Throwing back his medals at the NATO Summit
We stand strong for human rights
We take freedom’s side.
But we can’t stand for human rights
in every whacko’s name.
Justice can’t be handed out
to all who make a claim.
“What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?”
from Solidarity Forever
Presented at the 124th annual convention and trade show
Of The National Newspaper Association
Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, 2010, in Omaha, Neb.
By Les Anderson
Professor, Elliott School of Communication
Wichita State University, Wichita, Kan. 67260-0031
††† Note: This paper has been greatly condensed, without detracting from its original meaning. My primary purpose in posting this shortened version is to emphasize the political nature of the defamatory campaign that was unleashed against me when I objected, in a civil manner, and on appropriate grounds , to the unprotected status the bill leaves reporters in rural western Kansas. It’s a “whole other country” from the eastern part of the state.
In February 2007, Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, addressed members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Kansas Legislature about a proposed reporters’ shield law.
Anstaett told the legislative committee that we in America can handle the truth, and that it is the job of professional news gatherers to do their best to deliver that truth to citizens.
“The American people have shown time and again throughout our history that not only can we handle the truth, we demand it as an absolutely essential ingredient of our form of government,“ he said.
Without the protection afforded by the proposed reporters’ shield law, however, Anstaett said in 2007, sources will continue to be intimidated and will continue to choose to not come forward, and journalists will not learn what public officials and others want to hide.
The proposed shield law didn’t gain much traction in Kansas for several more years. One of the problems Anstaett and the state’s journalists faced was providing real-life evidence to back up their request for new legislation.
In the fall of 2009, Anstaett, the press association and journalists in Kansas got the ammunition they needed. Claire O’Brien, a reporter in Dodge City, had been subpoenaed to testify at an inquisition, where she would likely be ordered to give up her unpublished notes and her confidential source for a story in a local murder case.
According to an Associated Press story by John Hanna, the county attorney was trying to force O’Brien to hand over notes from a jailhouse interview with a man charged with second-degree murder. He also was trying to get her to divulge the identity of a confidential source who suggested the man acted in self-defense and that one of the victims had ties to an anti-Hispanic group. O’Brien refused to comply with the subpoena.
Initially, the Kansas Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of a subpoena for O’Brien’s notes, according to the AP story, but the next day, the reporter received a subpoena (from the county prosecutor) to appear at the defendant’s trial as a witness. The Kansas Supreme Court (immediately)… refused to block the subpoena (without considering the appeal).
Anstaett commented: “It (the supreme court ruling) sends an unmistakably chilling message to our reporters and to their sources that no protections exist for those who want to blow the whistle on government, uncover corruption and abuse, or report on the criminal element in our communities.“
The Senate majority leader agreed that because of the Dodge City case, “We should strike while the iron is hot.“
With his help, a new proposal was enacted into law in that same 2010 session.
Kansas became the 38th state with a shield law.
Not everyone connected with the Dodge City case was happy with the new shield law, especially O’Brien, the reporter who brought the plight of reporters to the attention of the public and the legislature.
O’Brien’s newspaper, the Dodge City Daily Globe, is one of nine Kansas dailies owned by GateHouse Media, which is based in Fairport, N.Y., and owns ( close to 400 newspapers)
In an e-mail in late January to the state press association, her company’s division manager and publishers of four Kansas newspapers owned by GateHouse Media — including her own — O’Brien said she was disappointed in the bill. This e-mail came before it was signed into law.
“(The bill) strikes me as the kind of compromise that will give the legislature an excuse to avoid passing a real shield law for another couple of decades,“ O’Brien said in her e-mail. “We won’t get another opportunity to pass a bill with real teeth in it for a long time, and with the feds packing reporters off to prison in record numbers, I still think our best hope is a proactive and vigorous appeal to public opinion.
She continued: “This bill leaves ample room for forced testimony. If it serves as the basis for my protection, I predict that I’ll soon be right back in the same courtroom. I know this county attorney and this judge well enough to be certain of that. And I gave my word to my sources that their identities would be protected.
O’Brien added in her e-mail: “I’m not willing to go to jail for this bill. I don’t think it will protect me. However, I do remain willing and ready to go to jail in order to achieve real protection for all Kansas reporters.“
“I realize that the above scenario would transpire in theory only if the state meets certain criteria, but, in Ford County at least, the court has clearly demonstrated its willingness, if not eagerness, to rubber stamp every claim the state has made in that regard.” (My note, included here, not a part of the original email or of this paper: as a reporter, I had observed our county prosecutor and Judge Love in action for almost a year. It was clear to people in Ford County that if the shield bill passed, our DA, who went hunting with this judge every other weekend, would simply hand his pal, I mean his honor, a statement claiming that he had, as required by the bill, exhausted other resources. The judge would sign the prosecutor’s subpoena with no pretense of reading the statement. An hour later a deputy would appear at a reporter’s desk and hand him a subpoena.
“I realize that I’m just one factor in this whole scenario, and that each of you will make decisions as you see fit. I realize also that I’m just a beat reporter who probably appears to be getting too big for her britches. But for what it’s worth, and again with sincere respect to all, I’m risking your displeasure only because of deeply held personal convictions.
O’Brien was fired from the Dodge City paper shortly after the issue was resolved.
(She) told an Associated Press reporter that it was in retaliation for comments she made to news outlets after she was found in contempt for failing to appear at the inquisition. Her newspaper’s parent company, GateHouse Media, denied her allegations.
Obrien said she never testified before the legislature on the proposed shield law, although she had initially been asked to provide input. She wasn’t mentioned at the bill-signing ceremony either, nor at the annual state press association banquet, where everyone who played a role re the bill’s success was individually thanked. Except O’Brien.
It emerged late in the press banquet that O’Brien had not only won first place in the news division – and with the very story that had attracted the wrath of the DA in the first place – but that she had broken a state record by winning three additional awards at once.
“Fortunately, the judges were from the Nebraska Press Association,”” the unrepentant reporter commented on the RCFP website.
. In a July 2010 interview after her firing, O’Brien said …she was outside the information flow between the court and the newspaper’s parent company.
..”I was forfeiting some basic rights,” she said.
…She didn’t think it was unreasonable to want copies of everything associated with the case.
“I didn’t want to be leading a parade,” she said. “I wanted to be informed. I had to fight just to be told when motions were going to be presented… anyone facing a criminal charge has a right to information.”
O’Brien received four Kansas Press Association awards for her stories that appeared in the Dodge City newspaper. Ironically, among the awards was a first place for the story on her jailhouse interview.
O’Brien maintains the new shield law may protect the urban Democrats of eastern Kansas in places such as the famously wealthy Johnson County, and in Topeka and Wichita, where the state’s only two large newspapers are respectively located. As for the towns, large and small, that dot the high arid plains of Kansas’ vast central and western regions, the bill provides the reporters who put in 12 to 16 hour days for an average wage of $24,000 a year “about as much protection as nylon netting.“
“Out here,“ she added, “prosecutors rule like kings.“
♦ Purple text – highlighted email, incorporated by Professor Anderson into text and quoted directly by myself.
♦ Blue text – extremely condensed
♦ Orange text – added by me
♦ Black text – by Professor Les Anderson, Elliot school of Communication,Wichita State University
The above paper was also published in Editor and Publisher, November 2010
Comarada, entonces os he visto, y mis ojos estan hasta ahora llenos de orgullo.
Comrade, then I saw you – and my eyes are even now filled with pride.
♦ ~.~.~.~.~.~. ♦
Almost ninety years ago, in 1924 or’25, a young girl left the Mexican border town of Agua Pieta, which sits on the northern edge of Sonora facing Douglas, Arizona and walked a few miles into the United States. Visibly pregnant, she travelled alone. Otilla Gallegos had just turned fourteen.
She passed quickly through the small town, reaching a dusty highway as a bus appeared in the distance. Hours later, as evening began to fall over the southwestern mountains of New Mexico, the bus pulled into Silver City, where Otilla joined two distant uncles. The men had found work at Arizona’s Santa Rita Mine, not far from the state line, and had agreed to provide several months of shelter until Otilla could get on her feet.
The two miners were actually Otilla’s second or third cousins ; thus, her family had been careful to make no claims on them. The girl’s sudden adult status had been made very clear to her; still, it was not until Otilla climbed into her little mattress for her first night in America that she felt the full weight of complete and immediate responsibility
The large Gallegos family was essentially destitute; in fact barely surviving. Life was measured out in days, and days were calculated by small fistfuls of beans and corn. Otilla could see for herself that the two uncles, whom she barely knew, worked under terrible conditions to support their own desperate families back in Agua Pieta.
Otilla understood all of this. Whatever she could not understand, she kept to herself. .
This, then, was life, looking straight at Ottilla Gallegos and telling her she had no time to lose. Early on the morning after her arrival, she went looking for a job, a slight, pretty fourteen-year old who couldn’t pass for even fifteen, making her way along Silver City’s Main St preceded by her protruding belly. It was 1924; people looked at Otilla, and not kindly.
She had a chance to cook and another to do laundry, so Otilla’s job choice surprised her uncles: she hired on as part of a crew laying Silver City’s first concrete sidewalks. People might have stared at her disapprovingly that first day, but an obviously pregnant child performing heavy labor in public week after week was something else entirely. They found themselves looking away, a fact of which Otilla took note. We know this because she made a point of telling the story, as I am telling it now, to each of her four children.
Otilla worked harder as her delivery date loomed ever closer – until her boss and co-workers just couldn’t stand it, begged her to stop, and took up a collection to cover a week’s wages. Otilla took her money, went to her uncle’s apartment and got into bed.
Two days later, her daughter Lourdes was born.
Otilla’s children passed this story down to their own children with the same care: in fact, it’s one of the first things her descendents will tell you about Otilla Gallegos. Like her, they have spent their lives laboring.
“She passed the torch to our parents and they passed it to us. She worked harder than anyone I have ever met, she gave her life away in labor to the Anglos, yet she was treated as if she were nothing – as if her labor belonged to them,” Patricia Medina told me as she whacked the dust out of a rug with an old broom last week. Medina is one of Gallegos’ many grandchildren, and is herself a grandmother. She recently lost her home in Las Lunas after forty years of labor and moved to a public housing project two hours south. At age 55, she is back at work as a housekeeper, unable to live on the disability payments she had thought would allow her to retire early. But on the day I met her, Medina’s primary concern about the job was not its impact on her injured spine, knees and neck . Her hope was for more assigned work hours, leading to a full-time position. “I come from a long line of poor people,” Medina said. ” We expect to be called lazy, we expect people to point to us and say we haven’t made progress in three or four generations like good Latinos should. We never expect justice. But that doesn’t mean we accept injustice! Oh no. No, no. We fight the battles we have a chance of winning. If not, we do what needs to be done. That is how we remain free.” We were draping her heavy rug over a fence that seperates the housing project from a gravel pit, but Medina paused for a moment to peer at me. . ” Don’t ever, ever let anyone rob you of that, because when they can make you ashamed — that’s when they own you: when they can make you believe the lie that Latino families who don’t make it up the ladder are lazy and don’t work hard.”
She waved a hand in a gesture that managed to be both dismissive and polite.
” These Anglos don’t know what hard work is,” Medina said, and gave the rug a huge, final whack. She tosses the broom into the back of her rattling grey van.
“Come with me to the Dollar Store, chica,” she said as she climbed in.
“¿Hacer enchiladas esta noche?” I asked hopefully,” Yo compre la avcado.”
“No enchiladas for you, gringa loco,” Medina said. “For you there will only be very, very hot chiles. And nothing at all to drink.”
“Ha, ha,” I said. “That gets funnier every time you say it. And your engine light is on again.”
Medina cursed as we peeled out of the Projects parking lot. Her son has been warning her that her van will die “any minute now Mom.” But she still drives like a maniac.
Life in Silver City was not easy for Latino people. Almost all who flocked to work the mines of the mountain town were of Mexican descent, but at least half of them had never been south of the Rio Grande. Their roots were deep in New Mexico. As for Mexican nationals, they saw themselves in the same nation so many lives had been lost to free.
Anglos didn’t care about such distinctions, they just knew a Mexican when they saw one, and lumped everyone together. Juggling this surreal and frankly traumatic contradiction was part of the price of dealing with Anglos. Essentially, Latinos were allowed to live and work in their own land because they were cheap labor – and they were reminded of that every day in countless ways.
Each of Ortilla’s children grew up fast and had large families – Medina has 30 cousins – and all of them struggled. Her uncles worked in the mines, and 26 years after their mother had laid her first slab of concrete, there was still no electricity or water in the shacks that were their homes. The mining company housing was intended to keep Latinos out of Silver City proper as much as possible, and they were segregated when they did make the short trip in.
White miners lived in seperate housing equipped with plumbing and electricity. They worked in separate crews doing the best jobs during the best hours, and received almost twice the pay of Latino miners. They were even provided a separate pay window so that they wouldn’t have to stand in line with Latino miners.
Something had to give. And it did.
In 1953, the Latino miners of Silver City astonished both the mining industry and the labor movement by striking. Latino workers had long been viewed as too passive to pose a threat to the former nor to play a leading role in the latter.
Not only did they strike, but they won – and they did it during a period when most of the Left was, well, hiding out.
Not only did they win, but they did that by relying upon Silver City’s Latino women. Another gripe the labor movement had with Latino workers was the hopelessly traditional gender roles from which they could never be budged.
Ha!. Yet another stereotype smashed.
Just a few months after the miner’s victory in early 1954, a trio of filmmakers arrived in Silver City. They had been blacklisted by Hollywood’s shameless capitulation to the McCarthy Era’s communist witch hunts, but their supporters had secretly raised enough money to fund a modest budget – and they aimed to spend it on a film about the Empire Zinc Mine. The name of the film was The Salt of the Eartb.
It was the only film that has ever been banned by and from the United States . While it circled the globe winning one award after another, Americans remained generally unaware of it. Those who did learn about the film were remarkably uninterested, as the nation was absorbed with backyard bomb shelters, electrocuting Jewish spies, and hunting down the terrorist wave of TV and movie writers hiding out in Hollywood’s labyrinth of secret communist cells.
The Salt of the Earth made history in more ways than one. The miners wrote much of the script, rejected whatever they believed did not represent them, acted, and coordinated publicity efforts.
Only three professional actors were used. The leading lady was deported to Mexico before shooting was completed and the leading man was a Latino miner. The production crew was shot at, and government helicopters hovered over the set. The filmmakers finally had to make a run for it in the middle of the night.
The Salt of the Earth also became a proud part of the Gallegos-Medina family history. Two of Otilla’s sons and a daughter acted in the film and worked on the script. And although Patricia Medina wasn’t born until 1959, she traces a direct line straight from her grandmother, uncles and aunt to a lettuce field in northern California in 1973 – and a strong fourteen-year-old girl marching beside Cesar Chavez.
END OF PART ONE
LOOK FOR PART TWO SOON:
♦ How the strike was won
♦ How the film was made
Salt of the Earth
Oh, what a beautiful City! Oh, what a beautiful City!
Oh, what a beautiful City! Twelve gates to the City, Halleluia!
12,000 Hits Later, O’Brien (see above subtle symbolism) Mulls and Plans her Comeback
I’ve decided to combine my 12,000 Hit Celebration with some cards I’ve shared with only two or three people. I received them four years ago in 2010, when I was a print reporter for the Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, during a State Supreme Court First Amendment case and murder trial. I’m sharing only those cards that were not confidentially sent – most of the Latino community feared, with good cause, reprisal for supporting me.
I was defamed by an unholy alliance of corporate media, neoliberal First Amendment groups, most particularly the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press (Director LUCY DAGLISH), and the state. Newer readers who are interested in what happened would honor me by reading Jeff Nyguyen’s post in his impressive blog, Deconstructing Myths.
I’ll also list my own selections from this blog’s archives at the end of this post.
ΔΦΔ ________ Δ _________ ΔΦΔ
I haven’t shared these cards for a number of reasons. First of all, I have been very publically and shamelessly called a liar by some powerful people. Thus, I have kept these expressions of community support close to my heart: I wasn’t willing to submit them to the disrespectful and ruthless public scrutiny that had destroyed my best professional and personal efforts.
These days, though, I’m thinking that I want to share more than my anger about what it means to be defamed. Defamation is a word that makes it sound as if mean-spirited gossip has hurt one’s feelings. But that’s not what it is. Real defamation WORKS: it gathers momentum, as it’s intended to, until people believe it. And if they don’t believe it, they believe something is/was unsavory and/or not quite right about you. In the end, to really defame someone, you have to get at the heart of their character in some fundamental way: you can’t portray them as truthful in every other aspect of their life – and yet a huge liar re. one nationally -known, professionally pivotal incident. Since they are telling the truth, you have to discredit their essential personhood in order to ensure that they will remain permanently discredited.
There’s three gates to the north, three gates to the south,
Three gates to the east, three gates to the west.
In all, there’s twelve gates to the city, halleluia!
Δ ________________ Δ
I don’t know if it’s considered unprofessional to publish cards of support. After four years of struggle, I think I’ve worried too much about those kinds of standards – I think they may be a kind of trap. I decided that I should document more than what was done to me, more than my political and professional anger about it. I decided that I could also document what it really feels like to be a truthful reporter who has really been defamed. Maybe people don’t have a clear sense of what that means; if so, that’s something I can contribute.
___<> ___<> __ <> ___
When I get there, I’m gonna sing and shout.
Ain’t nobody gonna put me out.
Oh what a beautiful city!
Oh. what a beautiful city, Halleluia!
Special note: what I get when I now attempt to reach University of Maryland attorney Laura Anderson, with whom I had been in touch re. my legal complaints about above-named Lucy Dalglish
The following message to <firstname.lastname@example.org> was undeliverable.
The reason for the problem:
5.3.0 – Sender denied
I would really appreciate emails sent to this corporate lawyer supporting my right to acknowledgement and redress. Thanks very much.
Janet Smith and Don Kirby / Claire O’Brien 2013
The last Americans who were caught where the Great Depression met the Dust Bowl will be gone in another decade or so, taking their singular and historic childhoods with them. The memories of children always have a distinctive and revealing slant, and draw me like a magnet. So I felt lucky when two old friends invited a stranger to pull up a chair as they settled in to compare Depression experiences at the plucky Sierra County Senior Center in southern New Mexico.
Tuning out the instructive voice of a Tai Chi teacher and the routine clack of a swift game of 9-Ball, Don Kirby and Janet Smith quickly zeroed in on the kinds of shared memories that take root in human bone, such as prolonged periods of hunger over several years, and the shock of discovering adult powerlessness. But they eventually agreed that the Depression had done no real damage to Kirby, while impacting Smith’s life in long-term, often profound ways. What made all the difference, the two told me, was the small Kirby family’s ability to squeak by and remain together – an impossibility for the very large extended Smith family, crowded together on the same land. Here are both the story, and the stories: at least the way I heard them.
Don Kirby was born into a world of blowing dust. His father grew dryland wheat in the Texas panhandle, near the little town of Vega, where Kirby and the Depression arrived together in 1930.
He remembers dreaming of fields of wheat when he was four years old. Kirby had never seen a field of wheat – or of anything else – but he knew what everything in the world revolved around. Like the other young children of the Dust Bowl, Kirby understood the life-and-death stakes for those who had gambled everything to remain behind on farms half buried in dust.
Either they would outlast the dust and bring the land to life again – or the dust would outlast them.
So the region held its breath while dust piled into drifts three and four feet high, surrounding the Kirby farm and waiting for the next high wind to send it on its way.
“I remember one of the worst dust storms we ever had, just as easy as I remember yesterday,” said Kirby,” I mean it’s that clear in my mind. I was nine years old and I was outside playing. I heard my mother shouting and shrieking,”Get in the house! Get in the house!”
Kirby looked at the horizon once, and ran.
“It was the the most gigantic dust cloud you can imagine, too huge to describe – like it couldn’t even be from earth”, he said. “It looked like the whole universe was attacking us. And it was headed straight for us. My mother yelled for us kids to get into her bed, then she covered us from head to toe with a pile of blankets, taking particular care to block our eyes, noses, and ears.”
Kirby added that during the storm, the entire house was so packed with dust that it was impossible to see his hand in front of his face.
‘You were blind. You couldn’t see anything,” he said. “After the storm had passed, my parents spent hours and hours taking buckets of dirt out of the house.”
ΔΔΘ _______________________________________ ΘΔΔ
With no way to raise a crop, Kirby’s father took every kind of job he could get, hiring himself out to anyone who would pay a dollar or two. His focus was solely on feeding his family, but in spite of his efforts, his children were often hungry.
“Of course I remember. You don’t ever forget hunger, not ever,” said Kirby. “When I was about six, my mother asked me what I planned on doing when I grew up. ‘I’m going to eat,’ I told her, ‘When I grow up, I’m just going to sit and eat.’
However, Kirby was always aware that his parents did the very best they could to provide food.
“No matter how young I was, I knew how hard my father was trying – of course I did,” he said. “So I understood that I was going to be hungry, and there was nothing more to be done. Mama would put a tablespoon of sugar in tall glasses of water, as cold as she could get it, and tell us to drink up fast to fool our stomachs. It worked, too – for a bit of a while anyway. So the trick was to hop into bed and get to sleep before it wore off.”
Kirby paused briefly.
“I hated seeing Mama and Daddy feeling so bad about it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d tell them a story, maybe how my teacher had given the class a government sandwich, or one of the Amirillo churches had sent up cold boiled potatoes to the school. I’m not sure if they believed me, but they always made out like they did – you see, they didn’t want me feeling bad neither.”
But Kirby also recalled his father’s triumphant returns, carrying as much as a bushels of potatos, or food he’d exchanged for long days of labor: beans, eggs, biscuits, flour, dried fruit and coffee.
While still a small boy, Kirby learned that when everyone is in need, everyone shares. In fact, watching his hungry parents share their food with strangers is one of his strongest memories.
“There’s one time I can still see so clear,” he said softly. “A man came to the door and said to my mother, ‘M’am, I’m very hungry.’ You could tell that just by looking at him. Mama told him to wait.”
The family had just slaughtered a hog – a very rare event – and Kirby’s mother prepared a large plate of food for the traveller.
“Mama cooked him up some eggs, meat, and biscuits, and he ate real fast, but then he took a deep breath and stopped when he was halfway through. He packed the rest of the food carefully away in a pouch he wore around his neck,” Kirby remembered,”He said to Mama ‘I don’t have any money – but God will pay you for this.”
Kirby’s mother remembered what the hungry man had told her for the rest of her life.
“It made her happy to think of it,” he said. “And now, it makes me happy.”
These days, Kirby is still sharing food. It makes him happy. He’s 84 years old, and he works two acres now – but he really works those acres. He cuts, chops, splits,
and stacks wood. He has a small orchard of apple, quince, and plum trees, and a big garden. Every year, Kirby gives away bushels and bushels of vegetables and fruit..
He thinks of his parents with every delivery.
“Mama worked until she was 95, and she lived to be 101” he said. “On her 100th birthday, I bent over her and said “Mama! You’re 100!” She thought for a minute, and then she kind of cocked her head and looked up at me, wondering, like a little old child,’
‘Am I really 100?’ Mama asked. “Am I really?”
Kirby looked into the distance, smiling to himself, and then he chuckled loudly.
Janet Smith grew up in a poor Nebraska farm family, among people who took pride in their ability to make it through hard times. But the Depression wasn’t just hard times. The Depression killed people.
Janet leaned forward in her chair to emphasize her point.
“Today, there’s really no way of understanding what is was like,” she said.
” I mean people lost absolutely everything but the clothes on their backs,” Smith continued. ” My grandparents had spent their entire lives in endless labor, building up their farm, and raising ten children. My father was the oldest, and was set to inherit it. And then it was gone – all of it, everything. There was nothing left”.
Smith believes that the loss broke her family, because the farm was the center of their lives. Her grandfather soon died, and her grandmother took a small house in the nearby town of Elmo, while her father searched desperately for work – any work. His siblings held out as long as they could, trying to make one last go of the farm.
“They just couldn’t. They had nothing,” said Smith. “They couldn’t feed the stock. When the horses starved to death, I think that was what finally did it. They were in agony, watching the horses suffer, but they kept holding off just one more day, thinking they’d surely find something the horses could eat by then.”
Smith was six years old in 1941. The Depression was officially over, or at least departing well ahead of schedule, propelled by the momentum of the war industries as the U.S. entered World War II. But the recovery didn’t reach places like rural Nebraska in time to make a difference for children like Smith. For them, the Great Depression was far from over – and in fact, for many Americans it has never ended.
Still unemployed, Smith’s father was drafted and deployed overseas, leaving their severely depressed mother overwhelmed and withdrawn. Local authorities declared her incompetent and gave custody of the children to the state, citing reports that the young Smiths were roaming the streets at any hour of the night or day that struck their fancy.
“Sometimes we looked for food and a lot of the time we just roamed about and explored,” Smith said.”We felt free at night, like we had the world to ourselves. Although I admit we didn’t turn down many opportunities to make little pests of ourselves.”
Without the family’s knowledge, arrangements were being made to order the siblings placed in an orphanage, many miles away in the Nebraska town of York.
Mother Jewel’s Orphanage
Seventy years after authorities banged on the door one Nebraska morning in 1941, Janet Smith hasn’t forgiven them for yanking a little girl from her mother, and forcing her into a car with strangers. She remembers screaming for an hour straight.
“Throughout the long drive, they kept telling us we’d be eating nothing but bread and water until we were eighteen. I’ve never been that terrified. I knew grown-ups aren’t supposed to treat a first grader like that,” Smith said.
The bread and water part turned out to be a cruel joke, but the indifferent coldness of the orphanage staff stunned Kirby. She remembers
thinking,” I’m too little for this!”
“Well, they fed and clothed us, and taught us the basics in school,” Kirby said. “We got a bed to sleep in. But they never showed us a slight kindness, or even smiled at us. No sign of feeling. They were distant and cold, and every orphanage child knew they didn’t care about us”
For the next three years, Smith and her brothers prayed every day that they wouldn’t share the fate of those kids whose parents had never returned for them. They knew she had problems, but they loved their mother, and were certain she wanted them back.
The sandbox in Mother Jewel’s playground
They were right. Smith’s mother had never given up her efforts to get her children back.
Several months after the little girl’s ninth birthday, she and her brothers moved with their mother into a small house in the town of Huntley, NB. It had no running water, but the children didn’t care. They could take hot baths at their nearby grandmother’s house, and return with water for their mother.
“All that mattered to us was being a normal family, living with our own mother in a normal house,” said Smith.
But it soon became clear to the children that their mother remained too depressed to care for them properly, nor to manage the small house. They staggered under the blow – but the Smith children did not fall. They had learned some hard lessons about the world during those three years in the orphanage, and were determined to remain free of official clutches. Older, tougher, bigger, and extremely watchful, the siblings had become experienced housekeepers, janitors, and yard workers who could cook well enough to get by.
“We were angry, I guess we felt sad and sort of cheated -but we also knew it wasn’t our mother’s fault,” said Smith. “She’d done the best thing she could manage for all for us – she’d gotten us out of there. And by then, we had this attitude that told people to stay away from us. They learned not to talk about our mother and pretty much let us alone, especially seeing as Grandma lived a few blocks away.”
Their hopes rose when their father was discharged from the army, but he returned only long enough to get a railroad job that kept him away from home most of the time. The children rarely saw him, and when they did he remained a remote figure. They knew he had a drinking problem. All their aunts and uncles, the nine brothers and sisters who had grown up together on that lost farm, drifted apart and away, taking the children’s cousins with them.
“Our mother never recovered and we took care of everything from then on, but still we knew she loved us,” said Smith. “Our father was never the same again. None of my uncles and aunts were either. They were from generations of farmers, you see. They were never meant to be town people, or soldiers or railroad men. And what can children do about something like that?”
Their father’s return brought one crucial change, however: his job with the railroad was steady and he sent most of his pay to his family. It was enough to keep them afloat, and although they had to watch every penny, they didn’t go hungry again.
“Knowing our father was feeding us told us a lot,” said Smith. “Eventually, that was enough. It had to be.”
OO ________________________________________ OO
The Smith children resolved the issue of the adult world by turning their backs on it and immersing themselves in play. They constructed and navigated various kinds of rafts, and spent weeks at a time building things. Their father had left them his tools, and her oldest brother knew how to use them. He taught his siblings, who had to prove their competence tool by tool before getting the green light to use each one independently.
“For a long time, I was stuck with sandpaper, a small hammer, and nails that someone else had nailed halfway in, so I wouldn’t bend them,” said Smith, who was the baby of the family. “I rebelled, though, so finally they let me saw. To this day, I refuse to use sandpaper. My very favorite thing was how we’d frame a small pane of glass, you know the kind that are about six by eight inches, and make one tiny window.”
The builders installed the little windows in treehouses complete with roofs and railed porches, while the woods below were spotted with Smith clubhouses, each with a signature chimney made of a small piece of pipe, leading to a tiny working stove. The children also built cars from wooden crates equipped with an odd assortment of wheels, and raced recklesly down steep inclines without benefit of brakes. They played a lot of baseball, and raced the river as soon as it froze, like a flock of birds on their homemade ice-skates
“We loved fishing too; we’d clean and fry those fish right where we caught ’em. If it was a nice night, we’d sleep out – and we swam at all hours,” Janet remembered.
She thought for a moment.
“Overall, it wasn’t the best childhood, but I think we did a good job with what we had,” she said. “We missed out on a lot, but we also created our own freedom, because we knew how to play. The secret to being a kid on your own is to take that time and PLAY. Just play your heart out, because you’ll never get another chance to do it again.”
Smith married at 16. She knew she was too young, but felt she couldn’t wait for a normal family of her own. Later that year, her first child was born.
That was the beginning of another story about another family.
Today, Smith is a fixture at the Senior Center, where she’s volunteered for 20 years. Everyone knows her. She’s spunky and smart, and knows how to get things done.
“I understand the past, but I don’t live there,” she said.”I’m too busy living in the present. I’m very active in the Senior Olympics and in the First Christian Church. I stay busy, basically – I help out wherever I’m needed”
She was too modest to reveal the number of gold medals she’s collected over the years – but we do know this much: Janet Smith won the Sierra County Senior Olympics Spirit Award three times.
That strikes me as the sort of medal a community of people might give to someone they value and love – not so much because she’s helpful, but because she is home.
JEREMIAH KAUFFMAN: HIS WORLD of ART and POETRY
Author: The Salty River Bleeds, The Timbre of Sand, Still Dandelions, A Ranch Bordering the Salty River. Alum: Palomar College, Columbia University, Bennington College. Follow on twitter @SmpageSteve on Instagram @smpagemoria on Facebook @steven.page.1481
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