Finding Steinbeck

Steinbeck helped me navigate murky waters in a tricky childhood.

April 18, 2018   In the early 1960’s, mothers sent kids outdoors without a sliver of oversight. With us out of the way, they played bridge, worked the phone, smoked Kents, and blitzed casserole cookbooks. LBJ was in the White House. It was a time before internet and game consoles. Boredom catalyzed behavior. Looking back, the behaviors were less than ideal. We fought, drawing blood; pissed with inventiveness; played innumerable games with bat and ball, and killed a range of Japs, Krauts, and Commies. Alarmingly, we would do anything to draw the attention of older boys. Petty vandalism; jumping out of trees, and lies about mothers, sisters, and neighborhood girls swirled about as we vied for acknowledgement.

Indoors, it was a different story. In our TV-restricted world there was no outlet for our unbound delinquency. Navigating through an expectation of quietude, I spent time getting into shit. Every corner of the house offered possibilities and nothing was unexplored. In the end, there were no secrets. The Playboys were in dad’s sock drawer, nudie pictures in my brother’s model boat, and cigarettes behind insulation in the eaves. At my grandparent’s house, money was stashed beneath rugs and sloe gin was found on shelves beneath the basement stairs. My mom liked Irving Wallace novels and my dad read James Bond. I got into books as well. Hours were spent looking for passages involving touched breasts. I parsed each new book seeking words like “breast”, “loin”, and “yearning”.

One day, I grabbed a new book, The Grapes of Wrath. It was different. The story offered no easy possibilities. The children suffered. Cruelty was casually indifferent. Still, I understood the undercurrent of hope and humanity. I was hooked. Our narrow lens shaped by picket fences never encouraged a perspective that included poverty as a reality or hope as a necessity. Our middle-class world created layers of segregation. Steinbeck cracked this veil. I was done with Tom Swift. The Hardy Boys could take their bullshit elsewhere.

The first book I ever purchased was the Red Pony. Ninety-five cents. I still had a nickel left from my allowance. Steinbeck screwed with me again. Billy Buck couldn’t save the pony. The boy was devastated. This ending was off-script. The world wasn’t perfect. Heroes are fallible and childhood offers moments of unspeakable desolation.

Reality is a dimension.  My reality was shaped by a range of experiences coded by a cultural script. Steinbeck altered this view. We grew up seeing organized labor as a menace that protected the lazy and uneducated. In Dubious Battle shifted this perspective. In nearby orchards, migrant workers were barely visible as they picked apples and peaches. Through the Steinbeck lens, farm workers emerged as real people immersed in life full of meaning. The notions of good life as an escalation of acquisition was altered by Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row. In these pages, priorities were shifted to the pursuit of the simple gratifications offered with each sunrise and sunset.

At 18, I hauled up the anchor and headed west. In the intervening decades, I’ve known poverty and prosperity. Overall, I’ve done well and a lifetime of acquisition is scattered about. But only two things thread back to the original departure, my birth certificate and an old hardbound Grapes of Wrath.

Looking back, Steinbeck shaped my future self, honing the transition from a destructive childhood to an adolescence of quiet absorption. Issues of fairness, compassion, and brotherhood tilted a view towards empathy. And in spite of future failings in school, I found safe harbor in literature.

With that said, there is one more trip. I travel to Steinbeck Country, starting in Monterey, CA. Today, it quivers with a new-age wealth that Mack and the boys couldn’t imagine. I hit the streets at 5:00 AM. They are empty and the chi-chi shops are closed. The smell of tidal effluence and the noise of gulls sparks a conjuring of shift change at the canneries. There is an ebb and flow of workers, floozies, drunks, and fishermen. These are Steinbeck’s people, all of good heart but shaky wills. I have my moment and it seems completely real. Before the tourist crowd builds I head off towards Salinas. The hometown and the long valley await.

This journey was full of symbols and a closing of multiple loops. Steinbeck helped me navigate murky waters in a tricky childhood. In physical decline, the waters are murky again. With no regrets, the anchor goes back over the stern. An old companion beckons. The books pile high and the tattered armchair welcomes me. Old grey socks droop around my ankles and I read, nap, and reflect.

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