Sunday, August 19, 2007

“A new king in Egypt”*

*Exodus 1:8
“Now there arose a new king in Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

One of the great American classics is John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of the Joad family as they are forced to leave Oklahoma during the dust bowl years, and migrate along with the thousands of Americans who went to California on the promise of a better life. One of the startling scenes is when the Joads encounter vicious prejudice and are spurned as “Okies.”

When our son was in elementary school, one of his teachers gave the class a most interesting assignment. The students were to interview their grandparents and ask them what they remembered about the Depression. So, during one trip with Grandpa, our son questioned away. What was it like to live during the Depression? Where did you live? Did you ever not have enough to eat?

As it turns out, by circumstance unrelated to the dust bowl impact on farming, my father’s family—his father, mother, brothers and sisters—all moved from Oklahoma to California in 1933. So, like the Joad family, my father’s family were also “Okies.”

My grandfather had been president of a small Bible school in Oklahoma, when an offer came for him to be religious director and Bible teacher at a church college in southern California. So, the whole family moved west in 1933. The trip to California held its own adventure. The family left Oklahoma in August 1933, driving the newly acquired Chevrolet. Behind it was a trailer which held their household possessions. Along the way, they traveled the most used route of that day, U.S.
Route 66. However, to save time and money, my grandfather determined that the map showed an unpaved road that bore more directly west than Route 66. They took the road across New Mexico. Partway along the unpaved, unmarked road, they heard a clatter. Some yards back lay the car battery which had fallen out. When they had stopped to investigate the noise, they had not switched off the car, so it continued to run drawing its spark directly off the generator. They managed to find a small garage which had the correct size battery that was somehow mounted into the engine, and they continued on their way to California.

Ordinarily, the position in California should have been a long term position. My grandfather had a yearly contract that had been renewed several times, and when it came due for renewal in 1936-37, he counted on having it renewed again. Until then, compensation for my grandfather had included tuition for his children. His oldest son had attended the college on that arrangement. When the college president handed the new contract to my grandfather, it contained a major change—no more tuition. With his second son (my dad) ready to begin college, this change was a severe financial blow. So my grandfather handed the contract back, and asked that the old terms be restored.

Several days passed; then my grandfather met the college’s Board chair who informed my grandfather that since he had no contract, he had no job. My grandfather was 53, suddenly unemployed, with five children, and the country deep in the middle of the Great Depression. My oldest uncle had finished college, but my dad was ready to begin, and there were three other children, with the youngest only 4 years old.

I have thought about that event in my grandfather’s life a lot. Five years ago, I “
retired” because the company I worked for eliminated the department I headed. While I was closer to retirement age than my grandfather was, and had no young children still at home, the event still shocked me. And I had to find a new focus for my life.

My grandfather overcame this challenge. He found new work in two separate jobs, and he built his own home after this episode in his life.

Sometimes there are shifts in power in our lives, new kings arise and we find ourselves disrupted, out of place, out of favor. What we do next, of course, makes all the difference.

13 comments:

Rhonda said...

Boy, is THAT a timely blog. Major reorg. in our division, and I now have a new boss--no longer do I report to Conrad. Got me to thinking about when you "retired", which really hit me hard (though not as hard it hit you, clearly), especially when paired with 9/11. Ugh. Panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. But I got through it, and imagine I will survive this next phase in my worklife at HM. "This too shall pass."

Mary said...

I read your unexpected retirement story. Do you think if you were still working full-time time you'd still be writing fantastic posts?

If someone informed me today, that as a result of budget cuts my position will be eliminated, I'd do a cartwheel. That would force me to search for part-time work for the first time in my adult life.

Your grandfather was a strong man. 4 children, no job, suddenly. Now that's a hardship.

KGMom said...

Rhonda--thanks for the info on the reorg. HM is at it again! Hang in there.

Mary--it took a while, but I have made my peace with the sudden end of my career, and my now re-directed career back into teaching, albeit parttime. One thing got me through the first year--having a dog to walk! Seriously. And now, blogging--it gives me an outlet for my long held love of writing.
Actually--my grandfather had 5 children--my oldest uncle had graduated, then there was my dad, a younger brother and two sisters.

Jean said...

Another thought provoking post - Dad told me stories of the depression. Maybe that's why my pantry is stocked and my savings guarded!

Nevin Climenhaga said...

Interesting about Geoffrey's project--when I was in high school we read the Grapes of Wrath and had to do a similar project, which I E-mailed Grandpa some questions for.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

What a very interesting bit of family history. Sometimes life makes heroes of some and breaks others. Using the Grapes of Wrath as a base line is an interesting device to put your personal family story into context.
You come from tough salt of the earth stock.

cat59 said...

I enjoyed the story of your grandfather. Clearly, you come from hardy stock. I also followed your link to learn about your unintended retirement. Sounds like you have made the best of it. Somehow, even though I don't really know you, I prefer thinking of you as an English teacher than someone in an insurance company.

Ruth said...

People in the work force are sure to face employment changes more rapidly that a generation or two ago. Few people will be staying at one company throughout a career. Mergers, buyouts, restructuring are commonplace. Accepting change and moving on are essential life skills.
Your post demonstrates that this is possible, even in middle age.

Cathy said...

Donna,
Your Grandfather looks like a man of such integrity. I enjoy reading your family's interesting history. It's all part of the American experience.

Life and it's twists and turns is endlessly challenging. But every bend in the road affords a new view.

You wouldn't go back, would you?
I for one am glad you've got the time to blog (and grow pretty flowers and walk Tipper :0)

KGMom said...

Jean--the folks who lived through the Depression were some tough folk.

Nevin--I am sure Grandpa loved having you & Geoffrey ask for his remembrances.

Tossing Pebbles--My grandfather (who was Canadian) was a tough one--he homesteaded for a while in Saskatchewan; he also went blind in his advancing years, and still functioned amazingly.

Cat--I agree--I am an English prof at heart.

Ruth--true. In my grandfather's day, people did expect to stay in jobs for a long time.

Cathy--no, I wouldn't go back. I certainly have found ways to keep busy, from blogging to Tipper walking!

Climenheise said...

I have known this story well enough. Grandpa certainly overcame significant challenges in his life, including job changes and his blindness. I have wondered if I will face similar challenges in my declining -- and hoping not!

Pam said...

I enjoyed this story very much, it was most interesting. And I have always thought that how we handle what happens to us is infinitely more important than the happening. Your grandfather is a good example of that.

Ginnie said...

I have a granddaughter who is going through a very rough time and your blog made me put things into perspective. Thanks.