Graduating Class

Bakersfield, 1984 © Jeff Ward

One of the things I could never understand about my father was his complete blindness to the idea that there were classes in America. I pressed him on it numerous times over the years. Trying to survive in the 1980s, there were very few options for finding work in California. Most manufacturing was gone, and what was left was mostly backbreaking labor in the oilfields and farms. Or, there were the service type occupations– I ended up in retail management and sales.

It started in home improvement supplies, and ended up selling technology because it was a lot like teaching, or at least I told myself that. It wasn’t about exploiting people for profit, it was about getting people the things they wanted and needed to make their lives better. Making a profit along the way was okay. It was an eye-opener to watch people buying $2,000 cameras as easily as most people might buy a hamburger. One employer actually explained it that way– “When you look at it in terms of a percentage of their annual income, it’s probably about the same.”

My father couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find a good job, which for him was defined as a job with medical insurance and pension benefits. By the time I entered the workforce, these opportunities were mostly gone. I came to terms with a life that meant working at jobs that I could tolerate in order to have some time to do what I really liked, which was making photographs. I never had the drive to start a family that he had, largely because I felt as if it was nearly impossible to provide for myself, let alone anyone else. I became increasingly interested in what might be labeled as “social documentary” photography, which in turn increased my admiration of the Farm Security Administration photographers who were connected to the same vein mined by John Steinbeck, who my father had encouraged me to read.

My family had an interesting, although not unusual, background. They often self-identified as “okies” although they were barely of the Dust Bowl generation. My mother and father had both travelled (separately, they didn’t know each other yet) to work in the California during the Dust Bowl. My mother, as a teenager, cooked for relatives who were working on farms in the Central Valley– she couldn’t take the California sun on her fair skin, so they gave her indoor work. My father traveled with with his father, who found work as a longshoreman near the San Francisco bay.

But they both returned to Oklahoma, where they met about the time my mother graduated high school. The first president that my father voted for was FDR in his third and last term, and he always said he was glad that he could. During World War II, dad attempted to enlist only to find he had a perforated eardrum. My mother was working at a job she hated at a mental institution in Oklahoma City, so as a couple, they left attempting to find work in the north with his brother Kenneth and his girlfriend Nadine. Nadine had a mental breakdown and had to be institutionalized. Kenneth wrecked the car he and my father had bought together, stranding my father in a northern winter. Kenneth joined the military, as did my father’s younger brother Wendell.

When Wendell got out after the war, he settled near Ventura California and wrote telling my dad of work in the oilfields there. So they went back, with my oldest brother David in tow. Mom got a job as a telephone operator, which she held until I was an infant. Dad built the house where my brothers and I grew up.

The street was named Ward Way, because my father was the first person to build a house there. My father liked the location because it was adjacent to a stream bed, and he hauled rocks to build stone walls on the edges of the property, and a large stone fireplace that ran the entire length of the living room. Looking at one of the few photographs I have of it, I can’t help but notice how modest it really was. In memory, these things always loom large.

But it almost wasn’t. My mother told me that it was very difficult for my father to get the owners of the land to sell to him, simply because he was an “okie.” The prejudice of the dust bowl days ran strong. But my father told me that he never really felt like a second-class citizen; he staunchly refused to identify himself as “working class” or to think in terms of high, middle, or lower class. For him, it was simply graduated levels of prosperity rather than any us vs. them class war. I pressed him hard on this, as we talked over the years, largely because I felt so trapped where I was with no real way out of my constant economic distress. Class consciousness as described by Marx, was of no value to my father.

Because he felt no attraction to consumer products, he had no sense of futility  at not being able to purchase them. What he wanted, most of the time he made out of things he found. Looking at that old photograph of my brother and I in front of that old house, I can’t help but notice details like the sheet metal welded to the lamp post, stenciled with the address. He didn’t buy that, he made it. He hauled the rocks that the lamp post is set in; if you look in the car port, there are boards leaning up everywhere. Knowing my father, I suspect that many of them were simply picked up from alongside the road and brought home to see if he could use them for something. He rarely bought things at all; he simply gathered them. When what you want is to make things (rather than buy them) your view of the world is substantially different. You’d have to start the revolution without him.

When he retired, he lucked into some money ($6,000 or so, I think) sewed into a mattress and tucked into the pockets of old clothes at my mother’s eldest sister’s house when she died. She was a woman who had spent most of her life on public assistance, due to taking care of a daughter with Down Syndrome adopted from another sister (another story). She worked ironing clothes and mending things for small change on the side, hiding it from the government lest she be disqualified. Dad didn’t really need the money, so he decided to invest it in the stock market for fun. He thought of the stock market like a slot machine, and hoped he might get lucky. He claims it was luck, but he invested in the stocks of companies similar to the ones he worked for his whole life, so I suspect there was some skill to it.

He did all right. He did well enough to help me go back to school, just before he died. I had just graduated with a master’s degree when he passed, and he left me to manage the money. I took care of my mother after he died; that’s what he wanted me to do. I bought a new home for my brother Steven and a gravestone for his brother Kenneth, which he wouldn’t have wanted. I went on to get through Ph.D. coursework  as he would have wanted me to.

I had a short productive span as a teacher, which I wanted. I managed his legacy pretty well through the crash of 2008, until the great oil crash of 2014 when most of it slipped away. By that time I had come to believe, like my father, that money just didn’t matter that much. “It’s only play money,” he would have said, and in fact did say, as the $6,000 turned into six figures.

What made my father happiest, I think, in the end was helping people as he could and growing good tomatoes. He tended his garden until the end, with little care about what “class” anything was, what money might actually be good for. His biggest splurge was getting several varieties of breakfast cereal from the big box store, and jars of mixed nuts. That’s all he could think of that he wanted.

My father, in his big garden in Summerfield Oklahoma