[In the summer of 1983, I talked my Houston Post editors into letting me travel with a migrant family from Crytal City, my South Texas hometown, to the area between Grafton (where I was born) and Grand Forks, ND, where my family worked during the summers for many years. This is the final installment of the resulting series (more of a mood piece, or thumbsucker), as I filed it. I don’t really know how much of it survived the editing process. At the end is a poem I wrote, based on this piece, which was published in The Acentos Review.]
Grand Forks, ND – The Frontier Airlines DC-9 has just nestled its wheels under its wings. I am flying away from, and looking down at, my past.
I was going to spend more time in this state, but after yesterday I decided I couldn’t go on. I had spent most of my time here working alongside a migrant family and talking to people. But yesterday I only wanted to look around mainly for things that were here when I was last here. I did not really want to talk to people, although it turned out to be inevitable.
I started in Johnstown, a sliver of a town alongside the Burlington Northern Railroad that looks as if it’s getting ready to close up shop and die. It’s probably been looking this way for a long time. The roofs of a couple of underground potato sheds, built partially beneath the ground to keep the potatoes from freezing in the winter, or collapsing.
It was near here, about half a mile down the small road that intersects County Road 1, the town’s Main Street, that we came for a number of years after I was born. There are 12 houses here, in addition to three vacant mobile homes, and the only business establishment is the combination grocery store/guest station/bar/post office in the center of town.
In the last year the town lost three residents, but it gained three new ones, so I guess it’s still hanging on. We used to get our grocery stores, gas and mail at the store, which was built in 1886, the year the town was founded.
My father got his beer (Hamm’s or Grain Belt) here, although originally they thought he was an Indian and refused to sell him any alcohol. One of my earliest memories is of going into town with him and waiting patiently while he drank at the bar. He bought me candy to keep me happy. When he finally decided he had enough, we got in the truck and drove back home, but not before he gave me thrills by weaving in and out of the ditch is on each side of the road.
At the end of the town there used to staid a red-brick two-story schoolhouse that generally houses only two classrooms and five grades, except for the fall when too many migrant kids enrolled and they had to call in a substitute teacher to handle a third class.
I have a good memories of that school: of trading my peanut butter sandwiches for the tomato sandwiches of a local kid named Raymond; of the clean smell of the soap in the basement lavatory – and new word for us; and of getting permission to walk down to the store right before lunch to get my bottle of pop, another new word .
The store is now run by Denise Bigelow, a 32-year-old divorcee, who waited on three customers who entered the store while I was there. One of them, a new father, came to check his unlocked mailbox – half of the 44 boxes were unlocked; it had been that way for a number of years, said Bigelow – and she told him a package for the baby had arrived with the day’s mail. The man walked behind the counter and retrieved his package.
“I suppose you could say we stay open mainly as a public service,” she said “We sure don’t make a profit, but it’s family.”
Bigelow says there isn’t much work around Johnstown anymore. For years farmers planted sugar beets but the soybeans they now grow required no hand labor. Not a single Mexican has come by to rent a mailbox this year. The government’s new payment-in-kind grain program that encourages farmers not to grow wheat has thrown others out of work.
People are moving to town – Grand Forks – or out of state, she said.
What kind of people live in area, I ask.
“Oh, people don’t change,” she said. “It’s still the same stubborn, bigoted, opinionated people, people whose grandparents grew up here. These prairie people don’t travel much and they kind of have their own opinions and keep them forever. They have all this new technology but none of the modern ideas.”
Bigelow said the last passenger train, which used to bring the mail every day at noon at 5 p.m., ceased running 12 years ago, and Burlington northern has notified the town the freight train will be discontinued this year. I drove down to see if I could find the McCartons, on his farm my family worked for a number of years.
Bigelow had told me their daughter, Mary Ellen, and her husband ran the place, so I was afraid the McCartons might not even be alive. They are. Although retired, they still live on the farm and their daughter’s family lives in the mobile home where the migrant crap used to be. If Bigelow was right about the type of people who live in the area, she was wrong about William and Elfrieda McCarton.
Actually, this is the first time I’ve known these people’s names. We always knew him as El Pelón – the hairless one – because he was bald, and her as La Pelona, even though she had plenty of hair. Of course, they remembered Domingo, my father, and the rest of the family, they said
He was a hard worker, they all were.
They invited me in and offered me lunch over soup and sandwiches. They talked about the old times, both good and bad. About “John” – Juan Arroyo, the farm foreman for many years and a good friend of my family’s – and all the wonderful things he and the other Mexicans did for the farm.
“There were many times I would have traded three whites for one beat laborer any day,” said William McCarton.
Added his wife, “If farmers could get the dedicated help we had, the farming situation would be different. John was like a mother to all these beets.”
William McCarton had a stroke several years ago and his hearing and memory are failing him, so she did most of the talking. When he talked, it was about the windbreaks, – or shelterbelts – the long rows of trees – cottonwoods, evergreens, ashes and plums – planted to keep the soil from being blown away. The McCartons had been awarded several soil conservation plaques for his work and he showed them to me. He was pleased I had inquired about the trees.
I told him I remember waking up in our car one autumn morning, before dawn, and seen all these strange lights bobbing around in the dark that later turned out to be workers as they harvested the sweet sugar beets by the illumination of the minors lights he had brought for them to wear on their hats.
“We had to do that,” he said. “There was snow and rain coming – everything– and we had to get these beets out of the ground.”
After lunch they invited me to join them in their car for a tour of the farm .
We drove the block or so to their daughter’s mobile home. The very white, very blonde little girl I remembered was still very white, but her hair had darkened a bit. She was as friendly as her parents and remembered me – or at least she said she did – and my sisters and cousins. They then took me to his family’s “homestead” and said one day Mary Ellen and her husband would build their farm there.
I drove on to Forest River, about four miles away, a town I was more familiar with since we were there after I had grown up some. A sign at the towns entrance said it was the home of Mrs. North Dakota, Rosemary Dakkan.
Gone was the depot, the post office-hardware store and the old restaurant. A new metal building now houses a post office and a restaurant. I tried to talk to the postmaster but he didn’t have much to say.
The small barber shop was closed, but the River Tavern – where my father used to spend hours while I waited outside in the car – was still there, and next to it with another bar, Tom’s Lounge. The community hall where the Catholic Church held mass and school for the migrants is now the American Legion Hall.
The grocery store where we used to get our food, on credit, was no longer more. Moorewood’s Grocery – Eli Moorewood, the previous owner, died several years ago – is now Norwood’s Grocery. It also now has half its shelf space unused. “No credit” signs were posted on every wall and an unfriendly teen-aged boy sat behind the counter. I bought a soft drink and corn chips and walked across the street to a bench in a small park.
I realized I had absolutely no emotion about Forest River. I remembered it as a cold, less-than- friendly town and I sensed it hadn’t changed at all.
I had one more stop. Halfway between Johnstown and Forest River is a road that leads to where the migrant camp where we lived for about seven summers, along with other families from Crystal City. I wanted to see what was left of that.
Almost nothing was. It’s all been torn down, even the windbreak that used to extend behind the seven houses for half a mile. Only 10 trees have been left standing and, from a distance, the only sigh that people once lived there was a solitary telephone pole, its lifeless wires sagging towards the ground, and a gutted meter peering out towards the rows of sugar beets in the adjacent field.
A new row of trees had been planted. Scattered among them, half buried in the black dirt, I found some artifacts from the lives of people who once called that home: an old pink plastic shampoo bottle, a lump of coal, and a piece of dark brown glass from a Clorox bleach bottle that might have been one of the ones we used as water jugs.
I found, also, a red-white-and-blue plastic “Loopy Ball,” long ago punctured and deflated yet still boasting, “I’m different – throw me and see what I’ll do.” I remembered that ball. It would bounce funny, never ending up where you expected it to.
From two of the remaining trees hung a rusted, sagging wire. At one time it was taut and clean and held its share of a week’s washload.
But the largest, most visible reminder of our having occupied that piece of land was the bottom portion of an old Speed Queen washing machine – lying on its side with its legs sticking out from among the knee-high grass.
It stood out like a tombstone, assuring that that yes, there had once been life there.
I decided I’d had enough. Originally, this trip was going to take me to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and other places where my family had worked but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that.
I didn’t want to see anymore old washing machines.
Speed Queen, North Dakota
Halfway between Johnstown and Forest River,
a gravel road leads to where the migrant camp
once stood. Almost nothing remains: the seven
crumbling cottages, summer homes for our
extended clan, long ago razed; the weathered
walls and roofs now part of el dompe – a mile
up the road – whose moldy mounds we once
mined for toys. A windbreak stretching half
a mile behind the seven shacks is gone,
except for a few trees, a solitary telephone
pole with flaccid lifeless wires and
a gutted meter gawking at the rows of sugar
beets in nearby fields. Half-buried in
the black earth, I come across a few
of the things we left behind:
A plastic Prell Shampoo container
A shard of dark-brown glass from
a Clorox bottle.
A deflated red-white-and-blue
“Loopy Ball” boasting,
“I’m different, throw me
and see what I’ll do.”
A rusty wire hanging between two
of the trees, at one time
taut and clean and strong
enough to hold a week’s
load of wash flapping in
the southeasterly breeze.
A smooth lump of coal, as rock-hard
as it was the day it was
delivered to be fed to
the cast-iron wood stove.
And the tub of a rusted Speed Queen
washing machine – upside down,
its legs poking out from
knee-high Johnson grass.
Like an abandoned tombstone,
the Speed Queen assures me, yes,
here there was once life. A summer
community existed. Families
interacted. White smoke floated
from stovepipes as the aroma
of carne guizada, frijoles and arroz
wafted from behind screen doors.
Mothers brought newborns here from
the hospital in Grafton. Baptisms were
celebrated with a keg of Hamm’s Beer,
cheese enchiladas and the tinny sound
of Juan Guerrero’s accordion. News and
gossip arrived on the noon or 5 o’clock train.
Faraway deaths were mourned with a sob
or a sigh. At dusk, grown-ups treated
drained bodies to blessed rest after
12 hours with a hoe as children played
hide-and-seek – squealing, scurrying,
seeking sanctuary behind trees or
in the still-green fields of wheat.
I smell the smoke, savor the food.
I hear the accordion and the slap-slap
sound of sore hands shaping tortillas.
I see Tío Adrián’s turtle-shaped Pontiac
and a child, shoulders sagging
under the weight of two silvery buckets
of water from the rat-infested well.
I feel their weight as I pick up the lump
of coal and slip it into my pocket.