An August Sunday afternoon, lemonade weather. Leaves drooped on Balboa Park's giant eucalyptus. The Home States picnic, an annual event of America's Finest City Week, sponsored by the San Diego Junior Chamber of Commerce, drew a good-natured crowd to a reunion of representatives from all 50 states. Each state had a table, the state flag flying above it. Over each table, a host or hostess presided, greeting state natives and encouraging them to sign a visitor's book. Products of the states were arrayed - apples, honeycombs, wheat stalks. Country station KSON celebrated its 25th year on the air by broadcasting live from the park. Professional bakers judged homemade bread and toddlers garbed as Uncle Sam - the Yankee Doodle Kids - strutted, high-kicked, and lip-synched through a patriotic medley.
Delegates of larger states had pushed together three and four tables, set up awnings to keep off the sun, heaped tabletops with their homeland's harvests. Noisy reunions took place among New Yorkers, Texans, Michiganders. People exchanged names of high schools from which they graduated, companies for which they'd worked. They scribbled phone numbers. They said, "My mother came from there," and "Dad was born not 20 miles from here," put fingertips at dots on the maps.
Wandering among various tables, listening to conversations, I heard profound homesickness expressed. Near the Massachusetts table, two men who'd not lost Boston Broad A's allowed as how they missed leaves turning red and gold, and at least, right then, didn't miss raking, and wouldn't mind a bit smelling, no sir, leaves burning. I heard Texans reminisce about barbecue, chili, corn on the cob, fried quail, hayrack rides "where you don't 'import' the hay." Made hungry by talk of food, I queued up at the stand where tacos were sold. Two women stood in front of me in line. One described to the other a sour cream prune pie she'd last eaten 30 years ago. "I'd give a lot," she said, "to have a piece of that pie right now." She edged forward a bit, raised up on tip-toes to watch the taco maker drop ground meat and shredded lettuce into the corn tortilla. Then, sighing, she turned back to her companion. "But you wonder, don't you," she asked, "if those things were really as good as you remember."
I'd recently reread John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the 1939 bestseller that portrays an Oklahoma family — the Joads — making the trek from Dust Bowl to California. And I'd wondered if I'd find at the park any real-life relatives of the fictional Joads. But not much was happening at Oklahoma's lone table, installed directly across trampled grass next to the boisterous Texans. Unshielded from sun, Oklahoma had as its host Rob Autrey (no relation, he said, to movie cowboy Gene Autry, another son of Oklahoma). In the absence of any volunteers to man Oklahoma's table, Autrey had taken on the hosting task at the last minute. He hadn't had time to gather for display much more than brochures offering "Oklahoma - Land of Opportunity."
Autrey invited me to "set." I admired the sleeveless red OU sweatshirt he'd pulled down over his shorts. He grinned and said he'd cut the sleeves as a nod to the weather.
I learned that the 34-year old Autrey grew up in Oklahoma, went to high school in Shawnee — a town, he explained, as "being to Oklahoma City what Escondido is to San Diego." He told how he'd come out to California four years ago after he'd divorced and remarried. "California seemed a good place to start a second marriage," he said in his birthstate's drawl.
Autrey confessed that at heart he remains an Oklahoman. He'd decorated his University City home in red and white, "Sooner colors." (Formed by the union of Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory, Oklahoma was admitted as the 46th state in 1907. It was nicknamed the "Sooner State" for settlers who tried to enter the area and claim land sooner than was legal to do so.)
Beginning in the mid-Thirties, the pejorative term "Okie" — an epithet as contemptuous of its object as "kike," "nigger," "wop" — applied not only to Oklahomans, but to any Midwesterner or Southwesterner who after the Depression and Dust Bowl made the trek to the West Coast. As well, because most Depression/Dust Bowl migrants were Caucasian, "Okie" tended to carry, in its power to insult, the inference than an Okie was "poor white trash." I wondered, did Californians still refer to Oklahoma migrants as "Okies"?
They certainly do, Autrey said, "but it isn't an insult anymore. When I was growing up, in the late Sixties, it was more of a pride situation, bein' an Okie. Not somethin' derogatory."
What Autrey calls "Oklahoma pride" started, he suggested, with the Dust Bowl, when non-Oklahomans looked down on the state "as desert, as nothing there." Oklahoma answered detractors by building Oklahoma University football and then-Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University) wrestling and basketball teams to national prominence.
Because no Oklahoma City has a major-league professional football or basketball team, citizen loyalty attracted itself to university teams. Typically, said Autrey, an Oklahoman will be either an Oklahoma State or Oklahoma University fan. "Oklahoma State means wrestling and golf, with Oklahoma State producing as many professional golfers as any university in the country," observed Autrey. "And OU still is on top in football, plus they've taken over basketball."
Autrey ticked off the succession of OU football coaches as effortlessly as an Englishman ticks off royal succession: Bud Wilkinson (who left OU in the Sixties, ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate, then went on to ABC sports), Gomer Jones, Jim McKenzie, Chuck Fairbanks, Barry Switzer for the past 15 years.
On autumn Saturdays when OU plays ball, if the game isn't on national TV or he can't tune it in on radio, Autrey telephones his parents. "I'll call 'em two or three times on one of those Saturdays - at the start of the game, towards the middle, and then at the end, 'n' find out the whole rundown, find out who did what."
Until recently, Los Angeles radio station KLAC, with a signal strong enough to reach San Diego, carried OU games. In Bakersfield, where in the Thirties many Oklahomans settled (and which is home to Merle "Okie from Muskogee" Haggard), radio station KERN carries Oklahoma games. But Autrey can't pick up KERN.
San Diego State's games, Autrey complained, don't rouse anything like the enthusiasm firing Oklahomans for state university football. "I feel sorry for some of the kids out here, where there's so much else to do all the time, so many diversions. Back in the Midwest, in a state like Nebraska or Oklahoma, where there's less, generally, to do, kids get involved early in rooting for the home teams. There's more school spirit. These kids out here, they're missing an important part of their adolescence because they don't have that Oklahoma kind of school spirit, kind of pride."
I mentioned how much homesickness I'd heard and how this longing for home was so often expressed in terms of food people missed. "Oh, yeah," Autrey knew all about that, and he missed "'bout everything" he ate at his parents' table: "cornbread, with whole kernel corn put right in. Fried okra, boiled okra, fried potatoes, biscuit and gravy. Cobblers - peach, apricot, apple."
He leaned back in his chair, his bare knees reddening with sunburn, and spoke dreamily. "We had our garden. Fruit trees. An' wild apricots you'd go out and pick along the road, 'n' plums for homemade jellies and jams. We had pecan trees. Pecans, they were the worst part of growing up. You were lucky if your pecans were papershells! If you had 'natives,' they'd be the hardshell nuts. Difficult to crack 'n' pry 'n' pick out of their shells.
"Every Sunday afternoon, didn't matter if pro football games were on the TV. Nothin' mattered. Mom and Dad'd load us up, and we'd drive on out to our grandparents, to the pecan trees. We'd spend four hours out there. Dad'd have the flailin' poles, big long bamboo poles, and we'd be flailin' tops of the trees, 'n' the pecans'd be fallin' down, 'n' we'd pick 'n' pick 'n' pick."
Autrey's recollections were interrupted when Bill and Louise Easton came up to the table. Bill Easton — his speech twangy, bright — answered my query as to whether or not he was ever called "Okie": "No, ma'am," he said. He hadn't heard the term "Okie" in years. "Would you believe it," he grinned, touching my arm with tanned, work-hardened fingers, "if I told you I was a 'CIO?' A 'California-Improved Okie'?" Autrey and the Eastons chuckled. Then Bill added, his tone darkening, "Of course, all the Okies is laughin' now at people who used to put 'em down, 'cause the Okies have all made it."
Leaving Autrey to greet Oklahomans, Louise Easton and I followed behind Bill, our eyes on his plaid shirt and blue jeans, to a spot beneath eucalyptus trees, where we took seats on folding chairs and fanned ourselves. Bill's chair stuck out from under the edge of the tree's longest limbs. Light struck hi tanned forehead, his eyes. He made no move to shade them. "Sun don't bother me," he said.
Bill Easton, balding a bit, eyes deeply set into a gaunt, tanned, but virtually unwrinkled face, said he was 64, and when I noted that he hardly looked his years, Louise, plump and graying, agreed. "People talk about how old I am. They think I'm the senior citizen, but not him."
Bill is a Rohr Industries toolmaker, and he and his wife live in Chula Vista. Married now for 36 years, each listens appreciatively while the other talks. Louise smiled and nodded in accord as Bill said, "If you like country, you'd like Oklahoma. Us Oklahomans are the most friendliest people there are in the whole world. If one of 'em ever lay a liplock on you," he reached over and squeezed my elbow, "you'd never let 'em go."
His home state, Bill boasted, has "great potentials." He explained: "A lot of people, when they think Oklahoma, they think Dust Bowl, and dry, desolate-type land. Truth is, you'd find Oklahoma has more lakes than the majority of the states. There's lots of boating, fishing, game reserves. But people don't know this side of the story."
Born in Foster, in south central Oklahoma, in 1924, the last of four children of a mechanic and housewife, Bill lived in Foster "for close to up to the middle of the Depression" and then moved with his family to Oklahoma City.
"To be an Okie, you have to be tough," Bill's jaw tightened, and he lowered his voice. "You jes' have to be. The Depression was very rough in Oklahoma. You maybe could get paid 8, 9, 10 cents an hour. When you worked 11 hours to get a dollar, you didn't just run out and spend 11 or 12 cents without thinkin' it over.
"The dust was there, the crops wasn't made, the people just didn't have it, they were barely gettin' by. There was hardly any food." Bill threw up his hands and spoke in a near whisper. "How can you explain somethin' that was like that?"
Folks, he said, made do. He and his brothers hunted. "In those days, we paid 16 cents for a box of .22 shells. If you used the .410, you were talkin' 'bout 80 cents a box. But even 16 cents, then, was an awful lot of money. So, whenever we could, we used the .22.
"We went after coon, squirrel, possum, anything that had fur on it. A hide from a possum would bring 25 cents, and a coon hide, that'd maybe bring a buck. We'd go out there, startin' in the fall and go all winter long up until right before Christmas come. Then, we'd ship that hide out, get our money. And then we'd get out the wish book, the Sears book, or the Monkey Ward, whichever. We'd sit and figure, 'We'll get this and we'll get that.'"
His mother fried the squirrel and they ate it. But not coon or possum. Possum, said Bill, was too fatty, too greasy. "A lot of people didn't know this, but down there in Oklahoma, there's a town called Tatum - it's right around Hennepin - and it sets on the Wild Horse River, and it's all black people there. The whole town. Ever' once in a while when we'd catch us a bunch of possum, we'd ask those folks down there they wanted the possum. Blacks had a way of fixin' 'em. They'd parboil the whole possum, then cut them up an' bake 'em. It was a way of fixin 'em that made possum not so greasy as most people think. The blacks then in Tatum, they ate possum and coon both."
Bill never liked either coon or possum. Drawing his face into a frown, he concluded, "I just ain't a wild lifer, I guess."
His family grew greens, okra, potatoes, corn, tomatoes. His mother fried okra, and she put okra in soup for thickening. "Back home, I never had soup in my life that didn't have okra in it. Out here, you don't hardly see it no more." Bill threw back his head and laughed, then lowered his voice, as if sharing a confidence: "Here, they call something with okra in it 'soul food.'" Louise murmured agreement.
Bill narrowed his eyes and looked out beyond the trailer from which the American Cancer Society was offering skin cancer screenings. A long line snaked out from the trailer. From a distance we could hear a KSON disc jockey cueing a record, and from above, in clear blue sky, a jet's engines. Bill turned his glance back to us. "A lot of people can cook if they have ever'thing here. Not too many people can just look around the kitchen and put what's there together and make a good meal. My mama, she'd take almost nothin' and make a good meal of it."
Eye almost closed, his speech more incantation than conversation, he said, "She always had a can of lard, and a sack of flour, and a sack of cornmeal."
"Mmm," said Louise, "yes."
Still deep in the spell he himself cast, Bill continued. "In my house when I was growing up, lunch would be biscuit and cornbread, you had your choice. You'd have molasses, and you'd pour it out on the plate, and you'd dip the biscuit in it. An' we'd take biscuit that was left over, lay bacon on it, and my mama'd lay the biscuit and bacon on top of the beans right before she served 'em. That way she got her leftover biscuit on us. An' the hot beans made the biscuit hot again. Same with cornbread." Bill opened his blue eyes wide and studied us as someone will who's nodded off in his chair will wake up and study those who have remained awake. He leaned forward over his crossed knees and addressed us. "Wa'll, you know, ever'body likes cornbread. Who don't? I never did know nobody that didn't like cornbread."
His family, Bill said, always raised a few hogs to butcher. "An' we'd render up the hog fat. We'd take the skin and fry up cracklin's from it. You could put the cracklin's right in the cornbread batter." He made a stirring motion.
Louise nodded. That was how it was.
"An' my mother," he went on, eyes bright, "she made some nice sausage, with just the right amount of sage in it. After the sausage was mixed, she'd make up sausage patties and fry 'em. When they were done, she'd pack 'em into the mason jar, then pour the hot sausage grease over 'em. The heat off the grease, that'd seal the jars."
Had Bill ever read The Grapes of Wrath? "No, ma'am," he said, he never read the book and he never saw the movie. "I started to read the book once, and I decided I didn't believe it, so I put it down and never went back to it. I think it's like all the 'Wild West' and the history of it. A lot of these history books, who they really are written by, instead of history writers, are storytellers. An' what the storytellers tell about ends up as true facts and gets then to be history.
"Really what happened to Oklahomans, what it was that really made it so bad was some of the big farmers in California. Those farmers sent folks all over Arkansas, New Mexico, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, passin' out leaflets. I had one of them leaflets myself, back then. They said, 'There is 8000 jobs out in California.'
"Now, when you take people who don't have work, they see that leaflet and they think, 'Well, we can get these jobs.'" But the leaflets went out, he explained, to maybe four million people, many more than there were jobs for in California. "That's why the migration started. History said, 'Dust took over Oklahoma and the people just packed up their earthly goods on pickups and jalopies 'n' started migratin' out here along Route 66 to California.' Well, folks didn't just start migratin' here. The big California farmers lured 'em out to here. An' then when the Okies got to California, them big farmers could afford to pick to work whoever would work for the lowest wages. That's how it was."
In the mid-Thirties, Bill's older brother hopped a freight out to California. He got work picking oranges, and when the season was over, he returned to Oklahoma. As Bill remembered it, "He had a little bit of money in his pocket, so he seemed like he'd gotten rich. He said the weather out in California was beautiful 'n' warm. But he didn't say anything about how he was treated. But you know he wouldn't." His brother, said Bill, "even today he wouldn't. He don't make no statements about nobody, about" - Bill hesitated - "conditions."
In 1937, Bill Easton's father, a mechanic, was killed. "It was pretty tough. Grim. My mother was left with four kids and had never had a job in her life." They moved up to Oklahoma City. Their mother did housework. Odd jobs, "Washin'. Ironin'. All of us kids helped her.
"An' washin' and ironin' then wasn't like today - toss your clothes in the laundry, take 'em out 20 minutes later, throw 'em in the dryer. In our hose, washin' clothes was an all-day chore. You gathered the wood. You got up the fire. You dragged out the two big wash tubs. You filled the wash pots with water and started the water boilin'. Get the board out. An' then you washed the clothes. That was an all-day chore."
This memory caused him to reflect. "That sayin', 'the good ol' days'? I didn't see nothin' good about the good old days. Believe me, nothin'. When you see women like my mother, when you seen a woman like her just wastin' away, workin' herself to death. That was about it. I didn't see anything of the good old days about that. My mother, workin' herself down to skin 'n' bone. No."
After their father died, the Easton children had to work. Lindsay, some 75 miles from Oklahoma City, was known then, said Bill, as the "broom corn capital of the world," and in July and August, the Easton boys cut broom corn. "Hot. Whew. We'd stay in it 12 hours ever' day. We wanted all we could get. They paid anywhere from ten to eight cents an hour to cut the broom corn. Most of the time, they give us eight cents." The rest of the year, the boys cut wood and sold it, "for a dollar a rick, and for that dollar, we'd split and stack it for you." Easton and his two brothers worked for three years to save enough money to buy a used Model A Ford for 15 dollars.
In 1942, three months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Easton got his "greetings and salutations" from the draft board. "I was 18 by then, and Uncle Sam decided I should be doin' my part. They decided I should get a little bit of trainin'." So Easton entered the navy, came through San Diego, and shipped out to the South Pacific, where he spent the next 38 months.
When he got out, after World War II ended, Easton went back home. "Oklahoma looked be-yew-tiful. Bee-yew-ti-ful." His family had left Oklahoma City during the war and moved back to Foster. Bill, needing work, went to the "oil patch" in Odessa, Texas, "also known," he laughed, "as No Trees, Texas."
And then what happened? "Wa'll, it got to be wintertime - a little rain, a little freeze. I thought to myself, 'I'll get a job in a shop somewhere, and then when the weather breaks, I'll come back out the door, go back out to the oil patch.'" He found a job in a machine shop, liked it, and stayed. Soon he was working for the aircraft industry in Witchita, Kansas. In 1952, Bill and Louise married.
In 1953, Louises Easton was pregnant with the couple's first child, and Bill was laid off. They heard that the aircraft industry was hiring in California, so they loaded up their '49 Ford - "with the rear end about ready to fall off of it," noted Bill - and drove to L.A.
"He had a job right off," said Louise, beaming as proudly as if the 35 years between that day and this had not gon by. They stayed in L.A. for three years, then went back to Oklahoma.
In California, said Louise, "You'd save a little money. But back there in Oklahoma, ever' week you were takin' a little bit out of your savings just to live. The wages weren't as good."
So in 1957, when Rohr industries guaranteed Bill a job in San Diego, plus $600 moving expenses, the couple took the offer. "We came back out here then," said Louise, "and he's had a job ever since, with the exception of a few layoffs."
The Eastons had gone back to Oklahoma this year for a family reunion. Their kin, they said, "looked beautiful." They saw aunts and uncles in their nineties. People, said Bill, who have never been out of Oklahoma. "Folks who never been 100 miles from home. Evidently, Oklahoma, it's not too bad," Bill laughed, "or people wouldn't live as long as they do there." He attributes this longevity to hard work. "Keepin' active, that's what it is. If you sit out in the rocker, become a porch monkey, that's what kills you."
His family doesn't ask him about life in California. "All they ask me is, 'When are you gonna come home?'" And no, Bill's family has never exhibited any interest in coming west to visit him and Louise and their two children or to settle. "What would they want to come to California for? Cars bumper to bumper. World's biggest parking lot out here."
"I don't want to go back to Oklahoma to live," Louise said firmly. "This is home for our children; they don't want to leave here."
Had the Eastons stayed in Oklahoma, they don't believe their lives would have been all that different. In his job, said Easton, there's only 20 cents' difference between Oklahoma and California wages. "So maybe we would not've made it as easy, but we would have made it just fine. But we wouldn't have this great sunshine. Not in Oklahoma."
His wife bent over her lap toward him "Wherever we are, we're together, we'd have made it regardless. It's not the place you're at, it's who you're with."
We threaded our way back through the crowd. It seemed to us that the number of people had increased in the hour we'd talked. At the Oklahoma table, rob Autrey reported that quite a few Oklahomans had dropped by and signed the book. He'd visited with a gal who'd been Miss Oklahoma one year before Anita Bryant took the honors. There'd been a woman who used to waitress at the Anna Maude cafeteria in Oklahoma City, and she'd signed the book.
Before I had a chance to look for the ex-beauty queen or former waitress, Paul Massey, all six feet and eight inches of him casting its long shadow, shook my hand. Massey's wear-faded jeans were cinched with a belt into whose bronze buckle had been cast a cowboy riding a brahma bull, and his Resistol hat looked right at home on his head. Touching the brim that shaded his lean face, he told me nobody'd ever called him an Okie. "But if they did," he drawled, "I'd like it. My mother was a Texan and my dad was an Arkansawyer, and me and my brother and sisters were Okies. Born there."
Talking while we walked through the park, I learned that Massey (like the Eastons, a Chula Vista resident) had lived in Ada, Oklahoma, until the fall of 1941. In Ada, Massey's father ran a restaurant that had "maybe six stools." His father flipped burgers in the back and his mother worked the counter. "All the business people'd come over, to get their hamburgers - we had 'em for a nickel and they were the size of a saucer. An' you could get chilli on it! Off to one side of the place we had a pop cooler, one of those that had an open top and was filled up with ice cubes and a display of all the soda pops: Grapette, Nehi orange, Dr. Pepper, RC Cola. An' you didn't have can pop back in those days, it was all bottles."
Folks called Massey "Cotton Top" then, because "his whole head of hair" was white blonde. "The businessmen'd come in 'n' say, 'Cotton, you had your pop today?' And I'd say, 'No sir.' Strawberry soda pop was probably my favorite, 'n' I might've already had four or six of 'em already. But it'd always be, 'No sir.' My daddy used to say, 'It's a good thing we up and left Oklahoma and went to California, Cotton, 'cause you'da died, drinkin' all that pop.'"
Massey and I headed toward the bandstand, where the Yankee Doodle Kids were finishing - with high kicks - their last number, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." As the last strains died, Massey and I found a clear grassy spot and sat down.
In Oklahoma, to support four children, Massey's parents had to work hard. His father cooked during the day, and at night he drove a cab. Massey's father had a brother who'd left Oklahoma and settled near Bakersfield, in Porterville. "Wages were higher out West. So my folks packed up what we had. We weren't like some folks. We didn't have to give up anything. We just migrated out here, all in the one car - my brother, two sisters, and my mother and dad. We were sure all packed in, and there was furniture and household stuff tied down on the roof of the car."
As Massey remembered it, the car was a Chevrolet, a battered Thirties model with "suicide doors." The latter he explained this way: "Say you're sittin' in the back seat and you had to get out, if the wind caught the door, it would swing the door back and you could get sucked out." His grandmother, he said, once got her dress caught in a suicide door. "Gramma opened the door to uncatch her skirt, and the wind caught the door and swung it way on out and we almost lost her, right there."
His parents, of course, had talked with people who made the trip out to California. "They were worried," said Massy, "about people stealin' from us on the way. I had this short-pants sailor suit, navy blue, and this little flap in the back. My mama, she sewed this packet inside my sailor suit, and that's where we kept all our money. When we'd come into a gas station, my mama, she'd reach in and take some money out to pay 'em."
The Masseys, like others before them headed to California, took Route 66. All along the way, right by the highway, you could see people camping out, smoke from cooking fires. Okies weren't welcome. From Oklahoma to California, at each state line, border guards stopped cars going west. In New Mexico one of Massey's little sisters began feeling sick. That night, the family pulled into an inexpensive motel. "An' when we woke up the next day, she had the mumps. We'd heard that if you got to the border and the border guards'd see anyone who was sick, they'd not let you on in. So we hid her. Wrapped her up good in the back like she was sleeping so they couldn't see how her face was all puffed out. But we made it through each of those borders."
They settled first in Porterville. "We rented this little ol' one-room house, livin' room and ever'thing - one room. When we had to go to the restroom, we had a little outhouse out back we went to."
Soon after the family arrived in California, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Massey's parents learned that Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (now Convair), on Pacific Highway in San Diego, was hiring. "So we moved here and went into that old Frontier housing, which," explains Massey, "used to be a drive-in theater, and then that went and they built another drive-in theater, 'n' tore that down, and now there's a big shopping center there." Rent there, at that time, said Massey, was under 100 a month.
Massey's parents both went to work at Consolidated. Later, after Consolidated shut down, his father went to work for Ryan Aeronautical. After the war ended, the family moved into a house near Irving and Logan avenues. At the Old Bostonia Ballroom, they met other Oklahomans. "Ol' Smokey Rodgers 'n' his band'd be there. But us kids couldn't go in the ballroom proper," said Massey, "'cause they were sellin' drinks."
Back in Oklahoma, Massey's parents had been twice-on-Sunday and Wednesday-night-prayer-meeting "hard-shell Baptist." In San Diego, Massey's father was one of the founders and a deacon of the Little Bethany Primitive Baptist Church on South 45th Street. "An' my dad," said Massey, eyes moistening, "would sometimes lead the singin' there.
"On Saturday, people would come from all around out here to go to church on Sunday. Mostly ever'body took somebody in, gave 'em a place to sleep, and we'd fit 'em in our house - several families - for Saturday night.
"Ever' Sunday, almost without fail, after the morning preaching, there'd be a potluck. My mama would make chicken and dumplings. Those dumplings would be the hit of the table. That and her Okie fried chicken, with lots of spices mixed in the flour she dipped the bird in."
Hard-shell Baptist or not, Massey's father did drink. Not much, said Massey, "but he would drink a little wine ever' once in a while."
Which prompted Massey to tell about a time when he was still in high school and the family went back to Clifford, Oklahoma, to visit his father's brothers, both farmers. "One evening, we were sat out on the front porch. It was summer and kinda warm. We were just sittin' there, talkin'. My uncle said, 'You guys like some white lightnin'?" Oklahoma, explained Massey, was at that time a dry state. The only alcohol for sale, legally and over the counter, was 3.2 beer.
Like Bill Easton before him, Massey, as he talked, stared off into the distance. His eyes were set toward the palm trees dotting Sixth Avenue, and his voice took on a liturgical tone. I realized his story was a well-worn tale, one he'd often turned over in his mind and frequently tol. And he was not telling the tale, he was celebrating it.
"So I asked," Massey continued, "'Daddy, what's white lightnin'?' 'Cause I'd never heard of it. He tol' me, 'you know that stuff that comes in the Mason jar? That's white lightnin'.' So I'd seen it, but up to then I'd never tasted it.
"One of my uncles, he told us, 'I know a guy where we can get some lightnin'. Let's go.' We got in the truck and took off down this dirt road. Drove about a quarter of a mile. First thing, this truck pulled up beside us, and this guy sittin' in it, he had him a Weimerheimer dog with a muzzle on it, an' he asked my uncle," Massey growled in imitation, "'Whattya want?'
"My uncle said, 'One jar.' The guy said, 'Well, you wait here. Don't follow me. An' I'll be back.' So this moonshiner, he went down the road somewhere. Just plain disappeared.
"We turned around, went up the road a little bit, then turned around, drove back. An' then we saw the truck comin' up there, down this rutted red dirt road. The guy pulled up along the side of our pickup. He handed my uncle a jar, a regular quart mason jar, with the Kerr lid on it. My uncle handed him a dollar-fifty cents. An' right away, the guy just vanished in a puff of red dust and was gone somewhere out of sight."
By the time Massey, his father, and uncle got back to the house, the moon was up, the sky dark. They sat down again on the porch. "So my uncle popped the top on the jar. He give it to my dad, 'n' my dad took a swallow. He and my uncle drank it straight. Didn't cut it down with anything.
"Then my dad said to me, 'You want a taste of it?' I say, 'Sure,' 'n' he handed it to me. Then I told 'em, 'I'm gonna take a big swaller'."
In fact, Massey said, he took only a little sip. He wasn't sure what the white clear liquid was going to taste like. And he was just as glad he hadn't taken his promised big swallow. "Because," said Massey, "that stuff burned. Burned my throat, burned goin' down. An' I didn't want any more.
"'Don't you want no more?' my dad asked.
"I said, 'Uh-uh.'" Massey suggested to his father that instead of drinking the rest of the quart, they take it home to California with them. His father agreed.
"When we got ready to leave, we had an ice cooler in the back of the trunk. We took what was left of the lightnin', 'n' put the jar in with the ice and the water. Ever' time we came to the border, the border guards'd say, 'Have you got anything to declare?' We'd say, 'Naw, we don't have any fruits or anything.' The guard'd tell us, then, 'Well, open up the trunk and let me see in.'
"And this ol' jar was just sittin' in there. But none of the border patrol said anything. It jes' looked like a jar of ice water, bobbin' and floatin' in the ice chest. We got it all the way, safe back to San Diego." But what's funny, said Massey, is that he can't for the life of him remember what they did with the stuff once they got home with it.
In 1953 Massey graduated from Point Loma High School, and in 1955 he started work for the federal government "out at the 32nd Street Naval Station, and I've been there ever since." He smiled. "Next year I can retire. I'll be old enough."
We stood and began to amble through the crowd, which had begun to drift off to parking lots. Massey's thoughts still dwelled on home. Anytime he heard somebody sing "The Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma," he admitted, he "mists up." And he still hopes to get a piece of chicken fixed teh way his mother and her folks fixed it. "Used to be a restaurant up on Clairemont Mesa, they advertised 'Okie Fried Chicken, all you can eat.' Biscuits and gravy. All that." It was pretty good, Massey said.
Certain expressions, Massey misses. "Did you ever hear of cow salve?" I hadn't. Massey stopped, Resistol in hand, and explained that in Oklahoma one of his aunts, a farmer's wife, "used to make a big iron skillet of cream corn. Cut it off the cob. We'd eat it with cow salve." Massey, seeing confusion wrinkle my brow, put up a hand and said, "Wait. You'll get it. This aunt, she'd take a regular dinner plate, and after she churched the butter cream, she'd mound up the results right there on that plate. An' then, when she put that plate on the table, she'd say, 'Here's the "cow salve"'.... Butter," Massey laughed, "butter."
We headed toward the Oklahoma table and Rob Autrey. Massey said that he figured if he had stayed in Ada or thereabouts, he'd have led a slower-paced life. He gestured toward Sixth Avenue, thick with cars heading home, with Sunday afternoon bicyclists. "Out here, get up and work, you're on the go all the time. But," he added, "I'm glad to be here.
"The reason I never really go back to live, our family is out here [Massey has a daughter and stepson], and I've spent most of my government employment here. So there's nothing back there to go to. My folks, they're both buried here. An' I have my plot here."
Massey's children have never been to Oklahoma, and the last time he himself was there was more than 20 years ago. For sure, he said, he's now a "SIO - California-Improved Okie." Some things though, said Massey, don't change. "You know, I can still take a couple of squares of cornbread and a glass o' buttermilk and make a whole meal out of it." One way California has changed him, he noted, "I've got to where I put jalapeno pepper in when I mix up my cornbread batter."
Back at the Oklahoma table, Autrey said some 50 folks had come by during the afternoon. He thought that among those 50 he'd signed up some people who would be helpful in organizing next year's table. He figured he'd talk to his sister back home, get her to collect some rose rocks - the state rock. "They're kind've a sandstone 'n' look like little roses," he said. "And we'll get some food products, agricultural products, put together an oil display."
Before Paul Massey and I shook hands and said good-bye, I asked what he dreams when he dreams about Oklahoma. He pushed his hat back a bit on his head, looked up at the sky for a moment, then looked at me and, grinning, said, "I'm back in that cafe in Ada, sittin' on one of these stools, waitin' for the business people to come in 'n' buy me a strawberry soda pop."