Memories of a teenage Okie: The new world

Published 3:03 am Sunday, May 6, 2012

In the summer of ’37, at the age of 16, I traveled to California to find a summer Job. After arriving in Los Angeles, I arranged for a ride to Sacramento which was about two hundred miles short of my destination in Oroville. While waiting for my ride, a large tabby cat began rubbing against my leg and purring. A rule in our family had always been to ignore strange animals, especially cats because they sometimes carry ring worm infection, so I tried to ignore him. I was soon embarrassed in front of the group by the clerk when, from across the room, he demanded in no uncertain terms that I “pet that cat!”

I obliged reluctantly to avoid a confrontation with the group of travelers, all of whom were watching with a critical eye. This was my first introduction to a culture that considered animals and their feelings above that of humans. Although I am opposed to cruelty to animals and I love our pets, I have not been able to consider our pets to be “animal companions.” To me they are simply God’s little critters. (But of course, there was our little white poodle named Bubbles. She was somewhere between a dog and little person.)

When we loaded up in a vintage stretch limousine, I found myself seated on a “jump seat” that was pulled up from a folded position for an extra passenger. We left L.A. around noon and arrived in the outskirts of Sacramento in the late afternoon. The driver informed me that the highway continued on up to Oroville and that I should be able to get a ride with no problem. He was right except that the ride was delayed a few hours until after the sun had gone down, the city lights had come on and the moon arose. The ride I finally got was a real nail biter.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

It must have been around midnight before a car finally stopped to give me a ride. The car was nice enough and the driver friendly enough, but I soon became a bit concerned because, between sentences, he kept drinking from a bottle of whiskey that lay in the seat between us. I say he was friendly, but he was also generous because he kept insisting that I take a drink. I was willing to pet a strange cat to accommodate this California culture but drinking with a stranger, especially with my driver, was too much. I was going to stand my ground, so I told him that drinking liquor made me sick. However, drink might have taken the edge off my nervousness considering the more he drank the faster he drove.

After two or three hours my drunk friend pulled alongside the curb and informed me that I was now in downtown Oroville. I thanked him, gathered up my meager belongings and stepped out into an empty street. The street lights revealed not a single person. I started a long walk past the business establishments until I reached, as though by design, a small, well-lighted park at the east end of the main thoroughfare. Exhausted, I curled up on a park bench and dozed off while waiting for daylight. After sunup, I walked down the street carrying my suitcase to the post office to find out when it would open. If I could find dad and Bob’s address there I had a good chance of locating them. I have no explanation for the fact that no specific plans had been made for us to meet. The printed sign on the door told me that the post office would open at nine o’clock so I returned to the park to relax by watching the birds and squirrels and enjoying the bird songs. After a couple of hours I wandered back up the street to find something to eat for breakfast. I was very aware that my resources had been reduced to pocket change since all the bills had been spent. After careful deliberation I concluded that a milk shake from the drug store would be more nourishing than a piece of pie from the restaurant on down the street. It turned out to be too sweet with too much vanilla.

My inquiry at the post office didn’t turn out well at all. The man at the window was curious about why I wanted the information but not particularly concerned about helping me. After hearing my story he simply informed me that the regulations would not allow him to give out such information as the address of a patron. Then he turned to other matters.

Confused and wondering what to do next, I crossed the street and stood in front of the restaurant. Looking through the front window I could see that the breakfast crowd was thinning out so I entered. Setting my suit case beside the door I took a seat on the first stool and asked the waitress for a glass of water. When she brought a menu with the water I explained that I had already eaten breakfast but would like to talk with the restaurant owner. When the short, balding owner stepped up to the counter he impressed me with two things— his thick foreign accent and his garlic breath. I offered him my hand and told him my name. He reciprocated but I failed to get his name and never learned to either spell or pronounce it.

“I am looking for a job and wondered if you could use another person to work in your restaurant,” I said.

“I might be able to use you. Are you a fast worker, Jack?”

“I can keep up OK. What do you need me to do?”

“The main thing is pearl diving. Do you think you can learn to do that?”

“You show me how and I’ll do it.” He threw back his head and laughed. “We may need a dishwasher. You gotta keep ahead of the waitresses in cleaning the dishes and silverware. You do other things in between breakfast, lunch and dinner like pealing potatoes and making salads.”

“When do I start?”

“Hold on a minute. I think we can use you but I got a partner and he has to say its OK. You come in after noon today and we’ll let you know.”

I was elated over the prospect of a job but somewhat anxious about what the partner would say. I thanked Mr. Whateveropolis, assured him that I would be back after lunch and returned to the park. By that time I had become a bit woosy-sick at the stomach. Perhaps my eating pattern had been disrupted, my failure to get information about Bob and Dad, or the interview for the job had stressed me out. I relaxed under the shade of a pine tree and watched the clouds floating under the blue sky.