RIP Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard, old Okie from Muskogee, passed away on Wednesday, April 6—on his 79th birthday. It brought back old memories.

For three summers when I was at Stanford in the late 1950s and majoring in geology, I lived in Bakersfield and worked as a roustabout in the oil fields west of town at Coles Levee, an old Richfield oilfield that helped get the U.S. through World War II. Even though it was drilled like mad with essentially no environmental controls, it later became a major ecosystem preserve. The San Joaquin Valley oil got America through the war when civilian use was rationed at three gallons a week. 

Most of the folks working in the fields were either Okies or their sons or grandsons, and every summer they would be joined by an influx of college kids. Many of us stayed at Ma Kanawyer's boarding house on a quiet side street in town. The Okies loved nothing better than making sport of college kids. When one would drive a group of us and some shovels out into the brush and tell us to dig a trench following a line of yellow ribbons from here off into the distance and then go sit in the shade for our lunch break, someone would always look around the barren flats with nothing but scattered brush and weeds and not a tree to be seen, and ask: “Where’s the shade?” To be met with: “You're the smart college boys. Go find it.”

But I heard a lot of good music in those Bakersfield days.