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Okies, Cars, and Awl Dayell

Okies, Cars, and Awl Dayell


I don’t get my nickers in a bunch over stuff I find on the internet, but I still check it out casually most days. Which was how, on this Thursday last part of February, I run across a lead article in the New York Times 'bout my old stomping grounds of Oildale. If you was an Okie, you would know immediately where I am talking about. Since you probably aren’t, Oildale (pronounced Awl Dayell) was a really small community tucked against the Kern river right there north of Bakersfield. Nowdays it is way bigger, but you are getting the drift.

This story (with nine photos) was about country singer Merle Haggard, who came from Oklahoma too, and an old railroad boxcar house his dad fixed for the family there in Oildale. Right next to the train tracks. I read, and old long buried memories began to seep to the top of troubled waters.

See Article: From Boxcar to Landmark  (via New York Times)

We made the trip west from Cherokee country in Oklahoma, mattress tied to the top of a ’34 Ford four door. But we came out on the southern route, starting west from Orange, Texas in 1939. That way, we came straight through to San Diego, then gradually worked our way north, my dad and uncle looking for work. I was taught by my dad to always look for work, not just a job. And no work was below me. I’ve kept that as a mantra always.

Which is how we ended up in Bakersfield. Actually, right on up Highway 99 across the Kern River bridge to the second turnoff into Oildale. First thing was to find a dry place to sleep, which turned out to be a roadside cabin right next to the river (it had water in it back then). My aunt, mom, and I quick unloaded the car of our two suitcases, and the men went off looking for work. They were back in two hours, having found jobs as roustabouts at the flying red horse oil refinery west side of Bakersfield.  That horse was a signal for travellers for decades. The cabin cost us 1 dollar a day for the two families, but we couldn’t move in until we had smoked the bed springs. We built a fire in the dirt street and made a moderate bonfire,onto which we piled the bedsprings briefly. That was to kill any bedbugs the former residents may have (probably did have) left.

Then we were off to get some groceries. Which was a potato patch alongside route 99, bout a mile out of town. My uncle pulled the Ford over, got out and asked the nearest field hand where the boss was. The hand straightened up, looked around, and pointed way across the field. My uncle said “thanks”, and hefted a full tow sack of spuds, threw them on the Ford fender, and off we went for home. Shopping was so much quicker them days.

And next day mom signed me up for school. I don’t remember if it was Beardsley or the other school across the tracks, but I eventually went to both. I noticed some strip-downs running up and down the main dirt road, and dad said they were hot rods. Welcome, Tex Smith, to your new world.

I knew that kind of car, but under a different name in Oklahoma. Shortly thereafter, one of our various shirt-tail relatives showed up from Oklahoma. They were Choctaw, and suddenly I had someone I knew for school. That was Buddy Butler, his brother Fred, and way later, Buddy would father a son, Choctaw. I don’t think any of them are still around, but they made Oildale their home for life, mostly.

It was Buddy who introduced me to what would later be called Classic cars. Just great big honkers that drank gasoline and couldn’t hold a candle in the handling department as compared to the more nimble Chevys and Fords. But, Buddy discovered in 1945 that these huge old machines  (Caddy’s and a thing called a Deusey and big old Buicks) were selling used for between 10 and 15 bucks! The trick was to find one with good tires, and hopefully a gas tank nearly full. So, there was a succession of big old cars for budding hoons to tramp around the oil field roads, usually at well above anything considered a speed limit.

The local hot rodders held us in disdain, and for good reason. Our rides, which we could exchange every month or so, handled abomibly and couldn’t catch a jackrabbit on short, curving roads. Then, if we got up to a good rate of travel, we couldn’t negotiate the corners.

What had happened was that during WWII, there were no everyman cars being produced. The big honkers were lurking in sheds where they had been stored  when gasoline got clear up to ll cents a gallon! With no new cars coming out of Detroit in ’44 and ’45, the Classics gave us wheels. That’s where I discovered that a 2-pound sledge worked exactly right as a body hammer.

We would run up the oil lease roads, but the most fun was out on Highway 99. Mostly, you would go over to Bakersfield, just over the river to the Circle (they call them traffic roundabouts here in Australia), keep right and head out toward Minter Field airport. You could always get a race there. And you could almost always get beaten within the first twenty feet. Still, something to do.

They were playing our kind of country music at the Blackboard honky tonk, or out southwest of town was Punkin’ Center. I stayed well away from those places, where getting your knob scobbed was everyday occurance. Day and night. And that is where Merle Haggard and Buck Owens got their shaping up. At that time I did not know Ernie Hashim, who would later own a speed shop in town. Wish I had. And that was long before drag races were held out at the abandoned WWII training airbase named Famosa.

There has been a kind of resurgence in car stuff out of Bakersfield, and it can’t be due to the weather. The San Joquin Valley was/is/maybe will always be very hot in the summer, cold and foggy in the winter, and really a neat place in a roadster when the sun goes down. It has outstanding Mexican food around every corner and up every alley, and what you see is what you get out of life lived there. What you don’t want is Valley Fever.

Yes, Bakersfield, as with so much more of California, was shaped by Okies who were just looking for work. Just trying to survive. And they could certainly hop up a stock automobile. And they were dynamite drivers. A lot of that spirit remains in the San Joquin Valley. Even the ghosts of those big old straight eights can still be heard on a quiet nite. When gasoline is nearly 4 bucks a gallon!

I looked at the photos with that New York Times magazine article about Merle Haggard, and it was like seeing myself in a mirror. Running barefoot up a hot sandy road, or playing in the canal water, or wandering up back alleys near the grocery store, looking for Coke or Pepsi bottles to exchange for the one penny deposit, or remembering where peach trees might have ripe fruit. Yesterday can sometimes be painful, but ever so important. Places like Bakersfield and Awl Dayell see to that.