Living Like Okies

One winter morning I was splitting kindling beside the wood stove. My little rental was in a damp gully of coastal redwood and alder at the edge of town, impossible to keep warm. My friend Wyn had come over for coffee. He said, I thought only Okies split wood in the house.

Later, when I told him I’d used the line in a poem, he said, I hope you didn’t mention my name. 

Wyn was from Georgia. He was sensitive to California’s prejudices. When I wanted to give him a hard time I’d call him a Cracker.

But his remark took me back to a time and place I’d gone to some trouble to get away from. My mother had been the last person to compare me to an Okie, half a century ago. I’d told her I thought it was a compliment.

* * *

Sam Slade drove a metallic blue ’39 Mercury coupe, its lines as smooth as the wave he combed in his hair. He was out of Shafter up near Bakersfield, two or three years older than me, done with high school. He followed the crops from Tule Lake to Yuma. 

Between harvests, fall of 1955, he was working nights at the Signal station in Perris, the little Southern California farm town we were both stuck in. Evenings we’d sit around the electric heater and talk about cars and girls and a hundred things we thought possible. Every once in a while somebody would come in and buy a dollar’s worth of gas.

Seventeen cents a gallon. A dollar would take you into next week.

Jo Ann Davis was the youngest and smartest of three wild sisters who lived with their mother in an old Union Pacific boxcar made into a house. It had a room added on the front, steps added on to that.

We were sitting on the steps. A couple of the neighbor’s chickens scratched in the yard. It was the summer before high school.

What I can’t understand, she said, is why people call me an Okie.

She’d never been to Oklahoma.

Eighth grade. Arkie was put behind his cousin, Okie, in a seat in the middle row. He was way behind in other ways, always asking his cousin for answers. You could tell Okie was embarrassed.

Okie’s real name was Arnold. His cousin Vernon was smaller, with a deeper twang to his speech. Arn and Vern. Okie and Arkie. When they had to talk in the classroom, the Mexican kids about fell out of their desks laughing. Why don’t you make them talk English?

Nobody had called Arnie an Okie till his cousin from Arkansas arrived. After eighth grade Vernon disappeared, maybe went back to Arkansas. Arnold got to be a lot bigger and tougher.

Nobody called him Okie.

* * *

They plowed the deep-rooted perennial grasses, planted wheat and corn and cotton, and when the next cycle of drought and wind began in ’33 and continued for seven years, they were utterly unprepared for the ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl.

It was more than a loss of topsoil. Millions of farmers and speculators and the still-migrating land prospectors we call Pioneers—Sooners was another name for them—had suffered more than a decade of collapsing prices for the crops they grew in such abundance. Many more were not farmers but town people, from communities that were failing along with their bankrupt economic and agricultural practices.

And they were not all from Oklahoma. The mass emigration included dozens of counties of Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. But at the gates of the promised land they were greeted by the California Indigent Act, LAPD’s Bum Brigade, and a fierce xenophobia we don’t usually see directed against white people. They were all called Okies.

It was a spiritual disaster as much as it was economic and ecological. The emigrants carried agrarian values that no longer fit their situation. Even when their labor was exploited they identified with the owners of land, not with the transient and indigent like themselves. Exiled from familiar places and roles, men especially suffered a deep loss of self-respect. Pentecostal and socially conservative, they fell back on Bronze Age ideas of property and gender which were still very much in evidence when I lived among them. 

The qualities I loved in the Okies lay elsewhere.

* * *

I met Bob Dodge in the early seventies, not long after I’d left a midwestern university and moved to northern California. It was a time of intense cultural experiment, much of it agrarian. Country music was in the air. We used the word land in every other sentence. Bob and his brother Jim belonged to a circle of friends that had roots here, knew where to find mushrooms or shingle bolts or hand-operated printing presses, just about anything old and out of the way. Sometimes they lived in town, sometimes in the hills.

Bob was still on crutches following a spectacular crash when a second-hand tire blew out and his ’52 Chevy panel sailed over an embankment and nose-dived into the Eel River. Doctors repaired multiple breaks of his right femur, but in the hospital he contracted a staph infection that would lead to recurrent surgeries and bone grafts. He’d be on the crutches for twenty-five years, usually in pain. 

Bob spent his nights at a local card room where he managed to support himself. Sometimes in the afternoon he came by our little hippie farm at the edge of town, told stories, gave advice, enjoyed our attempts at country life. Crutches made everything more difficult, but he could still hunt from a stand and fish from a boat or river bank. We made some excursions to the Mad River and he even got me out on a leaky fishing boat he kept tied up at King Salmon. He went religiously to swap meets and flea markets, was always working on something that someone had given up on. He treated people in much the same spirit. “Bob wants me to quit being a hooker,” a mutual friend complained to me one night at the bar. “ He thinks I’m better than that. Ha.”

Bob also loved the medications that help with pain. High-grade marijuana was most effective, though he gave the opiates a chance to do what they could. But it was a waste of good drugs, he said, if you didn’t feel good. Eventually the leg had to be amputated, but the pain remained. 

He lived entirely in the here and now. Said history was something that already happened. Devoted himself to a rusty Jeep pickup, his dog Joe, his nephew Jason, cards, and fixing things that were broken. Activities requiring serious present-time attention and unlimited leisure. He practiced it like a spiritual vocation.

He called this “living like Okies.”

* * *

The summer after eighth grade, my best friend’s big sister was constantly in trouble with their step-daddy because she was going out with an Okie. Nerk was from an even smaller town than ours. A couple of hundred dustbowl refugees and their descendants alongside the highway: a gas station, a beer joint, a big junkyard with a mean German shepherd. 

Bonnie had country music on all the time. Lefty Frizell and Ernest Tubbs, Hank Snow. It was like she was studying to be Okie.

Her boyfriend crashed, totaled his car, which everyone said was mostly stolen parts. They had him in the hospital a long time.

My friend teased his sister about it. He knew the step-daddy wouldn’t make him stop: Nerk’s brains are leaking out his ear, he’d say.

Because the internal combustion engine got the Okies out of the dust bowl they went on fulfilling a vow made on some desolate western highway:

devotion till the oil runs out.

Late 1940s, both Mexicans and Okies started lowering their cars, longer shackles on the back springs so when they drove up and down the town’s principal street it was called dragging main. 

Then the Mexicans took ’49 and ’50 Mercury sedans, chopped the top and channeled the body over the frame, so low all around that the vatos inside were invisible except for their hair and the driver’s knuckles on the wheel.

When the Okies got out of the fields, their children mingling with the children of the postwar suburbs, they invented the hot rod. Lowered in the front. Raked.

From junk yard and jalopy derby to the little deuce roadster with the bored and stroked Mercury flathead.

Never to be left in the dust again.

* * *

One summer night after work in the potato sheds, both of us drunk on beer, Sam Slade took a swing at me to show off for a girl he was with. It grazed my jaw—I think I even laughed—but the blow landed some place solid.

It was the height of potato season. Inside the huge corrugated tin sheds it was a hundred plus degrees in the afternoons, the air humid with tons upon tons of White Rose potatoes tumbling through a chlorine scrubber and down conveyer belts where they were graded by rows of women’s hands, then spilling into burlap sacks that bounced on a jigging board and when the sack filled I’d close the sluice and unhook the sack, turn and set the 103 pounds on the scale, turn back around and hook on another sack while the next one filled. Sam would sew it up, needle and string flashing, kick it onto another conveyor belt, then turn to the next sack already on the scale. At the peak of production a sack filled up every five or ten seconds, and with occasional breaks we did it for ten or twelve hours a day.

It had never occurred to me there was something he needed to prove.

* * *

Carl was another child of migrants who showed up in eighth grade. One day in the boy’s bathroom he walked up and blipped me on the chin. I was completely surprised. Later I heard it was because of a girl. Mary Farmer was pretty and blonde, but I didn’t think she knew I existed. I swung back at him wildly and broke a knuckle against the wall.

* * *

Bobby Haynes was older, had graduated high school the year before, but I guess he wanted to prove he wasn’t the lowest guy in the gang of mostly Mexicans we both hung out with. Back behind the Signal station, at the end of a usual evening of driving back roads and drinking beer, he said he wanted to fight. 

A circle of guys, more wild swinging, lots of yelling. Someone called the cops and they hauled us both in, turned us over to our parents: my step-dad the lineman, mom an operator for the phone company, Bobby’s mom a waitress at the restaurant and card room, all of them asking, What’s got into you goddam kids?

Someone said later I’d won that fight, but I knew better. All the scuffles were about things lost before the first fist was swung. Aside from a handful of merchants and farmers, and I’m not sure about them, everyone in that town was beat up before they started.

* * *

The next summer I worked on the loading dock, where the sacks of potatoes came out of the shed and we stacked them five high on hand trucks and wheeled them onto flatbeds or vans or reefer cars. Kurt, the other guy on the dock, had made his living for years as a jalopy derby driver. He looked too frail for this kind of work. Missing teeth, ragged scars where he’d been wired back together more than once. But it was not easy to keep up with him.

He and his wife followed the harvests now instead of the racing circuit. She would eat lunch with the other graders while I sat with Kurt in a refrigerator car. All I could talk about was the car I was going to buy with all the money I was making: ’46 Ford 4-door sedan, metallic blue, louvered hood, a radio that worked. He told stories about the races and fast cars, the fabled highways:

66 east to west 

99 north and south

driven from the hills

driving to the promised land

carrying all that wreckage.

* * *

When I moved out of the gully, it was a loss of elevation in several respects. I’d bought an old fixer-upper in Chicken Beach, with just a willow swamp and a couple of sand dunes between me and the Pacific. The several hundred residents are a mix of Azores Portuguese, and hippies, with here and there an Indian, a Chicano, a Rastafarian. But the largest portion, like my two immediate neighbors, are from Oklahoma and Arkansas. Not that far from where I started.

People keep livestock and chickens, tend gardens. Ride horses in the dunes. Some are skilled foragers, know where and when to find chanterelles, bay clams, huckleberries. Almost any mind-altering substance. Here and there a scattering of old cars, machine parts in the yard. I found the hood of a car in the swamp. There are carpenters, welders, fabricators of most things you’d need. Along with any number of clandestine musicians, painters, and storytellers. You could almost reinvent culture. Or fix a broken one.

And as it happens, here we are again, relearning the Okies’ experience. What it takes to get over the pain of losing the farm. Like having a part of yourself taken away. Being left by your woman or your man. Working in strangers’ fields. Maybe you have to be here a while to get used to it. Bienvenido a California.

* * *

On a winter morning in Chicken Beach, a cold wind coming off the Pacific, I was splitting kindling beside the wood stove. I was being careful, unlike a previous tenant who had left deep axe marks in the wood floor. Nevertheless, a fat splinter of fir went flying, almost hit my wife Jenny. We’d been married about five years. She and her furnishings had added a note of near-elegance to the place. Her Persian carpet almost covered the axe marks. I apologized, told her what Wyn had said to me about Okies. She and Wyn had been partners years before.

“You know, don’t you,” she said, handing me the stick. “He said the very same thing to me.” 

Maybe some of us are drawn to the Okie in those we love.

* * *

My first girlfriend lived across the alley from where our house had been set down. Big and crooked and drafty, “the barn” we called it. It was the summer between elementary and high school, our third house in two years.

Hazel’s father had put up a chicken wire and board fence across their side of the alley. He drove a grader for the county road crew. Her mother had some kind of part-time office job and kept a big garden. Peas, beans, squash and okra, collard greens.

Hazel and two younger brothers, Melvyn and Millard, pulled weeds every evening till they had enough to feed the rabbits. Sometimes I’d help.

On Saturday night I’d be invited to dinner. We’d eat fried rabbit, mashed potatoes and greens, then watch Spade Cooley and the Kings of Western Swing on their new Motorola. When the parents and the boys went to bed we clumsily practiced touching, and at the end of that summer we started going steady.

These country people, our blind gropings, so many things I knew nothing about.

* * *

I was twelve when my folks had the big crack-up. While they were still in the hospital a woman came to live with us to keep house and look after my sister and me. Mrs. Ivy was a tiny woman, sinewy tough, as kind as could be. She made us chocolate pies and chocolate pudding. 

We were not supposed to let anyone know she lived with us because she was hiding from her husband, “Jess,” a character in a Gothic western. We were given to understand that he’d beaten her up. 

After she’d been with us a month or so, the folks came home and it was time for her to go. Jess came to pick her up. He was taking her back to Oklahoma. Everyone acted like everything was perfectly normal.

In those weeks when Mrs. Ivy took care of us I started listening to country music in my bedroom at night. I had an old box radio that made static when you moved its dial, and the signal was faint, but through the early ’50s late-night air came the comforting lament of Grand Ol’ Opry. Of course I kept it turned down low. Okies listened to that kind of music.

* * *

Hazel’s father owned a 1933 Chevy pickup that looked like it had come all the way from the Dust Bowl. On Sundays the family piled into it and he drove them to the Four-Square Gospel church. In all matters of child-rearing, he believed in liberal use of the belt. I never heard his wife disagree with him, though it was obvious she was much smarter.

When he started acting like he was my father-in-law, Hazel and I stopped going steady and she started going out with one of the local farm boys. She knitted a pair of angora dice that hung from the mirror of his new ’57 Chevy. 

One Saturday night, when she was supposed to be someplace else, her father caught them at the movies. I heard he beat hell out of her right there in the theater and out into the street. 

It turned out she was pregnant, and they got married not long after. The child was born with deformities and required months of surgery. But at least she’d gotten away from her father. A redneck, no matter where he’s from, can only respond to loss by diminishing others. 

I always hoped her life turned for the better, but I never went back to see.

* * *

Sometimes in the summer I’d take the bus from our little Okie town to Hollywood, where the west began. I probably saw every western made in the forties and fifties, and greatly preferred them to the west I lived in.

Dad was in Wardrobe. In my earliest childhood pictures I’m wearing a cowboy suit, and in one of them he’s wearing boots and Levi’s with wide cuffs. Where he came from the cowboys had been Cossacks, and Jews were the extras trampled by their horses.

By the time I was in high school, westerns were in decline and so was my father’s career. On one of my last visits, he and his third or fourth wife were working on a shoot in a little western town in the Hollywood hills. One day I went to the set with them. The plot involved this guy who’d been turned into a werewolf by scientists looking for a cure for radiation. For some reason the werewolf was hanging around this western town. 

My father’s wife did make-up, said they’d been scaring people in the dressing room. After my parents were divorced I had wolf nightmares for years. My father sent boots and six shooters for my birthday. What could be scarier than a werewolf in a western shirt?

* * *

Embarrassed by Okie, Country went Western.

My first girlfriend and I were not alone watching the Spade Cooley show. It won Emmys in 1952 and ’53, his band the most popular sound this side of the Mississippi. Beamed on Saturday nights from the Santa Monica ballroom at the end of Venice pier, it was as Western as you could go.

Donnell Clyde “Spade” Cooley was born to a musical family and at an early age mastered classical violin. A little ashamed of his Oklahoma heritage and his ties of blood and marriage to the former Indian Territory, he moved to California where he started a western band. He had a big early success when they recorded “Shame on You” with Tex Williams, but when he heard Williams had been offered a movie contract he fired him, whereupon most of his band quit and he had to start over. Spade had gotten far from his country roots.

Despite a name that sounds like two ethnic slurs, Spade Cooley re-invented himself for Hollywood as an accompanist and stand-in for Roy Rogers. Soon he had his own band again, playing something he called Western Swing. It’s also been called the “Okie aesthetic,” a sound distinguished by improbable instrumental arrangements and blazing solos on accordion or fiddle or pedal steel guitar.

Spade got his nickname from the dark suit. Took some bad gambles in So-Cal real estate, a Mojave water park. Drinking heavily, convinced his second wife was having an affair with Roy Rogers, he murdered her, forcing their 14-year-old daughter to watch.

At the end of every show he’d tell us to tune in next week—or “Shame, shame on you.”

* * *

Being Okie isn’t about the geography of states—unless you mean states of mind. My step-dad the west Texan made too much of such distinctions. Like most Hispanic Californians, so did my mother. In my last year of high school I crashed the ’46 Ford sedan, wrapped its louvered hood around a telephone pole, losing a front tooth in the process. Naturally, I considered it a mark of honor. 

“You can’t go to college like that,” she said. “You look like an Okie.”

* * *

It was a state of change. The music went from hillbilly to country, then from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. My adolescent hormonal whimperings sang along, hardly noticing when Bill Haley and the Saddlemen became Bill Haley and the Comets. 

It was Noel Boggs on pedal steel when I left California to go to college. When I came back it was Jerry Garcia, and nobody cared what state you were from—or in. When rock and roll crashed and burned, it found hillbilly again. Part of me has lived there ever since.

* * *

And part of me will always be in the western. All those conflicting destinies shoving us together, pulling us apart. California not knowing if it’s the farthest west or the nearest east. Ukelele, or guitar? Texas unable to figure out if it’s West or South or Northern Chihuahua. 

One Fourth of July I was visiting a friend in San Marcos. A mariachi band played on one side of the town plaza and a Teutonic oompah band on the opposite side. On a third side, between them, American Legion hill-country western filled the air. People swinging, polkaing, bailando. 

It was night and kids were lighting off sparklers, every few minutes a firecracker. Strangely, the fourth side was dark and empty, absorbing all the sound and light. A dimension, an entire direction, missing. West.

The place where they hide the consequences. The mine tailings, rusty cars, and atomic bombs. The ever-expanding Hank Williams vacancies. Heartbreak and erosion. The damage that we call the western, playing at a drive-in near you. The lights. The music. The big night sky.

* * *

My Arkansas neighbor, Bill, drives a dump truck and moves sand around with a big front-end loader. The other neighbor, Donny, a second generation Oklahoman, has worked all his life at the nearby Sierra-Pacific mill. 

Bill got his start at the L-P mill pulling green chain, a back-breaking job. He held onto it despite the Portagees, he says, who want to give all the jobs to their relatives. He sometimes packs a .38 and has had some violent confrontations with the dune buggy and four-wheel-drive crowd who consider Chicken Beach their territory. We disagree about almost everything, sometimes vehemently, except for this one issue. That seems to be enough. His wife still dresses like a country-western queen. A real sweetheart, she used to give my mother rides in her red Corvette. 

Donny works on cars when he’s not at the mill. A constant stream of friends and family come and go in ’50s classics, hot rods, occasionally a highway patrol car. He and his wife have two sons in high school, living in my idea of teenage heaven. The family has built a dragster and they spend all Saturday afternoon and into the night drinking beer and welding and hammering metal, fire it up in the midnight air. Watching them haul it to the local drag strip on Sunday morning I feel like a lapsed member of some automotive church. Part of me goes with them.

And then we have a third neighbor, on the western side. The willow swamp. Herons and turtles and rotting trees. Where Donny’s family throws their trash. Bill wants to fill it, says “You can’t do anything with it.” That’s the side of the house I added windows on.

* * *

I want to enlarge Okie Territory. Get past the poverty and loss, acknowledge an old relationship. A long one, in Western Swing time.

Unmistakably it’s characterized by suffering—the sense that life is a difficult thing that bears down on us—and by the memory of hard times and exile. Losing that knot of land and heart’s desire will always be something to sing about. As will finding it again.

The West wants to slouch back to the desert where it grew up, and take us all with it. Industrial farming and resource extraction guarantee more dust bowls, dislocation and depression.

But we don’t have to go. Living like an Okie can also mean a strong attachment to home. To porches and dooryards, rivers and woods. Even hills of sand. It means making much out of little, making food and music and ceremony. Finding the tools to make a culture, especially old tools and any broken thing you can fix with them. Hence swap meets, flea markets, yard sales.

It’s best practiced in the hills and hinterlands, but also throughout the third world, including our ghettos and reservations. It’s a state beyond the globalized western state. Sure, Woody Guthrie lived and sang it—but so did Li Po, sipping plum wine on the porch a thousand years ago. Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde, you bet—but don’t forget William Blake and Calamity Jane and Henry David Thoreau. And of course that old Okie, Walt Whitman: I loaf and invite my soul.

* * *

Bob had it right. It’s a religious quest. A backyard grail. Rural descendentalism, low-rent salvation. The Okie Way. It requires constant struggle between what to keep and what to get rid of. What to keep up, what to live down. Where to split the kindling. The other day a stick hit Jenny’s velvet couch. I’m seriously thinking of not splitting wood in the house anymore.

When I was a kid we routinely poured motor oil in the driveway, sprayed DDT to get ants off the dog dish, and threw anything that fit into a 50-gallon burn barrel. But I’ve come to see the error of my ways. Unlike the hard-shell bible-thumping path or the right-wing redneck route, the Okie Way says: Brothers and Sisters, you can recycle those trashy habits. Redeem those bottles and cans.

* * *

One foggy February morning I was on the plaza of our nearby college town reading a groundhog poem to a small but sympathetic crowd. Long dresses, floppy hats, hand-me-downs.

At the same time, on the other side of the dead president’s statue, a preacher was expostulating before his own small congregation. A group of women, dressed as if for church, stood listening and praying as the fog turned to drizzle, their beehive hair-dos slowly going flat.

He was preaching Jesus, and I was proclaiming Groundhog, two versions of the resurrection competing for the soul of the former mill town. But I felt that our messages were not that different.

Afterward, overcoming my aversion to holy-rollers and dogma, I asked the preacher’s religious affiliation. He said they were the Church of the Latter Day Situation. I have never seen or heard of him since. 

Most people think I made up the name, but I only borrowed it because it also describes my own evangelical mission. Through the improbable medium of poetry I too was responding to the Situation of these Latter Days, which I take to be a crisis of both geography and spirit. Of exile from place and belief.

* * *

I don’t want to start a religion. My idea of a church is not towers and bells, but something more like a hole in the ground. Preferably with fire in it, or water—or both. I find I can effectively worship in a hot spring. But in the decades since I met the preacher, despite everything poetry and politics could do, the Situation has only worsened. The notion of an Okie church is still the best response I’ve found.

To hang on to the resiliency, the spiritual and practical resourcefulness, and let go of the personal and social shame. And when it is required of us, to distinguish voluntary surrender from the involuntary kind that grinds the soul. To draw out a sense of sufficiency from our sense of loss. The walking blues from the lame and maudlin. We’re gonna need ‘em.

The western Beats adapted this Okie aesthetic to Eastern thought and Native wisdom, and came up with something like the church I’m thinking of. Neal Cassady at the wheel of a car. Ken Kesey’s bus, Further. Gary Snyder’s rip-rap and trail work. Lew Welch’s “Comportment”: 

Think Jew

Dance nigger

Dress and drive Oakie. 

This church is a religion of style, of how you actually live, rather than what you say you believe. Of how you adapt to the Situation—what you’ll do when our monstrous debts come due, and how you’ll work with what’s left. The Okie church is a religion of practice. It distinguishes what you can possess (old cars and musical instruments, for example) from what you can’t (women, for example, and the earth). It’s less a theology than a spiritual grit that may help us endure the losses that are coming. Losing the farm. Having to work in other people’s fields. Finding the long way back to the Commons.

The Okie Way may be only a clue to the survival of homo habilis, whose cleverness at inventing tools of destruction has outstripped the old wisdom of saving and fixing things.

And maybe it’s a way to re-capture a cultural identity that’s been stolen. Think of that creep Nixon saying, “I’m an Okie from Muskogee.” It makes me want to take back the last car from NASCAR and run it in a demolition derby. Maybe save a few old pickups. I want to take the music from Nashville and bring it home, to the actual country, not some virtual place the tourist brochures call Steinbeck Country. To our houses, our shacks, our tents, our music festivals.. Where, as in all good religions, loss shall be consoled, pain assuaged, and suffering something you can dance to. 

* * *

One of the things I love about Chicken Beach is that hardly anybody gets in their car and drives off to a job in the morning. They split kindling, start a fire, wait for the fog to burn off. An entire village, in the Way.

Not that we don’t have our trailer trash and rejects from the Kmart check-out line, though we may try to deny them. When our local meth-dealing biker cowboy didn’t make the curve in the road one night, hardly anyone but his girlfriend acknowledged the loss. But they had a kid, and maybe he’ll learn from his elders’ mistakes. I have hope for the next generation. 

I say, remember those who go through board fences without a helmet for our sake. To show us the difference between The Way and The Hard Way. 

* * *

If the Church of the Latter Day Situation had a credo it would say: You know what to do. Of all the things in this world that are broken, some can be fixed. A few things, maybe even rivers, can be saved. Let go of shameful dependencies. Abandon those wasteful western habits. But hang onto the music, and keep the extra parts. 

Bob was as generous with his accumulated treasure as he was devoted to collecting it. When he died I was still working on a Mitchell reel he’d passed on to me. Maybe it was something he’d actually given up on. He left three outbuildings full of things he hadn’t got around to fixing.

For a while the parts of the fishing reel were all over the dining room table, but I finally got it back together and working. Only there was one tiny spring still on the table. I took the reel apart and put it back together, but still couldn’t find where the spring went. Eventually I took it to Bob’s memorial, thinking it must belong to something in his next life.

Live like Okies. Be in the Way.

(Thanks to Jim Dodge for clarifying some of the facts of his brother Bob’s life. His long poem “Holy Shit” expresses many of the beliefs of the Okie church, although he calls it “living by life.” Of course he is in no way responsible for any of my factual errors or heretical notions.)

Jerry Martien

is the author of Shell Game: A True Account of Beads and Money in North Americaand a poetry collection, Pieces in Place. He no longer lives in Chicken Beach.