Charlie’s brother Jack, Betty’s boyfriend, would sometimes come and hide beer in our icebox since Velma would not let him keep it at Charlie’s place. Once I talked Jack into sharing a sip of the beer with me because I told him that Mom and Dad gave me beer all the time. I meant root beer and when I tasted what Jack gave me I told him it was the worst beer I had ever tasted and that he should take it back to the store because it smelled like buttermilk.
Betty and Jack got into trouble again when I told my dad about how bad the beer was that Jack had hid behind the ice, milk, lettuce and grapes. They ended up running away to get married, even though neither of them was old enough to do so without their parents saying it was okay.
So we didn’t have a babysitter anymore and Johnny and I played under the trees while our mothers worked in the hop orchard and in the long sorting sheds beside the truck farm. It got hot in the summer and we would pull off our clothes and run through the tall sourgrass and get little red marks on our arms and legs where the sharp edges almost cut us.
We would try to hide when our mothers chased us but they always found us and made us put our clothes back on. Somebody took pictures of us playing in the grass wearing nothing but our shirts. They used one of those old black box cameras and all you can see is two little kids in white t-shirts far away on a huge field of grass.
Most of the summer had passed and so had my third birthday when Mom and Dad decided to go back to Arkansas. I don’t know why. Maybe they had a letter from someone there needing them to come back.
We loaded up the Packard the same way again and started back toward Arkansas. But something happened.
The radio had played that song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” all summer long in two or three different versions. Burl Ives sang it on the pop stations and Harry McClintock sang it on the Country and Western stations in between Hank Williams songs. I loved that song.
I made everybody be quiet whenever it was playing. I would shush them and I wasn’t above climbing into someone’s lap and putting a hand over their mouth if they wouldn’t shut up talking while I listened to my favorite song.
And then on the trip back to Arkansas, Mom made the mistake of reading a sign that said, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” so many miles down the road. There were more signs often enough that it became a game to me to spot them before Mom could read them. I couldn’t read but I could recognize those signs with their jumble of candy-colored mountains behind a big set of words.
Big Rock Candy Mountain must be a real place, I believed. I began to sing the song and make up my own words about puppy dogs and root beer and houses made of ice cream. I probably sang it a hundred times, with Mom and Dad laughing at first but probably getting pretty tired of it after a while.
We came to a fork in the road, just north of Salt Lake City. Turn east here for Arkansas, keep going south for the Big Rock Candy Mountain. A sign with an arrow on it pointed the way to the land of Lemonade Springs and Peppermint Trees. And Dad turned east.
I howled. I screamed. I cried as only a three-year-old can because adults won’t use up their lungs that way. Dad, the goal-oriented driver, was going to Arkansas and did not intend to make a sidetrip to the Big Rock Candy Mountain where little kids could play with the rubber-toothed bulldogs.
Mom tried to reason with me but I wasn’t having any of it. I cried till I choked and I choked till I puked and Mom had to crawl into the back to clean me up.
So she tried to reason with him. Couldn’t we go on a little farther south before we turned back east? she asked.
No, he said, we’d already passed the turn off and it was too late to change our minds. We were going to Arkansas.
I wailed. I blew bubbles of snot out of my nose. I threw up again. Mom cleaned me up once more and put me into the front seat next to Daddy. I got the hiccoughs. I sat there beside him and looked up with my baby blue eyes and asked him please could we go see the Big Rock Candy Mountain?
We stopped for gas. Mom took me to the rest room and we both changed clothes. When we came out, Dad had the car filled up and pointed toward the road. We climbed in and I sat between them in the front seat. Dad had bought us all soda pop, a root beer for me, and we ate some peanuts.
Daddy called me “Punkin,” back then. Punkin, he said, will you promise not to cry for anything else on this whole trip if we go back and see the Big Rock Candy Mountain?
Oh, yes, I said. I promise. Are we going to go back? I asked.
I guess so, said Daddy. We can just keep going south and visit your Aunt Grace and Uncle Herman in Casa Grande. After we see them, we can go back to Arkansas before the winter makes the roads too bad.
I think I started singing again then.
Mommy said, maybe we can see the Grand Canyon on the way, too.
Don’t you start, said Daddy. That would be another side trip.
But that’s how the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” kept us from being in Arkansas so we could go out to California and save my Aunt Opal from starving to death.