Going West

December 2, 2009
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What kept some travelers moving westward was a curious sensation, a pounding of the stomach. It was unlike anxiety or restlessness which affected the gut, a little different than fear; some may say it was hunger’s brother or cousin because he too accompanied this bodily gala. Although the sensation occurred in the stomach, symptoms were still present in the minds of the afflicted. The poor might describe their feelings with words like “worry,” “doubt,” and “fear.” Their wealthier counterparts could say the same or lucky ones may even use words like “hope,” “excitement,” or “joy.”

Poor farmers and adventure seekers headed to California in search of work and better opportunities. Those who made the trek were, in fact, quite different, but a special few had a uniting quality: pregnancy. Expecting families were found in the lone rusty lemon, in great caravans of friends and neighbors, under silky headliners of the elite’s gleaming new roadsters traveling the spider webs of westward roads. After the Depression, times hit hard and money was scarce and thriftily used. Calendars were sometimes the only evidence that the decade had transitioned to the ‘30s. But the travelers even changed the way they used those calendars. They emphatically planned out all of their spending on the next nine months, instead of twelve, as to prepare to take on a new mouth to feed. Figures would be recounted and counted again. It’s going to be tight. But couples would still talk of doctors and hospitals at night with feigned smiles even though both new that it was not reality.

The eating would increase and become particular. “No, no potatoes for me.”
“Honey but you’re starving. We don’t have any squash and were too low on flour to make a loaf of pumpernickel like ya want.” Bellies would quake between meals from this condition. Oddly these vibrations weren’t coming from stomachs of the men gathering wood and fixing motors with their hands and the young scuttling about like one would expect. They were resonating from the wives and their eldest daughters, from the niece and the cousin. Soon to be mothers would yearn for the goodies that they used to pick up at the corner store when they were in town, or the butter they used to churn when their cows’ milk was in excess.

Their abdomens, once slim and hard from tilling the fields and harvesting their yields, began to swell gently from fruit inside and lose their shape. Every now and then a remarkable cadence would sound; a movement from inside. It seemed to speak, as this was its only way of interaction with the world outside. It would thump, making itself known to the world in an abstract Morse code. Little sisters and younger daughters would gather to press their ears against the skin to hear the rhythmic exchange. Their eyes would grow wide and their hearts would beat faster with excitement. Some curled up their fingers and threw down their arms in annoyance and envy; they wanted one of their own. And so it became a family affair. And it was.

One could overhear the silent whispering between a husband in wife and the nervous counting and calculating. “If we can set aside thirty-five dollars before it gets here, maybe we can get a nice doctor in Bakersf’ld.” The psychological effects seemed to be viral although the physical effects never multiplied. Conscientious little brothers would donate bread and their fathers would save the last ladleful for them. Roadside acquaintances of mere hours would vacate beds and blankets. Stories flowed in between their teller’s upturned lips with a nostalgic tint of when they had contracted this remarkable syndrome. Everyone who interacted with the affected placed the situation on the forefront of their minds. Mothers looked at their deprived children, worn from the road, and pushed farther ahead hoping that if they reached California fast enough and found work this one wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate. Fathers began to shift their focus when checking their rearview mirror. Their eyes would instantly dart to the “most special” passenger instead of the rope or a knot holding all of their worldly possessions down.

For most families, expecting a child was not a new experience. Husbands and children knew their roles in caring for the women and fell into line. The difficulty of saving money and facilitating these tasks increased with the longitude. Fear crept into hearts when unsettling news would spread and would melt into uncertainty. It began to be common for the driver to see headlights instead of tail lights ahead of him. Youngsters would witness a shine and a blur in their peripheral while fixating on the asphalt and the quick bursts of yellow alternating down the road to the horizon. Why were people going east? The pressure on the accelerator appeared to match the swelling of the abdomen. Westward driving methods shifted the priority from gas consumption to speed. Fathers became race car drivers. They weren’t driving for a lavish trophy or winnings or checkered flags, and the objective was not to beat the cars on the road. They were racing peaches and pears and lettuce and cotton. If I can just get there before the pickin’ starts, maybe we’ll make enough to stay in a nice place. The swelling of the stomach formed passion and drive. Men began to work for the unknown, for what could be, for the face they had not seen. It made every victory more celebrated and every setback more painful. It was the salt that flavored their tasteless meals and the salt in their wounds.

Pregnancy held a great contrast to the uncertainty experienced by the wandering families while seeking work. This segment of their lives had a finite end. It was a process that started and ended and changed the lives of those who acquired it. Those afflicted fantasized that when the end came they would be in a white paneled house in the rolling green hills with money in their pockets. Dreams that a breath of the temperate air would broker their new lives filled the tedious days of traveling but vanished at the California state line. Backs bent over the long rows of lettuce at a faster pace than a few months before and the kettles boiled emptier than they did just a few weeks prior. The money was running low. The picking season ends in five days, how were they going to support another? The traveling man kept his eyes on the road and the working man kept his hat low. It was just another reason to push on.

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