The volcanic boulders are rough and scratch my hands as I climb the jumbled tangle of basalt talus to the top of the bluff. Dave Marson, a life-long friend, steps up the slope mountain-goat style bounding ahead of me. He is familiar with this destination where petroglyphs that marked the site for thousands of years. Hanging above Willow Creek, the Belfast Petroglyphs are in a protected area that is sacred to the descendants of the Maidu, Paiute, Pit River and Washoe Tribes who live on the Susanville Indian Rancheria. They still use the site to fish, hunt, and gather food and medicine.
As we climb higher we see stone-pecked symbols; star maps, circles, snakes, and other undecipherable patterns pecked and scratched into the boulders. Did I say, “Snakes?” This writing in rock was here long before Captain Charles Merrill, a former sea captain, came to develop the land in 1864.
His dream of creating a thriving city was futile and premature. The land still lies empty showing few remnants of the settlement’s roads and streets designed to hold 21,000 people. The name Belfast was to commemorate Merrill’s home of Belfast, Maine. Here he planted three thousand poplar trees to dot the flat, desert plane.
On top of the bluff, the talus rubble turns into a boulder-strewn flat where generations of original inhabitants camped. Dave points out the grinding holes that dot the stones. Some are many inches deep confirming their use over the years. An anthropology major in college, he decided to forego the profession for a home and a life in the mountains. His knowledge of the Native American tribes and sites in the area will rival most professors in the university system.
I stop to look around. From here the view is excellent. With the creek and canyon on two sides, it is a perfect spot for watching the valley. It would be hard for an enemy to sneak up and surprise the occupants. Below along Willow Creek game trails follow the course of the waterway making the towering rocks a perfect hideout for hunting game.
It is springtime and beautiful. Later in the year, the area will turn brown like other California and Nevada desert planes. But today color is abundant, green grass, purple Collinisa, blue Lupine, and golden California Poppies.
The sun is dropping, white clouds dot the cyan sky. The breeze is cool and refreshing. But, it’s time to go. This historic spot is a pleasant place. A peaceful place. We pick our way back down toward the car through the rocks. I notice the snake glyphs as we pass. Maybe we should be a little less peaceful and a little more vigilant… but still, pleasantly vigilant. – JB
A repost from 2018 that is worth repeating. As The Beckster points out to me after posting, this trip was in 2016.
My father never stopped at the Grand Canyon. My father would — not — stop. Never. Ever. Never-ever… unless of course, he had to use the bathroom and then it was a Whiting Brothers gas station to fill up and find relief. Cruising down Route 66 twice each year I would drool, yearn and whine that we might turn on Route 64 from Williams, Arizona to see the hole in the ground that I’d been told about in school, read about, and wished to visit. Didn’t happen. Not once. The 120-mile round trip would add almost ten percent to our drive to Eastern Oklahoma and the visit with family. His last trip through was to move there, the destination of all of our trips. He died a few years later.
Well…, not really never-ever. I do remember one side trip. We did stop at Meteor Crater after I had hounded for several hours. I wore them down, I guess. That’s another story, however… That was when my mom made a statement that would place a bookmark on my eighth year of life… “It’s nothing but a big hole in the ground.” She actually used an expletive somewhere in the sentence. However, you think about it, she’s right. But, oh, what a hole in the ground. I was hooked on large, naturally excavated terrain with that viewing.
But I digress.
Fast forward fifty-plus years… Okay, make that almost sixty-plus years. But, I am finally here. As always, time is short, and to make it worse the Beckster and I have some kind of bug. I do not feel like touring, I’d prefer to lay in the motel and whine. But, the road calls. Time dictates and demands, “See it now ‘cause you may not be back for a while… or ever.” So we go.
We leave Sedona in the morning heading out on route 89a and up its famous switchbacks that I dubbed, The Hairpins. The road reminds me of a shoestring. It twists and turns and loops, so crooked that, as my father used to say, “You can see your tail lights as you round the bend.” This road is definitely bendy and loopy, not for the faint of stomach. The Hairpins climb from the junction of Pumphouse Creek and Sterling Canyon then past 6,639-foot, Mexican Pocket Mountain then dumps you onto the long plateau that leads to Interstate 17 and Flagstaff. At Flagstaff, we follow US 180 to Arizona 64 and we are here – two and one-half hours later.
We are here. Yes, we are. Along with what appears to be half the population of the Western Hemisphere. At Mather Point, we park at the Visitors Center lot. A short walk and we on the overlook. People are scrambling everywhere… I mean, everywhere. Hanging off of the rails to pose for pictures, on outcrops of rocks to our left… posing for pictures, off of the overlook a few hundred yards to the west… posing for pictures.
Selfie sticks flash in the sunlight looking like a rerun of the battle scene on Braveheart. And, children running everywhere, climbing on rocks, climbing on rails. My inner-parental-self stands, stunned and silent. Coffee or some other brown runny substance rolls from a coffee cup on the concrete path ahead. The aroma of coffee wafts up, affirming the contents. I hope that the Beckster doesn’t get a whiff. We’ll be searching for a McDonalds, because, as you know, they make the best coffee. It’s a Beckster thing.
Then it hits me. Blamm! The view. It’s 10 a.m. and past the “sweet” light of the morning and it’s beautiful. No, bad example, exquisite. No, not enough, still. Wow! That works, just, wow! Clouds cover the Northern Rim. Rain falls from the patches of blue and white fluff. The red-orange banding along the mass of mesas, cliffs, and side canyons are like a light show in rock. Grab a camera. I alternate between DSLR and smartphone. It’s hard to get a bad shot. I am impressed. I am really impressed. I wish my parents were here. They should see this. They would have liked this big hole.
We no longer feel ill. Somehow the bad has been erased so we point our pickup east along the rim drive. As the sun climbs and the clouds move the scene changes. I had read how the colors change with the day. Oh, my God, what have you done here? This is beyond words. Each turnout and overlook has its own phenomenal view. At one stop, a raven poses for me, then squawks a rebuke when I’ve overstayed my welcome. We move on. If I were shooting film we would have burned through several hundred dollars in emulsion and processing fees. Man, I love digital.
Before we know, we arrive at the Desert View Visitor Center, the end of the line. The views and the images are still great. Just one more picture and we need to head back. We’ve burned through the entire day. Down the road we make one more stop, a Navajo jewelry stand. Here a Vietnam veteran and his wife offer beaded jewelry, dream catchers and pottery. As the sun drops low it is cold so we keep moving, but after buying gifts for the kids and grandkids and earrings for the Beckster. Oh, and something for me, a stone circle pendant. I like it. It’s made by nice people, or at least sold by them. I wish we had time to stay and talk but the road calls.
It is a great day. I am ready for a nap but we still have to drive the Hairpins after dark. The Grand Canyon? I will be back.
Our eyes met for a brief moment only. She looked a bit ashamed of her situation, and I was awkward and clumsy. I was a young photographer, and she was a younger prisoner.
On September 25, it will have been forty-five years. Patricia Campbell Hearst was a “newspaper heiress” and the daughter of the San Francisco Examiner publisher Randolf Apperson Hearst. She found herself kidnapped by a left-wing group who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army [SLA]. Our brief meeting was sad yet fascinating.
Note: I’ve checked Wikipedia and Google Earth and still can’t find where “Symbion” is located.
According to the FBI, the SLA pressed and prodded for a guerrilla war against the United States Government to destroy the “capitalist state,” leaving several innocent people dead in their wake. It now feels oddly familiar considering current events. The newspaper, radio, and TV frenzy that came about in the mid-1970s was top-story, daily and nightly news on all of the big three TV networks. Cable was in its infancy, but in the print media, the coverage splashed across the above-the-fold front pages worldwide.
Patty, as everyone called her, eventually joined the outlaw group after constant torture and indoctrination. The FBI placed her on their Most Wanted list. Eventually, nineteen-months after her first capture, the FBI got their man… or should I say, woman. The news frenzy grew. Her latest captors took her to the San Mateo County Jail near San Francisco, for safekeeping.
A few cities to the south, I was an impoverished journalism/photojournalism student at San Jose State University. More than that, I was married to Becky. We had a three-year-old daughter, Shannon, The classic tale; we were young, broke, and tackling college with faith and no jobs. In short, we needed money. We still do, but back then, we really needed money.
A few miles away were many of my classmates, cameras in hand among the throngs of new personnel pressed against the steel-barred vehicle-bay door of the jail. Some were among the few who captured Hearst’s famous clenched-fist photo while handcuffed in the back of a police car. My friends were paid well for their photos by the Associated Press [AP], United Press International, Time Magazine, and other news outlets. I decided to join them on the next scheduled transport of the prisoner.
The day arrived. Patty Hearst was to face the judge. She had to pass through the gaggle of cameras and scratching notepads. But, to the disappointment of the press, and to me, the Sheriff’s Department informed the group that Hearst was not being escorted to the courthouse, her hearing was canceled. The press slinked away, as did I. One-half block from the jail, a writer for the San Francisco Examiner lingered beside his car.
“You know, Randy [Hearst] is a really nice guy,” he said.
I hadn’t met the man before. It looked as if he wanted to get something off of his chest. He looked demoralized, so I stopped to listen. I’m a sucker for a grown man’s sob story. He spoke of the tragedy of the situation and how it was affecting the Hearst family, Randy, his wife, and the employees of the Examiner. They were all shaken. Since I was skipping classes anyway, I continued to listen. We talked until all of the news people were gone, then we talked some more. He finally decided to go back to work and do what Randy was paying him to do. So he said goodbye and drove away. His storytelling changed my career and my life.
Turning to walk to my stashed-and-hidden, beat-up, very ugly, very four-door, 1965 Buick, Wildcat, I noticed an unmarked police vehicle backing into the secure bay of the jail, so I walked to the horizontally-barred door. Standing around the interior of the bay, sheriff’s deputies stood shoulder to shoulder in an “at ease” stance, all were armed. The grating of the door offered a one-inch slot for my lens to capture what was on the other side.
“Looks like you have an exclusive,” one lawman shouted to me, grinning.
Exclusive, I’d never had one of those. I decided I need to look the word up to find out what it meant.
I shouted back, “I thought she wasn’t going to the courthouse.”
Again the cop yelled, still grinning, “She’s not. They are taking her to the doctor for a checkup.”
Armed with a 1968 Nikkormat camera, I snapped three or four photos as jail matron, Janey Jimenez, escorted Hearst to the car. Only one shot was in focus. A direct-flash shot as the car pulled out onto the street, and the episode was over.
Now my duty was to find a phone booth, call information, and contact a photo editor at the San Francisco office of The AP. Marty Walz answered.
“I have an exclusive photo of Patty Hearst,” my voice was shaking. “Are you interested?”
“Exclusive?” he asked. “They didn’t take her to court today.”
“They took her to the doctor after everyone else left,” I explained.
Half-believing my story, he invited me to the San Francisco, AP photo lab to have the film developed. The AP also had its staff covering the event and knew it was canceled. How could this guy off the street have scooped the professionals?
With the developed film, Walz was surprised but made a financial offer. A quick mental calculation and I knew the amount, only a few-hundred 1975 dollars, was enough to buy a used Nikon F camera, a Leica M5, a few lenses, and still have a small amount left over for food. I’m not totally sure about the “food” thing. But I still have one of the cameras.
The pictures were my first professional sale. I had graduated to a professional photojournalist. The images appeared in every major newspaper worldwide and were the first of Hearst and Jimenez together. Many more photos of the couple, robber and cop, hit the papers in the coming months.
In the later photos, Jimenez had better clothes and a more admirable hairstyle. She would write a book about her experiences with Patty.
A few weeks later, I skipped class again to hang out at the jail to see if anything was going on. The excursion from school taught me more about life, about news photography, and patience than any of my courses could. When I arrived at the jail, I expected the usual crowd of new vans, reporters, and photographers. Only one person stood by the building. He held a new, shiny, Canon camera; no scratches, no dings, no day-to-day wear.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
He shrugged then told me he was a student at San Francisco State. He just wanted to get a few pictures for an art class. We talked the morning away. Nothing happened. Bored, around 12:30, my stomach began to beg for food. The next move was my orientation to the school of enlightenment. Call it Zen, or karma, or whatever Eastern Oriental religion noun you want; It was a learning experience.
I’m going to run around the corner to grab a snack,” I said to the student, then ran toward the small store where I grabbed a bag of chips, paid the cashier, then ran back.
“You missed it,” the student informed.
“What?” I asked.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hearst came in.”
Expletives rolled through my mind.
“Did you get any shots,” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he answered. “Several.”
He described how cooperative Mrs. Hearst was to turn and walk toward him a few times. He then made a portrait of the couple. Worst, he then said that the guards in the lobby demanded to frisk the couple before letting them into the elevator to visit their daughter a few floors above.
“You got the shot,” I said.
“Oh, no,” he explained. “I thought it would be rude.”
My hunger and ill preparedness had cost me front-page spots around the globe.
I am still, to this day, dumbfounded by the student’s inaction and unconcern for recording history. That is second only to my youthful epicurean fragility and my slow-wittedness not to think ahead and carry a snack while waiting for an important photo. I never forgot the lesson.
After that time, my pockets carried peanuts or some other form of temporary nutrition. If for some reason, I forgot the snack, I put on my big-boy pants and toughed it out.
One of my mottos became, Don’t Leave the Friggin’ Scene. Later, when the couple walked to their car, I clicked photos as they passed by. The AP bought the photos. Time Magazine picked one up to run with a story. I bought more camera gear… and of course, food.
Hearst was later tried, convicted, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. After serving four years in the Federal Correctional Institute at Pleasanton, California, in 1979, President James Carter commuted her sentence. I was working as the Chief Photographer for the Tri-Valley Herald, about six miles from the prison. The photo staff covered Hearst as she walked out of the prison gates to freedom. Later, President Bill Clinton gave her a full pardon.
Strangely, our City Editor had initially refused to send reporters and photographers to cover the international event that was taking place in our news district, our back yard. She instructed that the AP would cover Hearst’s release, and we would pick up the story from them. An appeal to her boss, and the orders changed. The city editor? She didn’t like me much after that.
After the first photos of Hearst in 1975, I was officially a professional photographer and news journalist. Today, I still make a large amount of my income from photos and writing. Some call the Patty Hearst event luck. I call it a God Wink. The second, when I missed the shot, I also call it a God Wink. He knew I would learn from failure. I did.
As a postscript: After the first two AP sales came another change in my career, my advisor at SJSU, Texan Joe Swann, pulled me aside one day and, in fatherly tones, reminded me that I was a married man with a child. I couldn’t be running around sleeping in my car like my classmates. It wasn’t right. He was right.
My days as a paparazzo were over. With his influence I soon started a job as the Public Relations Photographer for the University. It was boring work printing 40 to 50 black and white images for a single press release. But it taught me to print photographs. I was very good at the craft after almost two years as the PR guy. It was the best darkroom training I could have received, and I was getting paid for it—another God wink.
A question in my mind is, was Patricia Hearst guilty of the crimes that made her pay four years of a young life? I don’t know. I’ve always thought there was the shadow of a doubt that deserved consideration. But I don’t know. In the end, I guess God Winks can come in all forms.
The 1853 Gas Works Wall at Trustees’ Garden is often mistaken for “Old Fort Wayne.” Studies find that it is partially… very partially… true.
Historians and archaeologists uncovered a wealth of military and industrial history on the grounds and in the buildings situated on an historic bluff overlooking the Savannah River.
The surface is rough and scratches at my fingertips as I run them along the plane of fire-hardened bricks. A faint-but-pungent scent of coal tar wafts from the walls that have been forgotten and misinterpreted for generations. In sequence, seven earthen fortifications stood here through the years. There is nothing left of them today – or so many historians believe. But here is the evidence: a small section of one fortification did survive, undetected by decades of history buffs and connoisseurs of the past.
This remnant of an earlier Savannah is old. Well, “old” by the youngest-of-the-thirteen-colonies benchmark. Hidden in plain sight for a century and a half, the now sandy-brown wall reflects the morning light through a narrow archway. A few yards away sleepy commuters navigate past, their vehicles climbing the road-grade beside the city’s legendary Trustees’ Garden. If a piece of land could be a movie character, Savannah’s Trustees’ Garden would be Forrest Gump. Always in the background, excluded and ignored.
But like the character portrayed by Tom Hanks, the site holds secrets of which the bus-stop folks know little. The Garden’s ten-acre plot of sloping ground has, as some say, “more history per square foot than any other spot in the city.” And, I like to think, possibly in the southeast. I love and study history. Never have I seen one small plot of land with so many significant and overlapping historical characteristics. The Trustees’ Garden was planned in 1732 when Georgia’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, enlisted the help of John Pine, an English artist, and engraver. The two of them conferred and drew a plan for rows, rank, and file for mulberry, orange, peach and other trees and then inked the lot lines for the rest of the town.
When the settlers arrived in 1733 Oglethorpe staked-out the garden and had it planted the following spring. The garden itself lasted less than two decades. In historical records, the area is always an afterthought — a footnote. Life and history are like that. Who knew this chocolate-history-bonbon in a box held so many hidden treats and treasures? You never know what you’re gonna get. The land has changed hands many times over the years. Early on, the profits expected by the Trustees failed to blossom, so the title was passed to former Royal Governors, then to industrialists, and eventually to hotel developers. The current owner, Charles H. Morris, initiated a shift toward the preservation of the Garden’s rich history. The renovation and historical inspection of the site is slowly revealed forgotten stories that seem to peel away, like the layers of a Vidalia onion.
A historian in his own right, Morris took his time with the renovation. “I want to get it done right,” he said. “I want to make sure we think it through.” The Garden’s northernmost section, alongside the Savannah River, has long been known as a strategic military location. Over the years, military leaders fortified the bluff to provide protection against enemy ships that might sail up the river from the Atlantic.
Earthen fortifications were built on the site when hostilities seemed imminent. Then, as each war or threat of war ended, each successive fortification fell into ruin. Dirt is easy enough to move, so for each new conflict, the battlement-du-jour was staked and excavated in accordance with the newest defensive plan. The soil from the dry moats was “thrown up” to the inner line to create the parapets… time after time, fortification after fortification. At least seven battlements have stood on this site, beginning with colonial times and extending through the Civil War, when the last fort anchored the Union Army’s line on what was then the terrace of the Savannah Manufactured Gas Works.
In order the seven were; Oglethorpe’s fort, built circa 1740, Fort Halifax, circa 1759, Fort Savannah, 1778, British cannon emplacements employed during the Siege of Savannah 1779, Fort Prevost, 1780, Fort Wayne, 1813, and the Union fortifications in 1865. There is evidence that there may have been additional fortifications as well, but that is yet to be determined. An interesting legend surrounds the brick wall that currently stands watch over the river at the location of the recently discovered Revolutionary War-era structure. Guide books refer to the wall as part of “Old Fort Wayne.”
Many historians do the same. The confusion is justified. The building of the wall in 1853 destroyed the older fort that was the namesake of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. The older earthen ramparts were shoveled into the interior of the wall to create a terrace for gasholders. Workers unearthed old cannons that they placed along the wall, making it look like an old fort to generations of Savannahians.
Everybody in town knew that the fort had been located on that spot. After all, the cannons were there to prove it. Fort Halifax, the second on the bluff, was built in 1759. It was a tender spot and tinder box during the days leading up to the American Revolution. In December 1765 the “obnoxious” stamps that represented taxation by the Crown were stored at the fort. Royal Governor James Wright placed the stamps there for protection against the local Sons of Liberty, who vowed to burn them. Fifty-five Royal Rangers under the leadership of the Governor and Captain John Milledge stood guard. Nearby, 200 angry Patriots awaited an opportunity to strike a blow for liberty. Wright had the stamps moved by ship to Cockspur Island at the mouth of the river, thus defusing the matter, at least for awhile.
And that’s only a partial history of the site. I’ll post more later.
– JD Byous
Looking east from the location of the ancient powder magazine.
For Anne Frank, the British 11th Armoured “Black Bull” Division arrived too late. She and her sister died a few weeks before the camp’s liberation.
I would not know that tidbit of history were not for the cup. I had studied many battles and World War II, but somehow Germany’s Bergen Belsen concentration camp got past me.
“The cup” is how I’ve always referred to my pewter and glass drinking utensil. Actually, it’s more like a trophy tankard or a beer mug. Years ago, an estate sale company hawked the property of F.B.B. Noble.
The advertisement listed it along with two others of a similar design. I liked what I saw and ordered two, one for me and one for my buddy, Dave, who lives a continent away. I knew he’d like it. He, too, loves history.
The cost for both was $12.50, $6.25 each. The shipping fee was more than the price of the cups. Where the other one went I’ll never know. I wish I’d bought it too.
Inscribed on the curve of the face is “Peshawar District, Point to Point, 1937, Dismounted Team Race.”
I had no idea what a point to point race was.
After a quick check on the internet, I found that it was either some kind of computer connection or a cross-country horserace. The latter seemed more logical given the time frame.
It appears to be a steeplechase, a long-distance horse race. That I knew. Out west where I was born and raised cross-country racing was common.
My family has a lineage of horsemen. Horseshoes and hoof tracks replace the commas and parenthetic marks in the story of my family’s history. I was apparently out of school when the talent was handed out to my cousins. But I am from the culture and remember what our people do.
And Peshawar? Another Google check found that the British occupied the Peshawar District from the eighteenth century until 1947. It was a section of India back at the time recorded on the cup. It’s Pakistan today; Peshawar is in the wild, dangerous, northwest.
It’s a place near the Afghanistan border about seventy miles east of Jalalabad. Bin Laden, members of Al Qaida, and the Taliban used to hang out there when things were hot across the border. I guess the Taliban still does.
One-hundred miles down the road to the east is Abbottabad, where Seal Team 6 and Rob O’Neil caught up with Osama and punched his clock — three times in the head. Peshawar has always been a lousy place for westerners to visit. They don’t like us.
The horsemen of 1937 were members of the 2nd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, who were riding through that dangerous territory, hell-bent for victory. They were not liked either. I can understand.
The riders’ names were Lt. Col. H.P.M. Berney Ficklin, Lt. R. Bramwell Davis, and Lt. F.B.B. Noble. Seems the British and their military officers prefer multiple andhyphenated names. When the war started the men were all promoted.
The Lieutenant Colonel’s team won again the next year but with a substitute for Bramwell Davis. Eventually, all three men became Generals. Noble was made a Brigadier, and the other two became Major Generals.
When the British invaded Sicily, Major General Berney Ficklin commanded the 5th Infantry Division. After D-day and Normandy, the American-made Sherman tanks of the British 11th crossed the Rhine River and rolled into Anne Frank’s concentration camp. It was April 15, 1945. Lt. Col. Bramwell Davis, Major Freddie Noble, and the Highland Light Infantry were a few miles away.
Berney Ficklin was back in England warming a desk chair, a casualty of Field Marshal Montgomery’s constantly rotating cast of commanders. The Field Marshal believed all of his commanders should walk on water — just as he did.
The connection between Anne Frank, the cup, and the three horsemen is through the story of that concentration camp where she died. It hinged on Berney Ficklin’s role dispensing justice that followed the war.
He was assigned a job as President of the Military Tribunal for the Nazi war crimes at Bergen Belsen. The trial started in November 1945. Under his management, the tribunal found twenty-two of the Nazis guilty.
Eleven, including the camp commandant, Josef Kramer, were sentenced to death and eleven more went to prison. Ten others were acquitted. Kramer and his henchmen were hanged one after the other on the same a cold-ass winter day a few weeks later.
At Bergen Belsen, Kramer and his Nazis were responsible for the deaths of 36,000 people, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, POWs, homosexuals, and political prisoners. When the Allied forces arrived, over 13,000 corpses lay strewn about the compound, left to rot by the officers and guards who threw their arms up in surrender.
I would not have known that important historical snippet without the cup – about its connection to the death of Anne Frank and the atrocities at BergenBelsen.
Today the silver-buff pewter tankard sits on my desk as a reminder of the Greatest Generation and their fight against the German fascist, Adolph Hitler, and his National German Socialist Worker’s Party.
The mentally-twisted cult is often naively known, on-the-street, only as “The Nazi Party.” People do not connect it to socialism nor to the destruction and death the system can and usually does, deal.
Oh, the fourth horseman noted on my buddy’s cup from 1938? That was Lt. John Fraser Brand who was later promoted to Captain.
Ironically he died September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war on Germany. He was fighting Nazi Arab allies in Israel.
He is buried in the British War Cemetery in Ramla. He was twenty-nine years old.
When I drink from my cup, I always toast the Highland Light Infantry and the men who rode to win. Full or empty, it holds an amazing history.
Things were hard back then. Not Merle Haggard, hard. But hard in a different way. My mom said that when I was born, we had an indoor toilet. My dad said the privy was out back. She said we lived in the “big house.” He said we still lived in the little one. Even though I was there, I can’t remember. I was too small. What I do remember, later, is the fry-pan heat of the summer, the smell of adobe dust chasing the farm machines, and the dry-cracked, rock-hard, barefoot-toe-toasting ground that grew hotter with the arc of the sun. We were Okies. Most folks on the east coast, where I live today, don’t know the species. People in the West generally do, though the generations are losing the memory of that era, and in that history, and how it shaped the nation’s timeline.
Kern County labor camp nursery, Dorothea Lang, 1936. It appears to be the same house plan that we lived in later, but newer and with paint. Photo – Library of Congress.
My older brother, Jerry, and me in a Dompe Brothers Ranch, farm-labor house, 1951. I think this is the fancy, “big house” that had an indoor toilet.
The great migrations started with the Dust Bowl in the 1920s and pulsed in three waves ending after the Second World War. Millions of sharecroppers and small farm owners in the center of the United States were forced to give up their land and move in search of an income to feed their families. A significant percentage moved to California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington to work in the fields and orchards. Others moved to different points on the compass, including Michigan, Indiana, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.
The disparaging name they earned was, “Okies,” meaning “from Oklahoma,” though they were also from many of the Dust Bowl states in the heart of the nation. Most were people from the Scots-Irish culture and its “dirt people” who were farmers and laborers. My aunt, Gladys Byous Parker, proudly called herself an Okie until she read a 1950s dictionary account describing them as “filthy trash from Oklahoma.” It was years before she used the word in a positive manner claiming, “I might be from Oklahoma, but I’m not filthy trash.” Her in-laws had lived in California since the days when movie houses posted signs reading, “Negros and Okies in the balcony.” The second billing for “white-trash Okies” was an overwhelming sentiment of the natives.
The book, Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic, told of their travels and travails. The reality-based narrative was a hard slap at California’s agricultural elites. They did not like it. Many school districts and counties in the Central Valley banned the book until it won a Pulitzer Prize and demanded re-installment. I find it interesting that Steinbeck’s fictitious Joad family farm was in the same county where Mark Covey was born. He was my maternal grandfather. Steinbeck didn’t write about him nor those similar to him. He, and they, stayed on their farms, but they too had bad times during those dark days. But not quite as bad as those who moved on. Papaw, as we called him, was able to ride out the depression after buying his farm back in a tax sale. It cost him $200, half of which went to a man who required the sum to prevent his raising the bid. Steinbeck wrote of the other people, including many of my family who lost their farms and jobs and moved west from their small Eastern-Oklahoma communities around the town of Poteau.
Merle Haggard at the 1971 Country Music Association Awards. Photo -CMA.
Espie “Epp” Parker was a bear of a man and he was an Okie. The surly-looking guy displayed a gruff, strong, hard-working, tobacco-chewing persona, but held the disposition of the stuffed, huggable kind named after Teddy Roosevelt. Dorothea Lange became a legend photographing people like him when she worked for the predecessor of the U.S. Farm Security Administration during that time. I had seen her pictures over the decades but stopped in my mental tracks a few years back when I saw Epp’s face staring from one of them.
Espie “Epp” Parker, my uncle, in a photograph by Dorothea Lang in 1938 or ’39. I don’t know who the woman might be. I suspect she is his sister in law. Whomever she is, she is young, and she appears tired. Photo – Library of Congress.
“Uncle” Epp was married my father’s sister, Gladys, at the start of World War II. He journeyed to California down Route 66 to work a year or so prior to Pearl Harbor, then returned to Oklahoma to make her his wife. Lange caught up with him in ’38 or ‘39 near Blythe, California, a hot, dry, desert town on the Arizona line between the Colorado River and the edge of Hell. She snapped his likeness into a film of silver salts on the backplate of her camera and moved on. A few years before, she had taken another portrait of pea picker, Florence Thompson, who eventually lived in Modesto, the “big” city north of my hometown of Ceres. Several of my classmates knew her, but her path and mine never crossed. I would have loved talking with her.
Florence was not happy that Lange snapped her picture. She was promised copies but never received them. It’s explainable since she and her family moved on shortly after the photo hit the newsstands. It did, however, help stir public attention which created financial donations to help the migrants. Florence died in 1983 and is buried in the same cemetery, near Hughson, California, where some of my family members and their friends are interred. Her headstone reads, “Florence Leona Thompson, Migrant Mother – A legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.” She was that. They all were.
Florence Thompson, the Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lang, 1936. Photo – Library of Congress
Merle Haggard was one of the few Okies that made well. Others were musicians, Buck Owens, the Maddox Brothers and their sister, Rose, along with a smattering of civic leaders and politicians, Gary Condit being one. Business people who made it good include Cal Worthington, who made his dog “Spot” famous in the Valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin. My father, too, did well after he switched from driving Caterpillar tractors into construction at the start of the 1950s post-war economic boom. Before he retired… back to Oklahoma… he told me of the discrimination he’d seen. Like the others, he shrugged it off. He, as did they, looked forward without forgetting the past so the moniker, “Okie,” became a badge of honor the way “Redneck” is worn with pride in the South. They endured. We endured. That’s what counts.
The Byous and Parker families before Thanksgiving dinner, c 1955. Left to right, my father, Clyde Byous, his sister, Gladys Parker, her son, Ron Parker, Epp Parker, with a partial head, my brother, Jerry, my mom, Martha, Ed Parker, and me mugging the camera.
But now and then there are days. Days when things are hard, though not as hard as back then. Hell, we actually have it pretty damned good. But still, there are days when things go wrong. That’s where Merle Haggard comes to soothe the soul. So we scroll through the internet pages, or the radio dials, or the stack of aged vinyl platters, and remember those who endured so we too can endure.
Once in awhile the world, and life, give you Merle Haggard days.
We can deal with it. We always have. We always will.
Yellowhammer Lake. That’s where I go for solitude. Listening to the silence between the waves of the breeze, rolling and subsiding in the currents of wind that brushes over and through the pines.
I lay across the granite and let the sun warm my face.
It hugs and blankets me, the cool of the rock collecting the excess. I slip into perfect tranquility.
My spot is near the inlet on a narrow upper strand of glacial-polished felsic paving where the slope rolls into the water, down, down to the clear, down to cerulean, down to the cobalt-blue then on to the black, unseen depths below.
A trout floats in the clear, just above the blue. He does not care that I am here.
Above, an eagle soars in the cotton-white-patched sky. He is watching for his dinner.
Chipmunks and squirrels scurry past, chirping their displeasure at my presence. Soon they will have their space, but now it is mine.
I go there when I need to rest, to stop all around me, to clear my mind – spring, summer, fall, winter. The sun is never too hot; the snow is never too deep.
I find peace there. It is my resting spot, my respite. When all around me is chaos, I go there, say a prayer, and praise my God that he has given me that place of consolation.
I go there often – though I haven’t seen the lake since 1972. It’s here in my mind. So, I go.