The Tom Joad’s dust bowl of Oklahoma I had pictured in my mind was hot and sticky with various shades of gray. I imagined seeing a dust storm or perhaps even a twister coming just in time to head for cover. The Grapes of Wrath men would be in overalls with some type of well worn hat, chewing on a piece of straw. The women would all be large buxom grandmotherly types, and all, wiping their hands on their aprons after having just taken some wonderful hot buttered delicacy from the oven. And of course, each and every one would have white hair worn in some type of bun almost halo like extolling their god-fearing virtues.
The truth was, when we arrived in Oklahoma, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a bigger snow storm than the one that stranded us for an evening in Ohio. The flakes were fat and feathery. The kind you’d rather watch through the safety of your living room window while doing jigsaw puzzles in front of the fire, instead of our intermittently working windshield wipers.
It was a beautiful sight and the kids hadn’t any play time since this whole ordeal began. Although I hesitated at first we took a break at a rest stop. We bombarded each other with snow balls for a full thirty minutes of freezing on purpose, and called it “having fun”. Val and Dominick had always been guarded at home and taught by their father that children should be seen and not heard.
He was no where around to hear their howls of laughter, which to me was the most beautiful sound in the world. It did my heart good, not having heard the children laugh so freely in quite some time. By the time we headed back to the truck, we were half frost-bitten, wet, exhausted and deliriously happy. Only I noticed that the short walk to our awaiting chariot was getting a bit slippery.
With Val soon asleep, wrapped in a blanket on the floorboard and Dominick beside me, just beginning to allow his eyes to close, I felt myself getting drowsy as well. I slapped my cheeks, willing myself to stay awake and alert. I would stop soon and sleep for a while, but right now I wanted no more delays than necessary and decided to weather the storm (no pun intended) and forge ahead before the roads became impassible.
It seemed like a matter of moments before I found myself jolted by a thud. To my horror, I had in fact fallen asleep and begun to run off the road. I righted the truck just in time to see ahead, a large dark shadow in the middle of the highway. Although a city girl, I do know a bull from a horse from a deer and what was looming ahead was none of the above. I blared my horn which roused my son but did nothing to dispel the creature I was about to strike. I did the only thing I could do and slammed on my brakes.
The back end of the truck began to swerve to the left although I was turning to the right. With Val lying on the floor board wrapped in a blanket, she was somewhat protected. Dominick however was being tossed around like a rag doll. On this partially deserted highway in Oklahoma, I just knew we were going to die.
We hit the center railing, jumped the median and were now headed in the wrong direction, yet the truck still had not stopped. It was careening towards a ditch that, although as we found out later was no more than three feet deep, it was deep enough to make the truck turn over once and somehow right itself. The world had finally stopped spinning.
I released my breath which, until now I had not realized I was holding. In less than a second I assessed the situation. Val seemed unscathed; rubbing her eyes as she sleepily emerged from her cocoon. Dominick whose grin would have given the Cheshire cat a run for its money, seemed no less for wear either.
“That was fun mommy,” he chimed. “Let’s do it again.”
Obviously, the only one with frazzled nerves, I gathered my children up in my arms and held them tightly, making a sound that was half laugh and half cry. I had put my children’s lives in jeopardy. I had taken my kids from one dangerous situation and had put them in another. I never could have known that this was only the beginning of a new perilous life.
No one that stopped to help us was dressed in overalls. I was now sure that the grandmothers in Oklahoma helped more in the fields along side their husbands than in the kitchen, and their hearts were larger than the state itself. I say this simply because of the three women and six men that showed up at our wreck. It was the women who took control and calmly assessed the damage both to us and the truck. It was the women who were calm cool and collected and did more than just stand around and observe the scene. It was the women who had the strength and the backbone to get things done, and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up.
Miraculously, not only were none of us damaged too much, but neither was the truck. Oh it had scratches up one side and down the other, but the dents were not nearly as bad as I thought they would be and it was still drivable. The women fussed over us, brought blankets from their car and one even offered me a shot of brandy from the flask she had taken from her husband.
“No thank you,” I declined politely. “I need to get back on the road.”
“Not tonight you’re not,” the woman with the brandy declared. “I’m taking you home with me sweetie and I don’t want to hear a word about it. You and your children need to settle down for the night in a nice warm bed, not the front of a truck.” Before I could say anything she turned to whom I presumed to be her husband. “We’ll see to the truck, won’t we Fred?”
“You bet Ethel” declared the short round bald man.
“Fred and Ethel”? I thought to myself. As if she could read my thoughts Ethel turned to me and with eyebrows raised scolded, “Honey, don’t say a solitary word. We’ve heard all the Fred and Ethel jokes there ever was and if it weren’t for the fact I love this old coot I would have divorced him long ago just ‘cuz I can’t stand our names.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything.” I wouldn’t have either, but only out of politeness.
“Yeah well, I heard those wheels spinning up there. Anyway, let’s get you to a nice hot bath and feather bed. You can tell us in the morning why you’re out here all alone with two kids and not a husband in sight.”
I had seen that look on my own mother’s face to know there was no arguing with this woman. I took my kids by their frightened little hands and followed the leader.
Chapter four to be continued