Same Road, Same Grim Story, Same Sense of Optimism

The scene along 'Main Street' in Erick, just one of the many run-down communities and ghost towns that line Route 66, from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California. Photograph: David Levene

Same Road, Same Grim Story, Same Sense of Optimism

Seven decades later, the machine grinds on.

It remains as faceless as back in the 1930s when John Steinbeck described the banks which forced Oklahoma's destitute subsistence farmers from their land as institutions made by men but beyond their control.

"The banks were machines and masters all at the same time," explains one of the land owners come to evict tenant farmers in the Grapes of Wrath. "The bank - the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't stay one size... When the monster stops growing, it dies."

The evictions set the fictional Joad family on a trek west to California that was the real experience of hundreds of thousands of Americans escaping drought and the towering clouds of soil carried on the wind across the midwestern dust bowl and from the mass unemployment of the great depression in northern cities.

The road they flooded, Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, later became a symbol of prosperity and the new found freedoms of the rock'n'roll era. But in the 1930s it played host to years of misery as destitute families, some on the brink of starvation, struggled along in search of work.

Then the poor looked to President Franklin Roosevelt as a shield from the excesses of capitalism and his New Deal to alleviate the worst hardship. Today, from Oklahoma to California, there is suspicion and outright hostility with even some of those who arguably have most to gain from liberal policies and social programmes speaking of all government as if it is the enemy.

The Joads began their journey just outside the small Oklahoma town of Sallisaw.

Richard Mayo was 10 years old when Henry Fonda and the cast arrived in 1939 to make the film of the book. He said the townspeople resented the Grapes of Wrath for making Oklahomans appear ill-educated and backward.

"There was a lot of anger at the book, anger toward John Steinbeck: that's not us, that's not the way we are. I don't think the anger subsided until the sixties. But there was a truth to the book.

It was a rough time. Nearly everybody in town was in the same boat.

Nobody had money. The barter system took over. My dad had a state job, a state labour inspector, which helped tide him through. But I can't say there was any distinction from one family to the other. Housing was pretty ramshackle."

Sallisaw today remains ramshackle although without the biting poverty.

Many of its houses are dilapidated with the detritus of family life sitting in the yard - rusting old bicycles, discarded broken toys, collapsed furniture. But there are also hints at the relative prosperity of modern America in which even those who might not be considered affluent have a pickup truck in the drive way and a vast television screen in the living room.

Occasionally an empty property looms up, pasted with notices announcing foreclosure and how to put in a bid. Some can be had for less than PS30,000. Their former owners are long gone, driven out by loss of jobs or a sharp rise in interest rates as the monster sated its thirst for profit.

The recession has compounded a decline that hit Sallisaw over recent years as jobs with manufacturers such as Whirlpool, making refrigerators, bled to Mexico.

Cash is so tight today that there's not enough funds to run the local jail. The town's prison had paid its way by housing the overflow from Oklahoma state jails at about PS20 a head per day but the state government can no longer afford to send them.

The local sheriff, Ron Lockhart, who runs the jail, plans to offset the losses by presenting prisoners with a bill for "services rendered" when they are released. These include charges for medical care if it is for a condition that existed before a prisoner was jailed. The sheriff also plans to cut back on the size of convicts' meals on the grounds that he doesn't want them "thinking this is some fancy hotel".

"There's other cuts," said another life long resident of Sallisaw, Earl Strebeck. "The city won't mow the coloured cemetery. It's got about five feet of grass in it and you can't see the tombstones or anything. I think that's kind of a disgrace. Since the city forced the black people to bury there for so many years I think they should take care of it. After all it hasn't been very long since things changed. It was only a few years ago that the first black person was buried in the white cemetery."

Mayo, like many in Sallisaw, believes that Steinbeck drew on a local bank robber who gained national notoriety, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, in creating the character of Tom Joad.

"The anger people had here was against the banks foreclosing on their property, and in Pretty Boy Floyd that was personified. When he robbed the bank here, people sat back and watched it and thought the banks were getting their comeuppance," said Mayo.

The Grapes of Wrath was denounced by some of its critics as a Red manifesto and ceremonially burned by plantation owners in California who are portrayed as grasping, violent and exploiting the destitute migrant workers.

It is difficult to find the same anger along Route 66 today. The outbursts against President Obama's health care plans filling television screens, with opponents calling him a Nazi and accusing him of planning death committees to do in old people, are to a large degree manufactured by the same people who use similar tactics to oppose abortion.

But from Oklahoma to California, a more common reaction is wariness and distrust in government that extends back long before Obama came to power.

Sallisaw and Oklahoma are littered with legacy of government intervention and money put to work for the good of those at the bottom of the pile. In the early years of Roosevelt's New Deal, more than a 100,000 unemployed men in Oklahoma were put to work with federal government money building hundreds of schools, municipal buildings and parks facilities across the state. The Oklahoma city zoo, local orchestra and arts centre, and boating and hiking trails, all came out of the programme.

Sallisaw got a high school and its first pavements.

Obama too is spending hundreds of millions on modern day programmes to revitalise the economy and provide jobs, including to renew Sallisaw's antiquated water system and double its output in a project that should last 50 years.

"You'd think people would be grateful but people are not grateful,"

said Mayo. "If they don't see instant results they think the government is swindling them. There is great suspicion,"

Strebeck agrees.

"The Republicans in our state make statements like: I hope Obama fails. That's such a stupid statement. If he fails, our country's going to fail," he said. "We are a hot bed of fundamentalism and distrust of the government. We don't like anything about the government. That's the big change."

There are contradictions for sure. People who oppose the president's health reforms nonetheless are grateful for the free medical insurance for children provided by state governments.

Yet away from the perpetually and professionally angry, what shines through on old Route 66 is the American sense of optimism in the face of adversity. Ordinary people who spoke in terms of pulling hard on bootstraps. Mostly it was not without compassion for others in more difficult circumstances but generally the attitude is that everyone is suffering so each must get on with it. And if charity is to be offered, it is better than it comes from the church than the government.

Even many of those who have most to complain about - the poor, ethnic minorities such as Native Americans - often appear stoic and positive, seeing opportunity over obstacles.

But there are still those left out of the equation. The new Okies, as the migrants travelling west were known in the thirties, now come from across the border to the south.

Many of the Mexicans who arrive do so illegally. They are met with hostility, racism and accusations they are fuelling crime and stealing jobs - even if they are in demand to do work that most Americans will not. Just what the Okies heard seven decades ago when Los Angeles sent out the police to turn them back at the California border.

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