View from the back of a station wagon

They pulled into town in an early 70’s Gran Torino station wagon.

Their accommodations: a former service station.

Brian Mills, his four brothers and his parents had been making their way across the United States. Picking cotton; actually picking anything that would make them money when their dad wasn’t fixing and reselling cars. They landed in Devore, a community without streetlights or curbs, a neighborhood in-between two interstates, in Southern California, known for its unrelenting heat in the summer. The nation just faced the peak of the recession in December 1982, when the nationwide unemployment rate was 10.8%, highest since the Great Depression.

When they pulled into the San Bernadino community, they took a vote whether to stay at the old service station or spend their limited money on a house to rent. They voted to stay. See, their family functioned as a democracy, even though the youngest voter was only eight years old. They would all pitch in for work, so they all had a say on how their money would be spent.

For the next four months the service bays served as their showers – complete with a handy garden hose.  The station had an abandoned late 1960’s travel trailer where mom and dad slept and cooked. The boy’s “bedroom” was army-salvage cots in the station. They were home-schooled when they weren’t working. A great source of entertainment was to push each other around in broken down car that was left on the grounds.  Later all the boys acquired skateboards from a “professional thief” would pull up in his Trans Am with liberated merchandise including the skate boards and skill saws.

My husband first told me this story, after working out of town this summer with Brian on their construction team, at a gold mine in East Nevada. When I first heard this story, it seemed more out of the Grapes of Wrath era rather than 1983.  I would have figured that cotton was machine harvested by then.

Brian said their family made up a very small percentage of white laborers – the majority being black or Hispanic. He laughed when I asked about child labor laws. Even at seven or eight years old – he knew that every basket would mean more money for the family. So for weeks at a time, their little fingers and wrists would get cut, picking the cotton off the dried bristles.  Even gloves didn’t help if you didn’t have the finesse to work the white gold off the dead plant. 

Brian was gracious enough to tell me his story in person, as frankly I didn’t believe my husband’s version.  He lived the better part of his youth being “well, I guess you could say we were homeless” and at a time if you stopped by a police department, they would give you food vouchers to “keep on moving” out of their town.

And he’d be the first to tell you that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. That his youth was a time of his life that he looks back with lots of with laughter, freedom and adventure.

He earned great respect for money at a young age and how to work hard for it – one of the many lessons from his father. 

Isn’t it interesting that the same year that Brian and his family rolled into Devore, was the same year my husband was there. A decade older than Brian, he had the “luxury” to attend Steve Wozniak’s (formerly of Apple Computer) US Festival (the location was eventually to become the San Manuel Amphitheater). And 28 years later they are both working together, sharing a beer in my house one evening, telling stories.

Stories like Brian’s make me:
… think of “six degrees of separation” and how close we all are to each other and to a sudden change of fate.
… count my blessings for the privileges I had growing up, even though back then I thought my peers had it better.
… realize how ignorant I can be of those things outside of my world.
… remind me that despite or because of our past, we can make our lives into what we want them to be.
… feel thankful for the lessons and the perspectives I have learned from people like Brian who I’m so lucky to have crossed paths with.

PS: Brian’s family eventually settled back in Arkansas with three of the five brothers having successful careers in the military; one is currently an Elvis impersonator and Brian at 38 could retire today if he wasn’t working for “the fun of it.” This newsletter is in memory of Brian’s dad, Jim Mills, October 22, 1944 – October 20, 2012


Originally published by Raving Consulting Company

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