Posted in crossroads, Developmental disability, disability rights, family, from the bone, Okies, Self-advocacy

Crossroads #03 (Self-Advocacy Sunday)

A walkway leads out into a desert within pink sand, with a sign with arrows pointing both directions sideways. Letters matching the pink sand read "Crossroads."
Crossroads in the California desert.
A small area of forest in California's Siskiyou Mountain range near the Oregon border. This being the cemetery where my father was buried according to his wishes -- in just a pine box and shroud with no funeral ceremony.
Small California mountain forest cemetery that contains my father’s bones.

Dear Cheryl,

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

A collection of Baggs gravestones from mostly San Joaquin Valley, California cemeteries.
A collection of Baggs gravestones from mostly San Joaquin Valley, California cemeteries. One (upper right) is my dad’s in the Siskiyous.

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

Dry grass hills and trees outside Bakersfield, California. I feel these hills in my bones and there are bones in hills like these.

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

The other song.

Spoken from the bone,
Mel

Posted in family, history, Okies

Atomic Vets Again

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
The red marker that says E Terra Bella Ave shows roughly where Pixley Farm was located, where my dad could see the atomic testing over the mountains.

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.

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball

I made a more detailed post on atomic vets awhile back, called America’s Atomic Veterans, if you want to read it.

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.

Posted in Californication, culture, family, history, music, Okies

Okie Country Song: “California Cotton Fields”

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.
California cotton fields.