For the longest time,
As a youth, trying to put
Meaning to words, I thought
The adults were saying fireball,
When they were actually referring to a place,
Not the burning sun in the afternoon sky
That scorched the cotton-leaves
made them fall to dry ground.
My mother told how she was envious
Of the fine living conditions
At the Firebaugh Farm Labor Camp,
Where her grandparents lived.
And a few uncles too, tenants
All seasoned cotton-pickers
And irrigators from years
Share-cropping in Central Texas.
The tiny cabin had plumbing,
Was neat and orderly,
The cleanest
Among forty-eight others,
Said the Welfare lady
When she came around.
Mom’s folks made the trip from Pawnee
In a pick-up truck with a tent and mattress,
Camping along the roadside.
A visit to the tarnished-idea of the West
To find her grandparents, uncles,
Maybe see the ocean too.
Secretly, my 8-year old mother
did not want to return
to the two-room apartment
With outdoor plumbing
Behind the store in Swan Lake.
One uncle never left Firebaugh
Except to drive home to his little house
On the outskirts of Madera,
After a ten-hour shift on a crawling-tractor
Planting a quarter-section in the west.
Uncle Ray, back in Pawnee used to say,
All the good Okies stayed behind.
My sister and I were in the backseat
Of the black 1951 Ford sedan,
When mother, five-months pregnant
With our brother Charles,
Drove out west to Firebaugh
One overcast morning in 1954,
To bring Aunt Alva Dean home.
A month earlier, she ran off
With an older boy named Red Jordan,
Who drove a slope-backed red Chevy
With spinner hubcaps.
She left Fresno High School behind,
Moved to Firebaugh, and married,
Drawn by a magnet of events.
Mother never quite understood
Why her younger sister would leave
Their mother’s house on Vagedes Avenue,
For a place that was much worse
Than the place she came from.
But she never said a word about it.
My sister and I knelt at the windows
On either end of the backseat
And prayed to passing farmland
Until we reached the place
Across the river,
The tiny cabin
With black trees for a backdrop
And cotton patches all around.
We stayed in the car while mother
Knocked at the screen.
My aunt came out of the darkened door
With her suitcase and coat.
We reversed our course and drove
Across the new steel-bridge
On that long silent trip home.
By that time,
Grandma and Grandpa had moved
To Tulare, California,
On the northeastern shore
Of Tulare Lake, long-dry
And planted to Mexican cotton.
In days when cotton-picking machines,
spewing angry black smoke,
Put hand-pickers and cotton sacks, 
The weigh-scale and tabulators
Out of work.