Our 1935 black Oldsmobile and heavily-loaded trailer drew hostile looks as we drove into Bakersfield and stopped at a shady park to check the tires. When Mother, Daddy, we two girls and our young brother, Skippy, got out, two work-hardened men in ranch straw hats and short-sleeved cotton shirts stood staring suspiciously at our California license plates.
"Had those plates on long?" the shorter man challenged Daddy.
"Guess you'd say so," Daddy answered pleasantly.
Mother's hands were settling on her hips, a sure sign her indignation would be expressed verbally at the first sign of an insult from the men.
The taller man took a step toward Daddy. "Hope you're not looking for farm work in Bakersfield 'cause there isn't any."
Deliberately the man spat on the curb. "Every damn fool in Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma is either here or on Route 66 trying to get here in some beat-up jalopy. Not enough cotton or potatoes in all of Kern County to keep half of them busy."
"No," Daddy said evenly. "Not looking for work. Just looking to head out of here in a few minutes."
While Daddy circled our car and trailer, Mother glared at the men, snapped open her white envelope purse and drew out a bottle of Coty's Emeraude, dabbing a drop behind each ear.
"It's so much hotter here than in Lynwood," she said loftily. "I don't know how people can stand it."
Turning her back on the Bakersfield men she added, "Come on, children, let's get back in the car. And don't step in that filth on the sidewalk."
As Daddy pulled away from the curb, Mother fanned herself with her purse. "Imagine, Bruce, you, a civil engineer looking for farm work. I'd like to have given those Bakersfield men a piece of my mind, and I would have too if your work weren't so secret. They treated us as if we were Dust Bowl migrants!"
In California in 1935 twenty percent of the country's labor force was unemployed, and hobos regularly knocked on back doors for handouts. To survive in the Great Depression, our father had taken a job with an oil exploration party in the San Joaquin Valley. Our family packed up and left southern California to join him.
Between 1900 and 1936 California led the nation in petroleum production. Oil companies, certain that great reserves of oil still lay hidden, sent exploration crews, called doodlebug parties, throughout California to find new fields. The intense competition among oil companies mandated secrecy concerning doodlebug party movements. By setting explosives off in a series of holes, doodlebuggers would measure the echoes and make a seismic record that might indicate the presence of oil.
Our new life was scary because we girls, Nancy, age 10 and Sunny, 12, had been allowed to make the decision whether to follow our father or remain in comfortably familiar Lynwood, just south of Los Angeles. Still, we knew that our father felt fortunate to be holding a job, even one that worked a hardship on his wife and children.
We left our home in Southern California and headed north over the Ridge Route, towing our possessions behind our car in a small canvas-covered trailer. Even though the security of our family unit buffered us against hardships, we girls were apprehensive. Still, we were excited about the new life that was unfolding.
DOODLEBUG DAYS takes place in a California with a population of only six million. The Valley towns in which we lived were small and agricultural with tight-knit established families. For the employed, life was less complicated than it is today. Radios, not televisions, were prominently enshrined in each living room. In the small towns up and down the Valley, people pulled their kitchen chairs close to their radio to listen to President Roosevelt's fireside chats as he discussed solutions to the problems that marked the era.
We children dealt with the more pressing matter of always being the new kids in school. We played Hearts or Monopoly, read the Oz books and kept a jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table alongside the National Geographic. Our family, talked and talked as we sipped giant glasses of iced tea, and the ordinarily socially taboo subjects of religion and politics were favorite topics--along with the meaning of life. We children were never left out. We had our say then sat on our front porches and watched shooting stars while our father pointed out the Big Dipper and the North Star.
One suitcase apiece held our clothes and treasured keepsakes. One pair of brown oxfords, half-soled until we outgrew them, did for all occasions. If a trip to the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers movie, Top Hat, was suggested, the whole family poured loose change onto the dining room table and counted it to see if it was enough.
Rose water and glycerin soothed chapped hands, and mustard plasters treated chest colds. Doctors made house calls, and most men could fix the family car on a Sunday afternoon. Migrant workers, who earned 15 cents an hour picking potatoes or 50 cents for 100 pounds of cotton, could buy a meal of soup and bread for a nickel. For the more fortunate, Sunday dinner was a well-done rump roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, pineapple and cottage cheese salad, and glasses of whole milk followed by Jell-O and whipped cream.
Despite Mother's determination that we not be taken for one of the thousands of Dust Bowl families that were daily abandoning their homes to look for work in California, we were, as fair-minded Daddy pointed out, migrants of a kind. We were middle-class migrants joining the wage-earner as he moved from town to town with the doodlebug party.
In the 1930s the solid citizens who had pioneered in the San Joaquin Valley were steadfast in their values. Newcomers, such as our family, were not accepted until it was deemed after years of community observation that they would fit in and uphold the local mores. Migrants of any kind were a threat.
The distasteful incident in Bakersfield was our first introduction to the San Joaquin Valley.
Our second introduction to the Valley, an encounter with a real Dust Bowl family a little further up the road, made it clear to us children why Mother didn't want us to be mistaken for migrant workers.
As we pulled off the highway behind an old black Ford sedan heaped with cardboard boxes, pots, farm tools and mattresses, Mother viewed the scene with distaste. A tall thin man wearing a cap was looking under the hood of the car, and a gaunt young woman in a faded cotton dress leaned in what little shade the car provided, nursing her baby. Two fair-haired girls were sitting on the rear bumper straining the wires that held it to the car's frame.
"Bruce," Mother pleaded, "we need to be on our way. Don't you imagine someone else will stop to help these people?"
"I doubt they'll get any offers of help," Daddy replied, climbing out and locating his tool kit. "They probably didn't get any warmer reception in Bakersfield than we did."
DOODLEBUG DAYS gives a personal nostalgic vignette of California from 1935-1937 from the fresh and amusing perspective of the two sisters in this middle-class family.
In the book, Many Californias, Literature from the Golden State, published by the University of Nevada press in 1991, editor Gerald Haslam identifies five geo-literary regions: The North Coast, The Great Central Valley, Wilderness California, Southern California and Fantasy California, "...each of them reflecting regional frontiers with distinct terrains, patterns of settlement and literary outputs." As readers of DOODLEBUG DAYS travel to each of these regions, the areas come to life as they were in the 1930s--and will never be again.
While the family lives in the port town of Stockton, DOODLEBUG DAYS travels to the North Coast, viewing the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges then under construction.
Moving up and down The Great Central Valley from school to school on short notice, Mother refers to the kind of friends her daughters are able to make as "what the cat dragged in."
In Wilderness California, Mother embarrasses Daddy and Sunny by calling out the rangers when the two return late from an all-day fishing trip at Lower Twin Lake in the Sierras, and Daddy accuses Nancy of showing off when she races through camp on a fiesty horse named Pee Wee. Later, on a Christmas trip to the grandparents' ranch on the Mojave Desert, Sunny and Nancy recall their father's near-fatal accident, suspect their grandmother has a boyfriend and laugh with a mischievous polio-disabled great uncle who plays tricks on the family.
When Daddy is transferred to postcard picture-perfect Long Beach in Southern California, Sunny falls in love with Bobby Wilson as the two of them ride in a little boat on a moonlit sea. Further up the coast, Sunny and Nancy come upon a hobo camp late at night.
In Fantasy California, Uncle Phil and Aunt Irene, often mistaken for movie stars in their home town of Hollywood, play their role to the hilt while Aunt Irene gives Sunny advice on how to glamorize her wardrobe.
In conceiving DOODLEBUG DAYS, we realized that a memoir by two unknown people would have limited appeal unless it illuminated a unique period of history freshly, accurately and amusingly and unless we could bring to life the people in our book and the way their lives were impacted by the times.
Our mother had wanted to become a doctor or dietician but was thwarted by the schemes of her mother, a southern belle. Abandoning her dreams and accepting the dictates of her mother and the role society approved for women, she became an over-zealous mother, disciplinarian and homemaker. In DOODLEBUG DAYS, her character, and its effect on her daughters who tell the story, is contrasted with the characters of her two glamourous sisters-in-law and her own mother, who smoked, gambled and flirted.
Mother, clearly not appreciated by her young daughters, becomes, as DOODLEBUG DAYS progresses, an unsung heroine of the memoir. As Molly Murphy MacGregor, Executive Director of the National Women's History Project, points out in her introduction to DOODLEBUG DAYS: "In DOODLEBUG DAYS we hear the voices of two plucky girls doing their best. And, it's there to find between the lines, the strength of their mother as well as their father."
In DOODLEBUG DAYS, Mother finds scarce rentals by haunting utility companies for addresses where service is discontinued, driving up and down residential streets with her rambunctious young son hidden from view in the back seat and cajoling pharmacists into revealing who has died recently in the neighborhood, leaving a house empty.
She settles for rentals where holes in the floor are covered with tin can lids, linoleum buckles and the bathroom "water closet" comes crashing down when her son Skippy plays Tarzan swinging on the chain.
She marches to a Valley school in her Lynwood finery to demand that Nancy be taken out of a class specifically for migrant workers. In the Valley heat, often over 100 degrees, and in steaming kitchens with no air conditioning, she prepares three hot meals a day for her family.
Accepting that camping is the only kind of vacation the family can afford, she only dreams of a comfortable hotel and sits knitting by the tent while her husband and children hike, fish and swim. "The same chores as at home only under primitive conditions," is her comment.
Mother didn't belong in the 1930s although she tried hard enough to win the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval as a wife and mother. Often her buried frustration peaked into a rage, and she would bang pots and pans around in the kitchen or slam her iron down on Daddy's shirts. Daddy's "What's troubling you, Hon?" would elicit more banging as she hung a perfectly starched work shirt on a hanger and took another sprinkled and rolled item out of her laundry basket. There was no women's movement to tell her she was not alone in her desire to be more than "just a housewife."
Daddy, on the other hand, was comfortable in his role of husband and father. He was a perfectionist, but not a fussy one. He had a Zen way of doing things, giving his undivided attention to even the simplest of tasks.
On one camping trip to Yosemite, we recall his taking our green Coleman stove out of the trunk of the car to get it ready for two weeks of cooking outdoors. We girls sat down by him as we loved to do and watched. He spread newspaper out on the picnic table, dismantled the whole stove, then patiently cleaned and oiled each part. He whistled softly as he reassembled the pieces into a perfectly working stove, each burner lighting with a reassuring pop and settling into even blue flames.
During our flycasting lessons, we would invariably tangle our fishing lines on our reels after our practice casts, but Daddy would sort out the mess with unhurried patience.
Daddy loved the outdoors. He grew up in a strict Scots Presbyterian household but, like another Scot, John Muir, he found inspiration and contentment in nature.
We were proud of our tall, athletic father, suntanned and hard-muscled from his treks across the hot, dry, dusty land of the San Joaquin Valley with his surveyor's rod and transit. He was always willing to help Nancy and me with our homework, to explain a geological formation or the significance of tree rings. Daddy's presence at home formed a buffer between the three children and Mother's sharp impatience. With Daddy away, Mother had more time to focus on her children's behavior, and we had no one to appease her on our behalf.
When Daddy was home, a spilled glass of milk was an unfortunate accident, cleaned up quickly and soon forgotten. When he was gone, it was a misdeed punished by hard swats on the rear.
A book labeled "memoir," especially one written by two women who were school children 60 year ago, suggests family tales told over tea in hushed voices. DOODLEBUG DAYS does not fit in that category. It is a slice of women's history peppered with humor and salted with authenticity.
While photographer Dorothea Lange gave us a picture of the Great Depression that seared the despair on one migrant woman's face onto pages of nearly every account of those years, we have widened what is known about the 1930s by focusing on what those times meant to the girls of one middle-class family.
As Research Associate at The National Women's History Project, co-author Dorothy Lockard Bristol (Sunny in DOODLEBUG DAYS) has been in a unique position to recognize the importance of women's setting down on paper the special roles they have played in history. Her published articles include those on women in history such as "Calamity Jane: Did She or Didn't She?", "Bessie Coleman (1893-1926) First Licensed Black Woman Aviator in the United States" and "Mary Antisarlook, Alaska's 'Reindeer Queen' (1957-1948)."
Co-author Nancy Lockard Gallop (Nancy in DOODLEBUG DAYS) began her lifelong career as a writer in the 1950s, selling articles and fiction to women's magazines as well as writing a column for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine. Later she edited a prize-winning image magazine for Xerox Corporation where she worked for 26 years as editor, writer and senior public relations specialist.
Both authors are native Californians sharing a deep affection for California's landscape, history and people. Family connections in the state date back to the late 1800s. Their grandfather established Presbyterian churches in coastal communities from Eureka to Morro Bay and their grandmother, Grace Barnard Lockard, studied with painter William Keith and distinguished herself as a California landscape painter.
Their great aunt, Rose Schuster Taylor, authored the book, The Last Survivor, which was published in San Francisco by Johnck and Seeger in 1932 and documents the life of Maria Lebrado, granddaughter of Tenaya, chief of the Yosemite Indians. Taylor's son, Paul Schuster Taylor, and his wife, photographer Dorothea Lange, are known for their work in bringing the plight of migrant workers to the attention of the public. Their book, An American Exodus, published by Oxford University Press in 1989, combined Lange's photos with Paul Taylor's text.