My husband and I are spending the month of June following old Route 66. This past week we traveled through the state of Oklahoma and much of what I saw and read there was enlightening, not only about Okies, but about all of us. Oklahoma is a state that seems to be haunted by the Dust Bowl even now. We all like to live our lives relatively sedately, with little to trouble us, but it seems to me that adversity is the leaven that causes great men to rise. Oklahoma is justly proud of two of their native sons, Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie, both formed by the events of the Great Depression. What made them stand out? Rather than give up they rose above severe economic and social problems. Will Rogers famously predicted in the 1920’s that our economy could not survive the “get rich quick” mentality infecting Wall Street. He said, “Our whole Depression was brought on by gambling, not in the stock market alone but in expanding and borrowing and going in debt, all just to make some money quick.” Will Rogers understood the nature of greed. He once quipped, “You can’t get money without taking it from somebody.” When you travel through Oklahoma you see these towns that were literally strangled to death, not only because the interstate passed them by, but because of the sheer exodus of inhabitants looking for a way to put food on the table.
Woody Guthrie was another Okie formed by the Dust Bowl. He took his anger and turned it into song. He said, “I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think thatyou are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.” And that work didn’t matter, whether you were a shoe shiner or a banker, because during the Depression any work was good work.
I contrast the mentality of these two men and scores of other Dust Bowl Okies who didn’t give up to people like Elliot Rodger, spoiled and wealthy, brought up to believe he was entitled to whatever he wanted. When you have no adversity, when everything is handed to you, you never get the chance to become a better man. You never get to become a hero. Instead you become a victim of “affluenza” where the world owes you every luxury you can imagine and when things don’t go to plan, you pick up a gun and kill because those people were not human beings…they were bodies to be used. The Dust Bowl Okies didn’t believe life owed them anything. When they couldn’t put food on the table they moved to where they hoped they could find work. Steinbeck famously coined the phrase “The Mother Road” for Route 66. It was a road of hope.