"During the Depression days my daddy spent three years in the federal pen at El Reno, Oklahoma. For what? For taking one thin wool army blanket because us kids were freezing. He was working for the federal Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era, New Deal program, and took that blanket home. Sorry state of affairs to do that to a poor man and his family. I’m not ashamed of my daddy being locked up for taking a blanket to keep his little ones warm. I’d rather steal than to beg any day. I’m proud of who we are.”
Jim Heck’s words broke my heart and released an explosion of memories. Heck is now 62 years old, four years older than I. He was a little boy when his daddy took off to San Diego to look for work in the burgeoning defense industry, and a year later the rest of the family followed with no more than the clothes they wore. Heck is economically comfortable now, but he does not forget. Like the other Okies I met in San Diego last summer, Heck not only does not forget, he makes a point of remembering; he is the one in his family, the repository of the stories, the storyteller. In my own family, I am one of those.
So, what is an “Okie” anyway? They are mostly rural whites, mostly from Oklahoma, but also from the rural backwaters and hills of Arkansas, Missouri, north Texas, who migrated to the West Coast during the Depression and Dust Bowl days of the 1930s and in the early 1940s to work in the defense industry spawned by World War II. They brought with them a
resilient rural culture that quickly found its groundings in the Central Valley of California, largely through country and western music, the roots of which go back to the Scottish highlands and lowlands, to Ireland, carried across the continent in the minds of frontier settlers and passed on generation to generation. Those who located in the Southwest, including Oklahoma, adopted Mexican border folk music as well as the accordion and dance music of the immigrant Acadians, Germans, Poles, and Bohemians.
But life was not all music and celebration. “Being an Okie means getting rooted out of an area and having to hustle for a toehold in some new area,” writes Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He identifies himself as an Okie whose Dust Bowl migrant family landed in rural Oregon, where he grew up. “Being an Okie means running the risk of striving out from under a layer of heartless sonsabitches only to discover you
have become a redneck of bitterness worse than those you strove against. Being an Okie is a low-rent, aggravating drag, but it does learn you some essentials; essentials like it isn’t a new car that pulls over to help you when you are broke down with the senile carburetor, it is somebody who knows what it is to be broke down with a hurt machine.”
That about says it; during the second half of this century it has not been cool or correct to be proud of your ethnicity if you are white. Okie ethnic identity is not so much about being white as about being rural, blue collar, down on luck and love, and being from, or your ancestors being from, a particular region, originally the borderland south of Tennessee and Kentucky, then Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, finally the Central Valley and other pockets of the West, including San Diego.
Jim Heck — James W. Heck — was born in Oklahoma in 1934 and remembers his preschool years there as idyllic. He recalls the Tom Mix, Royal Canadian Mountie, and Gene Autry movies projected on Saturday nights against the side of the town’s store, the same experience I had growing up in Oklahoma. Like me, he found larger rural centers exciting to visit, like Hobart and Carnegie in his case, Yukon and El Reno in mine. All sides of Jim’s family
came from Missouri and homesteaded in eastern Oklahoma, then in the 1920s, moved on to western Oklahoma, near the tiny farming community of Gotebo in Kiowa County. They farmed but did not own land. His mother’s side, the Carrs, had owned land but lost it to bankers during the Depression. Jim’s father worked in New Deal-created work camps, the WPA and the CCC. It was while working in the CCC camp that he took the frayed army blanket and ended up in federal prison for three years.
In 1939, Jim’s uncle was the first in the family to venture out to the promised land of California, to Long Beach. Then Jim’s dad joined his brother — hitchhiked to California with the father of Jess Van Deventer, the son a former councilmember and mayor of National City and presently a member of San Diego’s Board of Port Commissioners. Jim’s father sent for the family nearly a year later, once he had a job. It wasn’t easy to get work, and he had no experience for industrial work. When he wrote down “cotton picking” as
his main skill, he’d be turned away, finally, he lied and said he’d worked on oil rigs; they bought it because Oklahoma was famous for oil production. Then he moved on to San Diego and got work in maintenance at Convair, did that the rest of his life. Jim followed in his dad’s footsteps and has always worked in maintenance.
Every year until the end of the war the family trekked back to Gotebo; then they moved to Nebraska to farm for four years but ended up back in San Diego, living in government housing in Pacific Beach. Jim’s mother died last year at 86, his father in 1978 at 64 of diabetes; he had been laid off from ITT just before retirement, so received no benefits.
When the Heck family first arrived in San Diego, they lived in a tent in the Imperial Beach area, where Jim started first grade. He tells a funny but sad story on himself about his first day of school, just fresh from rural Oklahoma. He asked the teacher to be excused to use the rest room and spent a long time roaming the periphery of the school building searching for the outhouse, never having seen indoor plumbing. His staunch Southern
Baptist upbringing would not allow him to just relieve himself in public, and with typical Okie independence he would not ask for help. Since there were no trees or bushes, he continued to circle the school-house looking for the privy until it was too late. The resulting embarrassment led to his first experience of being called “Okie” and “white trash.”
During the war years the Hecks lived in one of the flimsy residences of Linda Vista and Jim attended Kit Carson Elementary School. The Linda Vista neighborhood is still there, still poor, as Jim puts it, always those at the bottom live in Linda Vista. It was created as war housing for defense workers; later, blacks and Latinos moved in as Okies moved out, and now Southeast Asian immigrants have replaced blacks and Latinos. The subdivision of low-income and subsidized housing was created during the beginning of World War II when San Diego’s population jumped 50 percent within the span of two years. The migrant workers were initially housed in
tents, in all-night movie houses, in their cars. Despite nationwide negative publicity, local officials dragged their feet in creating housing. Only when the argument was made that poor living conditions were adversely affecting worker output did the feds step in with the Lanham Defense Housing Act of 1940, initiating what was then the largest single defense housing development in the world — the Linda Vista Housing Project.
During the war years, Jim’s mother worked on the assembly lines in defense plants and his dad worked in maintenance. It was Dad who did the cooking at home. After the family returned to San Diego from their sojourn in Nebraska, they lived in Pacific Beach and Jim graduated from La Jolla High School. Jim says he presented himself as a Nebraskan, not an Okie, which he kept secret. He took journalism, wrote on the school paper, became a ’50s-era surfer and hot-rodder, driving a supercharged dragster. He even dated classmate Raquel Welch. “In essence,” he muses now, “I became a California Okie.” After graduating from high school, Jim began his career, like his father, in maintenance. Jim is now the maintenance manager for the University of San Diego campus. After 15 years in the shop, Jim went back to school and got his AA degree in business management, which opened doors to managerial positions in maintenance.
For 18 years, while his boys were growing up, Jim was a Little League coach. His girls were competitive roller skaters. (Jim has seven children and stepchildren, all now married, working, self-sufficient, one a graduate of West Point.) His office at the University of San Diego is filled with Little League and skating pictures.
I talked with Jim several times before we met. But I would not have had a clear picture of Jim had I not visited him on the job. Like most Okie men I know — the ones who migrated and the ones still back there — work defines life, character, personality, worthiness. This is the man Merle Haggard was referring to in his song “Working Man Blues.” Jim, now 62, still works full time, and during the past five years he has been restoring a 1950s-era kit boat, which he hopes to finish before retiring. He’s thinking he would like to retire in “one of those places named Buttonwillow or Weed Patch, one of those Dust Bowl Okie towns near Bakersfield.” He said he drove up there once and felt so good, almost like being in Oklahoma, comfortable. When he told me the story of his father's being imprisoned because he took a government blanket home to keep his babies from freezing and added that he’d rather steal than beg anytime and that he was proud of his daddy for what he did, I knew I was on to a Merle Haggard kind of Okie, a Woody Guthrie kind of Okie, a man like my father and most of the men in my family.
The rapport I felt for Jim was probably not entirely mutual; I think he regarded me as something between a “city gal” and some kind of radical. And he’s not completely wrong Jim told me when he first called that he didn’t read that paper, the San Diego Raider, but that one of his coworkers put my ad on his desk because “they know I’m proud to be an Okie, always have been." He said he even wore one of those big brass belt buckles engraved with “Okie.” When I told him that my brother and I used to sit on the curb of Main Street, Yukon, Oklahoma, which was also Route 66, and throw rocks at cars with California license plates, Jim was truly pained. That could have been him, his family, visiting He was so bothered that I wished I hadn’t told him that story. I thought about my father’s explanation for his refusal to take the family to California, that only “them that are rich or own an automobile” could go. I suppose my brother and I believed we were making a statement about rich people. But those were not rich people who fled to California, and they were not any better off there. Nor have they forgotten where they came from.
Jim said that no one except himself now thinks of him as an Okie; “You can take the boy out of Oklahoma, but you can’t take Oklahoma out of the boy. I still remember driving a team and wagon at five years old while my dad strung barbed wire. I still remember picking cotton and having corn bread and milk for supper. I still remember not having shoes during the summer. Yet I didn’t know we were poor until I came to California and they let me know.” Jim told me that I was the only other person, Okie or otherwise, he had ever met in California who ate possum as a kid in Oklahoma.
Jim speaks reverently of his father, as do so many of us: “My dad, like Will Rogers, never met a man he didn’t like. When you consider that when he was four years old, the oldest of three boys, both his mother and father died in the flu epidemic during the same week in 1918. His unborn sister died with his mother. He was forced to quit high school to pick cotton. Then on top of all that being sent up to jail in his early 20s, I don’t know how he overcame it all and remained not bitter. He went on to California to find a way to provide for his family, and at 50 years of age he went back to get his high school degree. That’s what inspired me to go back to school.” Jim’s eulogy to his hither when he died was simple: “He was the kind of man I would hope that my boys grow up to be.”
A few years ago I began writing what I called “life history,” my own history, using the methodology of historical research, particularly oral history techniques. In July 1997, my book. Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, was published, the final version quite different from the way the book had started. I ended up validating my poor white, rural, Okie heritage, honoring my roots and where I come from. I found myself acknowledging the important connections between people like me who grew up in Depression, wartime, and postwar Oklahoma and those tens of thousands of Okies who migrated to California.
I wanted to find out more about those migrants and their descendants in California. I was only vaguely aware of the Okie presence here. I knew that Okies had migrated to the Central Valley, Los Angeles, even Oregon, seeking work picking cotton and fruit — prune-pickers, they called them. I have relatives and friends in those places, but San Diego?
Historian lames N. Gregory in his excellent 1989 study, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California, barely even mentions San Diego, although he provides the demographics, which surprised me: The Dust Bowl- and Depression-driven migrations brought many jobseekers to San Diego so that by 1935, 19,400 Okies had settled in the San Diego area, making up 10 percent of the total population. By 1940 there were 29,000. More migrants arrived to work in the defense industry and shipyards during the war, including earlier migrants from the Central Valley, so that by 1950, the migrant population had produced a new generation and numbered 65,500. Today there are around 100,000 original Okie migrants and their progeny in the San Diego area. I set out to find a few of the storytellers among them. I began making telephone calls before I journeyed to San Diego.
I started with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. When I told the man who answered the phone what I was doing, he laughed and said, “You’ll find all the real Okies out in Lakeside, Santee, and thereabouts,” sounding pretty much like an Okie himself. Because my father was a rodeo man, my first instinct was to look for the local rodeo club, so I called information in Lakeside; the only listing under “rodeo” was the Rodeo Bar and Grill, which I called. They informed me that the rodeo grounds were just across the road, and if I wanted to meet some Okies, eat some good barbecue, and hear local country bands, I should come to the Rodeo Bar and Grill. But the main way I found those I interviewed for this feature was that they responded to an ad I ran.
One Okie who called, Melanie Jennings, is a 27-year-old doctoral student in English at the University of California, San Diego, writing her dissertation and short stories on Okies in the Oakland/Fremont area where she grew up. Melanie offered to shadow me in my endeavor, and her intelligent presence was a great gift. Then the storytellers I was looking for began calling, and I headed for San Diego.
The first San Diego Okie I met was Paula Morgan. In their late 30s, Paula and her husband Doug Foley have a precocious seven-year-old, Douglas. This is the second marriage for Doug, the third for Paula. Paula works full time in a physician’s office and Doug is disabled and an at-home dad.
The first time I met Paula, husband and son dropped her off in Coronado where I was staying. Melanie, the graduate student, joined as, and we made our plan for the day. Paula seized the wheel of my vehicle, and we three rode out I-8 to where “the real Okies” could be found, taking Highway 67, off at Mapleview. And there we were, right in front of the rodeo grounds— Rodeo, Lakeside Arena — and down the street was the Rodeo Bar and Grill. On a late Saturday morning in August, no one was around, and the bar didn’t open until 4:00 p.m. I already knew from Jim Heck that I had missed the annual rodeo, which had taken place a few weeks before—Jim said that it wasn’t up to standard, but probably he said that to console me for missing it, because I found out that it is rated one of the top five rodeos in the country.
We were hungry and dreaming of chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes. We cruised the town and found nothing akin to a good country kitchen, not even a Denny’s. So we settled for a local Mexican fast-food place, Javier’s Sombrero Mexican Food. Sure enough, except for the young Mexican woman who took our orders, everyone else there appeared to be Okies — couple of families, some skinhead type of young men, young couples, kids. The food there is plentiful, tasty, and cheap.
Paula decided we had to visit Ramona, explaining that she did not quite know why, but she had a strong sense that that's where we should be on a hot Saturday afternoon in August if we were looking for Okies. On the way, she pointed out the bumper stickers on the mostly pickup trucks:
HOUSE OF STEEL (on a one-ton Ford pickup with lots of chrome)
MY HEART BELONGS TO JESUS PRAY WITHOUT CEASING
PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN
And American flags adorned many cars and trucks. The bumper stickers reminded me of roadside billboards in western Oklahoma in the 1950s: “Jesus Saves”; “Repent!”; “Impeach Earl Warren'’; “US out of the UN.” On the way to Ramona, we passed a mobile home park and dozens of horse ranches, large and small, beautiful horses. I kept shaking my head to realize I was in Southern California and not western Oklahoma or west Texas.
We drove into downtown Ramona, the main street reminiscent of a dozen small Oklahoma towns, larger than mine, but still pretty small, frozen in time it seemed. Paula said she didn’t know the town well, but her senses led her to a corner establishment called the Turkey Inn. The bartender there is Maurice Summers, called “Mo,” partly for his name, partly because his family came from Missouri. He’s in his early 20s, but he and his mom run the joint (they don’t own it). Mo, a single dad, says he married a typical California Okie girl who ran off from him and the baby. He works days while his mom baby-sits, and she works evenings at the Turkey Inn while he cares for his child. When I told him a little bit about my book, about my own growing up in rural Oklahoma, he said “that sounds like my family.”
It turns out that the Turkey Inn is a gathering place for Okies, like Tony Sizemore, who retired as the bartender at Turkey Inn a few years ago but still gives that as his address. Tony is authentic Okie, Stetson and all. Mo prompted Tony to tell stories that Mo had surely heard many times before, about being poor and rural, troubles with alcohol and the law, about hard work and hard times, and good times, lost loves, near-death experiences, risky accident-filled lives. I told Mo that I believed he’d inherited the storytelling ability, he knows all the regulars and apparently loves to listen to their stories, something a bit beyond the usual sympathetic bartender ear, because he learns, and remembers, and tells the stories.
Mo told us that on Sundays around three in the afternoon the Turkey Inn becomes a biker bar. We didn’t make it back for that weekly event. I later learned that the original Hell’s Angels were Dust Bowl and Defense Okies drafted and returned from the war and that the Okie/country/patriotic impulse motivated the Angels. Interestingly, the urban police forces, especially in LA. and Oakland, and the California Highway Patrol also recruited among those angry young tough Okie vets. A 20-year civil war between the two Okie factions, Angels and lawmen, outlaws and the law, ensued in California, more or less imitating the mythology of Jesse lames, the Younger Brothers, and their cousins the Daltons, bank and train robbers in the 1800s from Missouri and Oklahoma. Melanie recalls her California Okie father, himself a Harley owner, instructing her that in case of trouble find a Hell’s Angel for help, never a cop.
There were a couple of old codgers in the Turkey Inn (we three were the only females present) who told us that they didn’t think ladies should hangout in bars, but they sort of laughed with us when we laughed at the observation. We kept on laughing as we piled into the car and agreed, yeah, here we were, something of a mystery trio perhaps to observers, three generations of Okie women who had met only that morning and would appear to be relatives — me the “elder” figure, Paula, who is part Cherokee and looks it and is a bit plump, being the “mama” icon; and attractive, stylish Melanie “the babe.” We talked and marveled over how powerful are the women of our (sub) culture, of rural life, and how maddeningly and endearingly vulnerable our men are. Maybe John Steinbeck’s fictional Okie woman, Ma Joad, isn’t far from the reality.
We returned to the Rodeo Bar and Grill in Lakeside just as it opened at 4:00 p.m. This appears to be an authentic honky-tonk with lots of regulars, and they serve barbecue. We couldn’t stay more than an hour because Paula’s husband, Doug, was back home fixing his own barbecue. Another comfort zone all right. I got that term “comfort zone” from Melanie. She uses it to refer to how she feels around Okies.
Doug cooked up a feast out in the yard — barbecued steaks, roasted corn on the cob, baked potatoes, sliced tomatoes. Doug is the cook in the household and, like most good cooks, eats a lot of his own fare and is somewhat overweight on an already imposing frame. The San Diego air was balmy but not hot, and the stars came out bright and dear. I swear I saw a lightning bug, but that was my imagination as it seems there aren’t any here. It could have been a summer evening eating on the ground in rural Oklahoma, a traditional summer cookout that started with sharecroppers who didn’t have fuel oil, or sometimes even a kitchen, in their cabin or tent. Definitely comfortable.
Into the summer night we talked. Jim French, a good friend of Paula and Doug’s, was there. Jim is a wiry, supercharged motor mouth with a lot to say and never dull. He describes himself as a “natural born liar and hell on women.” Now in his 30s, Jim moved with his family to San Diego from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when he was beginning high school. Jim hated everything about his new home in Vista, California, and longed to return to Oklahoma, which he did on his own finally, only to end up again back in San Diego. In Oklahoma he was regarded a sophisticated Californian, in California, an Okie hick. At home nowhere, Jim turned to art. A gifted and hardworking artist, Jim is a musical-instrument inventor, an excellent cook and brewer. What seems central to him — and I find this true of others from this background — is a kind of biblical or Faulknerian obsession with genealogy. Personal identity is not so much individualistic nor ethnic-group oriented but rather is located in a matrix of selected memories and legends, the “bad” characters just as endearing and important as the “virtuous" ones, especially Robin Hood-tvpe outlaws hold high status. Jim has become an expert on Viking names, rituals, beliefs, and symbols and embraces this knowledge as his religion, which he calls “paganism.” Of course, paganism has many diverse strains; Paula and Doug as well consider themselves pagans, but of a more eclectic tradition than Jim’s.
Like a lot of what Jim French calls “young no-collar rednecks” in today’s society, he is angry. Although he had not heard of Jim Goad’s book. Redneck Manifesto, much of Jim French’s ranting and raving echoed Goad’s perception that poor whites are “America’s scapegoats.” Jim French would sympathize with Goad’s lament that he had “entered college a little too late to enjoy being white and just in time to be blamed for what dead white people I’d never met had done. It didn’t matter if my ancestors had installed plumbing in the pyramids — I was still the oppressor.”
Another day I interviewed Paula and Doug more formally. Although hardly well-to-do or educated, Paula and Doug are not an alienated 30-something blue collar or “white trash” couple.
Paula’s mother’s family names are Morgan and Dykes, her father from the Higdons and Parnells. At the turn of the century, Paula’s great-grandparents had homesteaded near Chickasha in Grady County, the county just south of my own Canadian County in west-central Oklahoma. As with most of these rural white trekkers, and like my own family, they—the Morgans, Higdons, Parnells — were Scots and Ulster-Scots or Welsh, some northern English, and, like my own family, they moved on into Oklahoma from Missouri and Arkansas. Like most, they were Southern Baptist; like most such trekkers, they counted Indians, particularly Cherokees, as part of the family tree. And like most families they had their share of drunks, one being Paula’s paternal grandpa.
Paula’s mother and father were high school sweethearts, dad bom 1917, mom 1920. They married in 1937 and fled to California. Paula was bom in 1959, the baby of five kids, the eldest bom in 1941. Paula has never known why her parents went to California but suspects it was the “Big Rock Candy Mountain syndrome,” as she put it, seeking their fortune. “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” a song from the 1920s, was revived and popularized by Burl Ives during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. The song is about what used to be called hobos, those who rode boxcars from job to job, mostly migrant farm work. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a fantastic place (California) where the mountains are made of rock candy and there are lemonade springs and the blue birds sing, “Where handouts grow on bushes, and you sleep out every night, where the boxcars are all empty, and the sun shines every day... .bound to go where there ain’t no snow, where the sleet don’t fall and the wind don’t blow...where they hung the jerk who invented work.”
In San Diego, Paula’s father made a career of driving a taxicab, except during the war when he served in the Navy, and for two decades after the war when he worked in defense plants, as did Paula’s mother (a true-life “Rosie the Riveter"). Before and after the war Paula’s mother worked as a housekeeper in hotels and for several wealthy families in Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla. The family moved around, living in East San Diego, National City, then in Navy housing near where the San Diego Sports Arena now stands, what San Diego Okies call the “Frontier Projects.” Paula has mixed feelings but deep respect for her complex father, a gambler, a hustler, who played the horses at Del Mar, hustled pool and golf, becoming a pro “ringer” on the course, and somehow saved enough to buy a house in Poway, way up north of the city.
Poway was where Paula did most of her growing up. There lived a mostly white population, all more or less Okies, with kits of range land and horses, vegetable gardens and cornfields. Her dad commuted into San Diego and worked two jobs, a full shift at Convair as a machinist from 1953, where he quickly became a union shop steward, and a half shift at PSA as a mechanic from 1957, where he also became shop steward in a short time. He was laid off at both jobs in the early 70s when NASA funding collapsed and PSA cut back. He returned to driving cabs when there was still a cab drivers’ union, and he once again served as a shop steward. But they had to sell the house and lived in rental apartments in Poway. Paula’s mother stayed home until Paula was 11, then went to work for the local school district.
Paula can be nostalgic about that growing-up time in Poway, she tells of the country life, just pretty much as she (correctly) imagines it might have been in Oklahoma, with men gathered in the fall for duck hunting and year-round for rabbit hunting. Paula’s dad kept a keg of volatile black gunpowder and the makings for shotgun shells. As a girl, Paula got the honor of reloading the shells, handing them out to her father and his buddies, lit cigarettes in hand.
At age 16, Paula was centrally and militantly involved in the big 1976 San Diego Yellow Cab strike, which she says opened her mind to the idea that she was working class and that most people were working class and that ethnicity and gender could not be fully definitive of the kind of solidarity possible among workers. Paula married at 17. The marriage lasted — no children — only three years, but they were important years for Paula. She and her husband moved to the San Francisco Bay Area during the heady mid-70s, living there only 18 months. But it was at that time and there that she found feminism and paganism. Upon her return to San Diego, Paula began working as a taxi driver and dispatcher at the cooperative that formed after the Yellow Cab strike, which broke the company.
Doug Foley, Paula’s husband for the past near decade, qualifies in my book as an Okie himself, although his family came mainly from Texas and via the Pacific Northwest to San Diego. On his mother’s side they were Dutch (Steenbergen) and Scots (Stuart) who moved along the frontier and settled in the Fort Worth area. Only two of seven children born in that family survived. Doug describes his great-grandmother as a health nut, a single mom who worked as a waitress to put her only daughter, Doug’s grandmother, through Catholic school during the Depression. Doug’s grandfather was a country boy who was a city slicker wannabe, family name Farrar, Anglo-Saxon in origin, descended from slave owners, in Texas before the Civil War, fought at the Alamo. He was a barber by trade and went out to San Diego, became a barber for the Navy, then started his own shop. I Doug’s mother grew up in San Diego.
Doug’s father's family was Irish (family names: Giles, Foley) from Tennessee, Irish Catholics who trekked to Spokane, Washington, in a covered wagon, settled in eastern Washington State near St. John. Dad joined the Navy, was stationed in San Diego before being shipped off to the Korean War, and here met Doug’s mother at church. She was going to nursing school while living with her parents.
Doug was born in 1958. Looking back, he sees that his early home life was shaky. His parents separated when Doug was 4; he was put in Catholic school, then the parents got back together. In school the nuns were brutal to Doug. When he was 10 years old his parents divorced, and Doug began spending time with his Dust Bowl Texan grandparents, listening to their stories, coming to appreciate his heritage. In the seventh grade he went to live with his father but continued seeing the family elders. Doug says he became wild in the fifth grade after having been a quiet boy, learned to fight, then stayed wild until 1985 when he was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident for which he was fully responsible and which happened while he was drunk. He was 27 years old, had a severe head injury from which he is still not fully recovered, and returned to live with his grandparents, where he got sober. Doug was starting all over again. Five years later he and Paula met.
For a number of years Paula, Doug, and Douglas lived in a tiny cottage behind a two-story duplex in University Heights; when we talked they were in the process of moving to the upstairs duplex where Paula could finally unpack and display her many books. Entering their home and world transported me back to Oklahoma — the hospitality, food, talk, good will, taking me, a stranger, in like a beloved cousin. I spent many hours in the warmth of that family, they care a great deal that all poor people — working and unemployed — including poor white people, be understood and respected. They are not impressed with our social order, which holds so many people in bondage to poverty and debt and a very few to exorbitant wealth and luxury. They think poor people have a right to be angry but must come to direct that anger against what and who benefit from their poverty, rather than creating bogeymen and scapegoats—blacks, immigrants, women on welfare, homosexuals, Jews, the United Nations, etc. — to blame.
Darryl Gorham is nearly old enough to be Paula’s or Doug’s father, but his stories of being poor and Okie in San Diego have themes similar to theirs. Darryl and I talked on the telephone several times before we met, at first for breakfast, later in his childhood home in National City, where he and his brother live. Darryl looks younger than his 56 years, still blond. He is a big man, definitely overweight. He has that distinctive voice of the Okie storyteller; I nearly expected him to break out in a talking blues song, but he’s not musical. Darryl was born near the tiny rural town of Konawa in Seminole County, southeast of Oklahoma City, part of the old Seminole Indian Nation’s treaty territory before it was partitioned by the federal government and sold to white settlers.
Darryl’s mother, Thelma Hale, was 13 when her mother put her and her siblings in an orphanage, unable to feed them. But Thelma balked, ran away from the orphanage, and went to work waiting tables. At 14 she met and married Darryl’s dad and gave birth to her first child the following year. They lived with the husband’s Gorham family, who were sharecroppers, raised hogs, and made a little money off moonshine. All were Southern Baptists. Only two ancestors were not of Scots-Irish heritage: Darryl’s paternal grandfather had immigrated to Oklahoma from Germany and died at 46. Darryl’s maternal grandfather was Indian. Darryl likes to tell the story about his Indian grandfather being sentenced to the “big house” (state prison) at McAllister for moon-shining. “Indeterminate sentencing" was an oxymoron for Indians in Oklahoma at that time, so he was in there for years. Darryl found his grandfather's prison-release document in his mother’s trunk of papers. It read, “Prisoner released on the promise to be good and not moonshine any more.” Of course, he went right back to making moonshine, there being no other means of income.
Sharecropping and tenant farming reigned in Oklahoma and the whole rural South during the first decades of the 20th Century. A sharecropper owned no land and often no work animals or tools. Sharecropper families would be provided a one-or two-room shack to live in and would plant, tend, and pick or harvest a cash crop, usually cotton. Whatever the vagaries of the commodities market, they would receive a percentage of the profits, after costs such as rent on their shack, cash advances, and other expenses that depleted what little income had been made. When times were bad and prices low, the sharecropper got nothing or even got booted off the land and would have to find another farm to crop. The tenant farmer was a little better off, but not much. The tenant did not own land but had enough cash to rent a farm to run and kept all the income from sales, barely ever breaking even, having to provide his own work animals, plows, and all other equipment.
Darryl was born in November 1941. The following month came Pearl Harbor. In June 1942, his parents answered the call of a steady paycheck in the defense industry and the family arrived in San Diego “with $26, two suitcases, five kids, and a beat-up 1934 Chevrolet.” His dad hired on at Convair on the assembly line. They crammed into a small apartment in a public housing project in Pacific Beach. Soon another baby came along so there were six siblings, all boys except one.
After the war, Darryl’s father got steady raises, and in 1950, they were kicked out of the housing projects for earning too much. They moved to Logan Heights, then bought a modest house in National City, the house where Darryl still lives. Darryl graduated from Sweetwater High School and took courses at San Diego City College and Southwestern University. But soon he was working in the National City shipyards where he was quickly made shop steward. Darryl’s father had to quit work just after he was 40 due to Parkinson’s disease and heart problems. The father entered a rest home and lived on another 20 years. Essentially, Darryl and his brothers and sister were raised by a single, working mother, a seamstress who turned the back-and-eye-damaging work into a small business making drapes.
Thelma Gorham worked up to three years before her death in 1996. She ran her own subcontract business in drapes and blinds, and Darryl installed — he still works installing blinds. During the final three years of her life, Darryl and his brother Jimmy nursed her at home, she being incontinent and unable to take care of herself in any way. The brothers had no life of their own and still seem a'bit dazed and in mourning over the beloved mother who died a long, painful death.
Thelma Gorham’s story is a success story, raising her five sons and a daughter through such hard times. By 1971, Darryl was 30, the father of five towheaded kids, and was active in the Boys’ Club of National City, his own beautiful boys gracing the front of its brochure. He and his mother ran a successful business with clients such as Sears and Montgomery Ward. His older brother, Mel Gorham, was a millionaire, featured in a 1971 National Inquirer under the headline; “Only 40 Years Old, Millionaire Builder Grew Up In ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Poverty; Rags to Riches.” Mel Gorham’s secret to success? Don’t waste time on a private life, don’t have children, work and work, a philosophy Darryl, the family man, could not fathom. Eventually, Mel’s business dealings came unwound, and for quite a while now he has lived on the lam.
During the ’70s, Darryl’s family life fell apart too, his wife gone, him seeing the children occasionally. Now they are scattered all over the country. He seems sad and lonely not to be in the middle of a bunch of grandchildren. But Darryl plugged away. In 1980, he self-published a 40-page self-help book: Start Your Own Business for Less Than $100: Custom Drapery Installation, which he described in the book as “a complete guide to installation and repair of draperies and drapery hardware, plus tips on how to start and operate your own business installing custom draperies,” explaining technical terms like “pin hook,” “casement,” “toggle bolt,” “hex head adapter,” “pulley housing.” The book is still in print.
In 1986, Darryl ran for National City City Council, because he, as he said in a newspaper interview (Asian American Times, October 23, 1986), wanted to help out a city where he grew up and which he loved. He didn’t win, but along with the other candidates he was on to the political formula of the period, and since — stopping crime. National City had then and still has the highest crime rate per capita of San Diego County’s 18 municipalities. He stressed that, paradoxically, National City had the third-largest tax base of all the municipalities but that the city was controlled economically and criminally by outsiders with large chains — above all the famous Mile of Cars—overwhelming local enterprise. Darryl’s take on the identification of criminals is different from the usual fare in the daily news and reflects a common Okie perspective regarding the rich and the not-rich.
Darryl’s and my first visit was in Coronado, which was beginning to seem about as distant from Okie life as Geneva, Switzerland, where I have spent time during the past 20 years lobbying the United Nations on human rights issues. Coronado, like Geneva, is a tidy, well-kept, well-behaved community. Even the dogs and skateboarders are fastidious in their adherence to the rules that everyone seems to accept. My most disturbing moment came when I tried to jaywalk and the voice of Big Brother boomed; “Please, folks, would you mind walking to the intersection crosswalk to cross the street?” I retreated to the corner to cross and never tried to jaywalk again in Coronado.
Later I drove down National City Boulevard past the Mile of Cars to visit with Darryl in his home. I saw for myself the beautiful draperies his mother had crafted, a little dusty and frayed after several decades of wear but still elegant in the cluttered living room. Darryl is sole owner of Gorham’s Draperies and Carpets in National City; he installs and provides hardware for verticals and miniblinds—no more hand-sewn drapes.
The other Okies I interviewed in San Diego did not contact me directly; rather, third parties did so, a daughter in the case of the Christian family and a community volunteer in the case of Mrs. Frances McMillion.
Ann, the daughter of Oren “Chris” and Anne Christian told me that her dad was a San Diego Okie and her mom a true Oklahoma girl who fell in love with the California Okie, and that’s how she got to San Diego. Commander Christian is a retired naval officer, a naval aviator, and aviation engineering duty officer in electronics. Due to this classification he did not go to sea on ships and had longer tours of duty than the average naval officer. Anne Christian, his wife, has researched the genealogy of all sides of both families and published several books about Scots-Irish and English names and lineages. She graciously traded books with me. Anne has a small consultancy. The Search: Genealogical Consulting and Education. She’s traveled to the Celtic rim and Scotland and Ireland for her research and has published The Search for Holmes, Robson, Hind, Steele and Graham Families of Cumberland and Northumberland, England, and The William and Alice (Setchfield) Holmes and Carlos L Hait Families, in Michigan, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado.
The Christians live, retired, in a gated community in La Jolla, comfortably but not ostentatiously. Several dogs dominate the living space. The commander, Chris, is a good-looking silver-haired man who could be taken for much younger than he is, as could Anne, a slim, elegant, charming, and energetic woman. Daughter Ann sat with us during the taped interview and now and then prompted this or that story. They weren’t Dust Bowl or Defense Okies but nevertheless have that kinship I found in Paula and Doug, in Darryl, in Jim. Oklahoma is the origin of something, a watershed. I listened for hours to tales of Chris’s dangerous and hard work troubleshooting and Anne’s life left behind in Norman, Oklahoma, for the love of this adventurous Okie man. I left their lovely home swearing to myself that I would never again generalize about Okies, about us. The combination of diversity and sameness was beginning to give me new insights into who I am and who I/we might be or become.
My final interview was with Frances McMillion. I visited her in a convalescent hospital on a Sunday afternoon in August. In her 70s, Frances is unable to get around but is mentally fit and still quite beautiful—slender, sharp-featured, hardly wrinkled She was born and raised in rural Oklahoma of tenant farmers, the only one of ten children to graduate from high school. In 1941, when she was 18, her older brother who had moved west sent for her. She married and settled in Los Angeles, divorced and married again, relocating to San Diego. That marriage ended as well, so Frances worked her whole adult life as a waitress, mostly at various Denny’s, and raised four children as a single mom. I loved Frances McMillion and her courage and endurance; she seemed like a close relative to me, like my mother, aunts, cousins, strong and sweet at the same time.
By that last Sunday in August when I finished the interview with Mrs. McMillion, I felt a great need to be alone. I am fundamentally a kind of loner, as writers tend to be, and I felt an overload, but I couldn’t call it a drain, more an emotional stew. I needed time to think, sort it all out. I questioned whether I could do justice to the stories of the people I had gotten to know and admired so much, how I could capture in words their courage, determination, intense stick-to-it-ness. I felt, and still feel, an inadequacy, a kind of humility, not up to this task. Yet I also know if I don’t do it, probably no one else will, except in our living rooms, at the rodeos, in the songs of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and Iris DeMent. And as I was about to give up, I called the Okie poet laureate, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, and she admonished me that I must do it, for myself, for all of us. What really helped was that Sunday afternoon in Barona, by myself, but not alone.
I decided to drive back out to Lakeside, Santee, Ramona, to take another look at the countryside, the trailer courts, the horse ranches, and it being Sunday morning, the churches and the swap meets. And so I drove out and I gazed at an Institute for Creation Research and a big swap meet at a drive-in movie theater in Santee, passing once again the trailer courts. Then I drove into Lakeside, knowing full well the Rodeo Bar and Grill would not open until 4:00 p.m. and nothing would be happening at the rodeo grounds. But I read the rodeo grounds marquee and it advertised for that very day, the “Barona BBQ, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., telephone 443-3412.”
I did not call the number but followed the map. As any fool who lives in San Diego knows, Barona is a California Indian reservation and the tribe runs a huge deluxe casino, Nevada style. I did not know that Barona was an Indian reservation nor that there was a casino. I did run into dense traffic on the two-lane blacktop that winded around fairly serious mountains for six miles from Lakeside. I was curious, doubtful, and amazed that so many people were going to the barbecue that I was trying to find. Of course, they were headed for the fine casino that I didn’t know about yet. I kept thinking, and it’s still a fact, that these were people who didn’t go to church on Sunday morning.
Actually, many of those attending the Barona barbecue had come earlier for Mass, during which the mission priest blessed people’s pets, a 20-year-old tradition, along with the barbecue. Mass and the blessing of the animals had not been advertised on the Lakeside Rodeo marquee, and I suppose only the Hispanics in attendance and the resident Indians would have been a part of the ceremony. The Okies who were there in great numbers when I arrived just after 11:00 a.m. pretty clearly had not gone to church first, nor had those thousands across the road parked in the vast casino parking lot. If I had been alienated from Coronado, I was now doubly disoriented. I know Indian reservations, and this was definitely an Indian reservation, but unlike ones I know in the Dakotas, the Southwest, in Oklahoma, here the Indians were host to a bunch of Okies and Hispanics. When I came on the scene, a dozen or so mariachis were singing and playing their hearts out, it seemed to the enjoyment of all, not just the Hispanics. Then came a local, kind of rockabilly band named Positive Approach, and they got everyone, young and old, Hispanic and Okie, gyrating in a perfect imitation of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” then on to instrumentals with the keyboardist being a done of Jerry Lee Lewis. The Indians there were in charge, the hosts, well-organized, self-confident, all ages, beautiful children; so much for the presumed corruption of reservation gambling.
I began thinking about the meaning of “diversity,” an enshrined and now battered cause I have long supported. I felt a little silly there in Barona, because I realized that no one there had probably ever heard the term and if they had they would denounce it forthrightly, but here it was: diversity, not to be politically correct, but a kind of poor people’s, outsider’s working-class solidarity. It felt good to be there, cooler up in the desert mountains, a breeze blowing. I gazed out onto the steaming black-topped parking lot and counted the minivans, like mine, the pickup trucks, Harleys — all made in America. I did see one tiny Toyota and worried somewhat about its fate. And so I bought my $5 ticket and got in line and ate the barbecued beef, coleslaw, beans, and roll, sweet iced tea.
I stayed quite a while and talked with a few people, some Okies in Okie, some Hispanics in Spanish, some Indians in a notably distinct English of their own. Reluctantly, I left. I wanted to go back to Ramona, not to visit the Turkey Bar, but just to see the place again, imprint its town folksiness on my memory. What I found was that a new Denny's had just that day opened in Ramona. There was a long line of patient customers, happy to have their own Denny’s.
I myself like very much Denny’s chicken-fried steak and gravy, biscuits and gravy. It seemed that all the white townsfolk were there or had just left or were waiting to get in. I slipped in as a single sliver of a person and had no problem scoring a seat at the counter, where I could eat, drink coffee, and watch the scene. I ordered biscuits and gravy and hash browns, coffee. I watched the workers. The waitress could have been Frances McMillion, near retirement, patient, sweet, attentive, and efficient, despite surely aches and pains and worries. Back behind, there in the visible kitchen, everyone was small, dark, and male, Hispanics; on the floor, servers were mostly fair and female, and managers or supervisors or whatever they are called were male and white, probably Okies too. During her working years at Denny’s, Frances McMillion could never have become a supervisor. I was too tired then to try to figure it all out, not just for that small venue but let’s extrapolate that to the whole of North America, and what do you get?
Prior to leaving San Diego, I met with an old friend, Marla Painter. I have known Marla for 16 years but never knew she was an Okie. When I called her and told her I would be in San Diego and what the project was, she told me some about her past, her Okie mother and Nebraska-born, tenant-farmer-raised father, migrants, poor, rural, her mother’s fierce ambition, which reminded me of my mother although Maria’s mother sort of realized it while mine died young of alcoholism; about Okie fathers who hated pretensions and just wanted to live in the country. I was amazed that my friend, Maria, a sophisticated, independent, attractive, and smart woman about a decade younger than I, was from the same background that I was. And that she cared about it, thought about it, yet, like me, long feared it. Ever since I have known her, Marla has been a full-time environmental and rural-rights activist who never rests, never gives up, who helped organize Indians and ranchers in coalition in Nevada against nuclear waste disposal and the MX missile project in the 70s and ’80s, and who is still at it. Marla, an Okie.
For most of us it is not an easy story to tell or a memory to savor. Marla’s mother, like many of my female relatives (perhaps also like Darryl Gorham’s brother, Mel, the millionaire), was fanatically ambitious — to be a part of a “better class,” for her daughter to be accepted there, to have a beautiful home. And she succeeded in those goals, although Marla’s father, a mechanic who had his own small auto repair shop, was always uncomfortable with educated people who he thought were pretentious and ungenuine.
Marla now lives in “my mother’s house,” as she calls it. It is an impressive house, a shrine to Marla's mother's ambitions, a house in Del Mar up on the hill, kind of overlooking the ocean, now worth much more than during the 1950s when they bought it, although it was even then beyond their means. I told Marla that her mom sounded like Carrie Fisher’s depiction of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, in Postcards from the Edge. Marla agreed.
We sat, Marla and I, on a bench overlooking the fine white sand of a Del Mar beach. She told me her story, and she told me she is going to marry — she has never married or had children and is in her 40s — a privileged Eastern-bred man. She suspects he may not understand some of her family who have not had the benefits of education and affluence. I wished her well and am certain she will be fine, as long as she remembers; we will all be fine and strong, as long as we all remember who we are and where we have come from, and refuse to leave anyone behind.
— Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is professor of ethnic studies and women’s studies at California State University, Hayward. She is author of five scholarly books and many articles. Her most recent work is her memoir of growing up poor and rural in Oklahoma, Red Dirt, published in 1997 by Verso. She is presently at work on a historical novel based on the life of Belle Starr, the Outlaw Queen of Oklahoma and a part of the James (Jesse) Gang.
...genealogy also implies obligation, that each new generation, shouldering some vague hope for the future, will restore something lost, a deep longing for family, for connection, for home long fled. This birthright follows me, an unwritten tradition with rules I cannot recite but follow perfectly.
We pass it on to our children at birth, a chorus of voices intone,
Are you the one?
Are you the one?
— from “Genealogies” by Marissa Martinez
Top drawers of memory
never contain anything of value for me when wounded and needing a balm
I pull out the bottom drawer of my mind marked Oklahoma which holds a list of small raw towns with names of touching beauty
I recite with reverence
Lone Star Gypsy Corner Broken Arrow Cloud Chief
until the words form a prayer which I do not understand
but close the drawer with my own Amen
— Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, “Oklahoma Litany”