A fruit tramp family of the 1930s stayed in many places for short periods of time. We arrived, picked the crop, and moved on. That’s why we were called tramps, nomads, and many other things not nearly as complimentary. Our shelters while picking could be the loft of a barn, a converted hen house, or a small sleeps-two tent. On occasion if you were in an especially nice place, you might have a cabin or a large canvas-covered dwelling with a wooden floor. If we had a place of permanency, it was the car or truck that took us to the next job: we might spend the winter in California or pick apples in Washington State. It was all dictated by the season. Packing and moving was as much a part of our life as picking the crop.
This day started like a typical move. Mom stirred up a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, then after eating, my dad set me on the hood of the car, so I would be out of the way and not wander off while our car was being loaded. I didn’t mind; I was six years old. From there, I had a good view of the camp as the families packed their belongings and pulled out.
My dad and big brother filled the trunk and back seat of our car with boxes and bedding. Everything else we owned was packed into one large canvas roll, tied to the trunk. Moving day for me was a mixture of excitement about going to a new place and sadness about leaving my new best friends. Friendships were quickly made, and by necessity, just as quickly ended. And because packing space was such a premium, it also meant throwing away whatever special toy I’d acquired. Many a gun, sword, or rag doll came from a talented adult or older kid who could whittle or sew. But it had to be left at the wood pile, or tossed in one of the burning barrels placed around the camp. Toys were not a necessity. There was no space for them.
No matter how many places we left, good or bad, I always had a lonesome feeling. An empty camp was sad. But today I was excited; I had heard my dad say that a few families, including ours, planned to stop for the night at the same park where we had stayed overnight on our way to pick this field. That park had swings, slides, things for me to play on.
We drove for a few hours, crammed in with our things. It was mid-afternoon when we finally pulled into the park. Some people from our last camp had already arrived, and a few kids were at the swings and slide while their families prepared for the night. Dad pulled the car into a space close to a picnic table and a brick fire pit. As soon as the car stopped rolling, I was out and headed for the play area.
I wanted to see the families as they entered the park, and since the play area was on a little hill I could see the park entry when I reached the high point of the swing. This way I would know if any of my friends had arrived. I saw an old Nash pull in, and park near our spot. I knew the car; it belonged to a man named Ward who we had become friends with a few camps ago. He paid attention to me, and not in a little kid way. He always talked to me like I understood him, and even if I didn’t understand, I listened hard.
Ward was different in a lot of ways. He didn’t dress for picking crops, and he wasn’t a very good picker. He was slow, and seemed to like talking more than working. This was fine with me because I liked to talk. I liked his stories. Some people didn’t like him, and some farmers wouldn’t let him stay in the camp. They said he was a troublemaker, but Dad liked him, and they often talked and drank coffee after work.
The day was good. The other kids and I spent the afternoon running from swing to slide to teeter-totter, stopping to rest on the grass, then making the cycle again. Soon wood smoke mixed with cooking smells—fried potatoes and boiling coffee—and began to drift over the park. Even the adults were in a relaxed and almost lighthearted mood. The evening meal was close to ready, and later cots and mats would be laid out for sleeping. My brother and I would sleep in the car. Mom would fix a place outside for her and Dad, using blankets and quilts laid out on the grass. It was nice having the whole front seat to myself; there were times when we all had to sleep in the car, if we had to stay close to the road or if it was too cold or wet outside. No one liked that.
This time of day was a transition period, whether in a camp or on the move. People were hailing friends, falling into conversation, asking how the apples were coming in in Washington State. And of course, for the men, politics. Sometimes one of the fathers would have a battery-run radio and everyone would gather around to listen to the news. Politics to me meant that Democrats were all poor but good, and Republicans were all rich but bad, and Roosevelt did good. Because of the life we lived, paying attention to the news at the moment was important. Beyond that, as far as the future and its concerns, they extended only to the next paycheck or the next crop. If it had no direct effect on finding the work to feed your family, then like toys, there just wasn’t room.
Still playing, I wasn’t pleased to see my brother coming.
“Mom wants you!” he snapped. My brother was always cranky when Mom sent him after me, but he seemed more upset than usual. “We got to leave,” he said.
“Leave!” I said. “We’re not supposed to leave until tomorrow. Dad said!” It would be too late to find another place to stay now. Probably we’d have to sleep squished in the car, on the side of the road.
As my brother and I got to our space, I saw three cops standing by their cars at the park entrance. A fourth warily followed my dad and Ward, walking back to our space. Everyone looked nervous. If you were a fruit tramp, cops made you nervous.
Around our space, a group of men had already gathered. Folks often came to my dad or mom for advice. Maybe because Dad had been in business before the Depression and was a little older, and Mom had been a schoolteacher. She had been raised on a farm and had taken care of the animals’ cuts and bruises, so she could bandage people up. Doctors were a luxury far beyond a fruit tramp’s reach.
“They say it’s a city and county ordinance—no overnight camping. We got to leave,” Ward said. He gestured toward the cops and I could tell he was mad, even though he spoke with a controlled calmness.
“This is a hell of a time to be telling us we can’t stay! Families being all set up and everything,” someone said. Others echoed his sentiment.
Another man spoke from the crowd. “How is it we could stay all night a few weeks ago and now we can’t?”
“’Cause the damn crops are picked, that’s why!” the first man responded. “When your crops need picking, it’s, ‘How you folks doing, need a little credit?’” The speaker directed his mocking comment to the officer. “Crops picked, and it’s ‘Now you folks better get on down the road, come back next year when we need you.’ Wouldn’t you say that’s right, Mr. Policeman?”
The officer spoke to the group, his tone careful. “My orders came from the chief, and his orders came from the mayor. It’s nothing personal on my part. I’m just here to do my job.”
“Maybe you ought to find another line of work,” someone said.
“What happens if we don’t go?” someone else said. “There’s more of us than them. What if we just stay?”
The cop didn’t say anything. Finally, with a look of resignation, Ward began to speak.
“You want to know what happens?” He gestured toward the cops. “These officers would leave. They would write their reports, go home.”
Surprisingly, the cop nodded.
“Then,” Ward continued, “as we pulled out in the morning, each on their own, we would suddenly have a broken taillight, an unsafe vehicle. Speed limits would be strictly enforced. And maybe,” he paused, giving the men a stern look, “and just maybe some of you might look like someone on a wanted poster at their station. And with regret you would need to go downtown to clear it up. Just maybe.”
As the men listened, I could tell they didn’t like what they were hearing. But I watched their anger fade to resentment and finally a weary resignation.
“Are there any parks or other places to stay overnight?” my dad asked.
The policeman shook his head. “Not in this county. Maybe in the next one.”
“Can we at least finish our dinners before we leave?” someone asked defiantly.
“Just make sure you’re gone by ten. That’s when the park closes,” the cop said. He turned and went back to the cars and other officers.
“So that’s it?” someone said. “We just run off and do nothing?”
Ward looked back at him kind of hard. “The time to do something is before you pick the crops!”
The crowd gradually dispersed. “We might as well eat before we go,” Dad said, motioning Ward to a seat. Mom had already begun to set out our supper.
Ward waved his hand around the park, shaking his head. “They will moan and complain,” he said, “but they won’t organize.”
“Most of these folks have lost a lot,” Dad said. “And they’re being asked to risk what little they have for a promise?” The two of them had this same conversation a lot. I liked to listen.
The camp had become subdued. Having finished our meal, and packed up our things, we walked to our cars. Ward tousled my hair and said to me, “What’s the answer for the working man?”
“Organize!” I answered, though I didn’t know what that meant.
“Smart boy you got there,” he said.
He shook hands with my dad, said goodbye to my mom and brother, and got into his old Nash. We watched as he pulled out, then got in our car. Even though I was sad to say goodbye, I assumed we’d see him again, at some other camp down the line.
Tonight I’d have to sleep in the cramped back seat with my brother, wherever we parked along the road. But I didn’t mind too much, because Dad said we were going to spend a few days with my aunt. She had five kids for me to play with, and those would be good days. Like today had been, before the police arrived. And then we’d pack up again, and move on.
Jim Guy was born in Nebraska near the end of the Great Depression. When he was three years old, his mother lost her WPA job and the family became migrant farm workers, or as they called them then, fruit tramps. He joined the Air Force at 17 to help support his invalid father, graduated from Golden Gate University in his 30s, and had a long career in Salinas, California as a counselor, teacher, and chemical dependency recovery program director.
Aronne Guy is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.
Photos courtesy of Jim Guy.