Before any important meeting like a parent-teacher conference. My dad could be found by the door endlessly adjusting his hat, just like this. Hats are important both to Okie culture in general and my dad personally.
The bones of my Okie ancestors Lie in the cemeteries Of Wasco Of Shafter Of many towns Throughout Tulare and Kern Counties The rest of the San Joaquin Valley Stretching back To Oklahoma and Arkansas
The bones of my Okie ancestors Dance to a country beat And my living bones Dance in resonance Without trying
Most people understand this At least in part Most people Most people understand The ties of blood This kind of ancestry
Even if they can’t feel their bones Shaking the yellow-grass California hills Bothering the roots of the lone oak trees Living endlessly forgotten Under converted deserts And redwood forests Manzanita and madrone Mudslide and earthquake and fire
These are the bones in my life You are most likely to understand So they are the first I will hand you Please think hard about them But don’t forget To listen in your own bones For the song
I’m late for Memorial Day, and I have no new posts on it planned to make, so this is it. But I made old posts. So for Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, I always remember America’s atomic vets. I have at least one in my family — he died from the experimentation he was subjected to by the military — and until I heard his story, I’d heard of this kind of thing but had no idea my grandpa’s cousin was involved in what I’d thought of as just another part of history. And that’s the thing: History is made up of people. Every single one of us is history. That’s important. And it’s important that we understand where we and our families and friends are part of history.
US Army troops in Nevada, training for nuclear warfare. These troops are about 6 miles from Ground Zero. The Pixley Farm was about 120 miles away.
Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball
My father wrote this in his memoirs about living in the San Joaquin Valley on a farm called Pixley Farm during that time period, which meant Nevada where the nuclear testing happened was right over the other side of the Sierras:
In the early 1950’s, everyone was afraid of the communists, Russia and China in particular. In 1949, the communists took control of China and Russia exploded its first atomic bomb. Russia was supplying arms, ammunition, aircraft and tanks to the North Koreans and China. China joined with the North Koreans to fight UN troops in October of 1950. The mood in the United States was one of near paranoia. It seemed that war with Russia was inevitable. The specter of WW3 loomed on the horizon. It was at this time that Senator Joseph McCarthy began his famous communist witch-hunt. He contended that there was “A Red under every Bed”. The United States engaged in extensive Atomic Bomb testing in Nevada. From our vantagepoint on the farm, the flashes of light from the tests lit up the sky behind the Sierra Nevada mountains. Following the flash of light by a couple of minutes, we were jarred by the shock wave. The roar of the blast came many minutes later. It was an eerie experience. On one occasion, just before sunrise, I was helping Dad set siphon pipes when we saw the flash. We hung on to the pickup until the shock wave arrived. When it hit, it was so strong that it sloshed water out of the irrigation ditch. On another occasion, I was knocked out of bed by a shock wave. Atomic bombs were fearsome things to a nine-year-old kid. (They are fearsome things to a 66-year-old.)
Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball
This is the part where my dad talks about meeting the atomic vet in my family, who eventually died as a result of the radiation:
One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom. He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army. I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero. They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment. The bomb sat on a tall tower. They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench. When the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall. He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head. We talked for a while and then he left. I never saw him again. Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.
I think it’s important to remember not only the soldiers who died in foreign countries, but also the soldiers who died right here in America. They died without volunteering to be experimented on by their own government. The government considered them expendable. Just human guinea pigs to see what the bomb would do to them. And while we’ve made progress, neither the living vets nor the people who died have been properly compensated for the mess created. This isn’t a partisan thing, and it’s not about whether you approve of the military or not, this is just messed up what happened to people.
It’s nice to find Okie-themed songs that aren’t by Woody Guthrie. Not that all of his were bad, but a lot of us have mixed feelings about him for all kinds of reasons both good and bad. (Mine are mostly around the fact he made a living off making fun of us as much as anything else. But tempered by the knowledge that is making a living in a situation where especially at first he had no guarantee of one.)
Anyway as far as I know this is just a straight-up story from Merle Haggard’s life. I’ve always liked Merle Haggard’s music. He was one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound, basically Californian country music, mostly Okie in origin, that sounded very different from Nashville either at the time or since. Bakersfield being one of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the Okies lived, and one of the big centers for country & western music in California.
This is mostly about the way people from Oklahoma and surrounding states, largely but not entirely during the Dust Bowl and Depression eras, were lured into California with promises of a standard of living that didn’t pan out. A method of getting a cheap farm labor force into the state that hasn’t changed much. 😦
My family got lucky, after some time in the labor camps they were able to buy a series of small farms (one at a time, not owning several at once!) they spent the rest of their lives in debt over before being pushed out of farming altogether. Most Okies didn’t even get that.