The Grass is Always Greener,
Down the Road Apiece
by Helen Erwin Campbell
The Odes and Hazel Erwin story continues…
It was in 1934 that Winston Churchill tried to warn the British Parliament about the menace of German air power, the Dionne quintuplets were born in Ontario, Canada, Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger was shot by the F.B.I., Max Baer won the world's heavyweight boxing title, and two popular songs were Blue Moon and Stars Fell on Alabama. Also, a ten pound bag of pure cane sugar in a cloth bag sold for forty-five cents, a box of Jello went for five cents, and Post Toasties cost eight cents.
That year also saw the beginning of the Dust Bowl era in the Great Plains region of the United States, which included Kansas. The dust storms of the thirties were caused by drought, over-cultivation of the soil, and several other poor farming methods. That situation compounded the economic problems of the farmers of the area, since the whole country was still suffering from the 1929 market crash.
I vividly remember the Dust Bowl days and the blowing dirt that seeped in around the windows and doors. It left a coating of dust over everything inside, and limited outside vision like that of a dense fog. But no fog ever felt like that dust when it got into my eyes, nose and throat.
One day when it was especially bad, school was dismissed at noon. The town students were instructed to go straight home, and school buses took the farm children to their homes. I was in the tenth grade then, and living in Madison with Goldie and John. My two girlfriends—Alene and Gladys—and I walked home up Standpipe Hill, trying unsuccessfully not to breathe in the dust. We were unaware of the widespread and long-lasting economic impact of the continuing dust. We knew only that it was uncomfortable and that we'd gotten a half day off from school.
Dad and Mom didn't own real property, and thus didn't have to go through the tragedy of watching their land blow away, but an already tight economy became tighter, and the devastating effects of the dust storms filtered down to them.
In 1935 President Roosevelt signed the United States Social Security Act, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, Begin the Beguine and The Music Goes Round and Round were popular songs, the rumba became a fashionable and popular dance in the United States, and my brother Raymond got married.
It was on August 18, 1934 that Raymond married Alma Lynch. Alma and I had known each other in Madison High School; she and I were in the same grade.
Raymond and Alma came by that day with Mom and Dad and Alma's parents in the car. It was Dad who said, "Yes, we're gonna go get these two married." Of all their children, Raymond's wedding was the only one at which they were present.
I was living with my oldest sister Goldie and her husband John on a farm south of Madison that was owned by John’s father. The economy had affected the post office, and the Madison Post Office was lowered one grade. This meant one less employee, and John was out. of work. They rented out the house they owned on Standpipe Hill and lived in the house on the farm to help defray expenses.
In the fall John got a job with the post office in Topeka, and both Mary and I moved there with him and Goldie and their two children. Only Buddy and Donnie were left at home with Mom and Dad.
When Dad went somewhere in his car or truck he often took one of the boys with him. Bud remembers sitting in the back seat, with Dad seemingly forgetting he had anyone with him, because he would carry on a conversation with some absent person. Dad would talk on and on, really telling the person off. By the time he reached his destination he would seem to have worked the problem out to his satisfaction, or at least he had gotten it off his chest.
Bud recalls another incident when he was with Dad in the Model T and the fan belt broke. Of course the car wouldn't run, and they were stuck a mile or two from town. Dad walked to a nearby farm house and knocked on the door. No one answered. The screen door was half open, and the coil spring was hanging by only one end. Dad took the spring, brought it back to the car, and used it for a makeshift fan belt. It was a slow trip back to town, but it did work. Bud often wondered what the residents of the house thought about their missing spring.
One of Dad's favorite stories of that time was about the day he had two-and-a-half-year-old Donnie with him and they stopped for hamburgers. They sat side by side on the stools at the lunch counter. Dad ate his burger, but Donnie sat and looked at his. Dad kept urging him to eat, but Donnie still sat, frowning at his plate.
Dad, almost finished, finally said, a little impatiently, "Come on, boy, eat that hamburger. We have to get going. "
Donnie glared at his plate. "I ain't gonna eat that Dod damned ole' onion!"
Dad would laugh at his own story, slap his leg, and repeat the punch line, "I ain't gonna eat that Dod damned ole' onion!" with tears about to run out of his eyes.
It was towards the close of this year that our family faced its first tragedy. Flossie's first child, Barbara Jean, affectionately known as Bobby, was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix. She died three weeks later on January 7, 1936. She was five and a half years old. It was a very sad time.
In 1936 the German national elections gave Hitler 99 percent of the vote, Mussolini and Hitler formed the Rome-Berlin Axis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected by a landslide, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne of England for the woman he loved, popular songs were It's DeLovely and I'm an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande), Boulder Dam was completed, the United States population reached 127 million, and LIFE magazine began publication. That year MJB coffee sold for twenty-seven cents for a one-pound can, a large package of Quaker Oats was nineteen cents, J. C. Penney advertised outing flannel at eleven cents a yard and full silk hosiery for five cents, and Mom and Dad decided to leave Kansas.
Dad wasn't farming that year. He had gotten rid of most of his farm equipment, had acquired a truck, and was buying and selling scrap iron. Bud accompanied him sometimes on the buying trips. Dad would purchase the iron, load it onto his truck with the aid of a winch, and then sell it for a profit. He sometimes had a man work for him at a very low wage. The fellow weighed about 280 pounds, and with little effort he was able to turn the hand-operated winch that lifted the heavy iron up onto the truck. Dad liked having him along.
About that time Mom was having a great deal of trouble with her teeth because of gum disease. Her teeth were loose, causing her to have trouble eating. She wanted to have her teeth pulled and get dentures. Bud remembers one instance when he was very much impressed with Dad. It seems that one day he made ten dollars selling his iron—an unusual amount in those days—which just happened to be the exact amount that Mom needed for her dental work. Mom got her dentures.
This was the era of the Dust Bowl, and there was an ongoing mass migration from the most hard-hit areas to California. Raymond and wife Alma, with Alma's parents, had already gone there the year before, and Dad and Mom decided to follow.
Dad, however, had a problem. He still owed some money to the local bank. He had quietly sold or disposed of almost all of the family possessions, and had been saving as much as he could of the money he earned from his scrap iron project. If he paid off the bank he wouldn’t have enough to make the trip, and he was afraid that Ollie Weymeyer, the bank manager, would find out he was leaving. When it was time to leave they still had one cow and some chickens which they left with neighbors, to be taken care of for the milk and the eggs, until Ollie came to repossess them. Dad and Mom, with Bud, eleven, and Donnie, three, slipped quietly out of town.
Dad, being an honest man, always intended to pay the remaining balance, “...when I get on my feet again.” According to Don, when he was ready to pay the balance of the note, some ten years later, he learned that the bank had gone bankrupt, and poor old Ollie had passed on.
Don's earliest recollection is of that day the family left Kansas for California. The trailer was packed and goodbyes had been said. Everyone was ready to go… except Donnie. He suddenly ran away from the car down the graveled driveway. To the small boy the gravel seemed to be at least a foot deep. His feet slipped and slid. Dad ran after him, scooped him up, and deposited him in the car. They were on their way.
I was living with Goldie and John in Topeka at that time, with one more year of high school to finish. Mary, having just graduated high school, was also living in the Topeka area and was working as a mother's helper for a farm family nearby. The folks came by Topeka to say goodbye and to pick up Mary. I had made the decision not to go with them.
Dad had a 1931 Dodge four-door sedan. It was a model that still had wooden-spoked wheels that squeaked when they dried out. He pulled a rather small two-wheel homemade trailer, and Mom had to decide what household goods they would transport.
One thing she was determined to take was her pedal-operated Singer sewing machine which she had purchased, she often told me, back when I was a baby, in 1920. The machine had a long narrow drawer across the middle for spools of thread and three drawers on each side, each drawer being ornately carved around the knob handles. We younger children had each in turn played around her feet as she sewed on that machine, and small fingers had often traced the carved flowers and curlicues. Dad tried to talk her out of taking the machine, but she stood firm. She knew she'd probably never get another if she let that one go.
Dad put the sewing machine in the trailer upside down and packed other of their most prized possessions around it. On top of it all he put a mattress, there he and Mom would sleep on the way to California.
It took three weeks to make the trip, as Dad didn't drive very fast. Twenty-five was his average speed; when he did thirty, they were buzzing right along. They camped out every night, with Dad and Mom sleeping on the mattress on the trailer and Mary, Buddy, and Donnie in the car. They never stayed at a motel, or tourist cabin as they were called then. Even at one dollar a night, they couldn't afford one, so they'd find a place to camp and cook on their Coleman stove. Camping out wasn't new to either of them, even though it had been quite a few years since their covered wagon days.
About the second day Mom's back started hurting. "There's a bump in that mattress," she complained to Dad.
When she woke in the mornings, she could hardly straighten up. She started checking and found one of the legs of the sewing machine was sticking up in the mattress, poking her in the back.
Bud remembers Dad's reaction. "I told you not to bring that damn sewing machine! You don't need it. You were so determined to bring it, you can just sleep on it!"
He never would rearrange the trailer. All the way out to California, for three weeks, Mom slept on that leg. She may have wished she hadn't brought the sewing machine.
It was late July and early August when they made the trip and it was pretty hot in the desert areas of Arizona and New Mexico. Dad, having heard tragic stories of people stranded in the desert, decided to take the northern route across the Rockies. One day he was looking to the west through the windshield and saw a dark mass on the horizon.
"Look at those black clouds acoming." As they got closer he proclaimed, "It's gonna be raining here tonight. We've got to find a place to camp."
A little later, after they got several miles closer, he observed, "Hell, those ain't rain clouds. They're mountains!"
Dad had been born in the Ozark Mountains, and thought he knew something about mountains, but it was hard for him to comprehend the massiveness of the Rockies. Bud recalls that on the horizon the mountains did look very dark, much like rain clouds. As they got closer Dad became quiet and nervous.
Dad had left the Ozarks when he was nine years old, on horseback, and with covered wagons. He had never adapted completely to motorized vehicles, and had never driven in real mountains before. Some of the roads then, even the state highways, were not much better than trails, certainly a far cry from the four and six-lane highways of today. They were narrow, some not paved, although most were at least graveled. There were some places in the Rocky Mountains where two cars couldn't pass.
Bud remembers one instance when they were going uphill on a very narrow graveled road somewhere in the Rockies when the car stalled, and Dad couldn't get it started. He tried over and over, but the engine just wouldn't start (probably because of vapor lock, a common problem with cars of that era).
Suddenly over the top of the hill came a Greyhound bus, but there was the stalled car, and the road at that point was too narrow for the bus to pass. There was no way Dad could back the car, with the trailer attached, back down that steep grade. The bus driver started cursing that he was already behind schedule and some damn fool car was now blocking his way. Dad didn't say much. After all, he was seemingly at fault.
The Greyhound driver, after vocally venting his rage at Dad and the fates that caused the situation, finally decided on a solution. He inched the bus down the hill to the car, tied a chain to the front of the Dodge, and then backed up the hill, very slowly and very carefully, pulling the car and trailer until he reached a wider spot in the road where he could finally maneuver past the stalled vehicle. By this time he grumbled and occasionally swore, but Dad said very little. With the bus then free of the car, the driver took off, hoping, probably, to make up some of his lost time.
When Dad eventually got the car going again, Bud was sitting in the front seat and could see Dad's legs. They were shaking. Dad hated being in a position like that where he was not in control and being put down as well, not only in front of a bunch of strangers but his wife and children too.
It was a slow, tiring trip, even though the mountains were fascinating for people who had lived on the plains. The endless expanse of salt in Utah stands out in Don's memory, although he remembers little else except standing on a bucket to see out the car window.
As they got closer to California and closer to their destination, the money started to run low. Raymond and Alma were living in San Joaquin, a little town about twenty-five miles west of Fresno. All of their communication had been by letter; Dad and Mom had not talked to them by telephone. Raymond had written the name of the town as San Joaquin, but Dad pronounced it "San Jo'-kun" instead of "San Wa-keen'." As they got closer to the town they stopped to get directions.
Dad asked, "How do you get to San Jokun?"
The man looked puzzled and answered, "There's no place around here named San Jokun."
Dad was a little disgusted with someone who didn't know his own area. He insisted, "Sure there is. I can show it to you on the map."
The man said, "Well, I'd sure like to see that. I've lived here all my life, and I never heard of a place called San Jokun."
Dad got his map. "Here it is. See, right here."
The man laughed, and Dad got his first lesson on how to pronounce one of the many Spanish place- and street-names in California.
The family was able to locate Raymond and Alma that same day. Dad always maintained that he had exactly twenty-five cents in his pocket when they arrived.
To be continued in the next issue...