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Steinbeck Country in 2013

by STACEY WARDE

I met a longtime resident at the local bar the other night who challenged me on just about everything from the moment I walked in.

“You live around here?”

Sure, I said. He introduced me to his wife of 40-plus years, a beauty, stately and queenly.

He told me she’s from a long line of settlers who moved here in the 19th century. She smiled at me, like a queen.

“I’ve met you before,” I told her. “I never forget a face.” And I don’t. I forget names but not faces.

“I don’t think so,” she responded. I grabbed a beer from the bar and sat down beside the couple. The old man gave me a smug up and down. He snorted. The wife sat beaming.

“You met her in here?” he challenged.

Sure, I said. I turned to the wife and told her that I’d seen her in here with another longtime resident that we both knew. The light in her face softened and she remembered coming but not meeting me.

She softened even more when I told her that my family had settled as homesteaders in Laguna Beach around the same time that her family settled here.

“Your family homesteaded?” the old man asked.

Sure, I said. There’s a junior high school in Laguna named after my great-grandmother. I come from a family educators, I told him.

He couldn’t believe it. His wife warmed to me. He turned into a jerk.

“What’s your family name?”

Thurston, I said. It was my great-grandfather’s name. He came by wagon from Utah as a little boy. They were Mormons.

He looked down his nose. “You a Mormon?”

I laughed and he backed off a little.

“You own a house here?”

Well, no, I said.

“What do you do?”

I informed him that I work on a farm and he wanted to know what I did there and did I own a gun?

“You don’t own a gun?”

Well, no, I don’t feel the need for a gun. When I need a gun I’ll get a gun, I told him. I was starting to get irked and so was his wife.

He told me he drove a squad car as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy, liked to shoot his guns and was a member of the American Legion.

“Were you ever in the military?” he asked.

Sure, I said. He wanted to know what branch and I told him that I’d served in the army at Ft. Lewis, Washington, with the second Ranger battalion just after the Vietnam War. Jimmy Carter was president then, the only modern U.S. commander-in-chief who didn’t send his troops into war, I told him.

He snorted. “You a liberal?”

I’m what you a call a liberal libertarian. I tried not to let him pigeonhole me. He seemed perturbed, unable to finger me.

“You were a Ranger?” he said, almost sneering. He was so incredulous that he asked the question five times throughout the remainder of our conversation.

By now it was clear that he’d filled up on too much drink. His true colors came out and he wanted to know where were the blacks when there’s work to do?

And, who’s always first in line for handouts?

“You work with the blacks while you were in the army?”

Sure, I said. I knew where he was going with his drunken questions. I didn’t want to get into another ignorant conversation about racial stereotypes.

Sadly, he’s not the only longtime resident in this area whose family connections go back generations, and who doesn’t seem troubled speaking badly of blacks or Mexicans or liberals.

It’s small town California here, I realize, Steinbeck country, where race relations and welcome committees for the poor once were made through goon squads and hired guns.

Apparently, that smallness of mind since Steinbeck’s time hasn’t gone away. It lingers, and not just among the drunks but among ranchers, land and property owners too, and conservatives who balk at any liberal idea.

A farmer I know here once railed against entitlements for the poor and especially illegal immigrants who were ruining this country. I found out later that he’d received nearly $150,000 in farm subsidies over the years.

I wonder sometimes how people like that can sleep at night.

“Get this man another beer!” the old man waved at the bartender.

No, that’s OK, I said. I’ll drink water.

“You’re going to turn down a beer?” He looked at me as if I was a girly man.

No, I said, and thanked him for the beer. I learned from civil rights activist and Baptist preacher Will Campbell many years ago that it doesn’t do any good to make enemies of your enemy.

I lifted my beer, a Guinness, and took a long pull.

“You were a Ranger?”

Stacey Warde works as a farmhand in the small central coastal California town of Cayucos, gateway to Big Sur and all points John Steinbeck country.

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