A sociologist once told me that most stereotypes are based on a kernel of truth, intermittently reinforced. I've often laughed that I was raised with two prejudices - against Catholics and against Okies. Somehow I missed out on racism or anti-Semitism. The Catholic prejudice was due to being raised in a culturally (if not observant) Lutheran family. Then I married a fallen away Catholic and learned that some of my prejudices were accurate reflections of Catholic dogma.
The source of my prejudice against Okies is probably because my mother's generation was raised in small Lower Columbia towns during the Great Depression, and a lot of people driven from the Oklahoma dust bowl by the terrible drought moved west to find work, sometimes in Oregon's mill towns. The prejudice I learned defined Okies this way: stubbornly illiterate people who spoke non-standard English, never got their teeth fixed, and had lots of junk in their yards. When I now think about the historical details, I realize why these characteristics were often true and also quite understandable. Anybody who has read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" has some insight: The folks who left Oklahoma during the Depression were farmers (not a lot of need for book learning), from a border state with inflections of southern speech (therefore the non-standard speech patterns), and were so impoverished that getting their teeth fixed was an unimaginable luxury.
The part about lots of junk in the yard reflects the very fugal ways of people of all sorts who figure, "I might need that, or part of it, someday." In my own family, it was collecting a miscellaneous assortment of ropes of various lengths, just about every board more than three feet long, and boxes (both wood and cardboard) of every shape and size. I have wooden fruit boxes that have been in my dad's family for easily 50 years.
The thing about Okies (or my stereotype of Okies) is that the stuff they choose to keep cannot be crammed into a garden shed or even into a storage unit. They tend to keep cars, tractors, buses, and other very large equipment, all of which is hard to disguise. The rest of us can tidy up our collections of "someday" stuff and keep it from offending our neighbors' sensibilities. The Okie (or similar person) is a precursor thinker, a trend-setter, in seeing something of beauty in an object that's merely 15 years old, whereas the rest of us can't appreciate an old car's merits until it's got at least 40 years under its fan belt. This illustrates the principle that the technology of one age is the art form of the next.
Well, I got my comeuppance about my lack of respect for Okies several years ago. We'd gone camping in a particularly rugged part of Death Valley and were headed to San Luis Obispo. As we approached Bakersfield, Calif., just at sundown on the night before Thanksgiving, our van's electrical system gave up the ghost. We had to be towed to a motel in a light industrial part of town. It looked like we were going to be stranded for a couple days. Luckily, the motel unit had a kitchen and we still had a lot of food left over from our camping trip because there wasn't even a Taco Time as far as the eye could see. If you've never taken a close look at Bakersfield, you need to know that one of our California buddies refers to it as the "armpit" of the San Joaquin Valley. It's hot in the summer, cold in the winter, full of strip development and, you guessed it, Okies.
I awoke Thanksgiving morning determined to comb the yellow pages for help. Indeed, there was a 24/7 mobile auto repair service and the guy agreed to show up in 45 minutes. While he charged our battery and advised us not to use our headlights, he also told us his personal story. Raised in Oklahoma, he'd spent most of his life as a long-haul trucker, then moved to Bakersfield with his family and started his mobile repair business. Talk about shade-tree mechanic, he didn't even have a tree. But friendly, helpful, reasonably priced, the man from Oklahoma, a true Okie, had bailed us out of a jam.
Nowadays, my husband wisecracks "must be Okies" whenever he sees a household with lots of old cars and other rigs around, but then he also adds, "But you know, Okies can fix just about anything. They had to."
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer from Ilwaco, where some of us Okies are actually Finns.