Family Departure for Washington
In spite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts, Hard Times did not seem to get any better in the spring of 1936. Congress had declared the NRA to be unconstitutional and the WPA faltered. The drought eased a bit, but the price of eggs remained at ten cents a dozen. Unemployment had soup lines in the large cities stretching around the block. I recall seeing a sign in a café window in Greenfield: “BREAKFAST—two eggs, three strips of bacon, fried potatoes, toast, and coffee—25 cents”. The work on the road through Bona was over and my father could not find a money job anywhere.
We continued to wear our patched overalls and faded shirts but we never went hungry. There was always food on the table three times a day. Breakfast might be only biscuits and gravy but it was good and nourishing. We did not mind that often our syrup pail lunch buckets held only a couple of biscuits and some hog meat—it was good.
One of our favorite dinners was when Mother made macaroni and cheese and cooked a pot of beans. We would stir the macaroni and beans together on our plates. With a hunk of cornbread and a glass of milk fresh from the cow, it was delicious. (It took me a few years to adjust to cold refrigerated milk—I preferred it straight from the cow.)
There was one thing that I really detested—turnips! I do not know why it was, but besides the weeds, the one thing that seemed to thrive during those drought years was turnips. We ate turnips fixed every way known to mankind. Mother even cooked the turnips tops like spinach so we would have some greens. To this day, I am reluctant to face cooked turnips.
A momentous turning point in our lives occurred in the spring of 1936 a few weeks after Sandra Dean was born. One afternoon a shiny black new car pulled up to the front of our little house. It turned out to be our cousin, Ray Dean Lee, from Vancouver, Washington.
As I mentioned before in the first chapter, Uncle Austin had a pretty good job with the city water department in Vancouver and had some money in the bank. He was tight as the bark on a tree, however, and would never pass up an opportunity to save a dollar.
Uncle Austin wanted a new car. He had figured out that if he bought a train ticket to Detroit for Ray Dean, Ray could go back there, buy a new car at the factory, and drive in out to Vancouver for a hundred dollars less than Uncle Austin could buy one there. Ray Dean was on his way back to Vancouver with a brand new 1936 four-door Plymouth sedan.
That new Plymouth was the finest thing in the way of an automobile I had ever seen. After supper, while everyone else were taking around the table, I sneaked out front to look the car over. I touched the shiny black paint reverently and finally worked up the courage to slide into the driver’s seat under the steering wheel.
The car had that new smell compounded of newly baked enamel, leather, and fresh grease. I gripped the steering wheel and fantasized that I was ahead of Barney Oldfield coming down the stretch at Indianapolis. They found me there later, sound asleep and still clutching the steering wheel.
Ray Dean’s unexpected visit changed our lives. During that conversation after supper, Ray told Dad that there were jobs to be had in the Pacific Northwest in the lumber business. We had been there, of course, ten years before so it was not unknown territory to Dad. Before the evening was over a big decision was made—my father would go with Ray in the car back to Vancouver. If he got a good job, the rest of us would come later.
We boys were ecstatic when we were informed of the decision at breakfast the next morning. I reveled and thought gleefully, “Now I will get away from these hot, dry, dusty old hills.!”
My father gave us some sobering words of caution. “Now don’t get your hopes too high, boys. First I got to get out there and find a job—something that will pay enough that I can rent a house and send for all of you. That may not come easy or quick. We will just have to hope that I don’t have to come crawling home with my tail between my legs.”
He turned to Richard and me. “Meantime, we got to keep this little farm going. I am depending on you two boys—especially you Richard, because you are the oldest. We only are milking four cows so that won’t be a problem.
“I planted twenty acres of corn down in that bottom land I rented and you will have to take care of that with the team. You know what to do. When you get it laid by, if everything has worked out and we are moving to Vancouver, we will hope that your mother can sell it in the field to help pay expenses and you won’t have to pick it.”
And so it was arranged on very short notice. While we were in school the next day, Dad put his affairs in order and packed his meager belongings in a battered old cardboard suitcase. The morning after that, right after breakfast, he got into the Plymouth with Ray Dean and they headed west.