One of the things my mom and I have enjoyed doing lately is watching old vintage movies from the library. Some of the old film-noir movies, and old classics that I hadn't seen. The other day we watched "The Grapes of Wrath" made in 1940...an excellent film with a very young Henry Fonda. He played Tom Joad, a man who returns home to his family's farm in Oklahoma in the 1930's, only to discover it's been deserted. He finally finds them at his uncle's farm, where they're packing up the truck, because his uncle was also in forclosure. The banks were kicking everyone out of their homes and farms in the Depression-era 30's, especially in Oklahoma, during the incredible drought, the Dust Bowl...
It all sounds hauntingly familiar nowadays...but back then, there were no job placement resources, no UI...nothing. They were on their own.
But there were handbills that said there was work in California, so they set off with all that they owned in their dilapidated truck for the promised land, where "you could just reach up and pluck an orange right outta the sky"...in California.
As we watched, we found that this was a very poignant story, based on the book by John Steinbeck, because it was based on all-too-true stories, and the fictional Joads' destination was right here in the Central Valley in the 30's. My mom was a young girl then, and she remembers them first hand...the 'Okies' they called them. Though 'Okie' is a somewhat derogatory term, that's what everyone called them...that's what they called themselves.
"I was so little when they were coming," my mom said, "they were everywhere. I remember riding with my dad to Visalia and we'd see them parked along the road, just camping out of their cars."
When we watched the part in the movie where the Joads finally reached the California border, "I bet that's Needles" she said. And sure enough! The sign in the movie said 'Needles, California'.
"That's where they came through mostly, to the Valley, on the old highway 40...some came up through LA, the ones who stayed on Route 66."
It began to interest me that my mom had indeed lived during this, at ground zero during a significant part of California history...enough to base a landmark book and movie about anyway.
"How many actually came?"
"Oh thousands...not all at once of course. It was like a mass migration over a few years. And I was little, so I only remember some things...but I do remember when the Okies were everywhere, and nobody knew what to do with them all."
As we watched, the Joads found a temporary camp, among other new arrivals. It was basically a squatters camp. Their trip west had been a hard one. The grandfather died on the way, so they buried him by a tree near the highway. The son-in-law Al, he ran away, leaving behind a pregnant wife, because "he didn't know it was gonna be like this..."
When they unpacked, Ma Joad started cooking stew over an open fire. Soon, a few kids from the other campsites gathered around, and just stared.
"I shouldn't been doin' this...but my family's gotta eat. Lookit them poor kids..."
Henry Fonda then shooed them away, "Go on, git outta here now...go on GIT!"
As the kids scattered, Ma said "Aww now Tom, you shouldn't oughta be mean to them kids...they's just hungry."
"Yeah well I'm hungry too, Ma. And it ain't just food."
My mom said, "Aw, I would feel so sorry for those Okie kids. Some of them came to our school, and the other kids would be so mean to them. They'd make fun of their clothes, make fun of their hair, the way they talked...I did make friends with one girl though, Helen...she was the sweetest thing. I wonder where she is now."
"You should look her up."
"Well she got married and moved away after high school, but yeah I should."
In the movie, the Joads heard there was work picking oranges in Pixley. So they loaded their truck and headed there.
"Oh Pixley! There's still big orange groves over there!"
On the road, they got a flat tire. A man stopped and gave them a leaflet, it was a Communist leaflet stating how workers were being exploited and needed to organize and abolish the corporations.
"I remember the Communists...they were a regular political party back then. The grown-ups and teachers always told us to stay away from them. One time a kid brought a Communist leaflet to school. The teacher tore it up and threw it away in front of the class!"
As the Joads made their way north, stopping to work for a few days picking oranges, moving on to pick cotton, and moving on again with their broken down truck. Tom Joad became more frustrated at their existence...understandibly.
"I remember my dad telling a story about one Okie who came to the Ford garage here in Tulare. He needed parts for his truck, but he had no money. He was a mechanic, so he offered to work in exchange for the parts. Grandpa said he was such a good mechanic they hired him!"
"Good thing he had a skill!"
"Yeah grandpa used to bring home big bags of oranges, chickens, baskets of eggs...The Okies would bring their cars in to get fixed, and that's how they paid."
The Joads finally came to a government run camp, with running water and small cottages with electricity. The camp would assign jobs and they could live there for a very small fee. The Joads felt like they were living in luxury.
"That's how Tagus Ranch was, just up the road from here. It's still there, but it's a mobile home park now."
At the end of the movie, Tom Joad had to hit the road, but Ma Joad, in a moving speech, said how the family will go on. I thought about all the real Ma Joads out there, who held the families together in the hardest of times. They were decent hard-working folks, just looking for a place to settle and earn a living...or just get an even break. It was a very good movie and wonderfully acted. What made it so poignant was that it happened right here. The Joads were fictional of course, and many families were better off, some were worse off.
"A lot of those Okies ended up in Bakersfield. Their cars would break down over the Grapevine, so they hitch-hiked into the valley. Bakersfield was as far as many of them got. That's why there's so many Okies in Bakersfield...Nathan Findley was one."
Nathan Findley came with his wife from Oklahoma in 1934. After two hard years, Nathan finally landed a job at a tractor and farm equipment plant in Bakersfield as a machinist. They had three children, Joe, Leonard, and Hazel...
Joe is my uncle.