Migrant still remembers ill treatment he received

09/15/2008 1:18 AM

09/15/2008 1:19 AM

The names of some places are enough to choke up Clyne Keener of Oakdale. His childhood travels to California from Oklahoma were rough, lonely and, at times, a lesson in the hatefulness of humanity.

Keener, 77, was born in 1931 in Kinney, Okla., smack in the middle of a state in the middle of a time that ensured he'd be branded an "Okie."

A curious kid who loved to learn, Keener hated school because he was always was the new kid. That meant having to prove himself in an environment in which he was an outcast.

"The only rule was we couldn't fight on the school grounds," he said one dry summer afternoon hunkered over black-and-white photos. "But I had more problems with adults than kids."

Keener attended 17 schools -- some more than once -- because his family was constantly on the move, following the crops and the work they provided. And every school is a story, a lesson tucked in Keener's spry memory.

Okie, a generic term for the people who came to California during the Dust Bowl era, was used by some longtime Californians to disparage the newcomers.

Keener and other migrant children were subjected to that, and worse, by their peers and more often by adults.

"I probably got a whipping every 10 days," he said of a school in Shafter, in Kern County. Keener recalls one day when a teacher swatted every boy in class with a wooden paddle with holes drilled in it.

"We had to bend over and grab our ankles. Afterward, I ran to the bathroom and ripped down my pants, it hurt so bad," he said.

In San Bernardino, Keener watched a bus driver smack a child down the steps of the bus and up against the bus door. The boy stayed there until the bus stopped and he could crawl out.

"I feared teachers more than any bully," he said. "If I was up against another kid, it was normally a pretty good match."

Keener is too young to remember the drought and fine dust that stifled his home state, but he shares with keen recollection the migrant lifestyle the Dust Bowl fostered.

"We were like gypsies. There was no intention of settling down," he said of the way his father packed the Model A when he got a hankerin' for fresher fields to pick.

With no ties to land or community, Keener was like the dust that defined the time, sweeping in and out of towns.

He was no one from no where who had nothing.

"I was so hungry to be noticed by somebody," he said thinking back to his teenage years.

He once had such a painful crush on a girl, he gave up his hard-won position driving a truck through fields collecting sacks of potatoes to do tougher work just to be closer to her.

He volunteered to be a swamper, a man who hoisted sacks of potatoes onto trucks. He hoped displaying his strength would be enough to get the girl's attention.

He was so exhausted after a few rows he started to hope she wasn't noticing.

Keener was determined to finish what he started. At the end of the day, he sat down and folded himself up, with his chest against his legs and his head hanging over his knees. He tucked his head beneath his crossed arms and imagined himself invisible.

The potato sacks rubbed Keener's knuckles raw. Blood and dirt were caked into his hands.

The girl, whose name Keener can no longer recall, walked over to him. She took his hands in hers and cleaned them with cool water and a washcloth.

"We didn't say anything. I couldn't speak. She was like an angel," Keener said.

He never saw the girl again. It was her family's last day in the field.

As they drove away, the girl turned to look out the back window and waved to Keener.

All these years later, it's the one place Keener remembers with a smile.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at ehightower@modbee.com or 578-2382.

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