I talked quite a bit with my parents and grandparents about life during the Great Depression. Their answers were, quite frankly, hard for me to believe. My grandmother told me once about making possum stew and I thought she was making a joke. Surely nobody would eat a possum? And squirrel? How could anyone skin a squirrel and eat it?
I was ten when I first heard of my grandparents losing their Iowa farm to the bank. Young, for sure, but not so young that I couldn’t see the sadness on their faces as they spoke of loading up the old Ford and leaving that farm for the last time.
I was twelve when my dad told me he never finished high school, that he left school as a sophomore to “ride the rails” in search of odd jobs to help his family financially. Fifteen years of age and he was hopping on freight cars with hundreds of desperate men, riding around the Midwest looking to make a dollar here, fifty cents there, month after month away from home, living in cardboard shacks…….
So this story is personal, as it should be.
The previous chapter
- When the Corn Died: Chapter Eleven
The Harper family begins their journey west. Let's hitch a ride with them and see what's happening.
Back to the Story
Peter Junior, Timothy and me got to within twenty feet of the men when the guy with the rifle told us to stop right there. He was a large man, easily over six feet and rock solid. His friend was a scrawny little runt, badly in need of some nourishment and a bath.
“Not a step further, you three,” said the big one. “Now my friend and I don’t want to hurt you and your family, but we need food and we need any money you might have. Do the smart thing, hand over anything you’ve got, and we’ll be on our way.”
Tough men, hardened by the times, as unpredictable as a Montana summer, the country was overflowing with them. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation. Any sign of aggression on my part was liable to get a family member hurt bad, and we were a long way from medical help. I looked at Evelyn and saw only sadness on her face. Emma was holding up right well, but she was obviously concerned for her son, as I would expect.
“Husband,” Evelyn said to me. “Let’s just give them what they want and be done with it.”
I was about to respond when young Timothy stepped forward and began walking towards the big man holding the rifle. He got within three feet of him and stopped. He looked up into that bearded, dirty face, looked at the rifle and then he did the damndest thing….he smiled at the man.
“Mister, why are you doing this? We never hurt you. Can’t you see we’re all tired and sad? Why would you want to make us sadder, Mister? Now kindly put down that gun and Mrs. Harper and my Ma will make us all some dinner to eat. Would you and your friend like to join us for dinner, Mister?”
The Damndest Thing
There wasn’t a sound around that Montana scene but the wind humming a tune of solitude as the big man looked down at Timothy. The mountains continued to stand guard to the west. The sky continued to shower down heat, dust continued to blow across the landscape, as far as the eye could see there was only starkness and helplessness, but a change had occurred.
The big man finally blinked and shook his head, like he was waking up and having a hard time comprehending where he was. He looked at the women and then back at Timothy, shook his head again, but slower this time, then bent down and placed his rifle on the ground.
He looked at me. “I hope you’ll forgive my partner and me. We’re sick and tired of travelling this way, and we miss our families and, well, it’s playing with our minds. This isn’t like us to do something like this and we apologize.” He looked at Timothy. “Son, that’s a kindly offer and if your folks don’t mind, we would be obliged and happy to join you for dinner.”
I felt a ton of worry leave me as I exhaled. The big man extended his hand and I took it.
“My name’s Turcotte….Justin Turcotte, and this here’s my brother Matt. We got booted off the freight back in Bozeman and we’ve been walking ever since. Not rightly sure where we’re going. We’re originally from Virginia. Anyways, again, we’re sorry. Our momma raised us better than this but I swear, the way things are, it just plain drives a man crazy after awhile.”
Before I could respond Evelyn walked to my side and reached out her hand.
“All’s forgotten, Mr. Turcotte. We’re the Harper family and we’re heading for Wenatchee, Washington. Our truck overheated so we’re spending the night here and then continuing on west in the morning. Dinner’s nothing special, just jerky and cheese, but you’re more than welcome to join us.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, Mrs. Harper. My brother Matt here is a mechanic and he’d be happy to take a look at your truck and make sure it’s okay to continue. Me, I’m known as a pretty fair shot back in Virginia. How about I go out and shoot us some fresh meat? I saw some antelope over that little hill and I’m pretty sure I can bag one.”
And so It Goes
And so it came to pass that the Turcottes from Virginia and us Harpers from Iowa shared a meal of antelope and cheese on a wind-stripped stretch of road outside of Bozeman, Montana. We learned a great deal about growing tobacco during that meal, and shared some knowledge about corn and grasshoppers in return. We shared stories from better times and conjectured about how this was all going to end.
“I don’t know why,” Evelyn said, “but I have faith in the President. I know there’s some in Congress who don’t trust him, but I think he’s got our best-interests at heart.”
“Well he sure ain’t afraid to stir things up and try something new,” said Matt. “My brother and I are thinking of heading to Yellowstone National Park, maybe get us a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Word has it they’re hiring for some work in the park and we’re hoping to catch on with them. If that doesn’t work out we’ll keep going to California. I know the CCC is working in Yosemite right now.”
I chimed in. “I’ve been paying attention to the happenings over in Europe. This Depression has hit them hard too, and people over there are desperate and throwing in with some dictators. Seems to me no good can come of that. It wouldn’t surprise me none if war eventually ended this Depression. War’s always good for an economy. Bad for the young men caught up in the actual fighting of it, but good for those who make money on such things.”
And so it went as the sun said good night from the west. The two Turcottes helped gather up firewood and pretty soon we had a good fire to keep us warm under the Montana stars. Emma and Peter Junior wandered off down the road, deep in conversation in hushed tones. When they were about a hundred yards in the distance I saw Junior’s hand reach out and hold Emma’s hand. Evelyn saw it too.
“Remember the first time we kissed, husband?” she asked me. Her smile glowed in the firelight, warming my heart and helping me to push the beast back inside for another night.
“Like it was yesterday, hon. We snuck into a stall at Steinman’s barn dance back in Nineteen-oh-three. You were the prettiest girl I’d ever seen and I was determined to kiss you that night. I’ve been kissing you ever since and you’re still the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen.”
“I swear, Peter Harper, you can still take my breath away.”
Another Day Ends on the Prairie
And so another day ended on our journey. We had two new friends and that’s never a bad thing. The truck was healthy, according to Matt Turcotte, and I counted that among my blessings. My son was in love, as was his father, and as I stared up at the ocean of stars, with Evelyn’s head on my chest, I reckoned I was damned lucky to be alive and loved.
The Trip West Will Continue
And I’m damned lucky to have all of you reading this story, so thank you. We’ll join the Harpers on the road next week. I suspect it will take them two more days of travelling before they arrive in Wenatchee, Washington.
Until then, take care and have a wonderful week of writing and living.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)