The song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” may have saved my Aunt Opal’s life back in 1951. It happened like this.
My parents and I left Senath, Missouri looking for steadier work than my dad could find in a little farming town in the Bootheel. We drove out to Wenatchee, Washington where both sides of the family had relatives.
We traveled in a black 1942 Packard, a model called a salesman’s coupe. It had two big heavy doors, wood and leather all over the inside, and no back seat or trunk, just a carpeted cargo area that went all the way back to the bumper. All our worldly goods were packed into this space, padded with pillows and quilts on top to make a bed where the three of us slept during the night if Dad couldn’t find a cheap motel.
I spent most of the days traveling back there, too. It made a wonderful playpen for a two-year-old. I had my toys and dolls and picture books and sometimes Mom would crawl back onto the pallet with me to play a game or read to me or nap.
My dad was a driving fool. He did not believe in sidetrips but drove straight toward his goal with as few stops along the way as possible. Sixteen hours of driving in a day was about his average and eighteen or more not unusual.
We had bologna, cheese and bread in the car, no need to stop for meals. We bought soda-pop and milk whenever we stopped for gas and Dad drove as long as was possible, late into the night usually and get up early the next morning to drive again.
When Mom wasn’t riding in the back with me, she sat beside Dad on the wide bench seat, talking to him and singing along with the radio. They mostly listened to Country and Western music; Hank Williams was a big favorite.
When Dad got sleepy, Mom would dampen a washcloth and wipe his face with it to help him stay awake. She would take his hands one at a time and clean them with the cloth, talking while she did this. Mostly gossip about her sisters and other relatives and their friends, the Blankenships and the Mosers.
The Blankenships and Mosers were particular friends of my parents. They were also young couples and had all gotten married at about the same time; literally the same time in the case of the Blankenships since their wedding and Mom and Dad’s had been a double ceremony.
Gladys and Velma were cousins and Charlie Moser was a cousin of Mom’s first husband who had died in the war. Billy Blankenship was a shirt-tail cousin, too, his aunts and uncles having married into Mom’s relations earlier. The six of them had all attended a carnival which was where Mom and Dad had first met.
Dad was the stranger. His folks came from the other side of the mountains back in Arkansas and instead of English, German and Dutch, they were Irish, Welsh and Cherokee. Even though they had been born less than ten miles apart, Mom and Dad never met until they were in their early twenties. Two weeks after the carnival, they married and nine months and a week later, I was born.
Billy and Gladys got married at the same time, and had a son, Johnny, within a week or so of my birthday. Two years later, they had already moved to Washington, Charlie and Velma had also gone and now Mom and Dad and I would follow in the big black car without a back seat. Dad had cousins in Washington, too, including a half-uncle his own age he hadn’t seen in ten years.
The roads back then were rough and not always complete but the heavy Packard with its V-8 engine and luxury suspension did not care. It straightened out the detours, flattened the mountains and shrunk the prairies and we reached Wenatchee on the fourth day. With interstates and modern cars you can do the trip in two days now if you drive like my father did.
Springtime in Wenatchee is cool and pleasant. Mom and Dad got jobs at the hop orchard where Billy, Gladys, Charlie and Velma already worked. Dad dug postholes and put together climbing frames for the vines. Mom trained the vines and weeded and sorted strawberries, grapes and vegetables for the truck farm next door.
I sat on a pallet next to the field with Johnny Blankenship while our mothers worked. Sometimes they left us with a teenage babysitter, Betty, back in one of the cabins.
The cabins were small, just one room each with metal doors on the cabinets in the tiny kitchenette. One day, Johnny suddenly opened a cabinet door, hitting me in the head with the sharp corner.
The terrified babysitter ran all the way to the hop orchard carrying me while I screamed and bled all over her. Poor Johnny on his fat little two-year-old legs ran behind us, crying, too, because he had hurt me. I still have the scar in the edge of my hair after almost sixty years.
Later, Betty got in trouble with our parents for trying to make us wear diapers so she could practice changing them since she planned to get married when she turned sixteen in the summer. We were potty trained and didn’t like being treated like babies so we told on her.
Mom and Velma said that the next time Betty suggested Johnny wear a diaper that he take his peepee out and wet on her. Gladys didn’t think that was such a good idea but they talked her into telling him to do it.
He couldn’t wait to try it and the next day, before Betty even mentioned diapers or anything, he did it and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Betty laughed too and laughed even more when I told her that if she tried to put a diaper on me I would poop on her.
Tomorrow: Part II