Biting the Dust
by Calendar Hacksaw
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Zanutto:
It is with a deep sense of personal regret, not to mention growling stomachs and a buzzard's thirst, that Betty and I must respectfully decline your invitation to dine with The Fence Post's crack team of publishers, editors, writers, columnists, photographers, copy boys, printer's devils, gandy dancers and other freeloading hangers-on during the upcoming 18th Annual Walker Basin Publisher's Association Autumn Hiatus, Staff Retreat and Sleep-over at Cheyenne's Stage Stop in Riverkern on November 9, starting at 11:30 a.m.
I include the particulars for any homeless couple that might want to step forward and represent the Hacksaws by proxy. Order the most expensive item on the menu; it's on the Zanuttos.
By way of apology, the bottom line is that our wallets are justtoo thin to make the trip this month, owing to the fact that we blew our budget all to hell during October while celebrating our anniversary in Bakersfield. We had quite a good time, I mean to tell you, and I will.
Our primary motivation in selecting "Destination: Bakersfield" as the locale for our annual love fest was to attend the Dust Bowl Festival at the Sunset Labor Camp in Weedpatch. We had not participated in this affair before, and wanted to experience it firsthand. And that we did.
For those readers not in tune with this event, let me encapsulate (I always wanted to use that word in a sentence). The Sunset Labor Camp, AKA the Arvin Federal Camp or Weedpatch Camp, provided a temporary home to many thousands of Okies who fled to California during the Dust Bowl. It played a significant part in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which made known to the nation the plight of those who were a part of America's greatest migration.
Well, Betty and me rolled out of the rack early Saturday morning and motored on over to the camp about 9:00, arriving well ahead of the masses. We flashed our handicapped placard at one of the Arvin ROTC cadets directing traffic, and he passed us on to other cadets who eventually directed me to park off in a field. It was only then that I realized Okies don't believe in handicapped parking. If they did, every space there would have been occupied by the handicapped, in that just about everyone who arrived depended on an assortment of crutches, canes, walkers and wheelchairs to get anywhere they were going, and every one of them succeeded in doing so. The prevailing philosophy seemed to be, "Just because you're a cripple don't give you no damned right to go inconveniencing other cripples."
We settled into some folding chairs near a temporary stage and dance floor they'd set up, and one of the first bands to play launched into a spirited rendition of "Livin' on Tulsa Time." This song has a particularly strange effect on women, possibly because its lyrics describe the doings of a male loser. Females find that irresistibly humorous and worth dancing about. Casting aside their prostheses, they crammed the platform and began line dancing in earnest, exhibiting all the youthful exuberance normally reserved for Principal Shive and her merry band of schoolmarm cohorts whenever "The Macarena" comes over the speakers, in the same manner that my dog's leg twitches and kicks when I scratch her secret spot.
In little or no time—or three-quarter time—one of the merry celebrants (we'll call her "Wanda"), lost her footing and tumbled to the floor, injuring her left Tulsa or something in the process. A call went out to summon paramedics, and a squadron of ROTC cadets made a mad dash for the Kern County Sheriff's Department booth, assuming they'd have a radio. Apparently, there were no cell phones among those assembled.
Well, a full 30 minutes passed before help arrived, during which time the band played on, Wanda stood in the middle of the dance floor, supported by friends, while line dancers and square dancers went about their business as if she wasn't even there. Only when the ambulance eventually arrived did the band take a break, in that the meat wagon effectively blocked the audience's view of Billy Mize and the other musicians until Wanda got loaded on a gurney and carted off to Weedpatch Memorial.
A number of "celebrities" were in attendance, including retired CSUB history professor Jerry Stanley, author of Children of the Dust Bowl; the much-older-than-she-looks former Sunset School teacher Barbara Sabovich, who wisely latched on to legendary schools superintendent Leo Hart's coattails at a young age and rode it for all it was worth; and yours truly, who attracted scant notice.
Anticipating quite an outpouring of attendees, so to speak, the event organizers had wisely laid in an ample load of portable latrines. As I stood admiring this blue plastic sub-division of row housing, an old timer ambled over and shared his recollection of privy life.
"When we was kids, our folks made us pencil our weights on the outhouse wall every time we went, so's if we fell in they'd know how much to scoop out."
I shared this bit of wisdom with my cousin-in-law, who recalled my uncle's outhouse instructions were to take along one red corncob and two white ones.
"Use the red one first, and then one of the white ones," his mom instructed. "Then see if you still need the other white one."
But one of the best lines I heard came from Roger Sprague, grandson of Florence Owens, better known as the "Migrant Mother" or "Migrant Madonna" photographed by Dorothea Lange. Speaking in the camp's community hall, Sprague talked about growing up in the shadow of that famous photo, and I paraphrase here:
"Everyone always said they saw so much in that picture, but whenever I looked at it all I saw was that mean old woman who chased me around with a switch in her hand."
Calendar Hacksaw can be admonished at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he reminds you that Sunset Camp was a "dry" camp during the Dust Bowl years, and still is to this day. Which explains why all those old Okies were carrying 16 oz. red plastic party cups and making frequent trips back and forth to their trucks.