Promise of the Road

The Story of a Rich Poor Family

Chapter 8

By Jacklyn Landis

Pauline felt terrible guilt pains when she climbed the windmill tower —as Mama and Daddy had strictly forbidden it. She prayed about the temptation to no avail, knowing full well that it was a devious sin of the worst kind.

Why do I do it? Even waiting until their car goes down the lane to the Yoder’s and making sure June is well engrossed in one of her books? ‘Course, Dale isn’t a problem… shoot, he begs to do it too! I hate makin’ him stay on the ground, but it would be way too dangerous for him.

Leastways, I only do it when the pump is shut down. Wouldn’t take the risk of gettin’ knocked to the ground with one of those blades— flattened like a buckwheat pancake.

I’m lucky I have so much to snitch on Dale—that—he’d never dare tattle on me. Delbert just hollers, “Dad-burn you Pauline, get the hell down from there!” ‘Course, he’d only say “hell” when Mama and Daddy aren’t around. It is worth it to have to do his chores for a whole week just to keep him from tellin’?

I simply couldn’t bear it if Daddy found out I did somethin’ behind their backs. Yet up on that platform, I can see for miles. I can see clear to the edge of town, and I can see when Mama and Daddy head home from the Yoder’s.

As an added precaution, cupping her hands around her mouth, she hollered down at Dale, who sat pouting with his knees tucked under his chin. “Dale, if you don’t tell, I’ll take you to the creek tomorrow.”

He perked up, and cupping his hands around his mouth, hollered back up, “Okaaay.”

* * * * *

Late the next afternoon Mama, Pauline, and Dale, walked home from the field after finishing their work early. Pauline ran up ahead to catch up with Dale. “Hey, ya wanna go to the creek when we get home?”

“Ah, Pauline, ya remembered.”

“Yep, I’m jest like Daddy that-away. I always keep my word.”

The two sat on a boulder, dangling their bare feet in the calmly flowing creek. Dale looked over at Pauline, his eyes large and bright. “So, whatcha wanna do, Pauline?”

“I’ve been a rackin’ my brain, Dale, and I think we should study.”

“Study? Are ya feelin’ alright, Pauline? Study what?”

“Study frog life. It won’t be easy ‘cause we’ll have ta haul rocks, and they’ll have ta fit together jest so. We’ll make us a frog pen. It’ll be on the shore. We can’t take them away from what they’re used to… why, they’d jest die. We’ll have to figure out a way to keep them from jumping out, too. It’ll be kinda like our bird traps… we’ll study them… then we’ll set them free.”

“Pauline, what about weaving some sticks in between the rocks, maybe that’ll keep them in?”

“Might be worth a try, Dale. If not, I’m sure an idea will come to us once we set our minds to it.”

Hours passed before the last stone was in place and the sought after frogs were within the boundaries of their pen. Pauline and Dale, covered with mud, lay down in the creek, clothes and all. Hands pushing against the rocky bed, they allowed their legs to float freely in the current. Swishing from side to side, Pauline’s dress reminded her of fins. She smiled a satisfied smile.

Pauline and Dale wrung their clothes tightly until it felt as if their skin would be pinched in the knot. Tying shoelaces together, they each draped their shoes over one shoulder and started up a deer trail to the house. Taking the lead, winding her way past bushes and saplings threatening to overtake the path, Pauline uttered in a matter-of-fact way, ”I’m as hungry as a bear comin’ out of hibernation.”

“Ah, Pauline, how in the heck would ya know anything ‘bout bears, you ain’t never even seen one?”

“Um… maybe… maybe not? Ya know… there are bears right here in the woodlands of Oshkosh, don’t ya?”

“Naw, you’re full of baloney.”

“There are all kinda wild animals here in Oshkosh—killer bears, mountain lions, rattlers, vampire bats. Yep, its mighty dangerous country we’re a-livin’ in.”

Noticing Dale’s Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, and his right eye beginning to twitch, Pauline straightened her shoulders and lifted her knees higher, marching the rest of the way home in silence.

Emerging from the woods, the glow of the sunset shone on Pauline’s face, bringing about the familiar stinging of another dreaded sunburn. I hope Mama won’t be cross with me for forgetting my bonnet. If she is, it will ruin everything.

Pauline headed toward the supper table, trying to avoid the once over from Mama. She nudged Dale. “Hey, whatcha doin’, Pauline, don’t be shoving me around!” Then he seemed to realize that they would be better off causing as little commotion as possible. He quietly shuffled along behind his sister.

*****

Before daylight the next morning, Pauline awakened to the sound of thunder and raindrops dripping through the roof and bouncing off the wood floor like pellets from a Red Rider BB Gun. So much for our sod roof, she thought.

“Pssst… Dale, wake up. The creek must have turned into raging rapids by now. Its prob’bly flowed over the bank.”

Pauline glanced at Dale who leaped out of his bed, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.  “Pauline, we gotta go, we gotta save em.  What if they’re trapped and can’t get out? We can’t let em die, jest cause you wanted to do a stupid ol’ study.”

Pauline inched away from the soaked corner of her bedroll.  “Dale, the frogs are gone… doin’ what God created them to do. That dad-burned flimsy, frog pen we made ain’t no way gonna hold up to the current of a creek swollen from the rain. The frogs are free now—jest like our birds, huh, Dale? It’s the way it’s s’ppose to be.”

Pauline turned her back on Dale and walked away—shoulders slumped and head hanging.

Despite Dale’s sniveling, Pauline overheard a faint, “Sorry, Pauline.”

* * * * *

Perhaps the forewarning should have been the angry, tumbling, black and gray clouds that gave the fields a mystical look on that dreadful day.

Only the sound of machete’s snapping off beet stems broke the silence of the bent over troop; when Delbert let loose a nightmarish shriek.

Heavily clotted rows of earth seemed like barriers separating the family from Delbert. They stumbled across the rows with arms flailing, Pauline, and Dale, the first to arrive seemed frozen in time as they gawked at the gaping gash revealing the bone of Delbert’s profusely bleeding finger. It was Daddy who broke the spell.

He quickly pulled off his shirt and applied pressure on the wound, attempting to reunite the two pieces of dangling flesh. Then Daddy and Delbert took nearly identical strides as, arm in arm, they headed toward the Yoder’s house, leaving a trail of blood behind them.

Mrs. Yoder must have seen the troop crossing the field as if announced by the thunder that rumbled all around them. Pauline looked up at the sky. Please God, not now. Mrs. Yoder held the door open, her face aged with concern. Noticing the blood-soaked cloth covering Delbert’s finger she sprang into action, responding to each of Daddy’s requests.

“I need clean, white cloth, boiled water, a needle, thread and some whiskey.”

“I have all of that,” she said as she carried a kettle of water to the stove while bent on controlling her trembling hands.

Daddy motioned for everyone to hold Delbert down as he dowsed his open wound with the whiskey. Delbert’s face distorted. He howled like a wounded animal. Huge beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead as he clenched his teeth together hard. Daddy stitched his finger together with the grace of a seamstress. He then wrapped it with strips of clean white cloth

Mrs. Yoder expelled a sigh of relief while stating firmly, “I think you all need to take the rest of the day off.” Pauline’s mouth dropped open. Is she an angel who fell from heaven?

The slamming of the back door seemed to echo off the walls of the small kitchen. Mr. Yoder stood tall, peering down at the bloody mess. “Appears there’s been an accident. I’m sorry about that, but there will be no days off. Ester, you know we’re on a schedule. I’ll drive Delbert home, and the rest of you can get back to work.”

Anger swept over Pauline as the family watched Mr. Yoder drive off with Delbert. I hate Mr. Yoder. Daddy is the head of this family. I hate the way Mama and Daddy look now—shoulders drooping—heads hanging. She trailed behind the rest as they made their way back to the fields. I wish I hadn’t teased Delbert ‘bout growing whiskers this morning.

As if Daddy were reading Pauline’s mind, he stopped at the edge of the field to put his arm around Mama’s shoulders, then spoke in a voice loud enough for the rest to hear. “Don’t worry. I fixed him up real good. He’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time.”

* * * * *

Summer passed quickly, and the winding down of harvest season found the Sampley’s spending long nights around the kitchen table doing schoolwork. Pauline had rejoiced at the thought of no school for a year, but had hoped that meant no school at all. Whining and complaining were useless, and only seemed to make Mama more strong-willed.

Each night, before Bible and bed, Daddy played his harmonica with the unspoken expectation that the others would join in somehow. The clan drank in the soulful sounds until they could no longer help themselves and were compelled to sing along, attempting to harmonize or accompany Daddy by clicking the backs of two spoons together, or stroking Mama’s washboard.   

Weekly, Daddy assigned someone the enviable task of counting the savings. Often, this was a time for sharing California dreams. Daddy wished for a job with a regular paycheck. Mama wished for a home with a big front porch, and a flower and vegetable garden. June wished to live near a library and graduate from high school.

Pauline wished that the family would always be together. At this, Daddy reached over and patted her leg. Then she rather reluctantly added, “And I wanna graduate from high school, too, so I can wear the Lavaliere.” Dale wished for a brand new pair of boy’s shoes. The room filled with contagious laughter that came to an abrupt halt when Delbert shared his wish. “I dream of joining the Civilian Conservation Corps. I heard about it from some of the fellas at school.”

From the look of dismay on the faces of Pauline, June, and Dale, he might just as well have said he was planning to jump over the Grand Canyon. An uncomfortable silence filled the room.

Pauline counted the bills and the change under a huddle of peering eyes. “Fifty-Two, Fifty-Three, and Fifty-Four.” Yes, it was enough. It was enough!

With hesitation, she asked what had been praying on her mind since Delbert first spoke of it, “What the devil is Civilian Conservation Corps?”

Pauline barely got the words out of her mouth when Mama replied, “Its often called CCC. It’s a project President Roosevelt created for taking care of the people and the land. It gives boys between the ages of 17 and 28 a chance to work so they can send money home. They plant trees, fight fires, build dams, and maintain and improve the national parks.

The thought of Pauline’s hot-tempered, red-faced brother fighting fires seemed to paralyze her. She heard the rest of Mama’s definition through a fog of racing thoughts.

Obviously ignoring Delbert’s dream, Mama continued, “Yes, Pauline, the President saw the farmers greedily stripping the land, leaving nothing but a dust bowl behind. He saw people going hungry. It’s a practical solution! Just like your Daddy said—we can’t just take from the land—we need to give back too.”

Daddy’s eyes welled up with tears. “You’re very bright, son. You figured out what your Ma and I knew all along—until we get settled it’s going to be darn tight survivin’ in California. Your dream is a good dream, son.

Delbert’s voice sounded a couple of octaves deeper that usual. “Sampleys, I not only want to join the CCC—I need to join. I’ll be able to save $25 a month. We all know that money could either make or break us.”

Delbert gave a quick glance toward Mama, who now sat with her head down and shoulders drooping. He gently walked to her side, pulling her close. “Now, Mama, it’s only for six months and then we’ll all be together again out in Californy. Now that the end of harvest season is in sight, you and Daddy can just drop me off at an enlistment site. Gotta be one somewhars nearby.” Mama didn’t say a word.

In the quiet before bedtime, Mama read the Bible to her rag-doll family who seemed cleansed by the ambiance of the night. Jeremiah 29:11. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

Morning found the Sampley’s saying a tearful goodbye while hugging Mrs. Yoder and dutifully shaking hands with Mr. Yoder. Accompanied by Mama’s prayers, they were on their way to California. The beet fields were nothing but a black sea now, dotted with caps of white snow.

Growing up in Los Angeles County, Jacklyn Landis didn’t question where her family came from.

But, as an adult spending time with her Aunt Pauline, she heard many stories that spurred her curiosity and that she later incorporated into her historical fiction book, “Promise of the Road,” now available on Amazon.

Landis’ grandparents, Jack and Fay Sampley, along with their children – Delbert, June, Pauline and Dale – left their hardscrabble farming life in the Texas Panhandle during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and traveled across the country for a better life in California.

The original thought was to make it a children’s book. “I was working with fifth-graders studying the Dust Bowl and the Depression,” Jacklyn says. “I was in libraries trying to find books that children could understand and would make it come to life for them. There wasn’t much available. And I also wanted it to be something for our family.”

It’s a story that is not unlike John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” But while Steinbeck wrote fiction, the Sampley family actually lived through the adventures and hardships.

They picked crops, worked on ranches and labored in mines. Jack worked with the Works Progress Administration program and Delbert did a stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps – both projects part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal designed to employ American men on public works developments.

At times on the road, they slept in fields or beside their dilapidated Oakland car on their cross-country trek.

It took Jacklyn 20 years to turn the book into a reality. She had encouragement along the way. Her professor at Long Ridge Writer’s School commented on a chapter of the book, “Just stay with this, we’re not going to do any other assignments.” And she entered several chapters in the Midwest writers’ conference competition and won second prize for most promising novel. Her late husband, Gerald, was a source of support too with his constant reminder, “Jackie, this story needs to be told!”

Earlier this year, in the midst of the pandemic, Jacklyn married Dave Pierce is a virtual ceremony in The Villages, Florida. Read their story HERE 

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