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StoryCorps in Oklahoma: To California and Back in a Model A (ENCORE) (Dec 16, 2011)

Oklahoma families escaping the destitution of the Depression fled to California in search of a better life.  Pamela Harjo interviewed her husband's grandfather about his trip straight from the pages of Steinbeck.

Bobby Russell: We were the “Grapes of Wrath” people. If you’ve heard of John Steinbeck, you know the story of the first 13 years of my life. We were true Okies going to California and back.

Pamela Harjo: How long would it take you to get from Oklahoma to California?

BR: Well, it’s according to what kind of transportation you had. There’d be two or three families, if you can believe, in a Model A Ford Pickup. It’d take anywhere from 10 days to two weeks, 15 days to get to California if you were lucky and had a good trip.

PH: My husband tells me a lot about being raised with you guys and especially getting to travel on the truck. We’ve taken our son on the truck to California with you, so I have a lot fond memories of your truck-driving. If I took the kids to California right now, we would stop quite often, and we would also have a place to sleep. But you said there was one town, miles and miles away. So what would you do?

BR: We’d sleep on the side of the road. All of the Okies had two or three mattresses on the Model A. The Model A is a little car now, itty-bitty car, but there’d be two families, three mattresses on top of that thing. It was almost bumper-to-bumper from here to California.

PH: How did you fit two families…?

BH: It’s unbelievable how we sat. The last time we came from California like that there were five adults, five kids, and in the back of the car I lay up behind my mama and Maybelle. I was still little enough to lay up there. It was a sight to behold. I just can’t emphasize how much you need to see that.

PH: More than 5 adults, more than 5 kids, no air-conditioning…

BR: No air conditioning.

PH: many miles an hour would you go?

BR: You’d make 200 miles a day on a really good day.

PH: How fast would cars go?

BR: They’d go faster than that. They’d do 100 miles per hour if you could find a place to do it. But the highways were non-existence. Route 66 was the biggest highway in the United States, but it’s like the smallest blacktop road now.

PH: You mentioned one time it was hard to know if you were going uphill or downhill. Why would that be difficult to know?

BR: The lay of the land and the way the different states are made. There’s a place in California where you can stand flat-footed, lean over, put your nose on the ground standing straight up. Interstate 40 goes around that now, but if you have the nerve, you can still go off-road and see what I’m talking about.

Produced for KGOU by Brian Hardzinski, with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people. The Senior Producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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