The Grass is Always Greener,

Down the Road Apiece

by Helen Erwin Campbell

 Home

The Odes and Hazel Erwin saga continues…

The year was 1937. It was that year the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a minimum wage for women, Lord Halifax visited Hitler thereby beginning England's policy of appeasement, Walt Disney released the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, popular songs were Whistle While You Work and Harbor Lights, Amelia Earhart was lost on her South Pacific flight, insulin was first used to control diabetes, and the German dirigible Hindenburg exploded and burned in New Jersey. Also, the family spent most of. that year in the Oakhurst, California area.

My father’s duties with the Murray Ranch near Oakhurst were varied. On one occasion he was to ride along with the cowboys when they took the cattle up to the high country. When Bud heard about the upcoming trip he thought it sounded like a great adventure, and wanted very much to go along. The more Dad talked of the coming trip, the more Bud yearned to go, but Dad would not consider asking his boss for permission to take him.

Dad' s job was only to help take the cattle up and to ride back, while the single cowhands stayed with the cattle. When he got back home he described the trip and mentioned that his boss had said, "You should have brought your boy along. There's a pony he could have ridden." Bud was deeply disappointed.

On the way home after leaving the cattle Dad had an adventure with a mountain lion, which became part of his repertoire of stories. It seems that he was riding his horse through a lightly wooded area when his mount became very nervous and skittish. They were on the trail under a large tree when suddenly the lion sprang from a limb, but the horse bolted, and the big cat landed on the ground just behind them. Dad and his mount lost no time vacating the area, while the lion just stared after them.

One of the things Dad did for his employer was clear timber, which entailed a lot of chopping. Bud often helped, but his hands were not as calloused and hard as his father’s were. Dad noted this, and observed that the work would be easier on him if he had leather gloves to protect his hands. At some point Dad told Buddy that the next time he went to town he would buy him a pair of gloves. Dad described the kind of gloves he would buy, and the more he talked the harder Bud worked. And as he worked his mind would wander, and he could visualize the gloves his father described. He daydreamed that he would oil them to keep them soft, much like his father did his boots and other leather goods.

A week or so went by, and finally Dad went to town for supplies. Bud waited excitedly for his gloves. Dad arrived home and started to unload the car. Bud waited, thinking any minute Dad would pull out the gloves. Finally he could wait no longer.

"Where are my gloves?"

"Oh, I forgot to get them."

Dad was very matter of fact and not apologetic at all. Bud was crushed. Nothing more was ever said about gloves. Buddy still helped clear brush from time-to-time, but his heart wasn’t in it.

While Dad was trying to make a living, Mom was doing her best to make a home for the family, no matter what place home was at the moment. Bud’s wife Delma remembers Mom telling about papering the inside wells of their little house in Oakhurst with newspapers, using a paste she made of flour and water. While not the latest style in wall covering, the walls looked lighter and cleaner, the newspapers did provide some insulation, and besides, the price was right.

Dad sometimes took both boys swimming in a creek near the house. To his twelve-year-old son Dad made an amusing picture in his cut-off long-handled underwear. Amusing though it was, Bud never let him know by word or look that he was in any way a comical figure as he splashed in the creek. Don still remembers the contrast between Dad's ruddy face and tanned arms and the alabaster whiteness of the rest of his skin when he took off the long underwear, which he seemed to wear most of the time.

Don has one very vivid memory of that time. He and Dad were walking along a little mountain road on the way home after swimming when they suddenly came upon a huge rattlesnake. Don's memory is that the snake stretched almost all the way across the road. Dad and Donnie stopped, keeping a respectful distance, and waited until the snake went on its way into the brush.

Dad didn't want to unduly worry Mom with the story of the rattlesnake, but Donnie, in his excitement, blurted out the whole tale the minute he got to the door. Mom scarcely let her baby boy out of her sight after that.

Our father learned one very painful lesson at Oakhurst. He had never been around poison oak and did not recognize it. Once, when he was out in the woods cutting down trees and readying them for the sawmill, he evidently decided the nice large leaves of the unidentified plant would make a good substitute toilet paper. What a mistake! And for a week or two he was painfully aware of his error in judgment.

 

In 1938 Europe was moving closer to war. The most popular songs were Flat Foot Floogie With a Floy Floy and September Song, the 40-hour week was established in the United States, Howard Hughes flew around the world in three days, nineteen hours and seventeen minutes, and 32,000 people died in auto accidents in this country. Three packages of Jello sold for ten cents, and ten pounds of cane sugar in a cloth bag went for fifty-four cents.

Dad's job in Oakhurst ran out, and he moved his family to the Bakersfield area, following the harvests like a lot of other displaced persons from the Dust Bowl. They lived near Rosedale, a suburb of Bakersfield, for a time, and Bud attended  Rosedale School. At another time they lived in Delano, about thirty miles north of Bakersfield.

Don remembers that it was in Rosedale that the Erwins, with two or three other families, shared an old Santa Fe Railroad building; he thinks it may have been an abandoned station. They, along with many others who were living in tents

and other makeshift homes, were squatters. It was a setting straight out of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. His clearest memory of that particular time is of the Santa Fe Streamliner stopping next to the building, and seeing big sister Mary getting off. She had come from Fresno to visit.

This was a very difficult period in our parents' lives. Dad alone could not support the four of them picking cotton or working in the vineyards. Mom helped. She had arthritis even then, and pulling a cotton sack must have been very hard for her. Bud had to help too, and when Don was a little older, he also pitched in. It was a rough life, and a difficult time. I think the rest of us had no idea how hard it really was for them. Dad was a proud man, and didn't ask for financial help. Bud remembers that at times there wasn't much on the table to eat. His memories of that era do not include many happy ones.

It was while Dad and Mom were working in the Bakersfield area that a potentially tragic thing happened. Little Donnie was attacked and bitten in the left side of his face by a large German shepherd dog. He had to be taken for medical attention and numerous stitches were necessary to close the wound. Mary visited them soon afterwards, and Dad, treating her as more of an adult than at any time previously, told her in a. rather apologetic voice that for $50 more the doctor could have treated the wound so there would have been very little scarring. But at a time when they were barely making enough for food, $50 may have been almost as unattainable as $50,000.

Don, on the other hand, doesnt recall the incident as being particularly traumatic. The thing that stands out in his memory is that every time he went to the doctor he got an ice cream cone afterward. Having the scar on one side of his face has evidently not affected him adversely over the years.

Bud remembers a comic book Donnie had acquired, a casual gift from someone. Donnie couldn't yet read, but Buddy could and was dying to get hold of it. Donnie, perversely, kept close watch on his treasure. When Bud did manage to grab the book, Donnie would let out such a loud howl that Dad would order Bud to give it back.

One day at the dinner table Donnie was engrossed with the meal but Bud had finished and quietly slipped the comic book away without attracting his little brother's attention. In doing so he met Dad's eye, but Dad just smiled and gave an almost imperceptible nod, which just proved Bill Cosby's present day theory that parents are not interested in. fairness, just peace and quiet.

 

Nineteen thirty-nine found the family back in the Madera area. In that year war in Europe became a reality. Germany invaded Poland, and England and France declared war on Germany. That was the year also that Grandma Moses became famous, the U.S. economy began to recover because of orders for war equipment, and popular songs were God Bless America and Three Little Fishes. The film The Wizard of 0z was released, baseball was first televised in this country, nylon stockings first appeared, a Simplicity dress pattern cost fifteen  cents, Donnie started first grade, and Buddy enrolled in Madera Union High School as a freshman.

In the summer of that year John and Goldie made a trip to California to see the folks. There were eight of us traveling in John's 1937 Ford: Goldie, John, and their two children Dick and Lois, Flossie and her two little girls Joanne and Donna Mae, plus me. Donna Mae was car-sick most of the way out, and Flossie said later that by the time she was two miles from home she was sorry she hadn’t stayed there. Mom and Dad were living in a rented house then. The house was on a cotton farm, but they rented only the house, and it was much better than some places they'd lived.

I remember Mary was there also visiting from Fresno. She called me into the bedroom soon after we arrived and suggested we put on shorts.

"But I don't have any."

"I have an extra pair," and she pulled them out.

I tried them on and they fit. I was a little reluctant as I was never as quick to defy Dad as she was, but she persuaded me. We came out of the bedroom, giving each other courage by being together. Everybody looked at us, Mom, Dad, Goldie, John, and Flossie, but no one said a word. We tried hard to be nonchalant as we waited for comments, but none were forthcoming.

After about an hour and a half I felt too uncomfortable wearing the shorts and told Mary I was going to change back. We both did. We came out again in our regular clothes and there was still no comment. I don’t think I ever did wear shorts around Dad except that one time. One of my regrets is that Dad didn't live long enough to see some of the exceptionally skimpy bikinis that are now worn on our California beaches.

Clifford, at that time, was working for Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, and while in California Goldie, John and Flossie drove to Long Beach to see Clifford and Helen. They again had a loaded car. They took Mom, Buddy and Donnie with them, plus the four children they'd brought from Kansas. Don remembers they flipped up the trunk of the '37 Ford, and Bud and Dick rode back there, something the Highway Patrol would not allow today.

I went in to Fresno with Mary and started looking for a job. Goldie had told me I could stay if I found a job before they left for Kansas. I didn't, but when they came to say goodbye I told them I had, and so I stayed. Within a week I did find a job working for a lawyer.

That September Bud started school in town as a freshman and rode the bus to school. Donnie, in first grade, had to walk about a mile to Easton School, the local elementary school. Donnie considered that to be totally unfair, that he had to walk to school and his big brother got to ride a school bus. Although there were buses that carried students to Donnie's school, he lived just under the distance limit so did not qualify. He continued to find the situation unjust and continued to protest loudly to Mom, but he walked. It probably didn't help that Bud never lost an opportunity to rub it in.

Don remembers that first day of school. Dad and Mom dropped him off in front of the school, drove on to where they were picking cotton, and picked him up after school. After that he walked each day.

Mom took a picture of Donnie on his first day of school, in his brand-new pair of two-toned pants and new shoes and holding some of his big brother's books.

Bud remembers that when school started he and his older brothers got a new pair of overalls and a new pair of shoes.

The shoes were bought with plenty of "growing room," and if they lasted until the next September, fine; if not, he went barefoot. When he started high school, however, he put his foot down. No more overalls, and he was real careful with his “school” shoes.

I lived in Fresno with Mary from June of 1939 through August of 1940, and during that time I visited Mom and Dad several times. Their standard of living was not high, but I think they never again were as bad off as during the Bakersfield period. That must have been the low point in their lives.

I lived in Fresno with Mary from June of 1939 through August of 1940, and during that time I visited Mom and Dad several times. Their standard of living was not high, but I think they never again were as bad off as during the Bakersfield period. That must have been the low point in their lives.

Dad was beginning to save a little bit of money. I don't believe he bothered with banks. He used to collect his money in silver dollars, rather than paper money, which he carried around in his pants pocket. Mom disapproved of this practice, because the heavy coins tended to wear out his pockets. The dollars must have been a little heavy in his pocket (once when I was there he had about twenty), but maybe the weight of the money was comforting somehow.

Over the years Dad, when the problems of everyday living became too much for him, would throw vocal tantrums, lashing out at anyone around him, but invariably making Mom his chief target. Some of his verbal tirades lasted two or three days. Mom would take a lot, but she would often reach a point when she would either remove herself from the scene or fight back.

During one of Dad's prolonged temper tantrums in the early thirties, Mom hid out in the chicken house for a long while and had everyone seriously worried about her safety. Another time she left the house in the middle of the night and walked the mile and a half or so to Goldie's and John's house. That time, Mary woke up a little later, and when she inquired about Mom's whereabouts, was ordered by Dad to get out. She followed Mom down the road to Goldie's house, still in the middle of the night.

During one of the times I visited the folks during this time, Mom told me about another of Dad's temper fits. He had started throwing verbal abuse at her as she was getting dinner on the table. She surprised him. She picked up the dish of fried potatoes she had just set down and threw it in his face, hitting her target straight on. She said he hadn't had a tantrum since.

Bud and Don remember some of the foods Mom fixed during those lean years. Bud still cannot eat potato soup because Mom served it so often then. Mom also made a lot of dumplings, and those Don liked, but he couldn't stand the hominy she fixed. When there wasn't much to eat Mom could always make up biscuits and white country gravy. Mom also used a lot of canned tomatoes. She would make a hot dish with day-old bread added, or sometimes cold with sugar added. Another dish both of them remember with little fondness is the chili Mom made. Hers was very thin, probably made from brick chili, with no beans, and served with dry bread in it. Don remembers if they were flush they had crackers instead of the dry bread. Probably the main criterion of most of the food she fixed in those difficult years was that it be inexpensive.            »»»

Top