Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Haying at Gila Bend - 1936 & '37

Haying At Gila Bend — 1936 & '37


Wally Lee Parker

Reprinted from the Enkey-Parker Family History Newsletter — 2001
(all "intellectual property" rights retained by author)

            In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the Parker clan found employment primarily as contract farm workers and migrant field hands.  For part of at least two years — 1936 and 1937 — my mother, Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker, and father, Owen Lee Parker, were with the larger family haying on a ranch near Gila Bend, Arizona.  The following stories are adapted from a series of taped interviews with my mother and my uncle, Jim Parker.  
            Gila Bend is a small Arizona town about thirty miles southwest of Phoenix.  Its present day population, seventeen hundred, is much more than it was in the era of this story.  The town is named after the nearby Gila River.  The word ‘Gila’ is “probably” of Native-American origin.

Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker
Gila Bend, Arizona, 1936
            As my mother recalls
            “We spent two summers camped at Gila Bend.  An irrigation canal carrying water from the Gila River ran just outside the town.  Sometimes the canal was full of water, sometimes dry.  The surrounding ranches were irrigated from canals like that — the water being flooded down each canal as needed.
            “Owen’s dad, Alfred Wallace, contracted to bail hay for a group of local ranchers.  Haying season ran from May through part of August.
            “Four of the Parker boys — Owen, Ethmer, Jim, and Sam — worked there the first year.  Ed was too young to work in the fields.  Buster and his wife Bertha were working someplace else.”
            Jim Parker was able to add a lot of details about the work being done and the machines being used on the ranch.  As Jim explained, “Dad (Alfred Wallace) would contract with the ranchers to bail the hay — so much a ton.  The ranchers would supply the equipment, the tractors and bailing machines, and Dad would supply the fuel and labor.
            “In ‘36 we used a ‘Case’ tractor.  You’d hit a sandy spot with those old iron-cleat rear wheels and it would just spin.  The damn ranch foreman decided to cut the wheels down — the fool had all the struts in the rear wheels cut down to make the wheels smaller.  After that you couldn’t do anything with the tractor.

Hay Bailing at Gila Bend, Arizona
June, 1936
(from left)  Gerald Good (hired hand), Sam Parker, Alfred Wallace Parker, Owen Lee Parker, Ethmer Andrew Parker, and James (Jim) Grady Parker.
Photo from the Jewell Kathern Parker-Hartman collection. 
            “That first year I worked doing ‘backwire’ on the bailer.  The next year I tied.
            “At certain intervals we’d push three of what we called ‘blocks’ into the stream of hay coming through the bailer.  I can’t describe that part — or maybe I don’t remember that part of the process.  But if we had one of them old machines around, I could show you.
            “A block was just a length of wood with a groove cut down both sides.  That groove would act as a guide for the wires being pushed through the compressed hay coming out the back side of the bailer.  We tied three wires on each bail. 
            “One guy would sit on each side of the chute coming out the back of the bailer — the tie man who grabbed a new wire, pushed the end without a loop through the bail — and the ‘backwirer’, who’d grab the wires and run them down the length of the bails to the next set of blocks, then push them back through so the first man could tie the wire’s tail to its looped head.
            “Once in a while you’d get a wire that was too short.  For that we had a bunch of short wires with an eye in one end hanging up on a wire — just grab one and put it on. 
            “It was dry in the fields — no irrigation during cutting.  Most of the time we had a breeze to blow the dust away.  No breeze and you’d choke.
            “I wore leather gloves all the time.  I cut the index finger and thumb out about one or two knuckles up so I could work the wires better.  When we got working those fields my hands were just as white as ever, though the rest of me was burned dark. 
            “The last year there, when we got through bailing, I was so happy I threw my overalls in the hay bailer and bundled them with the last batch of hay.
            “Now it was really hot.  You’d take a car from the field back to camp — going in to eat lunch.  Then you’d go back out in the field.  And when you’d get out of the car, get out in the sun again; these chill bumps would just rise up all over.  They’d pop out all over your arms.  But soon as you got going — got back to work — it’d be all right.
            “One day when we went in for break one of the boys Dad had hired — Holbert Rose’s brother I think — said, ‘I wanna go into town today.’
            “Gila Bend was about ten miles away.  I think there was only one street in the town, and that was the highway.  It ran east and west.  The town was maybe two blocks long.  A few buildings, a depot, schoolhouse, drug store.  On the side of the drug store hung a thermometer.
            “When he got back he said, ‘Do you know how hot it is in there today?’
            “According to him that drug store thermometer, hanging in the shade, read one hundred and twenty six degrees.  You can just about figure what it was out in the sun.”
            My mother remembered the Arizona heat too.
            “When water was running in one of the canals,” she said, “the boys made a wood frame right across the top of it.  They put up a tent on top of that frame so they could sleep over the running water and stay a little cooler.
            “All the Parker boys and two of the extra hired hands would come to me and Owen’s cooking tent to eat.  About all of them ‘cept the Rose boys.  Those boys went to their own tent for their mother’s cooking.
            “To cool water I’d take a glass jug, tie burlap around the outside, wet down the burlap, hang the jug up in a little tree right next to my cooking tent — where the wind could find it — and doing that I’d have the coldest water.
            “We didn’t have an ice box.  Sometimes I kept a chunk of ice in a tub.  But most of the time I keep my butter and eggs the same way I cooled the water.  I wrapped a bucket with burlap, put my butter and eggs in, and hung it in that tree.  That’s how I kept my food cool.
            “Even if it got to one hundred and twenty in the sun, as long as the wind was blowing and you could stay in the shade, it felt cool.
            “Everybody had a canvas bag hanging on the front of their car.  Water would ooze through the canvas and evaporate — which was supposed to cool down the water inside.  Sometimes those hung bags would swing down too low, and if the driver ran over something in the road — like a porcupine — the water would be gone.
            “To haul our drinking water we had two barrels tied on the back of our car.  We didn’t want to disturb any of the local folk, so we’d drive over to this big plant — big factory.  I can’t remember what kind of outfit it was — what the men did there — but they had a water spigot outside the fence for anyone to use and I could fill the barrels from that.  Then we covered the drums and brought them back for everyone in our camp to use.
            “Our bathroom was in the bushes.  The men picked one place and the women picked another.  The bushes were high so they covered everybody.
            “I think our first car was a ‘Flint’.  I learned to drive on the desert at Gila Bend.  I got Jewell to watch the baby, Wanda, while the men were out in the field.  I told Jewell I was gonna learn myself to drive.  It was just desert and mesquite, not much to run over.  Unless I tipped the car over, there wasn’t much damage I could do to anything.  I had done a little driving, so I knew where the gears were and how to make the thing go and stop.  I took it out and Jewell started yelling, ‘Lillie’s gonna drive the car!  Lillie’s gonna drive the car!’

Lillie, Wanda, and Owen Parker in front of their tent.
Gila Bend, Arizona - 1936
"We didn't have much money, so I took one of my dresses and made Wanda pajamas.  That's what she's wearing in the picture." - Lillie Parker

            “I went forward.  Backed up.  Turned.  Owen’s mother, Lena Mae, and all the other women came out to watch.
            “When the men came back, the first thing Lena Mae did was rush over to Alfred Wallace and say, ‘Lillie learned to drive the car all by herself.’
            “And he said, ‘I already knowed she knowed how.’  A. W. would never admit anyone knew anything he didn’t — just part of that Parker stubbornness.
            “Every once in a while the guys would get to doing something ornery.  One day I saw Wanda walking around and around a post.  She was hopping around, and stumbling, and falling.  And the boys — they were sitting there drinking beer, watching Wanda, and laughing.
            “I don’t remember which one did it, which one gave her beer, but they was all there and that means they was all in on it.  And I got mad at all of them.  Alfred Wallace and the bunch.  Owen and the bunch.
            “It was pretty much the desert — meaning there wasn’t much to do other than watching for snakes.  When the men were bailing, lots of times a rattler would be picked up by the conveyer.  Someone would yell ‘Rattler!’ and everybody jumped off.  They’d stop the rig and make sure the snake was dead.
            “Usually if you were just walking the snake would hear you coming — then they’d rattle.  Everybody stopped in their tracks when they heard that rattle.  We’d hear ‘em and see ‘em all the time.  But it was only the once with Wanda and then once with Alfred Wallace that any of us come close to getting bit.
            “During me and Owen’s last time at Gila Bend — that was in ’37 — Alfred Wallace had set the family tent up close to ours.  One night it was so hot he set his cot out by the water, out by the irrigation ditch.  He’d always warned the boys to check their boots before putting them on — all kinds of desert things might crawl in them.  Sure enough, that morning he found a little rattlesnake in one of his boots.  It scared him bad enough that he went around and woke the boys up to make sure they checked their boots too.
            “The tents were pole frames with canvas stretched over the tops.  We rolled up the edges at least three feet or more so the breeze could come under during the heat of the day.  Our tent was maybe twelve by twelve feet — big enough for a table, chairs, and a full size bed.  It was pitched close to the bank of the canal.  The brush along the side of the canal was only a few feet away from the back of the tent.

Part of the Parker's Gila Bend camp,
1936 or '37.

              “On this particular day Wanda was sleeping on the bed.  Now the bed was a metal frame affair that would fold up to pack on the car.  It was off the ground, but not very high.  And one day a bunch of us — the four older boys and Alfred Wallace — were standing out of the sun under the edge or our tent talking when of a sudden Alfred Wallace says, ‘Listen!’
            “We all shut up and listened, and we heard it.  The sound of a rattler.
            “We looked to where the sound was coming from.  It was from the other side of the bed.
            “A rattlesnake had crawled in from the brush and was curled and raised up to strike just a couple of feet from where Wanda lay on the bed.
            “Alfred Wallace yelled, ‘Someone bring my shotgun — and make sure there’s a shell in it!’
            “Someone — I’ve no idea who — was telling me to stand still.  But I was watching that snake and easing toward the bed.  I knew what would happen if Wanda woke up or as much as moved in her sleep.  I got to the bed and started slowly reaching across.  When I saw Alfred Wallace raise his shotgun, I just grabbed the kid’s leg and yanked her with all my might. 
            “Just then Alfred fired the gun. 
            “Firing that twelve gauge under the tent, we were all about deaf for a while.  Alfred Wallace as much as told me he knew what was going to happen — that he knew I wasn’t going to let that snake make the first move toward my kid.
            “Wanda was startled, but as soon as she realized we were all around her she didn’t cry.
            “It was a big rattler — had thirteen rattles on it.  After getting that scared I was so upset I don’t even know what they did with it.  I do know Alfred kept the rattles for ever so long.  You could hold them and shake them and they’d just rattle like anything.  And all of the family said they thought the rattles should have been given to Wanda — ‘cause she got the closest to the thing while was still alive.
            “I can’t recall exactly what color it was — brownish maybe.  And I think they called it a Diamond Back.
            “We saw rattlers and even heard them ever so often, but that’s the only one that, as Alfred Wallace said, ‘We had to kill ‘cause it just come too close.’”
            Jim Parker recalls that some things were different when the family went back to Gila Bend in 1937.
            “My brother Ethmer wasn’t there in ‘37.  We started out with two bailers that year.  I worked on the back of one bailer — tying.  But we only used the two bailers for one cutting.
            “We averaged sixty tons a day with two bailers.  But there were lots of problems with the hired extra crew.  The tractor driver for the extra bailer — sometimes he sat up there with his damn feet on the steering wheel.  Then too, at times he’d turn around on the seat and look back at the bailer, looking back while the machine drifted over ‘til it weren’t picking up the hay.  And then even worse, he’d get to the end of the field where he’d have to follow the row of hay around and back down the field again — well, you got to follow those rows — hit those rows just right.  The pick-up, the conveyer that scoops the row of hay off the ground, if you cross over those windrows of hay the wrong way with the pick-up down, you’ll bust every wooden slat in the conveyer.  And that’s what was happening.
            “And the old boy who was gonna tie on the other bailer, he done two or three days and you should’a seen the poor guys hands.  He had them tore up — punching them with wires.  They’d have to wait on him to tie them three wires most ever time.
            “Then the guy on top of the bailer, the one filling the hay hopper and pushing in the blocks for the guys doing the wires — well, he was doing it wrong.  He was pushing them blocks in there before they was supposed to be coming in and the blocks would break off.
            “On that rig, Dad had to take to tying himself.  He put this old boy with the tore up hands to making reel slats and blocks.

Alfred Wallace Parker, the Parker boys, and some hired hands running two hay bailers in a field near Gila Bend, Arizona.

            “Soon as we got through that one cutting, Dad just shut one bailer down and let the bunch go.  Then he hired this one guy from Arkansas to backwire, and I was moved to the other side of the machine to tie.  And then Owen and Hobert Rose.  That’s all the crew left.  Just us four and Dad.
            “We got nine cents a ton.  That’s what Dad was paying us four — nine cents a ton each.  I think he got eighty-five cents a ton for the contract.  So out of each ton it cost him the fuel for the tractor and bailer, and thirty-six cents for our labor.  So he made a few dollars out of it.
            “Dad said, ‘I’m gonna have to hire somebody to either help feed or drive the tractor.’
            “And Owen said, ‘No need!  Me and Hobert can do it.  And we’ll put just as much hay through there as five guys can.’
            “Dad said, ‘If you think you can do it, instead of paying someone else I’ll give you two the nine cents a ton I’d of paid that extra person and you can split it.’
            “That gave ‘em thirteen and a half each for a ton.  So, all the way through that one bailing crop, they did it.  One would drive and one would feed.  Then each round they’d jump off and trade.  It was a long season, but we kept the average of sixty tons a day — the same as when we had the two rigs runing.  So Owen and Hobert averaged eight dollars and ten cents a day.  I made a little over five dollars a day.”
            For my mother, 1937 seemed a pretty rough year.
            “My sister Julie and her husband Roy Lee were living at Delano, California, in the spring of that year.  I think that’s one of the reasons me and Owen were living at Delano too.  Faril was born on April Fool’s Day at the hospital in Bakersfield — about twenty five miles to the south.  I had to stay in the hospital eight days.  Right then Alfred Wallace and the boys was getting ready to head off for the haying at Gila Bend.  The Parker’s was living near a cotton gin on the highway maybe twenty miles north of Tulare.  A. W. sent us a message — I can’t recall how the message came — saying, ‘We’re gonna leave for haying at Gila Bend.  Come on down as quick as you can.’  They took Owen’s sister Jewell with them to do the cooking and such.
            “Faril was two weeks old when we left.  We drove north to the Parker place to show Grandma and the other Parker girls the new baby first.  Then we headed for the Arizona border.  By time we’d got as far as Summerton I’d come down with what they called ‘milk fever’.  We stayed with Buster and Birtha a few days till I got over that.
            “To help me cook and such, Jewell stayed at Gila Bend for another three week after we got there.  Then she caught the bus back to California.
            “So here we were living in a tent, I was cooking for the men, and I was trying to breast feed Faril — all this with the temperatures reaching one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade.  Faril started having trouble.  She got sick and I had to put her back on the bottle.
            “I had a thick sheet — what we called a ‘comfort’.  I’d fold that comfort about four times and lay it down on our army cot.  I’d soak all the layers with water, then spread a dry sheet over top.  Then I’d put Faril down on the dry sheet.  The air was so dry in Arizona that anything damp would dry in no time.  So her being on that damp comfort, the evaporation would keep her a little cooler while I cooked and what.
            “I would have had to go all the way to Buckeye to see the doctor ‘cause Gila Bend didn’t have a doctor — just a druggist.  The druggist did his best to be like everybody’s doctor, to help the people by giving them advice.  He told me they’d lost two babies already that year — he figured mostly because of the heat.  They would get so exhausted they’d just lay listless in the crib.  And he advised us to leave ‘cause Faril was acting like those other kids had before they’d died.
            “Owen didn’t think he could go till the family had finished haying.  So we tried to tough it out.  But it weren’t long and Faril got to where she didn’t cry, didn’t eat, didn’t even move much.  The druggist told Owen, ‘It’s like this.  You can leave off working with your dad, or you can lose your kid.  But you’d better decide now, ‘cause I don’t think that girl’s got much time.’ 
            “So Owen told his dad, ‘We’ve got to take the baby back to California where we can get her out of this heat and to some proper doctoring.’  Then we left.
            “My sister Julie and her husband Roy Lee Criner — as well as Roy Lee’s sister and brother-in-law — worked on a cotton ranch near Bakersfield.  So that’s where we got work after leaving Arizona.
            “We took Faril to a doctor in Bakersfield.  He looked her over and had us come back a couple of more times.  About the third visit he said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with her, but there’s this research hospital that tries to figure things like this out.  We could send her there.’
            “A Mexican woman lived in the cabin right behind ours on the ranch where we was staying.  We knew her ‘cause her daughter, about fourteen years or so old, came to our cabin quite a bit to play with Wanda and baby Faril.
            “The Mexican woman couldn’t speak English, so she told her daughter, ‘You go tell them to not take the baby to that hospital ‘cause all they do is experiment — experiment to maybe find out what’s wrong.  No telling what they might put the baby through.  You tell the Parkers that if they’ll let me come over and take care of the baby for two or three days, maybe I can find out what’s wrong with her.’
            “The daughter told us, ‘My mama works with herbs.  She has her own garden.  She knows a lot about Indian medicine and does good treating family and friends.  She’s telling the truth when she says a lot of people is afraid of that hospital.’
            “So I told her it was all right for her mother to work with Faril. 
            “The first thing the woman did was to have her boys go along the banks of the canal where willow trees were growing and gather a couple of baskets of fresh willow leaves.  She spread the leaves on the bed, threw a diaper over the leaves, striped Faril naked, and put her down on the diaper.  The Mexican woman said, ‘This is what I do to draw fever out of the baby’s body.’
            “And those willow leaves just curled right up. 
            “Then she gave Faril a mixture of olive oil and ‘Ball Bluing’ — like the liquid bluing you put in your wash to make your whites look whiter — only back then they made it in marble-like balls.  She broke a little bit of the bluing into a spoon of oil, mixed them till the bluing dissolved, and trickled a bit of that down Faril’s throat.  The way she explained it was, ‘When her bowels move I’ll see if the oil is going all the way through.  Then we’ll know if something inside is blocked.’
            “The Mexican woman sat up with Faril over half the first night.  The blue color came through.  And for three more days she watched after the baby.  She made herb teas, remedies like the Indians used — sometimes from the plants in her garden, and sometimes from ones she gathered in the wild — and trickled them into Faril.  The baby started getting better right away.
            “She’d talk to her daughter.  Her daughter repeated her instructions for us in English.  Finally she said to Owen, ‘And you should take this kid to a different doctor.’  But that turned out easier to say than do.
            “Some people — like Roy Lee’s sister and brother-in-law — lived on that cotton farm all year ‘round.  The rest were migrants like us, and would come in just for the picking.  The rancher who owned the place had maybe fifty or sixty cabins for the pickers.
            “Cotton — back in the day when it was picked by hand — was picked twice a year.  The second picking would get any bowls that had been too green to have opened up the first time through.  Anything left after that would be ground up for cattle feed along with the stalks.  When the first picking was over a lot of the migrants would want to go someplace else to work rather than wait around at no pay for the second picking to be done.  So, to keep from having to find a whole new bunch of pickers, the owner — probably by paying off the right people — used Faril as an excuse for having the ranch quarantined before the first picking was done.
            “Everybody on the cotton ranch knew Faril was sick.  When we first moved in we told them that we’d come out of Arizona because of the baby — that we’d come to find her a doctor.  But we didn’t tell them that we didn’t know what was wrong with her.  Still, the guy who owned the farm decided to use the baby’s illness as a good excuse to keep his workers.  So the ranch was quarantine and a guards posted at the road to make sure nobody would leave — especially not us since we was his excuse for the quarantine. 
            “It’s been a long time since my days in the cotton, so I don’t know if I remember everything right.  But as far back as I can remember, I’d see cotton growing in some field or the other.  That was just part of living in the southern states.
            “In spring we’d plant the cotton.  When it got up a ways it’d have to be chopped — we’d take a hoe and thin the rows out so the plants left would have room to grow.  Usually that’d be done once again in a week or so.  For a time in there, after the crops were thinned and cleaned, they’d ‘lay the crops by’ — leave them for a while to let the cotton mature.  On those big farms — like the ones we worked on during the depression — the only thing they’d keep doing during the ‘lay by’ was the irrigating.
            “In Arizona and California, where irrigation canals run through the farms, people would either pump or divert water out of the canals into ‘diked up’ ditches crossing their fields — ‘diked up’ so the level of water in the ditch was higher than the level of the field.  They could turn water from one ditch to another by blocking a ditch with this metal half circle they pushed down into the mud.  Then the water could be pulled out of the ditch with a rubber siphon pipe and dumped onto the ground between the rows of cotton.
            “A worker with high rubber boots walked the fields moving the siphon hose and watching for breaks in the dikes.  They watched for gopher holes too.  If water hit a gopher hole it’d start bubbling down and boil up who knows where.  So they watched, took the shovel and packed any hole they found, then stomped it down.  Somebody had to stay with the irrigating all the time or it’d end up flooding someplace it shouldn’t — and that was money thrown away.
            “Then the cotton would start blooming — pink, yellow, and white.  Pretty blooms.  The bloom falls off and leaves a little bud.  The bud matures into a bowl of cotton — four stiff fingers sticking up with the cotton inside.  You’d take your fingers and pull all the cotton out in one pinch.
            “For picking you could choose between a six or twelve foot long sack.  Owen usually took the longer sack.  He’d cut the strap that goes around the neck and tie that around his waist so he could drag the sack between his legs.  When he got quite a bit picked, he’d take the sack and shake the cotton down to the bottom.
            “The ranchers had these big four wheel wagons — made kind of like a big truck bed with wire mesh lined side boards standing higher than a man’s head.  They stood ladders on each side of the wagon, with a wide board stretched between the ladders and over the wagon bed.  The pickers would climb one ladder, walk out on the board with their sack of cotton, and shake the cotton down into the trailer.  A full six foot bag might be forty pounds.  A well packed twelve foot bag held about eighty pounds of cotton. 
            “Owen was so short he had trouble shaking the cotton out.  So he cut out the bottom of his cotton sack and wove a rope in and out around the bottom so he could cinch and tie the sack shut.  He’d throw the sack over his shoulder to crawl up the ladder, then, while standing on the board, he’d pull loose the knots on both the top and the bottom of the bag — so cotton would fall out of both ends.  He was on and off the wagon in no time at all.
            Every so often someone would get in the wagon and stomp the cotton down.  When they got a trailer full they’d pull in an empty one, then hook up the full one and haul it away to the cotton gin.
            “Pay was by the pound.  So before the sacks got dumped they’d be hung over the scales.  Sometimes the workers would pick up rocks or clots of dirt and pack them in.  Sometimes the foreman put me at the scales to watch for bulges or bumps that didn’t look natural, or rub my hands over the sacks looking for those kinds of things.  I could pretty well tell.
            “I can’t remember myself, but I’ve heard some family recollections that the going rate for picking during the 1930s was something like ninety cents for a hundred pounds.  Cotton didn’t weigh all that much, so every pound was a lot of picking.  Every extra pound you didn’t have to pick but got paid for anyway, that was a lot of work you didn’t have to do.  And a few extra pennies went a long way during the depression.
            “The farms would pay the workers about once a week — unless the guys had hired on to work for just a day or two, or needed the money bad for some good reason — though none of that matter right then with the camp quarantined an all.
            “And too, right then the owner of the ranch was having a contest to find the fastest cotton picker in the camp — and the owner wanted to keep Owen there for that.  While Owen was regularly picking more cotton than just about anybody else on the ranch, this one guy working there — this big, tough looking guy — had held the San Joaquin Valley cotton picking championship for the last couple of years.  And I think the owner wanted to see that big guy done over. 
            “Other workers told Owen, ‘That guy’s really worried ‘cause you’re picking just as much cotton as him.  So he wants you out of here.’  Of course that all seemed so silly we didn’t take any of it too serious right then. 
            “The day of the contest everybody in camp was out in the field watching.  Probably a dozen men were in the contest.  They had to pick, come in to weigh, dump, go out and pick — like that for so many hours.  Whenever Owen and the champion would pass each other, the big guy would taunt Owen — saying things like, ‘If you win I’m gonna beat the hell out of you!’  And all the other guys would watch to guard Owen.  I think Owen got around three hundred and some pounds in the time allotted.  I know he beat the big guy by three pounds. 
            “When it was all done, the big guy said, ‘You damn little runt, I’ll clean your plow.’
            “A bunch of the hands surrounded Owen.  They said, ‘You’ll go through us first.’
            “That night some of the men came to our cabin.  ‘This is too serious,’ they said.  ‘That’s one mean son-of-a-bitch, and he means to hurt Owen.  Besides which, we know you want to get the baby out of here.  A lot of us want to get out of here too — but this quarantine is keeping us here.  So move your car and trailer up close to the cabin.  Then get all your stuff packed up and ready to go.  Before morning, we’ll get you gone.  After that they’ll have to drop the quarantine.’
            “That night some men stood guard around the boss’s house — in case he woke up.  Others carried all the stuff we’d packed out to our two wheel trailer.  Then the whole bunch pushed our car and trailer through the dark — it must of been for half a mile — out of the camp and down the road so we wouldn’t have to start up the motor and alert any of the people watching the camp.
            “Some of the guys just sort of ‘took’ the guard at the main road to the side.  Then they told Owen, ‘You gun it, and don’t stop till you get to Visalia.’
            “So we did.  We went to Alfred Wallace’s place near Visalia, where Lenny Mae and most of the girls were living.  The next day we took Faril to the Doctor.  He looked her over.  ‘The druggist knew what he was talking about.  In that hot weather you most likely would have lost her.  You know how you felt standing over a cooking stove with it one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade.  I’m surprised it didn’t kill you, let alone the baby.’  Then he asked, ‘How did the Mexican lady take care of her?’  I told him, and he said, ‘I’d say she did all right.  She certainly doesn’t seem to have done Faril any harm ‘cause it looks like the girl’s gonna be okay.’

A 1954 photo of Alfred Wallace Parker on his farm near Visalia, California.
The crop is cotton.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fossil Fires: A Poem with Commentary

Fossil Fires:
A Poem with Commentary


Wally Lee Parker
(Reprint from Issue # 47 of the Bogwen Report — July 5, 2010)
(all rights retained by the author)

               One of the things habitual to writing verse is that people assume poems constitute the equivalent of a psychiatric blueprint of the poet’s disarranged mental processes.  In truth, verse is probably less revealing of one’s internal self than how that same person drives their car or talks about their neighbors.  One of the reasons for this associative lack between verse and the writer’s mental state is that verse requires a high degree of deliberate construction.  Versification is a process that impresses a contrived stilting on the alleged stream of consciousness which in turn washes away most of the self-revelation people mistakenly believe lies within poetry.  For the most part, the only revelations buried within poetry’s meticulously processed phrases are those the versifier has consciously placed there.  What revelation remains is more revealing of the reader than of the writer — which is as it should be.
               In other words, if you want to read things written by certifiably crazy people, look at those practicing that improbable juxtaposition of fragmentary sentences called free-verse poetry — which Robert Frost suggested was the equivalent of playing tennis without a net — a.k.a. batting practice.
               The artificialness inherent in most versification is one of the reasons I think I’ve moved away from poetry.  Unless you can rise to the level of Edgar Allen Poe — and who can — it’s just a hobby.  Doing it well is very much an art — or an accident.  And if you have anything you feel you absolutely need to say, it would be best to put it in prose — which is hard enough without making it even more difficult by imposing the strictures necessitated by rhyme — or worse yet, free-verse.  (Yes.  Free-verse has structure — or so I’m told by those with all kinds of letters after their names.  And if you listen to it being explained by these ‘lettered’ practitioners of the art, you’ll know what it feels like to be fleeced by a carny.)  
               As for depression, I suppose in my younger days I had my share.  Since then such has evolved into the chronic melancholy common to a very high percentage of the elderly.  Just a few weeks ago we were at my doctor’s, and he said to me, “Considering all your medical problems, how are you handling your depression?”
               I thought that was a unique question.  But with the general aging of the population doctors are being urged to ask it of most everyone over a certain age. 
               I growled, “What depression?”  It seemed impertinent, so I responded with my full grumpy.
               “It just seems that in people your age depression often goes undiagnosed.”
               “Well,” I replied, “I don’t have to get up in the morning and go to work.  If someone pisses me off, nowadays I can tell them exactly what I think — after all, it’s not like they can fire me.  And if they try beating me, it’s elder abuse — meaning hell for the attacker is just a phone call away.  I know that because I’ve had a run in with the elderly police — and can certify through personal experience that they’re nasty (but that’s a story for another day).  So I’m not really sure what I’ve got to be depressed about.  But I suspect you’re going to tell me.”
               Doc raised an eyebrow at my brusque reply — denial must be one of those tale-tale symptoms — and we moved on.
               Somewhere along the line I seem to have figured out that the best antidote for melancholy is a steaming ladle of hostility and/or sarcasm.  Sarcasm is an art that can reach a degree of literary subtlety as lofty as the most high-brow poetry imaginable.  As such, I’m finding I have more native talent for it than I’ve ever had for poetry.  But sarcasm, like poetry or prose, is something that must be practiced, and practiced often, to reach its natural eloquence.  (Samuel Clemens was a master of the art.)  
               It reminds me of the first time I talked back to my doctor.  It was a Friday afternoon just this spring and I’d come in with chest pains.  I had a miserable cold and wanted to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia.  We ruled that out, so I was ready to go home.  And then he says, “We need to make sure this isn’t related to your heart — so — I think we need to send you to the emergency room.”
               Important guideline for retired people — never go to your doctor’s office late on a Friday afternoon unless you’re spurting blood in time with your pulse, vomiting from both ends, or it’s actually obvious you’re going to die otherwise.
               “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve gone through this,” I spit back.  “Every time I get a pain I get to lay in the emergency room for four to six hours — until they’ve exhausted every excuse for keeping me.  Then they tell me to go home and call my cardiologist during regular office hours.  I go through this about twice a year.  Now that we know it isn’t pneumonia, I want to go home.”
               “I really feel uncomfortable with that,” he said.  “I think you need to be checked out using equipment I don’t have in my office.”
               Finally, after going around and around, I say, “Okay.  But I want you to understand that there’s only one reason I’m doing this — and that’s quite simply to humor you.  I understand that you wouldn’t want the liability of me going home and dropping dead on either your or your lawyer’s conscience.”
               On my part, that was a revolutionary breakout of sarcastic hostility — especially considering that we all know lawyers don’t have a conscience.  (Our family lawyer — Harvard educated and doubtless something of a campus radical at the time — an exception.)
               So I went to the emergency room.  I lay around for six hours.  They finally came in and said, “We can’t find anything significant, so you can go.  Just check with your cardiologist during regular office hours.”
               After meeting our insurance deductible for the year (I went on Medicare the very next month), the simple act of humoring my doctor cost us over one-thousand dollars.
               Anyway, for a number of years I’ve had a few fragment of this verse lying around.  Someplace in the last six or so months it’s occurred to me that this poem should be about a few of the more fun attributes of growing old.  With that revelation, I came up with what I’m calling ‘Fossil Fires’.
               I should point out that I’m not terribly happy with this bit of versification.  Something just isn’t settling yet.    So it will probably have to change a few dozen times more before I do get happy with it — if ever.  But I’d rather get it into print so at the very least what little’s here will not be lost — should I otherwise never find the time to set it right.

Fossil Fires

I sit at night within the light
               Within the circle of my lamp
And open up a cardboard box
               Of bundled letters, cancelled stamps
Lost shreds of thoughts, lives, and events
               Sprinkled with dreams and sentiments
All yellowed by the stain of time

A sound like dusty fossil fire
               Crackles through each unfolding sheet
And though these words were meant for me
               Somehow it still seems indiscreet
To rummage through these former thoughts
               Lost artifacts that one should not
Retrieve from silence much deserved

Old hands that will no longer brush
               In passion ‘cross a creaseless cheek
Caress these posted messages
               As if the yellowed pages speak
And as each scribbled line appears
               Old eyes unstring each word to hear
Its hand traced bit of evidence

When older eyes that never cry
               And seldom see what isn’t there
Are recollecting younger dreams
               They see what young eyes never dare
They see those sullen days to come
               When youth’s heated delirium
Dissolves in chill reality

Traced as a cursive residue
               These words the passing years have made
Dim as a color photograph
               Oozing contrast as it fades
Suggesting time is merely death
               Bleeding life from breath to breath
Till little’s left but what has been

Thin strips of newsprint I have clipped
               Recall the many I have known
A few more clippings every year
               And every year I’m more alone
With little need as day begins
               To rush through it from end to end
As if there were someplace to go

Outside the circle of my lamp
               Darkness creaks with old concerns
Cold shadows flow with images
               Of battles lost and lessons learned
Echoed hurts, tarnished regrets
               All conjured up by ancient frets
Though most of such seems pointless now

Regrets and dreams both need their rest
               Or so the passing years have shown
Those youthful hopes, the weigh too much
               When pressing down on fragile bones
But very much like passing friends
               The moment’s melancholy when
Familiar wants are laid to rest

There is a comfort age can bring
               When lending fault to memory
For when I close this cardboard box
               The past will lose its clarity
And shreds of thought, lives, and events
               Sprinkled with dreams and sentiments
Will dissipate — as well they should

Links to other poems by Wally Lee Parker

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