His throaty laugh briefly devolved into a Tom Waits wheeze before regaining strength, as he leaned in to discern whether he’d heard my rather impertinent question correctly.
“What’s that?” Earl Shelton said, scratching his gray-stubbled chin.
“Everybody talked about how tough it was for the Okies in the migrant camps,” I repeated louder, aiming for his “good” hearing aid, “but it seems like you had a blast, right?”
At that, Shelton balled his gnarled, arthritic fingers into a fist, reared back and slugged me in the shoulder, his laugh sounding like a jalopy’s wheels on a gravel road. At 80, Shelton still packs quite a punch – I sport a minor hematoma to prove it – as well as a bare-knuckle sharp memory of growing up amid the poverty and squalor of the Weedpatch federal migrant camp during the Dust Bowl epoch.
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“Heck,” he said, jovially, “I thought I had it great. This was the best place I ever lived. It was pretty much heaven. We had no money and not much of our own, but we didn’t know that as kids. I was 7 when we got here. There was a flush toilet and hot water for showers. That was the best.”
Shelton and I stood outside one of the few remaining wooden structures from the 1940s – a post office – on the site of Weedpatch camp, where on Saturday community members and history buffs will gather for the annual Dust Bowl Festival.
Today, sturdy, utilitarian single-family houses have been built here to temporarily house seasonal workers, mostly Hispanic, who alight to agriculture-rich Kern County for six months of the year. It almost could be mistaken for a modest suburban development, rows of beige cookie-cutter homes with fenced yards and playgrounds, accessible by snaking paved roads. Heck, there’s even a gate, just like the fancy subdivisions. Doreatha Lange wouldn’t have too much material for stark, spare photographs here.
But back in Shelton’s day, when the “residents” were refugees from drought-stricken farms in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and parts east?
“We had tents, costs a dollar a week to get the space,” Shelton said. “The only buildings, well, there was the meeting place, the post office and manager’s (house). These people got it a lot better than we did. But I support what (today’s migrant workers) go through. People bad-mouth them like they did to us Okies. They thought we were stealing jobs.”
Shelton, of course, wouldn’t wish anyone to live such a hand-to-mouth existence as he and other Okies did back in the early 1940s. His father, a cotton farmer, had lost his wife to cancer, his crops to the drought, his farm and house to the bank before he lit out on Route 66 on a Joadian quest for a better life.
His story sounds as if it could’ve been the model for “The Grapes of Wrath,” but Shelton shrugged. He took off his salt-encrusted black trucker’s cap, patted down his thinning black-and-gray hair and said others had it worse, a lot worse. And, besides, Steinbeck made his famous visit to Weedpatch three years before the Shelton clan arrived.
But, in a way, Shelton had gained a measure of notoriety, if not fame, from being one of the few living former Weedpatch residents who lives within shouting distance of the camp. (He has a home on two lots two miles north in Lamont.)
Retired from the oil industry, Shelton has worked on the committee to help raise funds to refurbish the original four buildings at Weedpatch. And part of that job entails being the go-to guy for historians, journalists and the curious. He’ll be front and center at Dust Bowl Days. Can’t miss him. He’ll be the tall, sturdy man in his signature white T-shirt and sun-burnished leathery skin. Be careful if you shake his hand; his grip might crunch your metacarpals.
Over the years, Shelton has been featured in many Dust Bowl documentaries and interviewed by TV reporters from Australia and Germany. He’s been profiled by the late PBS ambassador Huell Howser and rated an entire chapter in Mark Arax’s best-selling 2009 book of literary nonfiction, “West of the West.” Fittingly, perhaps, the title of essay featuring Shelton is: “The Last Okie in Lamont.” Photos of Shelton as a child appear prominently in Jerry Stanley’s book “Children of the Dust Bowl.”
As Shelton unspooled the story of his young life – as with many octogenarians, you’ll need to set aside at least an hour for the telling – you can’t help but think this is the stuff of Steinbeckian embellishment. But, Shelton, with an Oklahoman twang like a D-chord off Buck Owens’ guitar, swears it’s all true.
“We lost the farm (in Scipio, Okla.) in ’34, and Dad sold the wagon and the team and put money down on a Model A,” he said. “We put $49 down and told the man who sold it to us we’d pay him the other $65 after we got to California. My dad had $2.50 for the trip, and we pulled in to Seligman, Arizona, on three tires and a rim. We were stuck. We had a $1.50 left, and I don’t remember going hungry, so my dad must’ve spent it on my brothers and me.
“He had a nickel left and bought a cup of coffee. Sitting there, a man named Mr. West asked him if he needed a job. He said, ‘Yeah, but I got these kids to take care of.’ Well, Mr. West, he took us all in. We made money digging ditches for water to feed cattle.”
Eventually, the Sheltons earned enough to summon two of the older sons, who had gone to Bakersfield a year earlier, to come get them. The family traded in the Model A for a 1936 Auburn Cord with a leaky oil pan and limped into Weedpatch.
“We were lucky to get in,” Shelton said.
The alternative, he said, was to try their luck at squatters camps, the so-called Hoovervilles, which were Motel 6’s compared to the relative Marriott accommodations at Weedpatch. People at Weedpatch “weren’t angels,” he said, and Shelton once had to beat up a kid who stole his coveted pocket knife. Mostly, though, people let little Earl be. After all, he was a kid forced to grow up fast. He started chewing tobacco at age 4, but he wouldn’t touch alcohol.
“We kids did a lot of fun stuff,” he said. “We dug our own pool. Took us eight weeks. We used it to swim and for (crop) irrigation. They had people come entertain us. We had a magician once who called me on stage, had me floating in a chair. I met my wife, Norma, out there in the fields. At school, they taught us the reading and writing and math stuff, but also taught us trades. I learned carpentering and pipe-fitting. We grew our own food and raised our own beef.”
Shelton pointed to a photo of himself in “Children of the Dust Bowl.” He is shelling peas for dinner in the camp kitchen.
“Ol’ Miss Pitney in the cafeteria, she knew I was under-privileged, my mom dead and my dad wasn’t working too much, so she made sure I got a scoop of peanut butter between slices of brown bread for breakfast for free.”
That was after waking at dawn to pick 20 pounds of cotton before school and, after school, return to the fields across the street from Weedpatch to pick 30 pounds more.
“You’d get a penny a pound,” he said. “I could make 50 cents a day, and I needed it.”
And if you make it down to Weedpatch on Saturday, be sure to ask Shelton about the fastest way to pick cotton. But, watch out: He likes to punctuate his comments with a friendly punch.