Living as we have been, under stress and with anxiety from a variety of legitimate sources for 18 months, I’ve been thinking a lot about resiliency. It’s a characteristic that gets us through challenging times and helps us build for beyond today. Pandemic, forest fires, health challenges, losses in our families – there seems to be no limit to what we endure and still harbor hope for a distant tomorrow.
Of course, human evolutionary history is the ultimate story of survival. And it’s replayed in epic and personal stories. It’s one of the latter that I want to share with you today – and it takes us back to the Dust Bowl era that began in the late 1920s and sent 250,000 people fleeing from Great Plans states like Arkansas, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma, west to the promise of bounty in California.
That’s how six-month-old Del (I’ve changed his name for my own protection) and his family came to the Golden State in 1939 – in a Model A Ford carrying what they needed to survive, and a vision of paying work. They left behind all they knew – homes buried in sand, fields parched, jobs gone. They drove the route along Hwy 66 to Needles, the Dust Bowl portal to California’s bountiful fields brimming with crops needing to be planted, tended, and harvested. Along the route, they slept on the sandy side of the highway, sometimes beneath billboards that shouted, “No work in California! Oakies go home!”
But the view from the crest of the mountain pass into the San Joaquin valley was proof enough – beneath them the whole of the great Central Valley spread out like a painting of nature’s bounty. Orchards, green fields, ribbons of water running through them all. It was only upon rolling down the steep grade and landing in Shafter, Arvin, Wasco, and other farming towns that the harsh reality settled in. Del and his family were met with derision. They were not migrants from other states, they were Oakies and Arkies, barely hanging on to the bottom rung of California’s ladder.
The life that Del knew as a young boy was harsh – living in ramshackle migrant camps, moving from school to school as the family followed crops up and down California’s Central Valley. Children worked the fields alongside their parents. Clothes were handmade or hand-me-down. Meals of beans, canned spam, and cornmeal cooked over campfires or portable stoves. No running water, laundry, or toilets.
This lack of sanitation led to health problems. Del said it this way: “As kids, we were perpetually dirty. Our clothes, hands, and faces Identified us as migrants. We caught impetigo, developed trench mouth, caught nearly every virus and bacteria that visited the valley.” All this added to the stigma that Dust Bowl children felt when they were able to attend school. Del remembers being sent outside the classroom to do schoolwork under a tree so that local kids would not be exposed to students like him.
In 1946, Del’s family got lucky. They settled in a permanent camp in Thornton where the community of farmers welcomed the presence of field labor. For a time, his family remained in a tent and then moved “up” to a corrugated metal, one-room cabin on a concrete pad. Del remembers his mother sweeping the floor as if it was marble. There were screened windows with shutters, but no glass. Throughout those years, school was still off-and-on because of the need to follow the crops. But Del found himself drawn to learning, and still credits one special teacher, Mr. McCormick, for recognizing his natural academic abilities. That teacher and the stability of always coming home to Thornton gave Del what he needed to thrive in school and to look ahead to the promise that had drawn his family to California.
After graduating from high school, Del enlisted in the Army where his talents were further recognized. His self-confidence blossomed and, later with the GI Bill, he attended college. Higher education propelled him to a career that was beyond imagination when his desperate family fled Arkansas. He got a job at a local bank and steadily rose in the industry to executive positions that gave him authority and influence. Married to his sweetheart from the Thornton Labor Camp, Del provided an exceptional home for his own family – worlds away from the one he experienced as a child.
But throughout his career, Del never forgot his roots and was charitable to others in need. Instead of retiring to luxury, travel, and recreation, Del signed on as a volunteer to help the Biblical “…Least of These …” with a regular workweek in a program for homeless men having addiction problems, prison records and other roadblocks in life. He invested heavily (personally and financially) in that effort and in others that promised to uplift people lacking the quality of resilience and the gift of resources. He did all that with one caveat: “I don’t want my name mentioned at all.”
And that’s why I think of Del when I consider the challenges we’ve been handed by the pandemic, forest fires, and daily life that doesn’t hesitate to overload us with anxiety. Resilience was his key to both surviving and thriving. His story – and that of so many others like him – inspire and motivate us when we need it most. Reaching deep into our storehouse of resilience we can, and will, weather the storms of this intense era.
Thanks so much for spending time with me. I appreciate your attention and always welcome your feedback. And if you’re interested in learning more about ‘Del’s’ Dust Bowl memoir you can check it out here, on Amazon. As always, let me hear from you – how is your resilience doing? firstname.lastname@example.org
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