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You Should Write A Book

By LeRoy Chatfield

Even though I barely remember the year – it had to have happened more than 70 years ago in the late 1940s  – I vividly remember my father’s words: You Should Write A Book.    I am certain I did not respond  because during those years of my childhood when my father spoke to me it was because he was telling me something and I should listen, we were not having a discussion.

What he was referring to was a  short, but true story  – perhaps, I was 11 years of age at the time – I wrote about our family trip from Parker Arizona to Tehachapi California.

Shortly before the end of World War II, my father leased a Massey Harris harvester and a flat bed truck on which to transport it, and became a contract harvester.  He was something of a migrant worker in the sense he   followed the crop harvests  and  wherever he could find rice, wheat, barley or other grains that needed to be harvested, he stayed in the area until the harvest season was over   and then moved on to the next agricultural area.   

One of the larger harvesting jobs he secured was  the Japanese American concentration camp in Poston Arizona.  To be with my father for this particular job,  our family relocated from Colusa California where  we lived,  to  Parker Arizona and found a place to rent in a small hamlet  right on the Colorado River – the river where I caught my first fish and lost it to an aggressive  alley cat who stole it from me on my way up to the house to brag about  it and show  to my mother,  and it was also the  river where I first learned to swim.

Some years later, back in Colusa, my mother read my account of our trip back to California and showed it to my father. He must have been impressed – you should write a book, he said. I know he meant this as an encouragement and a pat on the back but I also knew that my short family story would never become a book and if it did, I would not be the one writing it.

My father told me other things. One time,  on our way to work, he told me that when I grew up he expected me to get an education and make something of myself and not end up like him. He wanted me to do better, he said. This time, I knew he wanted an answer.  I said I would. He seemed satisfied. This might have even been the same day when he pulled off to the side of the road and  asked me if I wanted to drive? Oh, did I ever!

Another time,  the occasion of receiving some kind of Boy Scout merit badge at a Scout Jamboree,  he came right up to me, pinned the badge on my uniform,   put out his hand to shake mine  and said  Son, I am proud of you.  In my childhood, even though my given name was LeRoy, everyone called me Son. If you can believe this, I never used my given name until after I left home to attend boarding school.

Writing now 48-years after my father’s death in the prime of his life at age 56 –  never sick a day in his life but no matter, now struck down by  pancreatic cancer. To this day I not only  feel the sadness of his loss, but   more than that: how can I find the words to  explain  how much I admired my father during my childhood?

 Without much formal education, he did make something of himself!   He was a man of good character and generous, a man whose handshake was his word and the proof of his honesty,  a man of many careers, quick with numbers, and he could fix anything.

Yes, it is true,  my father had a quick temper and unpredictable –  almost anything could set him off and I was very careful about it. Through the years, he mellowed and developed patience.

Broad shouldered, 5 feet 10 inches tall with biceps that felt like steel,  my father was physically strong. I knew he was not as strong as Superman, but certainly a close second. He was all business – not much for small talk, chit-chat or standing around waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He worked long hours and it was always the task to be finished  – not the clock – that dictated quitting time. If he ever complained about the work, I never heard it.

One day he came home from work with his shirt off and his upper torso was flaming red, it glowed. We looked at him in disbelief, it was awful looking! He had been replacing a broken piece of machinery underneath a harvester when the radiator plug came loose and the steaming water poured out onto his chest. Not a word! He crawled out from underneath the rig, got in his car and drove the ten miles home to put some salve on the burn.   Seek medical attention?  Workers compensation?  Take a few days off? Not my Dad, not in the 1940s!  He went to work early the next morning.

My father was restless. He pursued one career after another looking for one that would fit his ambition and talents.  The first job I remember was working as a traveling bill collector for an agricultural equipment company. He sold and repaired Massey Harris harvesters. He learned to fly a plane, then bought a small Piper Cub and converted it  into a rice sewing machine. All went well until the day when the overloaded plane plummeted back to earth after take-off. My mother told him his flying days were over and he did not disagree.

He became a building contractor and built homes out of concrete blocks he manufactured in his warehouse. Always trying out the latest techniques, he installed radiant heat in the floors of the homes he built.

He sold agricultural pesticides and hired a retrofitted helicopter to spray the field crops. He also worked for a time as manager in a large agricultural parts store in Sacramento.

And finally, he became a real estate land broker who worked with farmers in the Sacramento area who wanted to sell their property to accommodate and fuel the modern day grow of the Sacramento region.

In yesterday’s mail, I received a signed contract and a letter of congratulations from the University of New Mexico Press regarding a book they agreed to publish: To Serve the People: My Life Organizing With Cesar Chavez and the Poor. By LeRoy Chatfield with Jorge Mariscal.





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