Grand Coulee Dam
In early summer 1936, just after graduating from high school at age 17, I took my first foray into the big world to make my fortune. I did this under the wing of my Uncle Tom and Aunt Iva along with their five kids, the oldest of whom was one day older than I. Uncle Tom was my mother’s younger brother.
Uncle Tom and his family were “fruit tramps.” Fruit tramps were people displaced by a combination of the great depression and the Midwest dust storms. The Midwest dust storms were prevalent in the early and mid thirties. They were caused by poor agricultural practices that left the land bare and subject to being blown by the wind. When a strong wind came one could see the dust cloud approaching looking like a big black thunderstorm. When it arrived everything was saturated with dust. People duct taped their doors and windows. If you were out in it the dust would get in your hair and in your eyes and inside of your clothes.The depression and the dust storms completely shut down almost everything in the Midwest. My Uncle Tom, who had been the proprietor of a retail business in Okalahoma, was put out of business. He and his family came to California, true Grapes of Wrath style to try to eek out a living picking fruit etc. Hence the title “fruit tramps,” and hence the newly coined word, “Okies.”
Uncle Tom had built a house trailer about twenty-feet long that looked like a big square box, to carry their possessions in for the trip to California and to be used to travel to locations where there was picking to be done. He had put the axle and wheels right in the center of the length of the trailer, because that would be the center of gravity. Right? Well it was the center of gravity all right, but it was the wrong place for the axle and wheels. It should have been farther back so as to put some of the trailer weight on the hitch of the towing vehicle.
The way he had built it made it wag like a dog’s tail as it went down the road! And since it was heavier than the car that pulled it, the car wagged with it. He was able to correct this situation some by loading it heavy in front and light in back.
He pulled the trailer with an old Essex Sedan which was barely able to handle it. The old Essex was prone to problems and frequently needed fixing. When it was necessary to remove the oil pan, which is on the bottom of the engine, having no pit or lift to allow stand up access to the engine bottom and having seven family members, eight including me, he just found a soft place in the dirt and we all just turned it on its side and then it was easy to work on. It got a few little dents but it wasn’t very pretty anyhow.
Uncle Tom and his family and his rig stopped to visit my family in Alhambra on their way to Shafter a town near Bakersfield where they were going to pick potatoes. The idea came up that I might go with them and get some work. It was OK with my folks. After all I was through school and it was time that I take over the responsibility of my own support. So when they were ready to leave, I, with my old Dodge touring car and what money that I had amassed from sanding cars in an auto paint shop, followed along.
When we reached the potato fields at Shafter there was what was called a camp for the transient workers. It was really nothing but a piece of bare ground with an absolutely filthy one-hole outhouse which was intended to serve several families. The “camp” was located near an irrigation canal where one could take a rather unprivate bath. Most of the transient workers had tents or canvas and poles to make some kind of shelter. This was a big comedown for Uncle Tom and Aunt Iva who had come from a quite comfortable home, but things were tough.
Getting a job was easy. All we had to do was show up at the field that was to be dug that day and be assigned a “space.” Both sides of the field were staked off in spaces about 100 feet long. A space was the distance between two stakes. The pickers were paid thirty-five cents an hour. Each “picker’s” job was to first pull the vines off the next undug row between his stakes and throw them over onto the already dug part of the field. Then after the tractor pulling the potato digging machine, which went up one side of the field and down the other, came by and dug the potatoes on the picker’s row, the picker would pick up the newly dug potatoes and put them in a burlap sack.
Sounds easy, but it’s back breaking work! It was harder for single guys like me because some of the pickers who had children who were too young to hold a space themselves would have their kids help by pulling the vines ahead. We single guys had to do it all by ourselves.
In the actual picking up of the potatoes the pickers would walk slowly down the row, bent at the waist so that they could reach the potatoes lying on the ground and pick them up one at a time and toss them into a burlap bag that they were dragging between their feet from hooks on their belt.
On another belt hook hung a supply of burlap bags. The pickers would fill each bag about half full and set it to the side for the “swampers” (the guys who loaded the trucks) to pick up and load on the truck as the truck drove slowly through the field. After a day of this bent-over work in the hot sun, we pickers didn’t have to be rocked to sleep.
We, in Uncle Tom’s family, slept outside on what was called “Army cots,” which consisted of a folding wooden frame with a canvas top. They made a reasonably comfortable camp bed. One night after the evening meal, I went to bed early because I was tired. I hadn’t been there more than a few minutes when a teenage girl from an adjacent camp came over and crawled into my bunk with me! I’m not sure what my reaction should have been, but I know what it was. I rocketed out of the other side of the bed, scared to death That Uncle Tom or Aunt Iva, who were still up and about, might come by.
Potatoes are a food staple, and potato pickers, who are knee deep in potatoes all day, would like to take some back to the camp with them. The bosses frown on this practice, so the resourceful potato pickers found a way to have potatoes for dinner. As they were walking, bent over picking up potatoes, they would just slip a potato in their sock. Then when they went to the car to get a drink they would just drop the potato on the floor of the car!
I had a misadventure there one evening. After my, in the canal bath, using a foam pillow that I had brought to the canal for the purpose, I floated with the slow current down the canal. My plan was to float a ways and then get out and walk back. Not a bad plan but: When I went to get out, I found that the ground on either side of the canal was covered with “goat’s head” stickers. (goat’s head stickers grow on a low, crawling green vine, and have numerous little stickers each of which is about the size of a pencil eraser and has five very sharp little thorns on it that make it resemble a goat’s head.
This growth continued downstream as far as I could see. I thought, “What will I do?” I decided, “I’ll try to find a place where the growth is thin and then, just get out!” So I did and I got many stickers in my feet and it hurt. When the stickers would stick in my feet, they would come off the vine and stay with me so that I could step on them with the next step. As soon as I got across the eight feet or so wide band of sticker vine, I sat down and tried to pull them out of my feet. This hurt almost as much as stepping on them, because although the stickers had one thorn stuck in my foot they had four more thorns to stick in my fingers as I tried to pull them out.
I finally compromised after I had got most of the stickers out of the principal weight bearing areas of my feet, and had them sticking all over my hands, I slowly and painfully walked back to our camp, where I sat in a folding chair while my cousin pulled stickers out of my feet and hands with a pair of pliers. I plan to never do that again!
When we were through with the potato crop at Shafter we headed north to Marysville. By this time we had teamed up with 24 year old Bill Harper and his 17 year old wife, Susan. They were traveling with us. The plan was to get work picking pears, but when we got to Marysville we found that the pear crop was not ready to pick for a week or more.
We held a quick conference and decided not to wait but to head for West Stayton, Oregon where there were beans to be picked. Upon arriving at West Stayton we found that the beans, like the pears, were about week off. We had no choice than to wait it out as we were fast running out of money and could not finance further travel.
We were camped along side a ravine in which wild blackberries were growing in profusion. Aunt Iva thought, we could make a few meals out of that if we had a few more ingredients.
Aunt Iva had bought a nice bedspread and an electric iron when they were a little better off, both of these items were in the original packages. So as a fund raising plan, Bill and I were to go door to door and attempt to sell these items to raise a little money for food items like flour and sugar.
Bill and I took my car which still had a little gas in it and drove to a prosperous looking district and started our sales trip. Our sales pitch was the simple truth. That we were out of work and were trying to raise money for food. We sold the iron at the third house! The bedspread didn’t seem about to move. So Bill, a worldly 24 years old, had an idea. He said, “Let’s take the bedspread to the red light district.” (Pardon what’s coming, but it’s what he said.) “If they put this on the bed, it will make their ass look better so maybe they’ll buy it.” We sold the bedspread and, as instructed by Aunt Iva, bought flower and sugar and a few more small food items.
When we got back to the camp the cousins had gathered numerous blackberries! Aunt Iva took the flower and sugar and the blackberries and made numerous blackberry pies! Ten people lived, mostly on black berry pie for three days until the beans were ready to pick.
We went to work picking beans. Picking beans pays by the pound. Uncle Tom’s family had done it before and were fast enough to make it pay, but Bill and Susan and I found that when we weighed in our first bag of beans that we were making seven cents an hour! Bill said to me, “Let’s quit here and go to Portland. There is a Federal Reemployment Agency there and they can get us a job.
The Harpers and I pooled our resources to finance the trip. I withheld a penny to buy a postcard. We made arrangements for me to leave my car in a vacant lot by the general store and I sent the penny postcard to my folks telling them that I was fine. We took off for Portland early the next morning.
About ¾ of the way to Portland, we found ourselves in the same dilemma that we had been in while we were waiting for the beans to get ready to pick. We had very little food left and we did not have enough gas to get to Portland. We tried the same cure that we had used to finance the blackberry pies. Susan had brought with her, in her exodus from the dust belt, a box full of small but nice little items as a remembrance of her better life before the bad times hit. Bill asked her permission to try to sell them. She sadly agreed. Bill and I went out and started our door to door endeavor. We weren’t able to sell any of the trinkets but several people gave us donations, some as much as fifty cents. This doesn’t sound like much in today’s world, but with a can of beans for a dime and a loaf of bread for a dime and gasoline fifteen cents a gallon, it got us to Portland and Susan didn’t have to part with her treasures.
When we reached Portland evening was approaching. We thought, “Should we eat our bread and beans and spend the night sitting up in the car?” There was just barely room for us to sit because we were carrying everything we owned with us in the car. Bill, who at 24 years of age, was the thinker of the group said, “Let’s go to the police station, they might let us sleep in the jail.
We went to the police station and told our story and made our request to sleep in the jail, the officer said: “We can do better than that. We’ll send you to Grandma’s Kitchen.” He herewith gave us each four tickets to Grandma’s Kitchen. These tickets could be bought at Grandma’s Kitchen for ten cents apiece. Each ticket was good for either a bunk in the dorm for the night or a meal. We thanked the officer profusely and went to Grandma’s Kitchen, ate their evening meal, got cleaned up in their austere but satisfactory facility and went to bed.
In the morning we ate the adequate breakfast and went to the Federal Reemployment Agency. After perusing several job possibilities, we decided to try for a job on the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. We were told, “Yes, they did have openings, with starting pay at 50 cents an hour, but it’s really hard work.” I remember saying, “I can really work hard for 50 cents an hour!”
We went back to the police station and told them, “We have a job but we don’t have gas enough to get to the Grand Coulee Dam.” It probably seemed like a bargain to the police to get us out of town for the price of a tank of gas, so they directed us to the pump where they gassed the police cars and filled us up! Then we went back to Grandma’s Kitchen to see if we could get a refund on the one ticket apiece that we had not used. We didn’t get a refund (of course we hadn’t paid for the tickets in the first place) but instead they gave us a box of miscellaneous groceries and we headed out.
It was more than a one day trip to the dam, so a little before dark we found a camping place and stopped for the night. It was good weather so we could sleep on the ground. We ate some of our food including a jar of fruit that evidently had not been properly sealed and had started to ferment. Bill, who was more worldly than his two 17 year old companions, said it was fruit wine and we should eat it to celebrate our new jobs!
We reached Grand Coulee Dam in the afternoon of the second day. At the headquarters they told us to be at a certain place at 7 o’clock in the morning to go to work. Then we started looking for a place to spend the night. By a fabulous stroke of luck a little way out we found a small outbuilding with an earth floor which the owner would rent to us for a reasonable price. It was a little farther from work than we liked, but we were told that company trucks traveled that road frequently and that they would pick up workers walking either way.
A little aside:
This was true, about the trucks picking up the workers, but one day after work I was walking toward “home” hoping to be picked up, and a company truck approached and slowed. It was loaded to the brim with stuff and people. There was no possible way they could have taken me. But the driver who evidently had a sadistic sense of humor said, “Tired of walking?” I said, “Sure am,” He said, “Well, run awhile.”
We were up early for our first day, and Bill made a lunch for him and me to take to work with us. The lunch included biscuits that he had found a way to bake over an open fire, from the flour and stuff that Grandma’s Kitchen had given us!
Bill and I got separated at the entry point with me going on a concrete cleanup crew and him going on a bed rock cleanup crew. The clean up crews were the basic starting point for the new guys. My crew’s job was to prepare an already poured concrete surface to have 5 feet of new concrete poured on it. The concrete was poured in sections 50 feet square and five feet high. The forms for these squares were built before the concrete clean up began. The principal job of the concrete clean up crew was the removal of “laitance” which is concrete that slopped over on the section when adjacent sections were poured. This laitance must be removed as its presence would weaken the bond of newly poured concrete.
The removal was done with a small one-handed pick and a wire brush and water and also with a sandblaster. The surface was hosed down and the water and the contamination that it carried was directed into a wash tub sized recess that was cast into the previous pour in the center of the section. The contaminated water was then pumped from the recess to waste. Before our crew left a site all contamination and water was required to be removed. Excess water was sopped up with a sponge, squeezed into a bucket and poured into the recess where the pump was. When the pump had pumped all the water that it could pick up from the recess, it was removed and the rest of the water in the recess was sopped up with sponges and carried away in buckets.
The preparation for the new pour was meticulous. The cleaned up concrete was rough which would produce a good bond, but clean enough to eat on.
The way the sandblaster picked up the sand was an education to me. There was a compressed air hose from a remote compressor that joined with a pipe about 4 feel long with a nozzle on the end. There was a fitting at the juncture of the hose and pipe that provided a connection to the “sand pick up hose.” The physics of the fitting at the juncture caused the compressed air that was flowing down the pipe to the nozzle to create suction on the sand pick up hose. One man would operate the sand pick up hose, moving it around in a bucket of sand to suck up sand for the sandblaster to spray and another man would operate the sand blaster, directing the abrasive stream on the contamination to be removed. All this sand and the contamination that it removed had to be cleaned up and washed up and sopped up so use of the sandblaster was limited.
One day I witnessed an interesting sandblaster incident/almost accident.
Sand for the sandblaster was gathered on the site and it sometimes contained rocks. If the “sand pick up hose” would suck in a rock of appropriate size it would stop up the hose and stop the operation. The cure for this was: the sandblaster operator would jam the nozzle of the sandblaster down on the top of his boot. This would stop the airflow and cause the suction in the sand pick up hose to turn to pressure. This would usually blow the rock out of the pick up hose, sometimes with considerable force. When this maneuver was done the suction hose was usually aimed over the form so as to not blow the stuff out of the hose into the area that we were cleaning. The almost accident came about when the sandblaster guys blew out their hose over the form at the same time another guy started to climb over the form. The rock hit him right in the chest, pretty hard. It didn’t really hurt him but it could have hit him in the eye.
Bill’s job on the bedrock clean up crew was to prepare the bedrock at the very bottom of the dam for concrete. It was in some ways similar to what my crew did, but included the removal of loose bedrock. To determine if bedrock was loose an inspector would walk around bouncing an iron rod on the bed rock. If a certain area made a hollow sound, it was presumed loose and marked and had to be removed. The removal was accomplished with sledge hammers, wedges, pry bars, air hammers and the like. It was hosed and sopped and pumped similar to the concrete clean up.
Grand Coulee Dam is located in desert country, and although fairly far north, it was hot there. The workers were provided with drinking water in the old “Desert” water bags, which were canvas bags that were designed to seep just enough water to keep them moist on the outside. This seeped water, through evaporation, kept the water in the bag cool. When a worker wanted a drink he would tip the bag and drink right out of the spout, then hang the bag up. The next guy who wanted a drink tipped the bag and drank his water along with some of the first guy’s sweat and saliva! Seems kind of crude but as far as I know everyone survived.
The dam, built in 50 foot squares, had lots of ups and downs where higher squares joined lower squares. The standard way of negotiating the ups and downs was with ladders, but not ladders standing mostly vertically, rather with ladders lying mostly horizontally so that a 5 foot descent would require about 10 feet of horizontal travel. With this method the workers could “walk” the ladders rather than “climbing” them. This left hands free for carrying things. We very quickly learned to be quite comfortable doing this. However, there were accidents from this and from many other causes. Almost every day we would hear the emergency sirens telling us that something bad had happened. The sirens were loud. They had to be loud to be heard over the normal din of compressors and pumps and air hammers, Etc.
As time went on Bill and Susan and I worked into a pretty regular routine. We were all up a couple of hours before work time. Bill would make biscuits for lunch and Susan would add to it from our meager supplies which, although we now had food money, was limited by what would keep and the fact that we had no storage space.
Bill and I would start walking to work, which was really too far to walk to, and invariably a company truck or an individual would come along and pick us up. We would arrive at work sometimes an hour early but we didn’t take chances on being late as the company was pretty intolerant of the shortcomings of its employees. Our work days were quite predictable and routine. At quitting time we would start walking home and sooner or later get a ride.
Susan had the days to herself and she had the car and we now had gas money so she could buy food in small quantities that wouldn’t spoil and would not take much room so we could expect something to eat in the evening, although it would be an exaggeration to call it dinner.
Susan also did things to make our little dirt floor shack more cozy and livable. She even rigged a removable divider to give both them and me more privacy from each other. I slept outside when the weather permitted to let them have the whole place to themselves.
Now that we had jobs and “a-be-it-ever-so-humble” place to live, it looked like we were on our way. Just keep on working. Eventually find a better place to live, get raises, move up the ladder on the job and look forward to long employment. This is how it was with Bill and Susan. Bill would say that he was going to stay and eventually be the guy who polished the brass rail on top of the dam. It was different with me. I was missing Mom and Pop and my familiar surroundings. I had had enough of the big, real world. I was thinking pretty soon I’ll have enough money to go home.
After working on the dam for six weeks, I had my go home money plus a little nest egg to tide me over while I found a means of income at home.
One thing that I would take with me from this experience: I was a man now. I was responsible for myself and would remain so for the rest of my life.
I went to headquarters to resign and get my final pay. This was pretty routine. What wasn’t routine was that I was wearing my company issued boots. These boots had been my regular footwear both on the job and off. My regular shoes that I had brought with me were in shreds. I
thought, “I’m going to see if I can steal these boots.” If no one says anything while I’m checking out, I’m going to walk out of here with them on and just keep going. And so it was. The boots went with me and I used them for years whenever I had a job that involved mud or water or snow. My conscience only bothered me a tiny bit.
Early the next morning, before Bill started off to work, we said an emotional goodbye. We had grown fond of each other, more than we had realized. And we understood that we would in all likelihood never see each other again. I got the easy ride on the company truck for a way and then hit the highway with my thumb up, heading for West Stayton, Oregon and my car, which I hoped would still be in the vacant lot by the grocery store. I wondered, “Would there be air in the tires? Would the battery crank the engine? Would anything have been stolen?
The trip to West Stayton took three days. I had money now so I ate in restaurants. I found places to sleep the two nights. Fortunately, it wasn’t cold. One of these nights I slept in hay. The thought of bums sleeping in a haystack is almost proverb and I was glad for the opportunity to try it. Well, it’s not that good! That hay is full of chaff which gets inside your clothes and itches! It doesn’t make for a comfortable night’s sleep.
The second day out, while trying to get a ride out of a little town, I met another guy who was trying to catch a ride. He appeared to be in his mid 20s. I thought since we were going the same way maybe we should team up and travel together, but I could see that he didn’t want to be bothered with this 17 year old kid. He was moving very slowly looking at the sidewalk and the gutter. When I looked at him questioningly, he said, “I’m looking for a butt.” He meant a cigarette butt. Then he said, “There’s one!” and picked up a cigarette butt a little over an inch long and said, “That’s a good one.” He lit it up and smoked it down until he couldn’t hold it any longer!
Even though he didn’t want to be bothered with me, we got our ride out of town together.
A truck loaded with bales of hay was coming our way and we both had our thumbs up. The truck slowed and stopped. The driver said, “You can ride on top of the load if you want to.” We both said, “OK, thank you.”
We both grabbed the ropes that were holding the hay on and with our hands on the ropes and our feet on the hay, climbed to the top of the load. The view was great from way up there and we were making good time, at least 60 miles an hour! I was sitting looking back and the other guy was looking forward. Suddenly he tapped me hard on the shoulder and when I looked around, he pointed ahead. We were approaching an underpass! It might have been high enough to clear us if we were lying on our bellies but certainly we couldn’t go under it sitting up. We will never know if the driver thought about it at all. Remembering how we had climbed the ropes to the top of the load, we both grabbed a tie down rope and bailed over the side and hung on till we had gone under the overpass. I was glad that the guy who didn’t want to travel with me had traveled with me.
By afternoon of the second day I had made it to Oregon. My last ride had let me out at a crossroad where they had turned. I was trying for one more ride before I looked for a place to spend the night. An older model black sedan stopped for me and the driver beckoned me in. He appeared to be in his mid 40s. It seemed that he lived in his car, and had cut the back of the front seat so that it hinged down to the back seat to make a bed. The old car was pretty much a Junker, but I reasoned, “I was on foot before I got in here, so I have nothing to lose if it breaks down.”
It didn’t take too long. We had been going uphill and the radiator was beginning to steam. The man said, “Damn! I just poured the last of my water in.” It seemed that the radiator leaked and he had to stop now and then to replenish the water. I said, “We are almost to the top of the hill, maybe it will be better on the down grade.” We made the top of the grade but the radiator continued to steam. He said, “It won’t go much farther.”
We were approaching a farm house. I said: “We can probably get some water there.” We stopped in front of the farmhouse and I went through the gate and to the door. No one was there, but there was a note on the screen indicating that they were gone for the evening.
When I reported this, my driver suggested that we stay the night in his rig and get water from the people in the morning. That seemed like a good option, considering that I had planned to sleep on the ground wherever I could find a place, so I agreed. He had a loaf of bread which he shared with me. A little water would have been nice, but it had already been poured in the radiator.
We retired early and I went right to sleep. Sometime later I was awakened by him being very close to me. I thought, “He is used to having all the room to himself and just rolled over here.” So I pushed him away and went back to sleep. I was shortly awakened again, this time by hands fumbling with my shorts, which was all that I was wearing, and then he said, “How do you get these things down?” About then, I understood what his intentions were. I sat up in bed, pushed him away with my left hand and held my right fist right in his face and said, “If you don’t back off, you’re going to get this right in the mouth!”
That did it. His romantic thoughts vanished and he was on his good behavior the rest of the night.
In the morning the people in the farmhouse gave us water, both for the radiator and for drinking. We traveled without incident until we came to the junction where our paths were to part. I thanked him for the ride and for the place to sleep. His departing remark was, “Don’t tell your folks that I tried to make love to you.”
In the late afternoon of the third day I reached West Station and the store and my car. The car was fine. The tires were fully inflated and the battery was charged. I learned later that my uncle and cousins had used it while I was gone. This was good for it and helped keep it in running condition. I bought food in the store for my dinner and slept in the car right by the store that night. It was good to be reunited with my car, almost like meeting up with an old friend after a long separation.
It would take away most of the uncertainties that had been part of my life since I had left home three months ago. The trip through Oregon and down the length of California was pleasant and uneventful.
I picked up many hitch-hikers--sort of paying my debt. One time I was getting sleepy while driving. I asked the first hitch hiker I came to, “Can you drive?” He said, “Yes.” I crawled in the back seat and said, “You drive.” I went to sleep.
The trip down California took two days. By the afternoon of the second day I had reached the San Fernando Valley and was only a little over an hour from home. I was hungry but didn’t want to take time for a meal, so I stopped and bought a quart of ice cream and ate the whole thing while driving on home.
It was sure good to see Mom and Pop again and they were so glad to see me. But it was not quite like it had been. Even though I was only seventeen years old, I was no longer their little boy. I was now a man. I was now responsible for myself, for my decisions, and for my support and would remain so for the rest of my life.