character and busy with his writing project.

And Steinbeck’s comments in the newspaper story and of course his book, the Grapes of Wrath, are an eye opener into the thinking and mood of the times.

I was not there, of course, but I think in my own lifetime I have witnessed part of the progression of the very people he was talking and writing about.

Although born in San Francisco, I moved with my family to California’s Central Valley when I was about four. We lived in Tulare, a farming town between Bakersfield and Fresno, for many years and then later moved to Yuba City, which is north of Sacramento, and finally to Red Bluff, north of Yuba City.

Many of my school friends were either from Oklahoma or more likely their folks were. The term “Okie” was till used somewhat, sometimes proudly and sometimes in a derogatory fashion. But really, by the time I was around, many of the poor folks who had been driven out of Oklahoma and other nearby areas due to drought and the resulting Dust Bowl conditions and the Great Depression had long since quit being migrant workers and had moved out of the camps where they once had to live and had good jobs or professions.

Now to be sure, just because you come from a certain part of the country or a certain class of people does not make you successful anymore than it makes you unsuccessful and each person who came out of that 1930s era exodus out of the Dust Bowl has his or her own story.

But what happened in California is that there was a major influx of people who were at the time called “okies” (not all of them were actually from Oklahoma), and they were desperate for food and shelter and work and it was in the Great Depression. Workers already here were scared that they would take what little work was left. And farmers wanted their labor, but were also afraid that they might squat on the land and claim it to be theirs.

But World War II came along and relieved much of the pressure (temporary Mexican workers were imported and that’s a different story) and in the intervening years the Okies blended in. Well, actually, blended might not be the right word, at least not when I was a kid, in the 50s and early 60s, because successful or not, they had somewhat their own culture, with a twangy speech and a proclivity to play and enjoy country music. Many towns in the valley became what you might call: Oklahoma West. In fact, there used to be a joke that many people thought Bakersfield was the capital of Oklahoma.

But the Okies or Oklahomans did eventually blend into the fabric of the local culture and become quite status quo.

A few years ago as a truck driver picking up produce I visited several of those towns in the southern end of the valley I knew from boyhood, ones that seemed like Oklahoma West. But there is a difference. All the signs are in Spanish.

Things change and so do the people.