Short Story Contest Entry: DEPRESSION REFUGEES

Today we have another entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest.

Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted. The contest is only open to Writers Forum members. Click here for the complete contest rules.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash




Refugees are migrating world wide.

History of the last depression made hopelessness a common companion. Homes were lost with no place to go; the economic crisis affected every one. Hope offered possibilities in the West. Mom and Dad sat in the front seat and sang, harmonizing their voices. I rode in the back seat with my brother and two sisters fighting among ourselves, until Dad stopped and put us out just before dark and drove off. We rounded the curve screaming; they were a few feet away out of sight waiting. It created instant peace. We were going to California where oranges grow and there were plenty of jobs.

The highway had many old rusty farm trucks and old vehicles piled high with wash tubs and bedsteads; sometimes people rode on top. After a few days of passing people pumping up tires with what looked like a bicycle tire pump, we waved to them as we went by.  They waved to us when we were broke down.

Sometimes early in the day, we pulled off the highway at a camping place near water. The men took out their rifles and went hunting for rabbits and pheasants. The women cooked and washed laundry in a tub with a rub board and dried the wash on bushes. Strangers made friends along the way by stopping to help wire the broken mechanical parts to get a few more miles out of it. It was said “a Model A could be repaired with wire and a pair of pliers”. The men bent over motors to try and find why it wouldn’t start and talked about their farm horses that were dependable…tears were hidden.

We left town before Dad could be put in jail. He left us sitting in the car as he filled a sack of groceries while Mom was walking the baby to keep him from crying. Dad walked out through the door with a bell on it, without paying. Watching through the back seat window, the clerk tried to stop Dad, who grabbed a can of pork and beans and threw it at him. The police skidded around the corner and bumped the baby; his scream stopped everything. Mom grabbed him, running hysterically to the car. The baby wasn’t hurt, just scared. The clerk was wiping his head, Dad put the groceries in the back seat while the police were  trying to calm everyone while checking the police car for blood or damages. I was still looking through the back window as we drove away.  A farmer may have found his cow was short on milk that night; we had gravy with liver from the grocery store and biscuits for supper. Dad called Mom’s biscuits “Cat Heads”.

The desert was difficult. We were tired, gas stations were far apart, our radiator was demanding water. Things not tied down tight blew off, landing on cactus full of thorns. Mom and Dad didn’t sing anymore. The Yuma bridge we expected to be magnificent was a little metal disappointment. The words at the end of the bridge read “California”, there were many vehicles pulled off the road with lots of activity. I understood they didn’t want the refugees; there was no work. I heard Dad and Mom talk about some families who shared the same money to show the authorities they had enough to travel on. Worse, there were no orange trees.

Someone told someone else there were signs along the road up the highway: “Cotton Pickers Wanted”, depression refugees filled up the tents. We moved into a tent with a wooden floor. It smelled like oil, it was wonderfully warm with faucets nearby. The tents were in long rows with community bathrooms. The tents had little windows with canvas covers and cords to tie them up for air. Early mornings the cold fog wrapped around us. Mom and Dad pulled cotton out of its sharp fingers and stuffed it in a sack. We traveled from one crop to the next, year to year. There was always something that needed harvesting, we followed the seasons.

Then war came. Convoys moved down the coast highway at night, headlights were covered. Young men stood on military vehicles with big guns pointed toward the sky; we could hear planes overhead. Our vocabulary included the word “japs”. Our tent was set up next to the fence of prisoners of war in an apple orchard.  A new vineyard needed workers to cut grapes and place bunches on paper to dry for raisins. Dad had health problems from breathing dust from the dust bowl. Mom was weary.

Dad had no ration card for a car called a Hupmobil. He put kerosene in it and the smoke brought the traffic to a serious stop all the way to Oakland; he pulled the car out of town by night. School was voluntary, we learned to read from Burma Shave signs along the highway and how to add what was owed from how much we earned. A hamper of peas had to weigh thirty two pounds; we received a fifty cent piece and one dime per hamper. We handed it to Mom and she dropped it in a sock. We went back and began another basket as DDT drifted in the air when we disturbed the plants to find the hidden peas.

Driving up two lane highway 99 we traveled very slow; traffic backed up behind was as far as you could see. A policeman on a motorcycle pulled up to Dad’s window and shouted “rev ‘er up or get off the road!” The speedometer moved to twenty eight. Looking out my window a tire was rolling along with us, the bump of the wheel hitting the highway forced us to pull off. There were big trees with a camping place near a pond.  King Louie and his Gypsy Band greeted us with an invitation. They were preparing for a wedding. Dad built trailers for King Louies’ Caravan. That evening I hid in the car; I thought they stole little children. They were gone the next morning but Mom and Dad whispered  about burying a baby there. I overheard them but never told them. Every year in the fall as we passed that place on the way to gather nuts, olives, or apples, I looked at the late summer grass where the Gypsy baby was sleeping; I threw kisses.

Dad must have passed the trading gene to my brother. He traded his bicycle for a little goat then traded that for a fighting rooster. He may have been eight or ten, keeping company with people who practiced cock fighting. Dad felt we needed to move before he got put in the reform school. He had to leave his rooster behind, it had claws. I had serious grudges against my brother. One Christmas I got a china doll, my brother got a cowboy holster, guns, and a hatchet. I carried around a headless doll.

We loved camp fires. The stars were so close Dad would point out the Big Dipper, the North Star, and The Milky Way. The next night he would ask us to point them out. He said “you will never get lost if you know the stars”. Once I got lost in Yuma’s one street, the neon lights were all on and I couldn’t find the stars. Dad delivered another baby.

Most of California Oranges were our front yard as was every vegetable and fruit and nuts and olives and berries and hops and peaches, oranges and strawberries. Occasionally, Dad stopped and left the fields and showed us how to build kites, including large homemade box kites one could hardly hold on with both hands that flew over the sea.

On our way to pick potatoes we drove over miles of migrating black trantulas all moving in the same direction. The Gypsies were already gathering potatoes, their familiar smiles greeted us. The beautiful women worked in pretty dresses with jewelry on both arms that jingled like music.

We had no place, but migrating refugees were always welcome to gather crops. Our car quit in New Mexico; so did Mom and Dad.

Desert winds blew hot making our lips crack and bleed. Our eyes were full of blowing sand. We were crammed in the open rumble seat, my brother, our little sister, and I looking through the back window. In the front seat was a man driving, his very pregnant wife, and my father. It was Dad’s way of getting to Oregon from New Mexico. Dad talked the young couple into going to Oregon promising work. Dad furnished the gas, they furnished the transportation. A disagreement occurred over a can of peaches. The pregnant woman wanted them. We wanted them. It developed into a full fledged hostile standoff. The woman cried to go home. The intense desert heat moved my dad to buy us a soda. This was so rare to spend money on orange soda but it helped us yield the peaches. Miles across the desert and mountains we traveled with the distressed woman. Anger erupted in Boise. We slept in the park on the ground that night. While we slept, they drove off and left us.

Opening my eyes the next morning, Dad was sitting with his back against a tree waiting for us to wake up. Gathering up our canvas water bag they had thrown out, we shook out our coats we had slept on and started walking, looking for food. The local charity at first refused us. Dad argued and argued and insisted we had to eat. At length we were given some scraps of paper and sent to a place where they fed us pancakes. I refused to look at anyone; to feel people’s disapproval, tears came easy.

No one knew how we came to be in that situation. That last winter Dad had fallen off a roof where he had been working. His injuries were a long time healing, adding distress to my parent’s marriage that had been unraveling for some time; it came unglued. Where we find ourselves now is better than before, where I watched my Dad caress the trigger on his twenty two rifle, as it lay across his arm resting on the car window pointed at the shadows behind the curtains.

Back out on the street walking to nowhere full of pancakes and desperation, Dad decided we would ride a freight train to Oregon. This delicate skill he had learned many years ago during his  orphaned youth; he roamed the country looking for work. We walked and walked until we found train tracks. It was a train yard; there were many sets of tracks. Us kids hid in the bushes waiting as Dad scouted for the railroad police known as the Bull, who watches for people like us. We caught an empty refrigeration car and rode in the top compartment; the part where ice is kept .  We lifted the hatch, scrunched up and folded inside, the hatch closed. Since we all couldn’t get in, my brother and dad slid in the other compartment at the other end of the box car. All day we rolled and bounced, we pitched and bumped and slammed, at some distant time we quit moving, I thought we were in Oregon. Dad opened the hatch. We crawled out and ran down the ladder and went to use the bushes. We were only a few feet away from where we began. The car had been moved to the next set of  tracks over. We were beat up with dirt, frustration, and emotional pain mostly because we were asked to choose who we wanted to go with: Mom or Dad. We couldn’t choose.

One couldn’t be unhappy while in the company of my Dad. It is possible to be in distress yet the possibilities were many in his mind. We only had to grab hold of them. Unhealthy worry was not to be entertained. Dad always carried a piece of soap, a fine tooth comb, a pocket knife, and a Buckeye: a round shiny brown seed about the size of a fifty cent piece was to stave off rheumatism. We went to the river to bathe using the piece of soap that made our hair all sticky and gluey in the cold water. Greasy black soot rimmed our eyes; it just smeared around. The thought of delicious pancakes was too much not to pursue. We slept in the Park.

Early next morning we caught a freight train….no breakfast. I was so glad not to go back to those people. The world flew past, the sky was so clean, the sage brush smelled so fresh, Dad would point out the lavenders and grays and shades of blue in the distant mountains. He praised the clean air and taste of sweet water. He mentioned that the sun was in the wrong place. I didn’t know what he meant.

The train slowly huffed and puffed to a stop under a tower with a spout hanging over the engine for water. We jumped off and hid in the brush. We were at a section hands shack. After the train pulled out of sight we went up to the kitchen and asked for food. Dignity, respect and kindness, with large delicious sandwiches were served with gracious smiles. We had taken the wrong train; it was going east; we wanted to go west.

We filled our water bag and started down the road toward the highway. Dad tried to teach us not to put our mouth on the spout but to trickle the water into our throat but we lost most of the water practicing. It was a long hot gravel road with the crunching sound of each step. We took turns carrying the dry water bag wishing we had been more careful with the precious water. At evening it felt good to feel our feet touch the hardtop. There were too many of us as we thumbed and waited, hoping each car would stop and pick us up; no one did. Finally everyone hid in the brush. I stood out on the road alone. The very next car stopped; everyone came running out to climb in but it zoomed away.

As the evening shadows crept across the brush and cold high desert air brought the night, the stars began to appear. I searched the sky for the familiar Milky Way. Moving across the landscape the mountains never change. Some stars I couldn’t always find, but the Milky Way was always there. It was warm and comforting to feel its presence; it was always with us. Standing on the road side scanning the starry heavens, restrained anger seeped out, peace replaced fears.

An old farm truck with weak headlights stopped, all ran fast and laid claim to a ride into town. Dad rode in the front with the farmer. We slept among bales of hay all the way into town. We visited pancakes again; I accepted pancakes. A bold spirit emerged when I met probing disrespectful eyes. I lost my inferior feelings that now flirted with defiance. The strength that came from inside was as though an iron rod had been inserted in my mind. This new power, this cousin to rebelliousness gave me courage with no war within. After we ate, the park lawn felt good, sleep was sweet.

Just before light the next morning we climbed over into the deep sides of an empty ore car that is shaped like a bathtub; we settle in the bottom and sit quietly. No one has any reason to check it for passengers, no one in their right mind would use it. As the engine gathers speed it gets too bumpy to sit, we try standing up as it rumbles and sways. The wind blew loose mine tailings in our eyes. It’s impossible to balance by holding our hands against the sides; it is too wide. We are not able to see, breathing thick dirt that swirled around us. We all tried to hold each other up in a storm of debris. We bury our faces in each other’s arms. After some time the engine began to slow down, these are steep mountains, slower and slower, it barely moves. We scramble over the sides down the ladder and run along sides and select an empty boxcar. There are others that travel too, who my father called “Bindlestiffs”. Dad was particular about our own private accommodations as evening descends; our train again slows to a crawl as we pass miles and miles of bales of alfalfa. I jump off to help Dad tear apart the bales and throw armloads through the boxcar door. These clean sweet bundles make a good place to sleep. We will cover up for warmth with them. Dad jumps back up inside. Running along side I stumble trying to catch the ladder; he grabs me just as I was about to fall under the wheels.

Next morning we could see flat cars loaded with government trailers, they were for victims of a flood. We climbed inside one of them; it was comfortable in the tiny kitchen looking out at people on the highway as we moved along. In the cars sat moms and dads. My mom and dad used to sit in the front seat and sing together, blending their voices. I tried to remember the words to the song, “on a hill far away” was all I could remember. I hummed the first few bars of melody under my breath.

Recovered confidence made our tomorrows fearless. The train slowed, barely moving, our destination came in sight. We never met the railroad Bull. Our worst problem was trying to scrub the soot out of our hair and from around our eyes as we washed in a beautiful river in Oregon, the starry Milky Way lives here too. Desperation still moves Migrant Refugees.



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