Marvins Window: Column sparks memories of Dust Bowl days

As I looked out my window Sunday, I saw myself in a 1929 Chevrolet sedan with my brother, my dad and mother traveling on old U.S.

80 somewhere between Kansas and Oregon.

I had just read Abbie's column about John Stienbeck and "The Grapes of Wrath." It is interesting to see how individual views of writers and events are shaped by individual experiences.

She and I share an appreciation of Steinbeck's works, but through a different window.

Some of you long-time readers may remember that I called this column Marvin's Window to recognize that each of us views our world from a specific spot.

I said your window might have a different view.

Mention of "The Grapes of Wrath" always triggers strong memories and deep feelings from those days of the Great Depression that shaped my life.

I am sure many older readers can relate to some of the same experiences.

Dad was a tenant farmer in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in Kansas, Oklahoma and the Great Plains.

He planted corn but had no harvest two years in a row.

He went to Iowa to pick other farmers' corn and "visit that part of the farm that wind had blown to Iowa."

In 1936, Dad's third corn crop was "knee high by the Fourth of July" and he was smiling when mother took my brother and me to visit our grandparents in Garnett.

Soon, Dad called.

"The grasshoppers were here yesterday and all the corn and most of the fence posts are gone," he told Mom.

"I have an auction next week and am loading the car.

We leave for Oregon in two weeks."

We did.

Our family joined the flood of migrant workers heading west.

I always said I was not a character in "The Grapes of Wrath" because I was born 50 miles too far north – in Kansas, not Oklahoma.

I remember mother's fear for our safety when we camped with others headed west at places like Ed's Camp on Route 66 between Kingman and Oatman.

We picked green beans, walnuts, filberts, apples and hops the rest of that summer and fall.

We lived in a migrant worker's cabin at a hop farm that winter less than 10 miles from where I finished high school many years later.

We slept on straw ticks on wooden bunk beds built into the cabin walls.

That was a luxury compared to the tents and our tiny house trailer that Dad had built.

That spring, we picked strawberries, cherries, raspberries, green beans and all the other things until the crops ran out in the fall.

I earned my first pennies telling stories around a migrant campfire before I was old enough to go to school.

I won my first nickel bet when Joe Louis won the heavyweight boxing title.

We listened to the fight on someone's radio in that strawberry camp.

We felt mighty blessed in Oregon.

There was always work to do in a time when 25 percent of the able-bodied men in America could find no work.

We had never seen so much fresh fruit, vegetables and berries.

My favorite was the wild blackberry that grew near water.

They are still there and make my mouth water when I remember the sweet, juicy taste and the pies Mother would make.

I guess I identify with the wrong people in "The Grapes of Wrath." We did not know we were part of the "have nots." We were the lucky ones compared to the friends and relatives we left in Kansas.

Most of them followed us west.

All those experiences remind me that I live in the great land of opportunity.

This country offers hope and rewards hard work.

It is a place where a peanut farmer from Plains and a boy from a broken home in Hope can rise to become president.

It is a place where a Kansas migrant can earn three college degrees before SATs, Pell grants and government loans.

Some of you are old enough to remember the Horatio Alger stories about the poor kid who made it big in this great land.

Now we get statistics on how many poor kids with single mothers just cannot make it.

Yet, many of them still do.

I often wonder why we do not concentrate on the success stories, like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Oprah Winfrey, America's richest woman.

People still risk death just to live in this country even when it means breaking the law.

Ten million came during the last decade!

I identify with the characters in "the Grapes of Wrath." I am sure most of them became successful and raised children who are teachers, doctors, lawyers, bricklayers, truck drivers and home makers.

But, I liked Steinbeck less as a person when I discovered he lived on the California coast and wrote about people he saw coming from Oklahoma.

I wish he had been one of them!

He did give today's generation a chance to peek at the Great Depression and the people who lived then.

Many of them stormed beaches in Normandy and Iwo Jima defending freedom and opportunity.

And thanks, Abbie, for helping me remember and share a time that shaped my generation.

Good writers open windows for us all.

Marvin Robertson is the Miner's city/business reporter.