Tag Archives: Steinbeck

Some Days are Merle Haggard Days

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.


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.

1 1 1 a Jerry and Jimmy Byous SM Dompe Ranch Crows Landing Ca c1951 bw.jpg

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_in_1971 Country Music Assoc photo Public Domain

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.

Drought refugees from Oklahoma SM camping by the roadside. They hope to work in the cotton fields. There are seven in family. Blythe, California 8b38481a.jpg

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 migrant mother 3b41800u jpg SM.jpg

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.

Byous and Parker families SM Thanksgiving c1956.jpg

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.

– JD Byous


© JD Byous, January 2020, All rights reserved







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Adapt, I Did Y’all. I’m a Son of the South.

Visit our main website at SoutheasternBound.net

My family is from the South. They lived in and migrated through Georgia but that was a bloody Civil War ago. They fought here in the Revolution; some fought in Savannah in 1779. So, though I am “of the South” I am not “from the South.” Manifest Destiny carried us with the wave of humanity that washed across the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like Mark Twain we are “American mongrels and proud of it,” a little Cherokee, a little Choctaw, some Scottish, some Irish, a butt-load of Scots Irish and a little English. The latter, however, we usually don’t talk about in polite company.

We are Southern Americans. Though I was not born here I have long-since been converted and baptized – sprinkled and immersed (to cover all bases) – into Southern-dom naturalization. Marrying a Georgia girl helped.  If you knew the peach you’d know why.

e bec n stratton

Bec, my Georgia peach, with movie producer, ice cream aficionado and Savannah native, Stratton Leopold.  A few years ago he reopened his family ice-cream business on Broughton Street.

It took a while to adapt after I moved to Savannah. That was twenty years ago. It’s different here. Or so it seems at first. To explain (and to risk mimicking Ted Knight 0n the Mary Tyler Moore Show) I was born in a tiny hospital in Central California, out in the sun-baked and cracked-adobe farmland that surrounds State Highway 33. My older brother and I were the first of our family to divert the lineage from those who were house-and-home-born; unknowingly, of course.

Our birthplace was named Westside Hospital. The structure was a stretch in healthcare nomenclature. Those who zip pass on the two-lane, dirt-shouldered road can easily mistake the building for just-another in the scores of cheap, flat-topped, ranch-style houses that had popped up after the World War II.

I remember from later visits it had five rooms; an operating/delivery room, waiting room, and a couple of cubical for examinations. My first experience there is still foggy, save the bright-light, tunnel-view and a subsequent roughing up by Dr. Jimmy Thompson.  I am his namesake since my mother had expected a girl.  I was not, however, and am not to this day though I have met ladies that carried the name, Jimmie.  I shall not interpret my mother’s intentions.

After a few months of crawling, then running, in the flat, furrowed fields of Dompe’s bean ranch near the town of Crow’s Landing we moved to the “city” where I was raised in one of the rural “Little Okie” settlements. These were semi-impoverished hamlets that housed upper-lower and lower-middle-class farm laborers and tradesmen. These communities punctuated many towns in the state but especially those in the rich farm-belt land that carried U.S. Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Red Bluff. In the fifties the burgs were a breeding and grooming ground for post-pubescent, pre-adult teens that inspired the slick-haired, hot-rod driving, main-street dragging screen characters depicted in American Graffiti and Happy Days. Harrison Ford’s cowboy-hat topped character depicted another faction from the cultural group.

We, like our neighbors, spoke with accents. Those with first-language English carried the twang of Oklahoma or Texas or the South or the Mid-West. Second-language-English speech was tinged with Mexican-Spanish highlights with a few from Portugal. The locals of Japanese descent had been there for generations, had no accent and, save a short stint at a war-relocation center across the mountains at Manzanar, worked the land and kept to themselves. They were represented by only a couple of families on acreage adjacent to the subdivision where the Okie drawl was predominant. Current-day academia sometimes calls the sub-culture, “Steinbeck’s Okies.”

In that area, just before I popped into the light of the world, the emigrant-Okies were often met with shotguns and with that’s-your-truck-and-that’s-the-road greetings from the locals. The Japanese kept silent, busy working their fields.

Also during that era signs on some movie houses declared, “Negroes and Okies in the balcony.” In most cases we got second billing.   The Japanese sat with everyone else – until the war. But by the 1950s and the time I was old enough for a movie matinee the rules had slackened – for all groups. In Modesto the Strand, the State and the Covell theaters were a weekend haunt for my cousins and me. Cartoons and newsreels were a highlight in the days before our first black-and-white TV and its fuzzy image of Sacramento’s champion of kid-dom, Captain Sacto.

Aside from a few brief attempts by my parents to return to the Holy Land – the area called Oklahoma by others – we tended to hover around the towns of Ceres and Modesto. I can think of no famous person who came from the area, at least at that time. Years later several notables sprouted including Olympian Mark Spitz, who didn’t stay long, film-maker George Lucas, who left as soon as he could, taking his hot rod with him, and actor Jeremy Renner, who did the same. I don’t know if Renner had a hot rod, but I am told by my daughters and grand-daughters that he is definitely “hot.” I have no opinion.

Other than those examples I might include two more, congressman and cleared murder-person-of-interest Gary Condit and a young man named Scott Peterson. Condit slipped from national headlines when commercial jets crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 only to have detectives drop their investigations of when the real murderer was found.

Peterson was convicted of murder. He killed, then dumped his beautiful-pregnant wife in San Francisco Bay so he could marry a blonde stripper. Go figure. I guess divorce wasn’t an option. Both I am told were of Okie origin. Few people in Georgia are familiar with the term, Okie. I constantly have to explain.

But, I digress. Savannah is different than my home in the West. It’s more cosmopolitan on the outside but distinctly Southern when you get to know her. You have to examine below and beyond the transient cultural façade of the military bases, the global influx of Savannah College of Art and Design and other area schools of higher learning. Then you must look past the society of “Old” Savannah, the NOG families as author John Berendt noted.

Once you look beyond those levels you find the “common” folk, those whose families have been here for generations; working people, river people, island people. They are like the townsfolk in the background scenes of movies, always seen but rarely noticed… with the exception of Paula Deen. They are like the people I knew in another life.

Here we have those with accents and those who talk Southern. Most locals have ancestors from other parts of the globe; Europe, Africa, Asia, India, Central, and South America. We even have the occasional South African and Kiwi. When they’re here long enough they unconsciously utter provincial terms like fixin’ and y’all.

Here and in the surrounding rural areas beyond the city limit you can find the same culture of my youth, the culture of my upbringing. The red-state people, people who will welcome you with open arms and love to get along with the throngs of in-moving blue-state folks. They are welcomed even though a few newcomers haven’t learned that locals don’t give a damn how it was done in New York or in New Jersey or on Nantucket, God bless ‘em.

Then, again, I have met a few locals with jackass traits. Some I’m told come with pedigrees of highly-selective, pure-bread jackass personae. But, that’s another storyline and that list is quite short. Then, again I’m of the South not from the South. Those who don’t understand… God bless their hearts.

– James Byous

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