It’s like this:
Some days are just Merle Haggard days.
When nothing you do and nothing you to say,
Helps you find one more card,
When there’s no card to play.
When you’re tripping and falling
and can’t make your way.
And you’re tumbling down into
A Merle Haggard day.
When life and the devil push troubles at you.
The only thing left for a good man to do,
Is listen to Haggard’s Workin’ Man Blues
Or sing out the strains of his Rainbow Stew
Or one about jail or a woman done wrong,
And cry with the Okie-boy’s sad, sad song.
Then troubles start crawling and creeping away.
When you’re having another, Merle Haggard day.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
– JD Byous