Okie Survival and WINNING THE DUST BOWL


By Carter Revard

My cousin Roy Camp was one of the better watermelon-stealers in our part of the country, between Pawhuska and Buck Creek--or at least he told the best stories about when the farmers really DID use rock salt in the shotgun, and he once went around for days unable to sleep on his back or even sit down because he got peppered with some of it one afternoon.  Sixty years later, when I was out in California visiting with him and his family, we got to talking about some of those good old bad old days, so after I was back in St. Louis, in June 1996, it was time to write Winning the Dust Bowl for Roy, who as is said in the poem had taught me to read back in 1936.  He had lived with us that whole year, out in the Buck Creek Valley, because not long before his father had been beaten to death in the Pawhuska jail (Roy had tried to pull the policemen off as they dragged his father through the doors).  When his mother remarried, Roy did not at first like the new stepfather; so the year my twin sister and I started to Buck Creek School he lived and went to school with us.
            
Three years later--as Steinbeck was writing The Grapes of Wrath--Roy and a buddy hopped a freight train and rode out to California to join his mother and stepfather at a sawmill near Truckee, up by Lake Tahoe.  A few years later he married a good strong woman, served in the Marines in World War Two, then saw to it that his mother Loretta had a good house right near where he and Celestine located in Porterville.  When I visited them for Roy's seventieth birthday and went down to the local mall for a birthday dinner, we couldn't move twenty feet along a sidewalk or an aisle without people greeting him with a big grin and handshake or hug.  So when I wrote this I wanted to remind Welfare Kings like certain governors and presidents that the food on their table is put there not only by "immigrants" but also by "natives"--people looked down on by those in power, even as they hand rich contributors largesse from the banks and businesses and porkbarrels made possible by the Okies, Indians, Chicanos, Koreans, Blacks, Hmongs, Vietnamese and probably even a few capitalistic Brits and Ayrabs and Noo Yawkers out there in LaLaLand. 


WINNING THE DUST BOWL

There was a reaching up
into the dusty leaves after
the biggest most golden ones, and almost
falling off the ladder--stretching up into
the stiff pungent leaves, on through
dead twigs, brushy branches where my fingers
just barely touched, touched and tipped
a heavy orb till with one last touch it
dropped upon my palm--
deep gold with greeny tinges, warm to fingers
closing despite the ladder's shaking--
and then a turning cautiously on rungs to toss
that last tree-ripened navel orange into
the sure and waiting hands below
of my cousin Roy--and the climbing down
to the solid loamy ground of his back yard
behind the house he built at the edge
of Porterville, by now just fringing the upper
middle class's brick and well-coiffed
development houses built over orange groves
and olive trees where as he says
if he and Celestine could have saved a little more from
their migrant Okie labor up and down this Gold Rush State
and further, from the Salton Sea's tomatoes all the way up
to Oregon's cherries, Washington's apples, all that
stoop labor, ladder aches, labor camps, sometimes
our Ponca cousins working alongside--as he says,
a little more in the savings bank and maybe
some twenty acres bought at the edge of Porterville
when land was still dirt cheap
would have made him a millionaire where now the bankers,
lawyers, heads of businesses live, as well as the doctor
from Pakistan who diagnosed his pancreatic cancer--but then
what's in THEIR yards is ornamental, flowers briefly,
looks beautiful but not for eating, what's on
their tables grows on some other field
of earth where Others work, and here
are these tree-ripened oranges, navels and
Valencias, in Roy's back yard.  I can't wait, we peel
and eat two big ones bursting with juice
and sweetness, then we wipe our hands
and mouths and he puts
into a plastic grocery bag two dozen dusty globes
for me to take back down to Pasadena, and walking back
toward the house we stop for onions,
enormous purple ones he's just dug up,
we find some ties and string the onions up to dry,
we look at the green tomatoes in their mini-jungle there
in his garden plot, the peppers, okra just poking up,
see where small apricot and peach trees now have bloomed,
and then past his window cooler that he built
and hooked up specially to a backyard hydrant here
(last night, cool breezes from it helped me sleep),
we see the huge rose-tree still in bloom and he pauses there
before its great crimson depths and fragrance and says quietly
that this was given by a friend before he died
who said he hoped that when it bloomed
they'd have good thoughts of him,
which, as Roy said, they surely do, and then
Celestine came out the front door past the amaryllis
with its humongous scarlet blooms and we walked
to my car, opened the trunk and flumped
the oranges in their plastic bag into its depths and slammed the lid
and we hugged and said we hoped
that next year on his seventy-second birthday
we'd have some more strawberries over angelfood
with whipped cream like Celestine had just fixed for us--
"You realize, Mike," he'd said,
"these aren't my strawberries--we
bought those a couple blocks away at that fruit stand
in the corner of that big strawberry field,
three dollars for what seems like half a bushel
from that Hmong family who run the stand--if all
those Hmongs the government's bringing in here now
would work like them I'd never object
to all the government's doing for them
and never did for us."So we had talked a little
about Viet Nam, and what we owed
the people we had used to kill and save our empire,
and what the Okies of the Dust Bowl times,
Roy and Celestine and our families,
had done for California--but now
when I closed the trunk-lid and we hugged
and said good-bye for this year and who knows
how long, it wasn't Hmong and Okie,
Mexican, Black or Indian, but just the three of us now--
a cousin like an older brother who'd taught me to read
in the first grade,
the beautiful woman he had married
when he had joined the Marines and might have gone
down on Tarawa in the South Pacific,
and me, the academic Osage Okie out for a visit.
"Now listen, Mike," Roy said, and I could tell
my getting lost in a different way,
each time I came to Porterville, was on his mind,
"the only thing you have to do to reach the highway
is turn right, right down where I'm pointing,
and follow that all the way."  And so I did,
never got lost and drove right down
past orange groves, English walnuts and olives,
past Bakersfield and oilwells pumping,
down Highway Ninety-Nine with its rose azalea blooming, on
into Pasadena where I had some work
on medieval manuscripts to do
at the Huntington Library, on that huge estate
the railroad magnate bought when land
was dirt cheap, built his mansion there, acquired
the Earl of Bridgewater's manuscripts and planted
a lot of cactus, made a Japanese Garden,
a Shakespeare Garden, built
an Art Museum, made a big Foundation--
or should I say he hired
a lot of workmen and they did it for him?  It may have been
on Mister Huntington's railroads that my cousin Roy
was riding, in or under boxcars, four years after his dad
was beaten to death in the Pawhuska jail, and Roy
rode freezing out to California and made a way
to put good food on many tables and to build
a family, house, a life with friends, children,
grandchildren, fellow fishermen who laugh and know
what it's like to catch
and let them go, and stretch the truth only
enough to make it credible.
Meanwhile, for academics the Huntington's
a gorgeous place to work, whole gardens full
of roses named for people who all hope
we'll have good thoughts of them when they bloom,
and there are many Friends of the Huntington
who surely do.


Copyright © Carter Revard. All rights reserved.

Carter Revard, Osage on his father's side, was born in the Osage Agency town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma and grew up on the Osage Reservation there.  He attended a one-room school in the Buck Creek rural community, won a radio quiz scholarship to the University of Tulsa, and was given his Osage name in 1952, the year he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.  After taking his B.A. there, he earned a Ph.D. at Yale and taught medieval literature, linguistics, and American Indian literature at Amherst College, Washington University St. Louis, and elsewhere.  He retired in 1997 but continues to write and publish poems and scholarly essays.  His books of poetry include Ponca War Dancers (1980), Cowboys and Indians, Christmas Shopping (1992), An Eagle Nation (1993), and How The Songs Come Down (2005).  A collection of essays published in 1998, Family Matters, Tribal Affairs, was followed by Winning The Dust Bowl (memoirs and poems) in 2001. Some recent poems, including "Deer Mice Singing Up Parnassus," appear in AHANI Sing: Poems of the Indigenous Americas, edited by Allison Hedge Coke, from The University of Arizona Press.
"We have stories / as old as the great seas / breaking through the chest / flying out the mouth, / noisy tongues that once were silenced, /all the oceans we contain / coming to light."
—Linda Hogan