For this week’s blog, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share and comment on a radio story
I heard recently on American Public Media. It embodies the stories told in Steinbeck’s great American novel, The Grapes of Wrath,
and addresses everything that we have talked about in class thus far, but with the benefit of first-hand knowledge.
Phil Tobin was six years old when he, his father and uncle left Maine to find work out west. When the local sardine canneries closed and, soon after, his father’s grocery store as well, they had no choice but to head for California. Along the way they painted mailboxes for ¢25. Tobin’s job as a six-year-old was painting the flag on the mailbox red. He says that things were going pretty well for him, his father and uncle, until they hit Oklahoma – nobody wanted their mailboxes painted in Oklahoma. They lived out of their Bouncin’ Bessie, as he refers to it, and he got to stretch out in the rumble seat. But when they reached Oklahoma, he remembers going hungry for days, stealing food and gas, and the way they were treated. They themselves were the vagabonds and bums.
It was when they reached Indio, California that they found work picking cotton, and it was here that he met his friend John. John would stand at the ends of the cotton rows and talk to the workers. Tobin considered John a friend, stating that he and his father and uncle were running scared, not knowing who to trust. But everyone trusted John. They visited him often in his tar-paper shack [see photo], which to Tobin is luxurious since everyone else he knows sleeps outdoors or in and under their cars. It was because he considered John a friend that he noticed one day when he wasn’t there.
“He wasn’t in the cotton fields picking and I said to my dad, I said, where’s John? Is he sick? And he said, well no, he’s writing. And I said, what does that mean? And he said, well he’s a writer. And I had never heard the word writer before and I said well, what’s a writer dad? And he said, well a writer is a man that tells stories. It hit me right then and there. I thought how in goodness is John gonna make it if John doesn’t pick cotton and he just tells stories?”
Yes, the friendly John in the cotton fields was John Steinbeck, the great American writer.
Tobin didn’t find out about this until much later however, since he didn’t learn to read until he taught himself whilst stationed in Korea during the war. Later, his cousin, a professor and also a Tobin, is tutoring him so that he can go to college and he gives Tobin The Grapes of Wrath
to read [this all makes more sense if you listen to the story]. Tobin tries to read the book, but after reading the first few pages, he just can’t. He is reminded of those hard times and doesn’t want to revisit them. While flipping through the pages though, he spots his name, Tobin [pg. 429]. He mentions this to his cousin, who replies, “yes I asked John about this [long story short, turns out he knew Steinbeck] and John said that he met two men and a child from Maine named Tobin.
As it happens, the Phil Tobin we hear in this story today, at age 78, is the Tobin in the story The Grapes of Wrath
. He, his father and uncle picked cotton, oranges, plums, hops, pears, potatoes, and then apples in Walla Walla, Washington, where my own grandfather lived from 1916 until the 1940s. It makes me wonder who else we might know that were incorporated into stories during these times. It could be my family, it could be yours, and how would they feel about it? Having this time in their lives put on display for the world to see as “the harsh reality”. Tobin came to terms with it and used it as a means of teaching his children and grandchildren about this time in his life, but how do others feel about their trials and tribulations being put on display? And do they even know about it?