By Audry L. Lynch
I couldn’t believe my good luck when I found myself listening to Ron Hughart at the recent Los Angeles Festival of Books who was describing his and his parent’s life as California migrants in the 1930s, 40s & 50s. “My book, The Place Beyond the Dust Bowl describes what happened after the Joads left”, he says.
With this year’s celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, Hughart can testify to Steinbeck’s accuracy from his own life experiences. When did he read the book? “I was twenty years old serving as a soldier in Germany” Hughart recalls: “The first thing I thought to myself was that this man had gone out and gotten the real story. I lived it so I think my life personalizes his story. My book takes up where Steinbeck left off. In fact I thought about Rose of Sharon the whole time I was writing it”.
Not surprisingly Hughart could testify to the poverty of this life. The migrant cabins were sparse and usually filthy when they arrived. The first order of business was to clean the whole place with bleach. “When you moved out, you took only what you could carry in your car,” he says.
Hughart was the oldest of the five children in the family. They were lucky to have one set of clothes apiece. At the end of a hot day in the fields the children would jump in the river to swim and their mother would hand them soap so they could wash their clothes at the same time.
It was difficult for the children to invite anyone over because the migrant cabins lacked what most of us would consider the “basics”. For the Hugharts the installation of an indoor toilet made them feel they could have guests. “I wanted to have friends sleep over so I could show off my new flush toilet,” says Hughart, “for this was a real step forward to the good life”.
Hunger was the chief motivator every day. The need to get enough food was a constant struggle. The staples of the migrant diet were onions, beans and potatoes. One Sunday a friend of his Grandfather’s brought a treat— spam squashed between two pieces of bread and covered with slices of onion and mayonnaise. “Every now and then I feel a need for this treat of my youth and I’ll make myself one,” laughs Hughart. This need to survive caused 10 year old Hughart to become responsible for 50% of the family income. “Up to that time my Father and my Mother shared the workload but now there were 5 children to care for so I became his work partner”, says Hughart. “My Dad brought out two huge potato bags, handed me one and said, ‘let’s go to work’. That was the beginning of an 11-hour day work life for Hughart in addition to school. He turned over all of his wages to his parents and was proud of being able to help the family survive.
Wasn’t an eleven-hour work day too much to expect of such a young boy?
“I learned a lot from that experience about a work ethic, responsibility and survival”, says Hughart. “I don’t advocate 11-hour work days for children but I think the problem with many of today’s youth is that they don’t have chores or the expectations that go with them.”
If work was a challenge in a migrant child’s life, school was another one. Hughart says that he attended 30 schools before his high school graduation. Upon arriving at each school he would be greeted with prejudice and the usual remark “Here’s another dirty Okie kid.” Then the class bully would challenge him to a fight. He was big and tough and managed to get used to surviving these ritual orientations to new schools.
A more devastating event occurred when his second grade teacher recommended that he be retained due to retardation. It took him years to overcome this label. It happened when he met his eighth grade teacher, Mr. Light of Pinoche School. Mr. Light was one of those rare teachers who believed in all his students and opened their minds to the world of possibilities.
Hughart’s stay in his class transformed his life. For the first time Hughart began to believe that by trying, he could accomplish his goals even in the realm of a college education. It’s not surprising that he followed in his teacher’s footsteps and became an eighth grade teacher for 20 years. We wondered if he was like Mr. Light in telling his students to be optimistic about reaching their goals. “I tried to be”, he says simply.
One of the things that made his migrant life bearable was the intervention of role models like Mr. Light. There was also his Grandfather’s hermit friend, Irvy, who used to counsel him in times of trouble. His parents were devastated one night when men came to repossess their car. After this traumatic scene Irvy advised the discouraged Hughart, “Remember that there will be many more evenings that will come after good things happen than there are evenings like this one. Ronnie, a better life is yours for the taking.” Hughart says that Irvy’s optimistic words helped him over many rough times in the future.
On an Easter vacation Hughart was introduced to Cowboy Culture when he was hired by two men, Jim and Darrell to help with the round up. He found himself branding calves and castrating bulls while forming lasting friendships with these cowboys who treated him like one of them. Darrell went on to become the first cowboy Marlboro Man—one of the most photographed men in history. Recently he found him again – an old man by now—and Darrell gave him a riata (a leather rope) he had taught the young twelve year old Hughart to rope with. Hughart has the rope framed in his home.
His number one role-model was his work partner, his Father. Hughart says proudly, “We never had trouble with the bosses because they knew we would work hard and get the job done.” There was one exception. His Father went to collect his pay one Friday and his boss laughed at him and said he would have to wait until Monday. Dad came home and collected his knife, explained Hughart. “He went back and got his money.”
One of the saddest things in a migrant’s child’ life according to Hughart is a sense of loss. He remembers the Okie adults always talking about” getting a place of their own just like the one they had in Oklahoma. It will be a small farm but we’ll own it. We’ll raise crops and have a horse, cow and some chickens. We’ll never have to move.”
Instead of this vision Hughart felt the tangible loss of important things in his life. He would make friends, move to a new place, and start over again. Often the family sold items to make room and to earn money for the trip. Once they left his tricycle behind; another time they sold his motorcycle. The worst loss was the sale of his pony, Cricket. “She was just a pathetic little colt when I got her”, he says, “but I raised her to be a real cow pony. I’ve never recovered from that loss. I won’t buy or own a horse to this day.” He retains some strong impressions from his life as a migrant child.
Caesar Chavez: “He was a good man. I remember his going from camp to camp as a young man and fighting for the rights of his workers.”
Landowners: “I remember them as being kind to us. Often they would point to some leftover fruit or vegetables and give them to us. That stopped when the era of the lawsuits started.”
Crew Bosses: “Some were good and some were bad. Dad and I made out pretty well because we had the reputation of being good workers.”
Religion: “I think everyone we knew was a believer. You often heard “thank the Lord,” but they weren’t church goers. The reason was simple. No one had nice enough clothes to wear to church.”
Throughout his youth he was often selected for positions of leadership: being taught to fly a plane in high school, winning a scholarship to a community college, diverted to a special clerical assignment in Germany instead of being sent to Vietnam, and being selected out of hundreds of soldiers to personally serve General Westmoreland his dinner.
What made him stand out in a crowd? “I guess it was my work ethic’, he says.
After his teaching career he spent 10 years as an assistant police chief. “It was nice to finally be a boss”, he laughs. There has also been grandparenthood (4 grandsons so far), world travel, some bit parts on TV and in movies, and his writing career (4 books so far).
This year has been a big year for Hughart as well as Steinbeck. His books have won three national awards this year and he has been invited to speak all over California at “Grapes” celebrations.
So the question remains, Is he bitter about the hard times he experienced during his childhood? “I wouldn’t change my childhood”, he says finally.
Note: Ron Hughart welcomes visitors to his website: www.ronhughart.com
His books include:
- The Place Beyond the Dust Bowl
- Beyond the Dust Bowl With a Pocket Full of Peanuts
- Last Day of the Season: From Baseball’s Point of View
- Deja Vu of a Skeptic
Audry Lynch is the author of four books on John Steinbeck – listed on Amazon.com.