When I was sixteen, Father and three of his friends bought a huge swath of Willamette River bottomland, and we became, overnight, the largest asparagus growers in the Pacific Northwest. Come summer I worked alongside the Mexican laborers who lived in the migrant camp. I was fascinated by their culture, which was unlike anything I’d known growing up in white-bread Polk County, Oregon. The ranch also finally gave me a topic for conversation with my distant father, though when we discussed the workers’ living conditions and wages, we could rarely agree. We regarded each other with suspicion.
I read The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s novel about Depression-era migrant laborers, and began spending every spare moment at the ranch, even on my days off, engaged in long conversations with workers at the cantina.
“What in the hell do you do down there?” Father asked. “You don’t want to turn into some kind of idiot do-gooder.”
Father was a crackerjack trial lawyer whose good looks and ready wit charmed juries, but I took offense at the nature of his law practice, which consisted of defending big insurance companies against the claims of the little guy — sometimes the paralyzed-for-life little guy.
“He jokes about it, for God’s sake,” I whispered to my three younger siblings as we huddled together on the landing of the stairs, eavesdropping on our parents’ conversations. I could never figure out whether he truly believed that justice belonged only to the rich and powerful, or whether he was simply absorbed by the cut and thrust of making money. For him the world was populated by three classes of people: idiots, morons, and nincompoops. Years ago I asked my sister Julia to help me sort out the distinctions.
“Well,” she said, “idiots were all the other people in the legal profession; morons, I suppose, would be their clients; and everybody else was a nincompoop. But you’re forgetting one more category: doctors, psychiatrists, and the police were complete nincompoops.”
Father’s busy law practice took lavish care of our financial needs, and to him that fulfilled his obligations as a parent. He seemed at best mildly amused by his children; mostly he was indifferent. In our large country house, we kids led lives separate from his. My siblings and I were fed at 6 P.M., with paper napkins and stainless-steel flatware laid directly on the chrome-rimmed kitchen table. Our parents’ meal, two or three cocktails later, took place in the dining room on linen, their voices muffled by carpets and drapes. By that time, we had already been dispatched to our rooms upstairs.
I don’t think our father ever saw those rooms in which we lived: neither my brother’s nautical-themed wallpaper nor the pink-and-white-striped curtains of the girls’ room on the sunny side of the house. Mother, of course, was no stranger to our quarters. She arrived each Saturday morning for cleaning inspection, and every five years or so she would undertake a major project in our midst, such as painting our bathroom or wallpapering the hall.
Only once do I remember Father ascending the stairs: One December in the fifties, after considerable begging, we children were allowed to put up and decorate our own Christmas tree. We incorporated all the ornaments that didn’t fit the gold-and-white motif of the downstairs tree, along with those we’d mended, and paper chains we’d made at school. When the last ornament was in place and the nubby branches were hung with twisted silver garlands, I plugged in the string of colored lights, and the four of us stood in silent admiration, inhaling the perfume of Douglas fir. Proud of our work, we persuaded Father to view it. He trudged up the carpeted stairway as far as the landing, two steps below our floor. “Pretty fancy,” he said, and then he glanced at his burning cigarette, which clocked his moments away from the downstairs ashtrays.
At age forty-nine, Father succumbed to a heart condition that no one had known he had. His snap judgments, so appalling to me as a child, now strike me as amusing. Two stories in particular reveal another side of him, a side I wish I’d understood better before he died.
The summer I was eighteen, I managed the asparagus-packing plant. There were about a dozen workers: eight women at the two conveyor belts, sorting and grading; two men in the back, loading the belts from the big field tubs; a man who hauled the freshly packed crates into the cooler, where they awaited the refrigerator trucks; and me. My job was to keep an eye on everything, make sure the grading was done correctly, and shut down the machinery for breaks.
One day a worker named Jesús didn’t show. The others told me he was in jail. Jesús was such a shy and serious young man, I could hardly believe it. All the same, Maria insisted he’d been picked up for public drunkenness by the police in Independence, the first little town you came to after leaving the west end of the ranch. This was even harder to believe, because Jesús didn’t drink.
I did something uncharacteristic: I phoned Father’s office. “All right, all right,” he kept saying as I embellished the facts of the case with my opinions of rural small towns and racist cops everywhere. He said he’d look into it and hung up. I shrugged at Maria and gave the signal for the big belts to be started up again. We took our places, and the first few pounds of asparagus began flowing down the line.
Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, Jesús appeared. He had been released (he was not sure why) and had walked the three miles back to the camp. He had also put on his good white shirt, normally reserved for Mass or a dance, a garment that might lift him above his humiliation.
Later Father drove down to the asparagus plant in his big silver car and told us the rest of the story: The Independence police had recently discovered a new source of revenue — picking up Mexican farmhands on a trumped-up charge of drunk and disorderly behavior and holding them, pending sixty dollars bail. In 1962 this was a steep figure; by contrast, nearby Salem charged just five dollars bail for a similar offense.
With a cocky grin, Father assured me it would never happen again. He had made a phone call to the head of the Independence city council with this message: if the charges against Jesús were not dropped, Father would put a lock on the gate at the west end of our ranch, and seven hundred workers would be forced to drive six miles to Salem to do their shopping. To a town of two thousand, like Independence, the money those seven hundred people spent at the grocery, clothing, and hardware stores was significant. Father hadn’t even bothered to phone the police station to make sure they got the message; it would have been unnecessary and inelegant.
The story spread quickly among the workers on our ranch, and from that day forward, Father became in earnest what they’d always called him: el Patrón.
When Father died two years later, in early July, I was enrolled in summer classes at a nearby college, and I would drive past the shack of a man named Dave Burrell on my way to and from school. Dave was one of only two black people in Independence. I knew him from Father’s ranch, where Dave had operated the ramshackle cantina, serving tamales, bacon and eggs, hot sandwiches, and soft drinks. He had learned to make tamales in Mississippi before the war, and they were popular with the Mexican women, who bought them by the dozen to feed their families.
That summer I began stopping off to visit Dave, who was then in his fifties and still making tamales, which he sold on the streets of Independence from a handcart. His shack always smelled of cayenne and slow-cooked beef. Many times I begged Dave to teach me the recipe, but he said it was top-secret. On tamale days he would pull a flowered curtain across the kitchen doorway, and when he went to check the big pots on the wood stove, he made sure the curtain fell closed behind him.
We’d sit on his porch in the two rockers and smoke cigarettes and not say much. We both smoked Camels. (Dave always kept track of which pack was his by opening them on the wrong end, a trick he’d learned during the Depression.) He’d play some old blues record on his phonograph so we could hear the music through the screen door, or we’d listen to recordings of Redd Foxx’s racy nightclub routines. Something about those afternoons — the lazy houseflies, the creaking rockers, the field of red clover across the tracks — was a consolation to me after Father’s death.
Dave had known Father, of course, but only once did we talk about him.
“Few years back I was working johnny sweep at the HiHo Tavern,” Dave told me, “and there was this one white woman there, worked as a waitress.” She had taken up with Dave, who told me about their relationship with the sort of sexual innuendo that Redd Foxx used.
“When people found out about it, some men come to see me one night. They told me I had exactly one day to leave town.”
Dave said he’d called my father. “Mr. Parker took care of it,” Dave told me, rocking and nodding. “He was a fine man, Mr. Parker.”
I laughed in disbelief, but Dave was serious.
“A fine man and a good friend,” he insisted.
“So how did he take care of it?” I asked.
“Who the hell were those bastards, anyway?” I asked, jerking a Camel from one of the packs on the orange crate between us.
“You’d be surprised who they was,” Dave said, glancing to see whose pack I was smoking.
“The town council and the police, I suppose.”
Dave rocked and hummed a little, but he didn’t answer.
“Those damn nincompoops!” I said.
“Yes,” Dave said, “they’s complete nincompoops.”