Utopia 11: Jerry’s Story
“Your taking those kids into the desert?”
Jack sat on the couch at Jerry’s home, vaguely listening to a debate on TV. They each nursed a cold beer from The Whip. Jerry had started to show up at The Whip and had fallen in with the group Matt had assembled. He even gambled with some of them while Jack turned a blind eye.
But Tuesday nights had become Jack and Jerry’s night. Jerry, who had been the cook of the family, made Jack dinner. Jack, in turn, would bring over a couple of beers for the after dinner, televised debates. To Jack’s surprise their conversations were almost as lively as the debates. Now Jack was telling Jerry about his planned field trip.
“Well yes.” Jack replied, “I thought that the trip would be a memorable one. The two monuments are, of course, an attraction but the energy generation plants and the desert reclamation…”
“Do you think that’s a good idea? The Desert is a harsh mistress.”
“When were you in the Desert?”
There was a pause as Jerry frowned at Jack for a moment. Then he returned to staring at the beer in his hand. He turned the bottle back and forth in his fingers and said, “As a kid. I grew up in Nebraska. We left with everyone else when I was 13.”
“You survived The Long Walk?”
“Chloe too?” Jack asked softly. Jack did not often bring up Chloe.
“No. That was years before I met her. She was born here in California.”
“Did your family farm there?”
“Nah.” he chuckled at the thought, “My dad was a manager of an Ace…a hardware store. We stayed because he loved the town and the people he had grown up with. But as all the people he knew left there was less and less to keep us there.” Jerry brought the beer to his lips and then continued, “My Dad was behind the curve on most things. He kept taking the American dollar right up to the end. Well past when others were just wiping their ass with it. We stayed way past when we should have, too. When we left it was really already too late.”
“What was it like? The Walk? The Desert?”
Jerry looked up at Jack. For a moment Jack felt that Jerry would beg off and decline to share this particular story, but then his eyes focused somewhere past Jack and he began to speak…
Parker Flackus stood in front of the empty house he had grown up in and thought how the dark windows looked like the vacant stare of a man who had just died. Parker sighed and Grace put her arm around his waist. He reflexively wrapped his arm around her shoulders and looked down at her, “I’ll be alright. We’ll make it.” he said to her as much as to comfort himself.
“We always do.” She smiled back up to him.
They had packed their belongings into two back packs for the boys and two garden carts with the Ace labels. The adults would manage those. They had assembled everything in the drive but now Parker paused. The old prairie home stood in a pool of sand that used to be their lawn. The dust swirled about their feet and puffed up clouds as they walked. The car stood in the drive, useless to them without the money for gas, even if you could find a station that would sell it.
“Let’s go.” he said and the two adults each turned to a cart and began to walk. The boys followed, shoving each other over some dispute as they walked.
At first there was no one on their little street. Then as they joined the highway they began to see others. Some of them Jeff and Grant knew from school. The first day had a sense of adventure. The boys chased each other up and down the road and chatted as merrily as any boys starting summer break. As they made it to the right hand lane of the freeway there were herds of people moving west. More people than Jeff had seen together in his whole provincial life. It was not long until Jeff and Grant were walking a few yards in front or in back of their parents to find people their own age and make new friends.
They walked and walked. From sun up to sun set. At night they camped along the road with Jeff and Grant sleeping under one cart and their parents under the other. Food and water were rationed by Grace. Two meals a day and 1 1/2 liter of water a day. They had a very calculated store of supplies in the carts. It wasn’t long before Grant and Jeff did not bother to walk ahead of their parents. Constant walking, hunger and thirst quelled their desire for gossip and temporary friendships.
At exit ramps long side the road small markets had sprung up to hawk their wares. After the first week the Flackus family made their way to one of these enterprises. Jerry was surprised to see his father pull a silver round out of his own cart to pay for the water tanks in the carts to be refilled. Their father had always insisted that the dollar was good currency. Parker received a few coins that Jerry did not recognize in exchange and he treated his family to a sandwich each and a chocolate bar which the boys split. After the week on the road the makeshift market had a carnival-like feel, and Jerry was sorry to leave the stalls and set foot on the on ramp again.
Several days later the family camped along side the road. Grace ate slowly as usual and the men went off to look for more fire wood. The area close to the freeway was picked clean so they had to travel a long way to get anything. Jerry was lucky and had found a few branches quickly. He brought his prize back to camp to show his mother. When he approached the camp he saw his mother putting her dinner back in the supplies. He slowed his approach and watched her quietly until she looked up.
“Dad said we have to eat everything or we will get too weak and won’t be strong enough to walk.” This was a warning Parker had only needed to give the boys on the first few days. After that they were hungry enough to eat cardboard.
“I’m just not that hungry, dear. I’ll eat it tomorrow night.” she said. The after a pause, “There is no need to trouble your father with this. I’ll eat more tomorrow. He has enough to worry about.”
Grace had always been a thin woman. As they days stretched into weeks she became even slimmer. All of them did. But one day in July she was unable to pull the cart and keep up. Parker slowed his pace for a while but finally he said, “Gracey, why don’t you take a break. Jeff, throw your back pack in my cart and help your mother pull the cart for a while.” And so Jeff was promoted to pulling. He was surprised at how much more difficult it was than just walking with the back pack but once he had the cart moving he was able to keep up with his father. After a couple of hours Grace seemed to recover and took over again. That night Jeff paid close attention and when they left to gather wood he lagged behind and then turned back to make sure Grace ate all of her ration. She saw him coming when she still had a plate full of food. He squatted next to her.
“I’ll tell Dad if you don’t finish.” he said softly, staring straight ahead so he could avoid looking in her eyes as he betrayed her trust.
She turned her face toward him and he reluctantly turned to look at her. For the first time on their journey saw her face. Really saw how thin she was. How sunken her eyes were. “I know.” she said.
He sat with her until she finished and then he joined the hunt for wood.
That night they were sleeping under the carts when Jerry woke. His exhausted brain went through a litany of possible places and scenarios that he could be waking up into until it stumbled upon the correct place and time. Then he focused in the dark on a pair of workman’s boots standing by the cart where he slept. These were not Dad’s boots. Who did these belong too? he wondered casually. Then he heard soft scraping noises over his head as things were shifted to and fro.
His father was up and standing in an instant.
“Get out of there.” his father growled.
“I just need some water for my own kids.” the man begged with his hands raised.
Jerry crawled out from under the cart but Grant slept on. Grant could sleep through anything.
His father was facing the man and had a pistol pointed at the thief. Jerry was not even aware until then that his father owned a weapon. His mother was sitting crouched behind his father looking in Jerry’s direction. She signaled him not to move. Jerry froze.
“Out of here. We got no water for thieves.” his father’s voice was deep and full of a rage Jerry had never heard coming from Parker’s lips.
“Yeah. Alright. Just keep it cool. You don’t need to use that thing. I won’t be back.” The man shook his head and slunk back into the dark. His father nearly collapsed back onto the ground and his mother inhaled deeply. His father and mother took turns guarding them that night and for nights to come.
They made it another week without incident and then they were caught in a dust storm. They had, of course, been in dust storms before. But before they had had shelter. Walls and windows to hold out the worst of the pelting sand. Now exposed, the experience was far worse. They had anticipated this, somewhat, and brought goggles and masks to put over their noses and mouths, but even with these it was impossible to walk. They could not see and the sand and small rocks tore at their skin. They finally decided to pull the carts to the side of the road. Parker and Grace worked to create a make shift tent to keep out the sand and the family took refuge for 2 days under the carts. When the storm finally broke the road was covered in small mounds of sand like snow drifts. The walkers continued their trek picking their way among the drifts.
After the storm they all had a cough, but Grace’s cough wracked her whole body and refused to subside.
It was about 3 days later when she couldn’t walk at all and the fevers started. Parker took most of their dwindling supplies out of his cart and put them in hers. Then he gently lay Grace on a sleeping bag in his own cart and shaded her face by draping a blanket over the carts sides. The boys took turns pulling their mother’s cart. They made it another 4 days of slow travel while she shivered and moaned in the back of his cart.
They buried her along side the road, like so many others. They had a ceremony for her as she lay in the newly dug grave. After the ceremony his father paused and Jerry could see that he was struggling with himself about something. Finally, his jaw tensed as he became resolute again. Then Parker Flackus did something that burned itself into Jerry’s brain and stayed at the back of his eyes forever. He knelt at the grave and took his wife’s cold, stiff hand. “Forgive me, Gracey.” he whispered. He took the wedding band and engagement ring she always wore and pocketed them. He gently replaced the hand and stood. Quickly, as though his resolve would vanish if he waited too long, he took the camping shovel they carried and began to fill the grave.
Parker knelt at the grave for well over an hour, weeping and whispering to her. The boys retreated and huddled together a few feet away looking at the outline of his body against the harsh desert sun as the sand swirled about his knees. Finally he stood and parked her cart over the grave. He grabbed the other cart and without a word to his boys joined the crowds on the highway again. The boys dutifully trudged after him.
That whole day none of them spoke. They just walked.
That night the three of them lay huddled under the cart. One of the boys on each side of Parker. Jerry curled close to his father needing the warmth and comfort of an adult body next to him in a way he had not needed in many years and feeling embarrassed to need such a thing. Tears flowed from his eyes and his father looked at him. He hugged Jerry and kissed his forehead. Then Jerry slept.
Over the next few days they walked but spoke very little. Their father was still their father but not their father. He was quite and never smiled. They walked in silence. Ate in near silence. Slept in silence. Parker’s movements were stiff and everything he did seemed mechanical. It was as though their father was turning to stone.
Grace’s illness and the sand storm had forced them to slow their travel. Now, even without her, they were running low on food and water. With the supplies this low, Jerry began to suspect that his father had taken up Grace’s habit of putting back rations but he could not catch him at it. He was bigger and stronger than Grace and maybe he thought he could get away with it.
Two days after the funeral, Parker led his boys down an off ramp to a make shift market. He told them to climb in the cart and he got his gun out and stuck it in his now very loose pants, not trying to hide it at all. They waited until it was their turn in line and then he took out Grace’s wedding band and diamond engagement ring. He regarded them briefly with a long face and then began to barter with one of the owners of the stand. The rings brought 100 gallons of water, half a dozen fresh apples, some grain and some dried meat. The apples would have been a rare treat for Jerry but all food tasted like wood to him. That night they all ate one apple in their accustomed silence.
It was a week later that Parker stumbled while pulling the cart. He recovered but slowed his pace considerably. Jeff caught up to his father quickly and looked up at him. Parker had the top half of his body leaning heavily on the carts U shaped handle while he pushed. His hands were gripping the handle so tightly that his knuckles had paled. He wore a horrible grimace on his ashen face and his teeth were bared. Through his clenched teeth Parker was sucking his breath back and forth faster than he usually did even on an up hill.
Jerry offered to take his turn pulling the cart. His father gave the cart over to Jerry and began to walk along side as Jerry pulled. Even without the cart Parker’s pace was slow and he was making a strange wheezing sound. A few minutes later he put his hand to his chest and stopped in the road. The other travelers moved around the three of them in the zombie like fashion that people had assumed on the road. Jerry stopped the cart to watch his father. Parker bent over and put his hands on his knees. His eyes were squeezed shut and his lips were parted so he could pant. The wheezing noise was louder than ever. Then Parker vomited. Jerry looked on in disgust but that look was replaced by worry when his father fell to one knee and wheezed even louder.
Jerry told Grant to help Dad to the edge of the road and Jerry wheeled the cart behind them. He set the cart on its handle so that there was a little shade for them to sit in. Their father collapsed and lay in the shadow of the cart panting.
He asked for water and Grant got it for him. He told Jerry to get a couple of aspirin out of the first aide kit and Jerry did as he was told. The aspirin helped and their father seemed to improve but he was not able to get up and walk. People on the road passed them by for the rest of the day; carefully averting their eyes so as not to be asked for assistance.
The next morning Parker rose to walk and Jerry pushed the cart. They only made it a mile or so before Parker had to make his way to the side of the road and sit panting and clutching his chest. Over the next few days this scene was repeated again and again. Parker would only make it a few yards before he collapsed, holding his chest, sweating and panting. The wheezing got worse after each attempt.
On the third morning Parker’s body was cold when Jerry woke next to him. Jerry and Grant keened for their father and themselves. People who had camped near them looked round but only one older black man approached them.
Jessy Lane helped the boys bury their father and when the hole was dug and their father laid in it, Jerry looked down and saw the wedding band on his father’s hand. As his father had done he knelt at the side of the grave and took the hand. It was icy cold and dry. His father had indeed turned to stone. Jerry wanted to drop the hand as soon as he touched it, but he forced himself to complete the task. “I’m sorry Dad.” he said and pulled the ring from his father’s skinny finger. It came without resistance. When he stood Jessy was nodding his head, “Your a brave one. You’ll do alright, son.” and then he bent to fill the grave with the tiny camp shovel.
They followed Jessy Lane’s small troop into the West. Jessey knew they were there and occasionally would look back and watch them. Once, near the end of the day when Jerry was tired and could not keep up, he was sure that Jessey purposely slowed his own pace. But Jessey did not dare to invite the boys to join his troop. His wife had argued vehemently against helping them and moved to chase them off if they got too close.
And so it was just Grant and Jerry and one worn out garden cart. Now there was no problem with supplies. They had plenty to make it to California. They just had no idea what to do when they got there…
Jack sat in stunned silence. He wanted to ask how the boys had survived on their own. He wanted to ask where Grant was now and what happened to Jessey Lane, but he could see that his friend was tired. Too tired to continue tonight.
Jerry sat back in his chair and polished off his beer. “Anyway, that was why I don’t like the Desert. Your probably right, though. I mean its not like your asking those kids to take a forced march without enough food or water. Things have changed. There is rail into the Desert now. They’ll get a kick out of it. Just don’t ask me to chaperon this one. There is no force on the Earth that can make me go back into the Desert again.”
The Concepts Behind the Fiction:
1. The Thing about Immigration
I’m sorry this chapter was a little long. I wanted to convey the desperation that immigration due to lack of resources entails.
Much has been made of the immigration issue lately but it never ceases to amaze me how Americans (that is the Americans that reside in the US) can deny their own role in anyone else’s behavior. Immigration is a perfect example. Do you really think that people leave their families, everything they know and come to some place they are strangers, can’t speak the language, for ill pay, and no respect by choice?
To understand the US/Mexico border war, you have to understand corn. That’s right corn.
Corn is what feeds Mexico. Particularly the Mexican poor. For centuries this corn was produced by small farmers on Mexican soil. These farmers never made a great deal of money but they made enough. They made enough to eat and keep a roof over their heads.
The first blow to the Mexican farmer came with NAFTA or the Free Trade Agreement. This was an antiprotectionist, globalization legislation passed by President Clinton. The Free Trade Agreement allowed US corn to be sold in Mexico without a tariff. The problem is that US corn is heavily subsidized through the Farm Bill. So US tax payers pay part of the cost of growing the corn. That means that the US corn can be sold for less than it costs to produce it. It out competed the corn being grown by the Mexican farmer because his corn was not subsidised. That’s right your tax dollars are going to cause starvation and creating the immigration problem. You think that is evil, maybe in some future segment I’ll talk about Haiti.
The Free Trade Agreement and other anti-sovereignty laws have prevented Mexican farmers from feeding themselves. They leave their homes, their families, their world, the place where they understand the language to come to the US with the same desperation as the immigrants from the Dust Bowl who came to California during the Great Depression. The only differences are borders, culture, language and law.
The second nail in the coffin for the Mexican farmer was provided by Ethanol. No, not because it takes corn to make ethanol, because the big oil companies wanted to kill ethanol and they used the market as their weapon. The Mexican farmer was just a casualty of war.
Turns out we can use our excess corn to make fuel. As this started to become clear, and as ethanol became popular, oil producers made a calculated bid to destroy the industry. They out bid small ethanol producers for corn and drove the price of corn up. So as the Mexican farmer was abandoning their land and moving to the US, corn produced in the US started to climb in price. Suddenly all of Mexico was in the midst of a food crisis as people could not outbid the fuel companies for the corn to feed their families. And here is the really weird part. All of this happened when there was an excess of corn. Bushels of corn by the end of the year went unpurchased.
Here is how that worked. Valero, a Texas oil refiner, started to buy corn for ethanol at inflated prices. This drove up the price of corn, all corn even white corn. In turn, just as the Mexican farmer had given up and moved to the US to assume a low paying job, there was a food crisis in Mexico as prices doubled and then quadrupled. As things got more and more desperate nonfarming Mexicans tried to cross the border.
Meanwhile, Valero’s target was also being hit. Fledgling ethanol plants, like VeraSun, had to endure prices that were 4 times what they had anticipated. Four times the cost they had predicted to their share holders. At the same time these oil refiners purchase 99% of the ethanol produced so they could keep the price of ethanol low. Incidentally, during this time they kept the price of gas at the pump high for you and me.
Ethanol producing companies eventually couldn’t make it and went bankrupt. VeraSun is now being bought by the oil refinery, commodities market pirate Valero. In fact 40% of the 200 ethanol plants in America are currently at risk of being acquired by oil giants. To add insult to injury a federal court decided that the contracts that VeraSun had with its farmers do not need to be honored by Valero after acquisition.
Now that the back of the ethanol industry is broken, Valero has backed out of the corn industry and corn prices have fallen precipitously. What is crazy about the whole situation is that people went hungry due to high food prices in a time when no shortage existed. At the end of all of this there were bushels of corn that did not get purchased because they were more than the market needed.
Equally disturbing about the immigration issue (and equally not discussed) is the premise of borders in the first place. Farmers, men and women working for a living, are prevented from going to where the jobs and the work are by border laws based on a right of birth. Capital, the people who own the jobs, are not prevented from taking those jobs across the same border. If tariffs or other penalties are levied against capital for doing just that, then it is called “protectionism“. Who are we protecting? Well the workers from the capitalists. And that is not allowed. In fact it is considered shameful to do so. But should the capitalists need protecting the government and the law are right there. Keeping the poor in one country in one place. Handing out money when the debts get too high.
So why are 60% of the ethanol plants going to stay in business. Because they turned down the classic business model of investors and corporations. They were made of farmer cooperatives. They are doing just fine despite the corn speculation debacle.
Apparently, this fact is so disturbed Chevron Oil they had to work to censor that information in the 1980’s.
The series had been on the air for three segments by then. We had 5000 orders from 3 segments in San Francisco, just in San Francisco. [I’m in Portland] and I get a call saying send our check back to the TV station that had paid for all this. I get back and I see that the remaining segments have the book advertisement taken off the end. The 120 PBS stations that signed up to air the show after its premier in San Francisco were denied the service. They weren’t allowed to have it.
After weeks I finally got through to one of the board members of KQED and he said, ‘Well its really simple, Dave. We get lots of money from Chevron now and they called up Tony the Director and asked, ‘What’s wrong? Don’t like our money?” That’s all it took. One phone call.
If this book had come out in 1983 like it was scheduled to, we would not have been in Gulf War I. We wouldn’t be in Iraq today. We wouldn’t need any of that oil. We just wouldn’t need it. And we would have tens of millions of jobs in the United States in rural areas where they are needed, making fuel for this country.
I got to tell you a quick aside. We have spent $20 billion already in Iraq. We use 160 billion gallons of gasoline a year. It costs $1 a gallon of capacity to build alcohol plants. So for $160 billion we can build all the plant we need to replace all the gasoline, half of what we have already spent in Iraq…
The US military budget is $500 billion a year, that we know about…The world uses 500 billion gallons of gasoline a year. If we just decided to shut down the war machine for one year, and took that money and built alcohol plants in every country, that were producing all the fuel any one would every need, what would there be left to fight about?”–David Blume