Chapter 23

We slept outdoors that first summer, all except William and Annie. While the three brothers were up early and busy outside with morning chores, William would be busy starting the day's homework, heating the favored soapstone griddle over the two front burners of the coal-oil flame of a Skelgas range, and stirring up pancakes.

Mama would be cooking oatmeal, little Elizabeth setting the table, Mama frying crisp bacon and poaching eggs-all the familiar jobs of a well-ordered breakfast.

The family was singing again and praying again around the well-appointed breakfast table-praying for strength to do the job at hand, and for the American forces in Europe, and for those intent on proving "might doesn't make right."

The rough, unpainted batt and board house had no shades or even curtains as yet to shut out the knifing rays of a cruel sun. "We will plant grass. That will help," William promised. "and when the reservoir is finished, we will get the coolness of its moisture."

"As well as to go in swimming," Everett said, gleefully.

There was plenty of work on the ranch that first year, digging out the reservoir, building the high edges to hold the water, planting weeping willows around the beige banks, and cottonwoods along the side of the house to get a little shade for the next summer, which we hoped would not be as tortuous as the present one.

"I don't know how I can ever stand the heat," Annie complained. She would rise at four to get her work done in the cool of the morning, but when noonday came she would refusing to quit, saying she could rest at "sitting down" work, preparing fruit for canning, or mending, or ironing.

"But it's really not hot," Papa kept assuring us. "it's dry heat. Why if it were this hot in Chicago we would all de dropping dead."

Bakersfield was his country. He could not bear to admit there was anything unpleasant about it.

He and his three sons worked with a verve those first few summer months, getting the land leveled, planting the fields of alfalfa, seeding a vegetable garden, planting an orchard, buying pure-bred Poland China pigs and carrying on the many activities from his stored-up know-how. He prided himself he could work right along with his three sons. Yes he had an inner lining that was corrugated iron and the strength of three men.

When he fame in for his nooning, he would sit at the table, the table that mama still set in the living-diving room with the lovely white damask tablecloth of pure Irish linen. Before eating, Papa would bow his head and pour out his thanks for "this land that would some day be a good home for many." And all the while the sweat would be pouring from his face and hands, and dripping on the Wilton rug Mama had brought from the stucco cottage. She would ask me to get a newspaper and put it down beside his chair to save her prized possession from the salty sweat.

"Such heat! Such heat!" she would say, tsk-tsking, and shaking her head wearily before sitting down to eat, only to get up again and obtain a fly swatter and continue waging her private war against ants and flies and the heat that had become her life in the Valley.

Then, one day in the fall, William heard at the village that there was to be a Farm Bureau meeting. He looked forward to attending with his two sons, who, too, would become a part of the growing Valley. He had been gathering information from government bulletins. He enjoyed studying the new and better ways to farm and adding whatever information he could to his storehouse of knowledge.

Annie, too, wrote often to the University at Berkeley Extension Division for homemaking booklets. She studied how to raise chickens, and what seeds were to be planted for a family garden, what fruit trees were the best yielders for table fruit and canning. She was even learning new ways to can fruit in their jars in a hot water bath, as well as to make those jewels of the kitchen, the lovely jams and jellies she would eye so proudly. Thus, she, too, found a new happiness and felt pride in her accomplishments.

She baked her own bread three times a week. Such wondrous, fine textured bread! "I declare, your bread is better than most people's cake," William praised her.

She rendered her own pure, leaf lard from the Poland China hogs the men raised. She made doughnuts, and french-fried potatoes to make one smile. She always kept every scrap of unused fat for the lovely white soap she showed to her new friends who would visit our place.

Mama noticed Papa found more and more excuses to go to Bakersfield. When he'd return home, he always had little exciting incidents to tell of meeting old friends, Tom O'Brien, Tim Sullivan, Dr. George Sabichi-all the many people with whom he had spent his youth, and his eyes sparkled again with blueness, and for a while he was happy. His friends were oil men, or working for the big land company, or in the hotels, or in garages, everywhere in this active city. He would stop to talk with the sheriff, Cas Walser, with Paul Hornung, who still had a harness shop on Chester Avenue, with all those people of his warm-hearted youth.

And now past fifty, he was beginning life anew amongst a people he couldn't even talk to or understand because they spoke either German or Russian.

When Sunday came and there was no English-speaking church to go to, we had a long Bible lesson around the breakfast table and when the lesson and the prayers were over, we mounted our horses and rode out into the ever-widening, barren acres in the Maple territory where there was little but sage brush and skittering jackrabbits to keep us company. Our horses would give us many exhilarating rides following our collie dog, Mark, who followed the hound, Bones, a new addition whom Oliver had adopted, and who followed the leaping jackrabbits with their flapping long ears as they scurried in and out and around the sage. We loved this active, free life. We had each other and somehow we were not lonely as were our parents.

Thus the summer for us young folks passed.

In the fall, my older brother, Calvin, joined the army although he was still too young to be drafted. He would not have been drafted, papa told him, since he was doing war work.

"Well, perhaps God, in his goodness, would see fit not to put a gun in his hand."

I went back to college for a second semester while Annie and William and the three younger children remained at home.

Winter came, but not the gentle rains needed to percolate water into the floor of the Valley.

Family upon family kept pouring into the land that had once belonged to the big Kern County Land Company. But the rains still stayed away from the thirsty land.

Another summer came, and with it the larger power bills, for the ranch's 120 acres were all in production, yielding corn and cotton and alfalfa. With war's demands, the produce brought high prices. William added another room to the still-unpainted house, and a bathroom with a bathtub and hot and cold running water. The water was heated with bottled gas. A screened sleeping porch was added, where Elizabeth and I slept.

Annie was delighted that she didn't have to rely on others to carry the water from the well to the kitchen either, for a pipe from a newly-built tank house provided pressure for an indoor water supply. A new contentment filled her.

I learned to be a real farmerette that second year, driving a team, in summer's vacation, and handling most of the farm equipment, and even shocking hay. Inside work seemed dull compared to the romance of watching the desert bloom. The power that came from viewing the wide acres and feeling the challenge of harnessing them to man's own resources was contagious. I wanted to feel a part of this strength of the growing Valley as well as help my father and brothers. "Little sister, help your mama," I would say.

Little by little, new families came in to quickly erect batt and board houses with no time either for painting them. And soon the bright green leaves of potato plants bushed out to add color to a beige and brown earth.

I learned to pick potatoes, following the potato digger that dug up the profitable food from the rich soil and poured it forth to be picked up and placed in sacks.

"Shafter Whites," Father said proudly, holding a large potato in his hand as though it were a five-carat diamond. "The finest potato in the world. It will make a rich man of the settlers who have come to live in the Valley." Potatoes were priced at nine cents a pound.

The green cottonwoods grew, casting needed shade on the scant shanty. No matter; it would do for another year. The reservoir with its good supply of water, and the weeping willows, and the grass that grew in the front yard, all added coolness to combat the over-one-hundred degree heat that persisted all summer. Nor did we dare complain, for William would defend the Valley anyway.

"It is so dry you don't feel the heat," he would tell us almost every day; we did not argue as we wiped away the sweat from our faces.

The months came. So did new settlers. The high prices brought by war's demands made farming popular. People swarmed into the Valley.

Then came the Armistice and with that Calvin soon came home to football, classes, and his best girl.

But now the real battle began for us-to pay the power bills and the interest money. Annie regretted William having spent their quickly-earned money on the many improvements needed to make her home comfortable.

"Oh, well, if our foresight were only as good as our hindsight!" William said. "The rains will come and there will not be such a great need for pumping water. That would diminish the biggest demand for the irrigation we could not afford.

William thought of that fertile northern portion of the Valley with its color-splotched green fields of Dos Pasos where he had trained horses as a young man. He knew the bounty of this land came from its great abundance of rain and snow that fell in the Sacramento watershed. Two-thirds of all California's rain fell upon this beautiful Valley.

"But it can't contain more than a third of the acreage of the Great Central Valley," he told himself. "there must be a way to water the San Joaquin portion that contains the other two-thirds of arable land."

But why did you come to such a place?" was the only answer Annie could give.

"The soil is rich here. When we came to Shafter there was plenty of water."

"Then why isn't it there now?"

"Too many wells taking too much water. But there must be a way to conquer the rambunctiousness of the land."

"Look out!" Annie thought. "When William uses that word 'rambunctious,' he is ready to swing into action."

"Why I remember when I was a pastor at Bakersfield, we had so much rain here, don't you remember that?"

"Yes, I remember," Annie added.

"It's not like Annie to be so snappish," William thought to himself, "this hardship is getting on her nerves."

In some areas the water table dropped so low, the farmers could not afford to pump the brackish water. Many ranchers, for lack of water, gave up their parched lands, and went back to the city. Paint peeled on the houses, fences sagged; weeds grew around the cottage door where red roses had once bloomed. The acres that had been green with alfalfa, too, now were brittle brown stalks of barrenness. Saddest of all were the naked orchards that had been voluptuous with fruit.

"What was that poem you had to memorize for school?" William asked me. "I think it was by Goldsmith."

"Ill fares the land

to hastening ills the prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay . . . " I answered.

"Yes, that's it. Could it be Shafter will someday be a deserted village?" William knit his brows.

He was smiling less, too. But the sun continued to smile down on the Valley, baking already dry fields. It smiled down on the Sacramento River, as well, as it wound in and out of the northern part of the upper Valley, before it finally poured its billions of gallons of water through the Golden Gate into the sea.

"There must be a way to use every drop of water God gives us without all this waste," William brooded. "There must be a way to change this cycle of drought and floods."

He borrowed more and more from the bank and brooded more and more how he would ever be able to pay it back. He could not give up. He would not give up. "If only the farmers in the Valley understood the danger! Would they wait to organize a plan to conserve the water when it was nearly gone?" It was a lonely thought.

Papa had not felt so alone in years, and this aloneness would bring him to Bakersfield. Any excuse would do. To be on the go was his sedative. And in his desolation, he felt the channel that had been an open river of living water now uselessly clogged. Perhaps God had not wanted him to give up the Open Air Church. He felt as though a curse was upon him.

Ever since the war had ended, the I.W.W.'s influence had been growing uglier in the state. He had scanned the LOS ANGELES TIMES daily, trying to understand the growing restlessness that was fomenting all over. The street rumbled with new discontent.

"The profiteers!" he would mutter. "How can they be so blinded to the needs of the poor? The country should yield an abundance for all. Wealth, wealth, where is the true wealth but in the physical strength of the people?"

The people! But could one awaken the people?

"That's it. I have gotten away from the people. I have kept my nose to the grindstone so long I have forgotten the people. We have been so busy this past year working we haven't even had time for morning Bible readings."

And then he began to study. At first only a little, while waiting for dinner to be placed on the table; then while resting a little before going back to the fields. He studied, too, well into the rights. One subject seemed to be absorbing his mind. What was it to "curse man."

In the first years, when we moved from Long Beach to the ranch, he had read from the classics and the great philosophers. He had collected a splendid library and used it as few people use home libraries. He also kept abreast with all our school subjects, getting his high school and college education five times over. It was his habit to read aloud to Annie while she was working in the kitchen.

"Just listen to this," he would coax, his face alive with the delight of a new, wonderful passage. "Why this was written a thousand years ago and it's just as true today."

Annie would be kneading bread dough, concerned with those "many things." Not mindful one bit what any philosopher had said a thousand years ago, wishing William would be still and leave her to the peace of mind labor brought her, but too polite not to feign interest. Finally, distracted, she would "shoo" him into the living room. "leave me to my baking, or I never will get through this blessed day," she would say.

When the years grew sterner, he left off this reading and devoted all his time to the hard-won acres, and little by little the wellspring of his earlier enthusiasm became exhausted. The farmers around him began to admit defeat and abandon their ranches. His burden of grief became hard to bear.

Then one day a tremendous desperation overtook him. When I asked him what was gnawing him, he confessed, "I feel I have lost the way. If God does not help me, I am destroyed. Pray for me, Sister."

"I will, Papa, I will."

"And will you go with me to the bank tomorrow?"

"Yes. I will go." I knew he did not have the courage to face the cashier, to tell him he could not meet another payment on our outstanding note.

We left early the next morning to get to Bakersfield before the bank was opened. I tried to keep up a pleasant stream of conversation as we passed Rio Bravo and Rosedale. I could see there was still hope in his heart for he reminisced, "I can remember how I could see the Kings and Kern Rivers rushing down the narrow canyons and strike the Valley with explosive force and sometimes overflow." As we crossed the Kern bridge and turned toward town, he continued. "The San Joaquin would pour down from the hills and overflow into he Kings and flow north to the Delta. And it was the same with the Merced and Toulumne, the Mokelumne and the Chowchilla and the Stanislaus Floods. The rivers have always flowed in the spring, but come summer, the beds become desolate, indolent wastes. And yet with another spring would come floods and floods. The same cycle; the same cycle, just like a rambunctious mustang who needs to be put in the rigging!"

I had a feeling he was trying to resolve the problem of water shortage, but of that other desolation of the spirit, I did not know. He understood wild nature better than these domesticated villagers where he lived. He understood the disheartened people, the downcast people. He knew how to work with them, how to reach them, but these Kern County ranchers who should be discouraged, who should have been disheartened and weren't puzzled him. He did not know how to reach them because they did not need him as had other communities where he had cast his lot. And because of this, he had lost his contact with men.

While many farmers were leaving their farms, the Russian farmers who were his closest neighbors knew how to combat the perverse nature; they had known far greater hardships when they had farmed for the Czar. But he could not count on them to work with him in solving how to get cheaper irrigation. They did not seem to understand there was a need. Ah yet! They would survive where others could not.

And then he remembered!

He remembered a lot of things. He remembered the lovely mist of Ireland and how green the grass grew, but selfish landlords had kept the people from the land that was rightfully theirs.

He remembered the alkali wastes of Texas, and the first time he had chanced upon a reservoir and how one man, with engineering skill, had dammed up the waters and cared for all God's lesser creatures! He remembered how this rancher had accepted the responsibility God had placed upon him, and in accepting the responsibility, the bounty of the land had become his.

The answer seemed to come to him in remembering that first time he went up the trail from the Gulf to the Brazos. Perhaps it was that he remembered even as a lad God had always been with him in all his ways. "Could it be God is calling me in another capacity?" he asked out loud, more to himself than to me.

"Perhaps," I answered, more because didn't know either.

"Sometimes I wonder if God is punishing me for my sin."

"What sin?" I asked. I had heard a lot about sin, but it had never occurred to me to ask what it was, but now, I wanted to understand it more than anything else.

"The Bible has but one definition," and he seemed to speak with great relief. "to him who knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin."

"Yes, it is in James," I now remembered. "I earned five dollars once memorizing that book of James in a day. You didn't think I could do it, did you?" I asked.

"No, I knew you could. But you were filled with snobbery when you were a high school girl. I wanted you to learn when you showed respect for persons you disobeyed God."

He repeated the verse over and over again. "To him who knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin." Then the worry left his face. He had resolved the other problem.

He would work and work and work! Work for the water the Valley needed. He would do everything his two hands found to do until the Valley had a supply of water. It was sin not to accept the responsibility. God was calling him to that purpose. I breathed easier. He would not fail at the bank. He would ask for an extension of the loan with such assurance it would be paid back since no one would refuse him!

Yes, I knew he would get it.

And he did.

I knew, also he would work with such renewed courage, doing anything his two hands found to do that he could not help but succeed.

The work turned out to be sausage making. We had our well-cared-for pasture of pure-bred Poland China hogs. The price on the hoof was low. Mama sent to the University Extension Service in Berkeley for information on sausage making. It was spiced almost right. She added a little nutmeg. At lunch we tried the new sausage, "Ah, that's perfect," all of us agreed.

Go to Chapter 24

Return to Table of Contents