Camera Rolls: 318:17-22
Sound Rolls: 318:09-11
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Art King , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 10, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
OK, this is interview with Art King in Bakersfield. We're talking about what life was like back then, a long time ago. Let's start out with, with some of your early memories in, in Oklahoma before you even got out here. You were telling me that, that your family moved to town, they lived at the top of the hill, and then gradually things got worse. Tell me a little bit about that.
My memory goes back to, almost five years old, in 1928. Dad had moved in from a farm to Oklahoma City, started contracting. That's where I first started to school, and we kind of lived on north Twenty-Third Avenue, which at that time was like Panorama here in Bakersfield. The lower part is more working people, and as they progressed in their wealth, well, they go up on top of the hill. Well, we about, we maybe got halfway up, and that's when the Depression hit. I remember, Dad was a roofing contractor, and he had trucks and all the equipment, and all of a sudden repossesors came and took everything. It was, of course, he didn't own anything, it was all on debt, credit. So we went down, down, down, down, and we got down along the Canadian River, around Packingtown in Oklahoma City, we lived under the bridges. There was a big dump there, and we went over and got car bodies at the edge of the dump, and we made shelters out of cardboard. There were thousands of people in the same class we were in. We found out that it was almost impossible at that time for one family to get enough food to eat, so four or five families would go together and pool their resources, and make a big pot of stew or something like that. Of course, a lot of us was fishing the rivers and getting fish, and making fish chowder and stuff like that, or just stew and frying fish-
Can you tell me, at one point there was some relief money, and you had to go and get it yourself when you—
There was a soup line there—
Start over again. Go ahead.
Yeah, they started, in the winter time the soup line started up right along the Canadian River and run through Oklahoma City, and under the May Avenue bridge. It was snowing, it was cold winter, that winter, and my mom would wrap my feet and legs with papers and rags, and I'd stand in the soup line all day long, from about eight until just before dark, before I could get my turn to get a loaf of bread and a bucket of soup. Then I'd carry that home to Mom and Dad. Dad was sick, and mother was sick, and had a lot of little brothers, and my elder sister. We survived all winter, things like that.
Now, at a certain point, someone somewhere gets the idea that, maybe, California is the answer. What, how did people in Calif—in Oklahoma hear about California?
Well, the way that, the way we heard about it was, a lot of people were talking about it, had picked up these pamphlets that was [sic] being distributed all over the country and dropped from airplanes. Everywhere you went, big sign posters, fruit pickers wanted in California, good wages, good housing, thing like that. So, everyone just began to get up their old Model T Fords or whatever, and we had, Dad had two acres at one time out there, but anyway he sold it and got this old '27 Model T Ford Tour. Six, eight in our family, and there was another family that didn't have a car, so eleven of us got in that Model T Ford if you can believe it, and headed to California.
You were, you were telling me that he actually had to put sides on?
Built up sides all the way, and everything was just, he had a hole cut in there, put the kids in, pull them out. I rode the right front fender with a big rock in case it was going uphill and couldn't go any further, I'd get out and chock the wheel real quick, so it wouldn't roll back. That was my job. [laughs]
But you weren't traveling very fast.
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] those things wouldn't do sixty miles an hour.
If we made twenty-five miles a day, even when we had the gas, we were lucky. It would go three miles and the tire would blow out and we'd have to get out and patch it. We had more patches than we could have, find on the car.
You were telling me one story about, about, I guess in New Mexico, coming over the hill, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Las Cruces.
Yeah, a truck—we got stalled going up, we couldn't go any further, the old Model T just wouldn't pull it, and a truck came by and says, Get in, I'll push you up to the top. And he pushed up to the top, but he kept pushing, and it was going down, and Dad wasn't a good driver at all and there was [sic] no brakes on that thing. If I remember correctly that hill was about ten or twelve miles, you could see Las Cruces going in. This was about midnight, and fortunately wasn't too much traffic on the road. But anyway, we started picking up speed going down that thing and Dad was going like this and Mom was screaming, and the kids were all over the place, old Model T flopping and everything, and wind blowing us. Anyway, we finally coasted about, I guess a good twelve, thirteen mile before we finally pull over and stop. Truck driver must be laughing. [laughs]
I'm sure he had no idea, he assumed you had brakes, or something.
[laughs] Probably, but—
How we doing on [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
OK. Let's talk a little bit about, about what that experience was once you hit the road, and how people treated you, and what kinds of things you ran into.
Well, even in Oklahoma, the camps, it took us seemed like forever to get out of Oklahoma and from one state to the other. It took us about six months, really, to get to Arizona from the time we left Oklahoma City. It was camps, we'd go a little ways, and maybe we could stir up a gallon of gas somewhere and go down, the Ford would go, and we'd just pull over and push it off the road someplace and stop, and other people would come by and they'd stop. People were helpful, and, so we'd all just, kind of stayed together like—
—a covered wagon. So, anyway, they, we had the camps like that, and—
We're out? OK, let's stop.
Mark it, take two.
So, let's continue with [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] some of your experiences on the road, and you were just telling me about how, how people who were traveling got together and supported each other, but I want to hear about the other side of the coin. How did the people in the communities you were going through respond to...
OK, sure. Well, we would, usually when we would run out money we'd, lot of people seemed like they run out of money at the same time, we would make a camp, usually outside of a town. If we could find a creek or a river nearby, that's usually where we tried to get it, but sometimes just alongside the road. Of course,
people had to go into town, they were broke, they were hungry, they tried to find work. I've had, we've had the police to escort us out the edge of town, says, We don't want you in this town. Lot of the people in the businesses called us filthy scum, dirty rotten stinking Okies,
** all that [sic] superlatives you had to put up with.
Why do you think they, why do you think they treated you that way [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
It was something strange to them.
We were different, we were poor, we were dependent on people for help, and they didn't want no one coming into their town disturbing their peace, I suppose.
** On the other hand, in the farming towns, they'd want us to work, but they didn't want us to go downtown, walk the streets. We'd have people stop the cars, get out and say, get out of here, we don't want you walking our streets. Things like that.
You were telling me, sometimes there'd be an incident in town, and then the police would come and go through the camp.
That's right, they'd come through the camps, just, Tuesday carloads sometimes. We had campfires, and we had, try to have, if we had anything to cook a stew up we had it on the fire cooking, or coffee if we had coffee, and sometimes just heating water. They'd come through and shoot holes in our cans, kick the buckets over and put the fire out, and if someone stood up and said something, they'd beat them up. So we just, we were cowed, we were scared to make a move, do anything.
Unless they wanted you to stay and work?
Unless we wanted, they wanted us to work. And then, the working conditions was, wasn't nothing [sic] like they advertised. All those beautiful furnished homes, they said, or furnished cabins, good wages- it was a dirt floor, maybe a barrel, with a stove-pipe coming up through the top. Sometimes even had armed guards at the gate, you couldn't even get out once you got inside the camp, you had to work so long. Then they'd pick you up in trucks and take you out to the fields before daylight, bring you back at dark. They'd give this scrip money, that you could spend it only in their camps. Of course we had to go to the store every night and buy their stuff, which was four times higher than it should have been. They took every penny we made, we worked by family, not by person, and the more you had in your family the better the chance you had of working, so everyone earned their bread, so to speak. Even the little two and three year old children was going on, picking up whatever had to be done. So everyone worked. And we was, I remember this one camp, we was [sic] there almost a month, and when we left, they said we owed them two dollars at the store. Dad put up a fuss, and they finally wound up giving us a gallon of gas and kicked us out. Went on down the road to the next camp.
And you'd been working there?
We had been working there, yes. Every day.
You were saying that the women would actually have to take the kids into the fields when they were picking cotton?
Yes, that's right. Women, everyone was in those fields picking the cotton. Whatever was doing, daylight till dark, and before daylight and a little after dark. Then, oh, we got to some camps, and the bigger, got into Arizona, where the fruit and the vegetables were and then we began to really get persecution. Then when we came over into California, we really got it worse than ever.
Well, but do you remember when you finally got to California, was that, like, supposed to be the Promised Land?
Supposed to have been the Promised Land, and all we saw was just—
Start over again, I interrupted you. Go ahead.
Yeah. We come into California, they stopped us at the line, and they had cars lined—
Excuse me, would you just say, Coming to California was supposed to be the Promised Land, and then go on?
Yes. We came to California, it was supposed to have been the Promised Land. We thought it was going to be rich, and our worries were going to be over at that time. But boy, we found out differently, just, just the opposite. To get a job, we were lined up, and they would come in, the farmers, or union, I don't whether union men or not, I don't think they were, because they had two groups. We had men that was working for the farmers, they were evidently getting paid to bring so many people in, I don't know what you would call them, and then we had union people coming in and telling us not to work for those wages they were offering. They had advertised maybe twenty-five cents an hour, when we get in there, a lot of us, they'd lower it to ten cents an hour and you couldn't do anything about it. If you quit, sometimes they'd beat you up really good before they let you go. But the
cars were lined up at the border, and these guys were accompanied by two or three big, burly officers, and they would look in your car and says, You want work. How many's [sic] in your family?
** Things like that, and they'd look us over and say, OK, get in this line here, and follow that line of cars. And after about four or five hours waiting there, then they had enough, so officers in the lead car and some of these other guys would follow and assemble behind us. So, they'd take us into this camp, maybe fifteen, twenty-five miles away, where it was at. They'd assign us to one of these huts, and they'd tell us OK, you can go down to your store and get your food, and they'd write your name and your hut number, your car license number and all this, and how many's in your family, take the names of everybody. They'd say, "Work starts at five o'clock in the morning, we'll be here in the truck, be ready." We'd load up in the truck, they'd take us to the fields, they'd bring us back, they'd give us how many, how much scrip money we made that day, they'd give us some, we'd go to the store. I don't know whether it's paying full or not, we didn't know, we couldn't keep track of it, we had to take what they gave us. So, that's the way it went, and people, of course, some of the young men would try to go out of the camps, and sometimes would get caught, they'd beat them up. There was quite an uprising in the camps. People, you'd get people screaming throughout the night. Maybe some of these guards coming in that eyed maybe a beautiful young girl or something, and taking her, just forcefully taking her where they wanted to take her, when no one could do anything about it, which was a very sad thing.
Did, did everyone get through the border, or...?
A lot of them never made it. They wouldn't, wouldn't even let them across. They, now, eventually might have, but they held them up. Second time we came out
we were held up four days right there before they let us pass over.
** They went through everything we had, piece by piece by piece, unloaded it all, then we had to load everything back, they wouldn't do that. But they just took things, throwing like this, looking, seeing what we had, and a lot of them's taking what they wanted of what we had. If we had anything. Mom did have some personal heirlooms that she had, her mother and herself and other women had quilted, quilts and those little doilies and things like that, and mother's keepsakes, a lot of those were taken. Those people said there was cotton in them so we couldn't bring them across. So they'd take them themselves and take them home, they wasn't [sic] destroying them. So it was things like that, and then...
So, you were just vulnerable in that situation, they could do pretty much—
We were totally helpless. You felt like nothing and nobody, they made you feel that way. The more they tramped on you, a lot of the people got mad and fought back, but it was a losing battle. They'd bust you over the head with their big sticks, if it was a man especially, and knock the fight right out of you. You were scared to make a move.
Well, that's pretty much the same thing with the union organizers, you couldn't win those [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , could you?
That's right, you couldn't do it. They would come through in carloads of big men that looked like they came out of New York and Chicago, they wasn't farm workers, didn't know nothing about it. They were just ruling, wanted to start a union and wanted to make you pay. It was, of course then we had Woody Guthrie coming through, he fought all those guys, and continually trying to get the workers there to stand up for their rights, and things like that. They put—
Did someone like Woody mean something really special to you?
You bet he did.
What, what did he mean?
Well, he, just like a Robin Hood, so to speak, to me. It was, he was trying to tell us the way out of our problems and troubles, stand up and fight back, don't give in to those warlords. Things like that. Of course, that was my ambition when I got old enough, I was going to fight too, for the poor people, and I've had that feeling all my life, never has left me. I still believe that the poor, the working poor are very sadly neglected in a lot of ways, and are kept down, even though they have a lot of ability now, and a lot of them are more educated. But at that time, if you had a second or third grade education, you were considered a pretty smart person. We just didn't have the schooling, we didn't, couldn't, couldn't go to school with traveling around all over the country. Dad, if we was [sic] any place at all, he would put me in school, but he needed me to help him work, so, he dragged me out. I'm not, I barely made it to the sixth grade, I never did go to the sixth, I just passed into it, but then I didn't... that was my schooling until I got up and went in the Navy during the War.
And even when you were in school, it wasn't so—
We're going to run out.
OK, let's change.
Want to slate her? OK, this is Art King, take three. Art, one of those stories you told me before, and it was a real sad story but it really got to me, was, was, again, it was more on the trip out, about when your family broke up and you were hitch-hiking, and that whole experience. Would you, would you tell me some of that?
Sure. Our old Model T broke down in, I believe it was Denton, Texas. I mean completely, it wouldn't run another, Dad sold it for six dollars. We was all along the highway with our personal belongings, and a man and his wife came by with a new Model T truck with a covering over the back, and he stopped and asked us where we was going. We said we was heading for California, but the car broke down. He said, "Do you have any money?" Dad said, :I have six dollars I just got for the car." I think altogether he had maybe ten dollars including that. And they said, "Well, we're going to California, we have plenty of room." Real nice people. He said, "Just load up in here and we'll take you out there, give me the money and that'll buy the gas, help buy the gas, I'll take you out there." So we got to Big Springs, Texas, that day, it wasn't very far, and we made camp. He said, "We'll make camp here today, and we'll stay all night to get an early start in the morning." Well, he and his, we got all out, everything out, and he and his wife said, "We're going down to the store to get some things, we'll be back in a little while." Never saw them since. So they took off and left us there again, stranded, this time with no money at all. So we had to stay there quite a while before we, Mom had trunks and things, she finally found a woman who would let us store them in her basement. So here we were on the road, again. We tried staying together to get rides, and we just couldn't get a ride, the whole family, it was eight of us. Dirty kids, and Mom had, cooking some potatoes in a big iron skillet around the campfire had spilled the hot grease on her leg from her knee down, and it was just a solid sore. So that, anyway, she could hardly get around, and she just had it wrapped in old rags and things like that. We couldn't get any doctors to help at all, we tried going to hospitals and they wouldn't treat her at all. So anyway, Dad said, the only thing we can do is split up, we'll meet every two hundred miles down the road, or something like that. He took my oldest sister and my brother next to me, and left Mom with me and my three little brothers. [laughs] I didn't think that was quite fair, but he did, and, so, they caught a ride first, they were ahead of us and somebody passed us up and picked them up. So we went about three days and finally we got a ride ninety miles to the next town, I think it was Van Horn or Pecos, Texas, between Pecos and Van Horn, all desert. And so we got to Van Horn and Mom says, "Let us out here, we're supposed to meet every so many miles." So we got out there and we looked all over for Dad and them. They wasn't [sic] there, couldn't find them, so Mom said, "Well, they must have gone back looking for us." So we hitchhiked back where we started from, nothing there, so we come back out again. We caught rides in an old wagon with a couple Mexican Indian fellows. They took us somewhere way, ungodly down an old dirt road all day to a little place, I believe it was in New Mexico somewhere called, Quebec, or, it started with a Q, I remember that. There was nothing there but a few old adobe buildings and they were laughing when they put us out. We didn't see a car, we was there three days and didn't see a car. Finally somebody came through a wagon and took us out again, in a wagon. Then we were on the side of the road when they turned off, and two Mexican men came by and they were drinking, they were drunk, and they saw my Mom and us kids, and they started trying to flirt with my mother. She was scared to death and we were scared. So we didn't get a ride that day and it started getting night, and there was a warehouse along the railroad track, and these guys were still hanging around, so Mom said, "We've got to hide from those people," so we got under, under that old warehouse, and they came looking for us. All during the night we heard them looking, searching, and say [sic] "Well, they've got to be here somewhere, they've got to be here somewhere." So we spent the night under that, and then the next day we got another ride in a wagon and finally got back to a main highway. We got a ride by a young couple, took us into El Paso, Texas, and how we made a circle around I don't know, but we got back there. Then my mother's just beside herself, and this couple that gave us a ride, they were on their honeymoon, and they gave Mom a couple dollars when we got out of the car. We got in there about two o'clock at night, and the wind was blowing. We was walking down the street and two men walked past us, I remember this, they had black coats on and they grabbed my hand. They put two one dollar bills in, didn't say a word, just kept walking. We had four dollars. So we saw this hotel, said the rooms, seventy five cents and up. And we went up there and here it was, two o'clock in the morning. The landlady came up and opened the door, and we said, "We'd like a room." She looked us over and said, "We don't have any vacancy," and...there's a young man, evidently saw us or something, he's across the hall, he opened his door and he listened to that. He walked up and says, "Here," says, "You don't want to stay in this dump." Gave Mom a ten dollar bill. He said, "There's a real nice hotel just down the street." That woman looked, just, she couldn't hardly [sic] believe it, you know. So we went down there, we did get [coughs], find room, and the next day Mom went to the Red Cross, the police station, hospital, everywhere she could think to find, try to find my dad and my brother and sister. Couldn't find them, no luck, so I said, Mom, "Let's catch a train, we can't hitchhike, no people'll pick us up." So she was scared to death, just to mention the train, but we went down in the yards in [coughs], in El Paso, and a yard bull, we called them at that time, grabbed us, and, "Where you guys going?" Mom told him that her husband, we're trying to find her husband and other kids, and we're going to Phoenix, Arizona. He said, "Well," he looked us over and he says, "That train's leaving pretty soon," says, "You can get on that." But, we was [sic] waiting, and, anyway, Mom just went hysterical all of a sudden and, just crying and screaming and didn't know what to do and wanted to give up, and the train was coming, and she threw herself down on the track in front of the train. I was, see, at that time, probably ten, I guess. Anyway, I was trying to pull her off the track, I was pulling with everything I had, screaming, my little brothers behind me were screaming. I don't know what saved us, it seemed like extra strength or an angel or something, just, first thing and she was, she was off the track, and then as soon as she was off, she started, she grabbed us and started screaming, she'd come to her senses. It was that, just, that close of [sic] being run over, and I probably'd gotten run over too 'cause I wasn't turned loose, I was pulling, pulling her off. But anyway, we caught the train, and we went to another town, and the same way, she didn't, she didn't believe that they'd go off and leave us. We looked and looked all over them, about a month. And finally a deputy sheriff picked us up, we told our story to him and he rented a room for us, and I guess he got on the hotline and called Phoenix and the little surrounding town, Glendale and Peoria, Buckeye, and sure enough, Dad had went to them too, and so they had a record, so they got, notified Dad, and Dad got the farmer he was working for to come pick us up. We was, oh, probably five hundred miles from there when he got us. Things like that, and...
How much we got left on this?
We got about three minutes.
Three minutes. Tell me a little bit more about the train experience. You were saying that, at one point, there was this incident where a guy tried to give you cookies, and—
Oh, yeah, some young man, he had a little pack of cookies, and he set down beside of us when we got in this open coal car, and it was half full of snow, it was real cold, in the winter-time. And we hadn't eaten, well, we ate a little bit that morning, but, you know, kids are always hungry for cookies, and he gave me cookies, little animal cookies, I think it was. He gave the other kids some, and he seemed like a real nice young man. And it wasn't long after that, he began to act crazy. His eyes looked crazy. He'd look at me, and the first thing you know he grabbed hold of me and picked me up, and started choking me. Then he picked me up by the ankles and started pounding my head on the bottom of the box car, or trying to, and Mom's screaming, trying to fight him off. Two young men saw that, and they finally come over there and they grabbed a hold of him, they didn't say a word, they just took him over to the side and threw him off the train. He hit the sand dunes out there and we saw him, he was running and jumping up and laughing and, like a jackrabbit, hopping up and falling down, and hitting on his seat. We were scared to death of him, and we saw a truck pass the train, later, and he was on the back of the truck. So we were scared to death that he was going to try to find us and kill us.
Well, you know, maybe he was just nuts anyway, but do you have a sense that some of that stuff just brought out the worst in people?
I'm sure it did. It did. No, he had to be squirrelly, but everyone was hair-triggers in those days, and nobody, learned not to trust anyone. But a woman, you can imagine, with four little kids on the railroad with a bunch of bums, and there was a lot of just honest people riding the rails, too, just trying to find jobs, didn't have any other means of transportation. But there were a lot of squirrellys on there too.
For the most part, these people on the road were just ordinary people who had some—
Most part they were, and they were good, honest, hard-working people who had no means of transportation, so they took to the rails. And we did the same thing, later, my dad and I rode a freight train over here from Arizona, rode right through Bakersfield when I was thirteen years old, looking for work. We went on to Fresno and found a little work there, and then we was [sic] going back to Arizona to get the family and bring them over. He and I worked over here for about two months, I guess, and saved a little money enough to go get them and bring them over.
About ready to change?
OK, continuing with Art King. I, I guess I'd like to hear you tell me a little bit more about, you know, you were saying, folks—nowadays, when we talk about bums, we have a repu—we have an image of someone who doesn't want to work or stuff like that, but the people on the road were very different, people don't understand what kind of people they were.
They were just hard-working people that were mostly farmers.
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Oh, I'm sorry?
It's a truck, or something...
OK, can we, tell me when you're ready.
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
Start over. OK. Go ahead, what kind of people were they?
They were hard-working, honest people as a rule, overall, that was farmers who came from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, that had made their own living from the land. They were promised great things would come to California, Arizona. That wasn't so, it didn't, that was just a big farce to get people out here so the big conglomerations would have excess of laborers to do their dirty work for nothing, or for peanuts. Ten cents an hour was very common. Once in a while, if a grown man could get twenty cents an hour it was, it was something, just out of the ordinary. I know I, until I went into the Navy, I was working out here in the field for twenty cents an hour, pitching hay, chopping cotton, picking potatoes, and things like that.
I mean, were people coming out looking for a hand-out, or were they looking for a way to—
They were looking for work, and course, there had to be hand-outs somewhere along the line, and a lot of starvation. A lot of people died from starvation, just too proud to beg or to ask for help. They treated those people, and, I really had a hard time overcoming the term Okie. And to me, the term Okie meant a dirty S.O.B. I would say, someone laughingly called me a dirty, filthy Okie or something, I would say, "I'm from Oklahoma, I'm not an Okie, I'm from Oklahoma, and what's wrong with that, you know?" I remember my grandfather and my father working the land back there a lot, and I worked with them, and we were happy. We didn't make money, but we had food. Well, the lure of grandeur got us out, started out here, course the big Dust Bowl hit too, and that was another thing, we couldn't raise our crops, there was nothing to, no water, the topsoil was all blown away. We were just dirt farmers with nothing to farm, and nothing to raise. We couldn't. So they were welcome, when that hit, they called for people, come out for good wages and all the food you can eat, and a good place to stay, and stuff like that. We just went crazy, with, boy, that's the land of opportunity, land of, world of tomorrow, you know, the Promised Land, you know. So we headed that way, and when you're dirty on that road, you're considered just a dirty, lowly bum. But when we'd come to a canill or any kind of water, Mom would always stop and scrub us kids clean as she could clean us. Not all women would do that, they had no hope and no energy left to do it, they just let themselves and everyone go. My mother did fight that, and she kept us clean as possible on the road, like that, so we seemed to have a few more morals in that respect than a lot of the others. But I have seen the bums, I mean, the bums, stealing from the poor people, honest poor people too, they were there too, and always someone taking advantage, or disadvantage. But the most I saw was the authorities in the towns, crooked farmers, the law enforcement officers, or guards. I don't know whether they were paid by the city or the county, but they had guns and they had big sticks, clubs, and had, looked like the authority, and come out and knocking you around. If you wasn't working, they'd kick you out and they'd say, Don't come back in this town, don't let the sun go down on, on your back, and they meant it. They'd come out, boy, and just take you right out to the edge of town and say, Don't come back in. We were scared to go. Said Well, we've got to get out of here, we've got to go through some way, so, sometime [sic] they'd escort us through the town, made sure we went on through. That bad.
Did, did you hear your mom and dad ever talk, I mean, did they ever think, Well, this isn't working out here, we should go back to Oklahoma, or—
We did go back. We came out for the first time in 1932 when the Dust Bowl hit, and we stayed in Arizona. Well, I don't know how long it took, we worked all the way out there, and then the winter hit in Arizona, and boy, we had nothing. Dad had an old 1923 Buick that he'd built a little bed on and covered it with a tarp, we lived in that, but we didn't have any money to buy gas. We was camped outside of Phoenix there, in Peoria. The rain was just coming down real hard, and flash floods. Anyway, the welfares [sic] come out, they come through, not only us but this big camp of people. They said, Anybody want to go back where they came from, give us everything you got and we'll put you on a train and send you back. Just like a herd of cattle. So they took our car and some other personal things that Mom, Dad had, and bought us a train ticket with no extra money for food or nothing. We wound up back in Oklahoma City again, and so we stayed there, then, till 1935, and then we, that was '33, I think, came back out in, started out again in '35, and finally wound up here in the last part of '36.
Now, from '36 on it was pretty hard. When we talk about '38 or '39, did things start getting better then?
'39 it did. Up until '39, seemed like, the government began to build war camps, and army camps, and things began to go and to began to do little things like that. So, I know, I joined the union, finally, in 1939, that was...
You were saying that up until '38, '39, you were still living in a tent, though, right?
We lived in tents, right here in Bakersfield, along the river. We lived in tents right out in the cotton patch, they'd let us, at the end of a cotton patch we'd stretch a little tent and stay there. Were irrigation ditches there, so we'd wash in them and drink out of them, and pick cotton there until it was all over, then we'd have to move on somewhere else. We did that until nineteen, almost 1940 before we finally got in a house. But, when I joined the Union,
I'd come out of the field working twenty cents an hour, and the union wage was eighty-six cents an hour for labor. [laughs] I was in tall cotton then, Boy, that was more money than I ever saw in my life.
** I was making, I think, working ten, twelve hours a day, six, seven days a week, I'd had [sic] thirty-five or forty dollars in my pocket, and cash that check. That went a long ways, in those days.
And that was because of the War, right?
Right. The War, they began to prepare for War back in '39, and I shined shoes, and I built, shined boxes for other kids before that, and did everything I could to get out of the fields. I worked at a car lot as a car boy, eight dollars a week, worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. I worked in a Brocks Department Store as, and I wrapped packages. That was really a good job, I'd get eighteen a week on that, from nine to five. So I worked there, and I really loved that till I joined the Union and got to doing labor work. We helped build the first Murock, Edwards Air-Force Base was called Murock in those days, and I poured, worked on the concrete crew. We poured the first foundation out there in 1940, early 1940.
Did, up until people got a sense that the War was going to change things, did, what did you think was going to happen, were you just going to keep on like that?
We never thought there was going to be any change. It had been almost ten years of Depression, and it seemed to get worse every year.
** And the people, the farmers right here, they worked us, but that's all they, they had no compassion for us at all. They wouldn't let us stay on their property once the work was done. Now, we did find a few government camps, run camps, had one at [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , one at Shafter, and all around California. They treated you halfway decent, you could go in and take a shower, and you don't know how important a shower is until you go weeks or months without one. [laughs] Then you'll know. But things like that, and they had little houses that we got moved into. They had trucks would come in and say, We need twenty-five people, fifty people today. We'd load up in the trucks, they'd take us out at decent hours and bring us back, they treated us nice. We still had mean row-bosses and farmers that, slave-beaters, you know, boy, they didn't want you to look up or nothing, they wanted you to bend over and pick that cotton.
But when you stayed in those government camps, was that a better, did you feel like you weren't—
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Began to feel like a human being again. They had little dances there, every weekend or Saturday night, people'd get their guitars and fiddles out, and their harmonicas, and start up the band. Everyone'd start dancing, relief, all of that emotion, and feel like a human being again. That was [sic] nice times, and the kids, girls and boys your own age played together, and that was good. One of the, one of the main things there, they made you clean up when you first went into that camp. You had to go to the showers and clean up before you could even get in the quarters they furnished for you. So that was good. But that's, were exceptions, most of them that we went to wasn't that way at all. They were armed camps, you couldn't get out.
There wasn't [sic] a lot of government camps, was there?
No. California's are the only ones I saw. I'm sure there might have been others along the way, but we never got into any of those. We heard of greener grass down the road but we never found it.
Green pastures [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ?
How we doing on this, Matthew?
Just going to roll off.
OK, that's- roll it out.
OK, good. So, before we go on, would you just say that one thing for me, that you lived in a tent, up until 1939 when you got your first job building the air-force base?
Sure. We lived in tents right along the Kern River, and, the tent, and then we, the willow trees used to grow lot, plentiful right there, and we'd take the willow trees and bring them down, tie them together and then line them with pasteboard boxes. We lived in huts like that, and tents along the river, until 1939, and that's when I joined the Union, went over to the, when they first started building an air-force base in Vandenburg[?], then I went over there and went to work. My take-home pay, working seven days a week, was $39.75 a week, clear money.
That was pretty good money, then, wasn't it?
I mean, you felt like you could live on that.
That's when you could buy a brand-new Plymouth for $700, drive it off the floor.
You know, one thing we didn't finish up on because we changed magazines right then, you were telling me a little bit, we talked a little bit about school, but we really never finished it up. You know, that, that you didn't have a chance to go to school very much, and you really didn't give me, again, the other side of the picture, about how you were rece—what happened to you when you went to the school.
Yeah. Well, I got passed into the fifth, sixth grade in Oklahoma City, last time we were there, then we came out here, and course I was thirteen then, and I didn't want to go to school, I'd been out too long. So I was working, but then the truant officer got a hold of me one day and made me go to, put me in a school, a little school out at Greenfield. I went two weeks, but I gave the teacher such a bad time that I finally got expelled, and the little kids in my grade was four years younger than me, four or five years younger.
So you must have had mixed feelings, I mean, you would have liked to go into school if it could have been...
I loved school when I first started going, course the hard times came and Dad'd have to have me to work with him, and when he needed me to work he'd take me out, and I'd be out a month or two working, then he'd put me back in. That doesn't, doesn't cut it. And I got to the point that I was so far behind that I was embarrassed, 'cause I didn't know what was going on, I couldn't keep up with them. So I began to get kind of the hard, I-don't-need-it attitude. I went on that way until World War II came. I went in the Navy, then I began to see that I should have had more education, and I began to do a little, do all I could in there, but during the War they don't have time to put you in school, just train you to go to war. But when I got out of the war I went into the Army, then I took some schooling, and I took classes, and I got my GED. Then I came back home here and went to night school two years, and got my high school diploma.
So, so it wasn't that you didn't appreciate education or anything, just—
No, no, I wanted to learn. It didn't bother me till I got up and started looking at girls, and all the kids at that time was going to school, and I wasn't, and the parents wouldn't let me date a girl because I wasn't going to school. So I began to feel the pressure and the need to get educated, but of course that went on, I didn't do it until after I was a grown man, but I finally did, and that's all that counts. It was, it was quite a good feeling to be able to show them [sic] people, and get qualified to take an examination for a good job. I finally did, and got into law enforcement.
When you look back at the whole experience, what, what is it that stands out about those years, the hard years?
Well, of course, there's the bad memories is seeing the sick and dying people, starving to death, my mother especially, and other women. I saw that, but the strong points, I think, you learn to survive. It probably made a better person out of me over all, after it was all said and done, not during, I didn't believe that during the time. I built up a hatred against law enforcement, against all authority, and it's taken me a lifetime, and working as a police officer, to overcome this, because I went into police work for one reason and one reason only, to prove to myself that I could be a law enforcement officer and still be a human being, treat the poor people with dignity, and that is why I went in. I proved it to myself after about eight years of it, and I resigned. And I had...
But, you know, going back to what you get from the experience, I mean, the classic example is when you try to tell your kids what it was like, because they don't get it. What do you, what do you tell kids?
I try to tell them how hard it was, and how it was to be out like that, no food for three or four days, sometimes, and then just a bite here, a bite there of cornmeal mush, a pot of beans with no flavoring in them, no salt sometimes. I've even eaten bark off of tree, and tried grass and leaves when I was a kid. I'd tell them things like this, and I'd say, "You don't have to go through those things," but my oldest son would say, "Dad, you came through it all right, I'd like to be able to go through something like that." He actually felt like he wanted to. So you really can't, your experiences only go so far with children, they have to learn their own way of life. Course, we have our trials and tests now, the kids on the street, the dope, they have to learn some character that way. We had to learn the other way, just to survive. Now they have their homes and their warm beds and three meals a day if they want to take advantage of it, and respect their families, and stay there, and have it. We didn't have that, then. We respected our families, we respected our relatives and we respected other poor people, but we did band together, and as a unit, poor people banding together with the same survival and humanitarian thoughts in our minds, we made it.
So there was a, sort of a camaraderie?
There was a bonding, camaraderie there that people don't have anymore. We could sit around and tell stories and cry and put our arms around each other, then somebody'd play a fiddle and get up and start dancing. You know, a lot of people, when they got out here, even living in tents, they made their own booze—
I think we're going to stop for a minute. [laughs]
OK, so, let's, let's move back to Woody and music and what that meant.
Tell me a little bit about how Woody's songs would relate to your life and what people were going through.
Wait for this truck, please, I'm sorry. OK.
OK, go ahead.
Yes, this one song, and during those days everyone was making up songs, and Woody Guthrie was going through the land singing songs that meant, about people that was destitute and on the road, and things like this. Everybody'd add to them, their own version of what he'd make up sometimes, and this is one that I remember that was made up, and I only know a, I remember a small part of it, but it went on a long ways. This one kind of appealed to me because it [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Oklahoma. It goes something like this: "Back in 1927, had a little farm that I called heaven/The prices got high and the rains came down, I hauled my crops right into town, I bought clothes and groceries and went home, tried to raise a family/Well the rains quit and the winds got high, and a dark old dust cloud filled the skies, so I traded that farm for a Ford machine, I filled it up with that gas-ah-line, and we started out, just rocking and rolling, right out California way/We got up there in the tall, piny woods, on a high, rocky road, thought I'd give that Ford a shove and let her coast just far as she could, save on gas/Well we went to coasting, picking up speed, hairpin curve- we didn't make it/ Man-alive, I'm telling you, guitars and fiddles really flew, that Ford took off like a flying squirrel and flew halfway around the world, scattered wives and children and dogs all over that mountainside/Well we got out there on a hot desert load, had a hot motor and a heavy load, going so fast wasn't even stopping, going up and down like popcorn popping, we had a breakdown. Sort of a nervous breakdown, too. Mechanic fella down there says engine troubles/Well, we got to California, we's a gol-dern broke, so gol-dern hungry thought I'd choke, but I rustled up a spud or two and my wife, she made a tater stew. Mighty thin stew. Always did think and always did figure, if that there stew had been just a little bit thinner, some of them California politicians could of read a magazine clean through it." That was that one, of what I remember of that, it went on and on.
And that, I mean, did people, did people say, yeah, that's, that's, that's right?
Oh yeah. Yeah, they'd listen to that part, and then say Oh, then here's another verse, so they'd say a verse of their own experiences and things like that. That hairpin curve going down that road remind me, we was coming up, that truck pushed us over the mountain and gave us that shove down there. [laughs] We made it, but... a lot of things like that, and then there was one in, here in California, Shafter, I don't know whether I said that to you or not, to the tune of Strawberry Roan[?]. 'Just hanging 'round Shafter, just wasting my time, out of a job and not earning a job, when a stranger walks and he says I suppose, that you're a spud-picker from the looks of your clothes. You guesses me right, and a good one, I claimed, do you happen to have any of them old things? Yes I have some spuds in a forty-acre patch, if you want you a job just go get you a sack. Oh, you spud-picking fool, oh, you spud-picking fool, you turn your old back right up to the sun, they call you spud-picking son of a gun.' [laughs] That's another one.
Let's change before we do any more, 'cause I think we're just about out.
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Yeah, actually, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] -
OK, all right, this is Art King, take seven. Let's have a tune.
OK, we'll try, 'This Land is Your Land', by Woody Guthrie. [proceeds to play 'This Land is Your Land' on harmonica]
Nice. You play pretty good. What else you feel like playing for us, anything else, have in mind?
Any, apart from Woody's songs?
Streets of Laredo—
—are there any songs that folks just used to play...
Danny Boy, Streets of Laredo, I play it pretty, fairly well.
Yeah, yeah, that'd be nice.
[proceeds to play 'Streets of Laredo']Laredo. Would you like Danny Boy?
That's one of my old favorite, because I'm part Irish. [laughs]
[proceeds to play 'Danny Boy']
Nice. Do you, could we really tempt you to pick a guitar a little bit, would you feel...? A little bit?
Well, I can, I can pick it a little bit...
Just a little, just a little. Let's cut here.
OK, one second-
Let's make some music.
Could you hold on one second? OK.
OK. You have, anything else come to mind? That you would feel comfortable playing?
Let me see...[plays guitar] "She's my curly-headed baby, used to set on daddy's knee/She's my curly-headed baby, she's from Sunny Tennessee. Oh I had rather be in some dark hollow, where the sun will never shine/than to see her in the arms of another, when she promised to be mine. She's my curly-headed baby, used to set on daddy's knee/She's my curly-headed baby, she's from Sunny Tennessee." I can't, I wish I could pick and sing, really, but I can't.
You got a new, a new hobby. [laughs]
Yeah, I've got to get, got to go to work on it, take some lessons. Wouldn't take much, but...