I leave for Steinbeck country tomorrow at dawn. All I have to do is drag myself to the airport and check in. Hardly an ordeal. I don’t have to gut and then rebuild the back of a car. I don’t have to pack into it everything I’m going to need for the rest of my life, leaving and giving away possessions that have been in my family for generations. I don’t have to slaughter a hog, butcher it, and lay the flesh in layers of salt in a barrel. I don’t have to look through boxes of greeting cards and family photographs one last time. I don’t have to take a long look back, like Lot’s wife, at a homestead I poured my sweat and tears into against all the odds of the market, the banks, and more recently the drought. I don’t have aging grandparents to sooth into the great journey, an aging father whose pants I have to button up, or a mother who shouts out “praise God for vittory,” at the slightest provocation. I don’t have to wonder where I am going to sleep tomorrow night—actually I do somewhat wonder where I will sleep tomorrow night, but I know it will have a good bed, linens, and a shower, plus a security lock. I don’t have to wonder where we will stop the plane to beg or barter for fuel.
All I have to do is get myself to the airport, and the rest will follow more or less automatically. At the other end of the continent there will be a van to pick me up, driven by an old friend, and there is talk that the reward may be an In-and-Out Burger. Double Double, please.
We have forgotten how difficult life was for our forebears. My grandparents in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, worked hard virtually every day of their long lives—hard physical labor, with lots of low-level injuries to fingers, feet, legs, arms, sometimes worse. My grandfather, by the time he was 70, didn’t have a straight finger on either hand. They had all be wrenched in equipment, crushed by something that dropped off its perch, stepped on by nervous cows, cut to the bone in half a dozen places, blackened beyond the capacities of soap. It was painful just to look at his hands. One day’s chores represented more real work than I do in a month or more. They were often tar’d, as Ma Joad has it, but they never complained. My grandmother cooked for hired men all of her life: three pies, five pounds of potatoes, a huge roast, beets, cucumber pickles, homemade bread, gravy. What I might do for a special Thanksgiving every day through the harvest or the haying.
By this time tomorrow I will be at 38,000 feet—grumpy because somebody on board has a peanut gallery so all that will be available will be pretzels. Annoyed that the guy next to me is chatty, or hogs the armrest. Fretful that I might miss my connection. Certain I forgot an important notebook. Exhausted while a gleaming machine carries me effortlessly across America.
My grandparents occasionally hired a man named “Old Ben,” about 75, who lived in a shack right next to the railroad in downtown Fergus Falls. He’d come out to haul bales for a couple of days or work the silage. He’d stay over because it was easier to find him a bed than drive him back to town. After a couple of days we’d take him home. My grandmother would fill two strong paper grocery bags with corn, onions, carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, and a loaf of bread, and maybe the remains of one of the pies. When we got to his hut she’d pay him. I can remember as if it were yesterday her putting seven or eight dollars into his hand, carefully, as if they were $100 bills, and then opening a change purse and pressing 35 cents or 65 cents into his palm. She didn’t round up. She paid him what they had agreed upon. She was punctilious. He took what she gave him, mumbled his thanks, never looked her in the eye.
And then we’d ease off slowly in her Buick 98 with the plastic seat covers.
I’m no Joad.