There are incidents in our lives which can have a permanent effect on our future actions and attitudes. They do not have to be major ones. They can be relatively minor at the time, not planned, fairly subtle, and only gradually realized, yet can nevertheless become profound and permanent influences on our future actions and attitudes.
I have had three experiences of this kind which resulted in basic changes in my understanding concerning important social issues. They each had a profound effect on my subsequent activities and outlook on certain issues of concern.
The first was when I was nine years old. My grandfather grew up in Tulare, California, from 1890 to 1915. He told me about all the great times he had rafting, swimming, and fishing on Tulare Lake. It was then the largest freshwater lake in the area, west of the Mississippi. It began to be emptied soon after his days there, by diversions from the Kings River and other tributaries to support the emerging irrigated farming. It was soon acquired by J.G. Boswell to raise cotton. The Boswell family is still there.
I did not realize it until much later, but it planted the seeds of making me a rabid ecologist/environmentalist even before the terms were in common usage. As a result, I have done free engineering through the years while in the Bay Area and Nevada County for many environmental causes and organizations.
Second was in 1951 when I was in college. A good friend from Salinas was a veterinary student at Davis. He told me about his part time job at the cattle artificial insemination facility. Because of the word limit of this column, I have omitted the interesting details. The part of the story which influenced my future outlook is that a few bulls required another bull in order to do their thing. It logically follows that homosexuality is most probably biological. Even so, some religious groups have policies and take actions that homosexuals, through education and treatment, could become “normal.”
Third was from “Grapes of Wrath.” In Salinas in 1937 when I was about five, the Okies arrived. They were poor, shabbily dressed, lived in quickly thrown up shacks, and talked funny. In those days, Salinas was fairly homogeneous and the few “minorities” had regular jobs and lived in houses throughout town. We went to school with, and had friends who were of Japanese, Chinese or Filipino ethnicities. There weren’t enough of them to form ghettos or be “those people.” The first African-American student did not arrive until I was a junior in high school.
So, the Okies were the only different group who lived and went to schools in their own area. We first met them when they came to Salinas High. We would talk to them in class and play sports with them, but the societal pressures precluded socializing after school.
John Steinbeck was the only famous person from Salinas, but in English III where American literature was studied, Salinas High was not allowed to teach Steinbeck. The growers, shippers, and bankers still controlled the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck’s early books, such as “In Dubious Battle” and “Grapes of Wrath,” threatened the status quo. Even the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco branded him a communist.
It was not until I arrived at UC Berkeley that Steinbeck’s books became easily accessible. I started with “Grapes of Wrath.” It showed me in a powerful way that the external circumstances and geography, that the Okies had no control over, was what caused them to be poor, talk funny, and be forced into being a homogeneous group of unwelcome strangers.
Later when race became an issue, those lessons from “Grapes of Wrath” kept me from becoming a racist. I have lived in many cultures all around the world and have been able to quite naturally accept them all. People are different because they are products of their history, culture, and environment. It was the “Grapes of Wrath” which started me on that path of acceptance of all peoples and ways of life, no matter how different they may appear to be.
Wade Davis has captured my outlook better than I could have:
“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you, they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
Conclusion: The foregoing shows how relatively insignificant events at the time, can significantly change one's outlook on important future actions and attitudes.
Ralph Hitchcock is a retired civil engineer living in Nevada City.