In the spring of 1967, Gabby got the blessing of his high school advisor to take a planned one-week trip from his home in Nekoosa, Wisconsin to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to research the melon strike going on there as part of a senior independent study project. In Texas, Gabby met the young general counsel of the farm workers union, whom he calls Lance in his memoir. This excerpt of the memoir deals with Gabby’s decision to go work for the farm workers in California rather than return to Wisconsin and ultimately to college in Iowa. Gabby wrote:
Lance was soon heading back to Delano, California, 30 miles north of Bakersfield and the headquarters of the young farm workers Union. He suggested that I come and work for him.
“As in not go to college?”
“As in come work for me. You’ll learn more. You can always go to college, but you can’t always do this.”
“Tell me about Delano. Are there orange trees? Surfing? The Beach Boys? California girls?”
Lance was one idea back in the conversation. Did I ever tell you why I chose Amherst over Harvard? When I visited Amherst , “Hanging Tree” – Gary Cooper, George C. Scott, and Maria Schell – was showing. Loved it. You should see it. When I visited Harvard there was slush all over the place. So I chose Amherst. Know what I learned at Amherst? That reading is cool and that fraternity guys are idiots. You probably know both already.”
He then moved on He told me that contrary to popular assumption, Delano was not named after the D in FDR but after Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior under President Grant. “His Name is Our City’s” was, Lance told me, the caption under a portrait of Columbus Delano presented to the City Council by the Delano Historical Society. Lance was not sure that he agreed with the Historical Society a hundred percent on their historical research. Corruption, a hallmark of Grant’s administration, was particularly unbridled in the Bureau of Indian Affairs during Delano’s tenure. The scandal that erupted when it came to light that Delano’s son John had been given lucrative government surveying contracts led to Delano’s resignation on October 19, 1875. Named after a disgraced crook nobody heard of forced to resign from a cabinet position with a crook of a president who should have stayed a general. Inauspicious, much? Named after a disgraced crook nobody heard of forced to resign from a cabinet position with a crook of a president who should have stayed a general. He told me that Delano bragged about A Pageant of New Business Buildings, that it called itself A Wonderful Place to Shop and a City of Beautiful Churches, and that it saw itself as Lively, Likable, and Livable.
He told me it was once known as the Cradle of Valley Christianity in honor of Francisco Hermenegildo Tomas Garces, an 18th century Franciscan missionary who passed through on his way to the Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner on the Colorado River, where the Quechan tribe promptly killed him and his fellow missionaries.
The Cradle of Valley Christianity moniker was more than just a little ironic given the brothels and bawdy houses and bars and Chinese gambling houses and dens of vice and house of ill-repute and sinks of iniquity that polluted men and women, that wrecked human souls, and that had come to be Delano’s claim to fame before an expansion of state highway 99 cut through the sin district.
He leveled with me. “It’s flat. It’s hot. It’s jeezly hot. It’s about the most awful place in the world.” No mention, you will notice of the charms of living in a small community that just several months had been so important to him when he was interviewed by the local paper.
“And so I would want to come along why then?”
“That was a convoluted way of asking a simple question, Gabby” Lance snorted. “Get simpler. You would want to come along then because we are fighting for justice. In law school, I thought that the Free Speech Movement was fun. I thought that Mario Savio was cool. It was and he was, but nothing like this.
“Taking risks and over-reaching and being the perpetual underdog fighting big odds using asymmetric warfare just as the Parthians who rid Persia of Seleucid rule – we do this every minute of every day. We have no fear. You’ve seen the workers – they don’t come any tougher than farm workers. Life just doesn’t get any better than this. It is truly great!”
I could tell that what he said was coming from the heart. I thought I had what my father would have called a good measure of Lance’s bore and stroke, and I believed that it would be a lot of fun to fight for justice with Lance.
Lance’s pitch and the great appeal of the time in Texas to the imaginative young sensualist that I was sold me on the idea. I had long sensed that there was a big world outside Nekoosa, and here it was.
Even the thought of college in Ames seemed confining after these few weeks with Lance in Texas.
Many were drawn by the Chief and his growing saintly fame, but not me. When Cicero spoke, people marveled, but when Caesar spoke, people marched. For me, The chief’s speeches were never a part of what drew me in
Like Little Feat sang, time loves a hero, and so did Time. By the time The Chief made Time‘s cover in 1969, pretty much the whole country knew something about him.
Born on a 160-acre farm in the Gila River Valley, Arizona, family forced in the late 1930s into the migrant labor flow (cue: Woody Guthrie singing “Pastures of Plenty”), a slightly wild youth in San Jose, recruited into community organizing, and now the plucky leader of the farm workers movement – inspired by Gandhi, compared to Dr. King (a comparison that the Chief hated), the Mexican-American face of the civil rights movement. Time told America that the Chief had a “mystical mien with pleasant earthiness.” Bad writing much? Miss the mark much?
Anyways, though, it wasn’t the Chief who inspired me, it was not the call of the Movement, not a desire to take the fifth step on the eight-fold path to enlightenment. It was the romance and the fun of working with Lance that made me agree to come back to Delano with him. In the language of the Union, the “organized” me. We said this with humor, but it was a serious and important part of our life, the new recruits. Such as now, me.
I decided to defer matriculation at Iowa, I think is how we put it. I would go to Delano with Lance and not back to Nekoosa and not to Ames. What a bold decision! But, I must remind, this was a time when many in my generation were making this kind of radical leap, a decision for engagement in something rather than obedience to a middle-class pre-routed plan of material advancement. There were, after all, a lot of worse choices I could have made.
What about my high school graduation? The radical priest back home said that he’d give me a passing grade on my not-quite-finished (ha!) final senior paper on Ineffabilis Deus, the Apostolic Constitution pronouncement on the Immaculate Conception by Pieus IX on 8 December, 1854, and that he’d mail me my diploma. What about college in the fall? I wrote my family and told them I would not be going to Ames as planned and asked them to cancel that which had to be cancelled.
I further asked that they not rent out my room or give it to one of the girls.
Oh dear, loving and caring and abused-by-us parents of the sixties! What we put you through! I am so, so sorry. You had your hopes for us and boy did we dash them. We believed what we thought you taught us, not what you thought you taught us. We were the idealistic yang to your forged-in-The-Depresion pragmatic yin and our yang hurt your yin. Sorry.
When my friend read this, he just nodded his head. “Gabby made a bold choice. I don’t think he ever looked back. Even when he quit the Union in ’79 I don’t think he wished he’d gone to Ames.” Then came a kind of rambling story about my friend having visited Ames in the late 1960s, the details of which visit don’t matter.