episode 4

On The Road

Episode 4

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Ephemera Dorothea Lange
Washington Photographs, 1939
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Audio Transcript - Episode 4

From Virginia to Tacoma

MP3 - Mollie Satko

From Virginia to Tacoma

Paul: Well at this time we finally—wasn't very much happened until we got to Ashland Kentucky, across the border, and I soon began to accumulate police cars...They followed me and the children reported there's some police following me. After a while they said there was another one. I said well don't look maybe there's more coming...

Accumulating police cars seems to have been a regular occurrence as the Satkos made their way across the country. It turns out that they needed a separate permit for the oversized vehicle in each state. Overhanging tree branches brushed the tops and sides of the Ark as it motored along. Disbelieving onlookers wandered out to the roadside to watch them pass and gave them pies, fruit, canned food. Newspapers interviewed the family and according to one account even persuaded Paul Satko to bury his eldest daughter alive. Hazel was—it's claimed—interred in a box with a breathing tube attached—as a publicity stunt cooked up by Paul and a local paper. It's impossible to verify that story from any newspaper accounts, but it DOES seem clear that Paul rarely said no to an interview. Even as the children grew to dislike the exposure.

Herb Satko, Hazel's nephew.
Well I know from talking with Hazel a lot—I was pretty close with Hazel—and she was the oldest— she was a young girl, teenage girl. Soft spoken. She didn't want any limelight. That's something they all pretty much say. They didn't want the limelight. They didn't want to be included. That was Paul's thing. And there's no two ways about it—Paul was a forceful personality. And like all the kids, his son Joe felt the full impact of that. When Joe grew up he had two children—Herb his son, who we've just heard from, and Cathy, his daughter:

Cathy: Everything was his dad's way and the kids learned that early—they learned it early. They had a very rigid code they had to live by. They weren't supposed to start a fight and so if they did there was a punishment for that. They were not allowed to lose a fight—if they did there was a punishment for that. And they were not allowed to back off. If someone was challenging them they were to take that challenge and they were to win. And so he imposed his standards on them and they learned to live by those standards—you bet.

DB: And so what would those punishments be?

Oh I think they were always a whipping.

Cathy's father Joe was fifteen at the time of the trip. By the time he reached his late teens, though, Joe was chafing against the restrictions of his upbringing. Which is when his dad's boxing skills came in handy.

Cathy: He decided that we has big enough and that his dad no longer should have the right to tell him what to do—that he would make his own decisions. And he told his dad that and his dad said 'Well you know what to do—go get the gloves.' In other words you had to win your right to make your own decisions. And he said the biggest surprise he got was that he never thought his dad would hit him as hard as he did. But he did and landed and really nice good punch and he said he went flying across the room tok him a while to be coherent again. And I said 'Well I bet you never did that again because I would have known instinctively not to do that with him, with his reputation.' And he said 'Actually no I did. I came back later and challenged him and said—Well pop now you really can't—and he said—Get the gloves—And I said 'Well did you win or lose?' and he said 'I lost again'.

Now I know fathers and sons often have tensions between them—but even in the 1930s, Paul's discipline seems a bit harsh side. Joe, Paul's son, told me he was always afraid of his father—to use his own words—'He was a big man...he could be cruel as hell...or gentle...we done what he said.' But Joe also says the work ethic and the determination which his dad instilled in him—it was the making of him. And it was sheer determination was driving the family forwards towards their dream—that and the heartbeat of the 6 cylinder flat head Buick engine, as they crept along the country roads of Kentucky...

Paul: We didn't go very far until they flagged me—one car passed me. And when I was flagged there was a large number of police and a crowd had gathered over there. Pulled over to the side right at a police patrol station. Such a large crowd gathered round the police said well we can't talk business here, better go into the office here. Which they did and they called up long distance telephone to find out what to do about this vehicle.

What they did was give Paul Satko permission to traverse the state of Kentucky as long as he wasn't staying. So on the family went. They were pulled over again midway across Illinois, but this time Paul was threatened with arrest if he didn't wait eight days for a permit to arrive by mail from Springfield. As he delicately put it, the next day they left— quote unquote —'before breakfast' and were in Missouri before anyone caught up with them. Before breakfast was one of Paul's favorite times to travel, as we'll hear later in the story. Meanwhile the family made do as best they could—Mollie nursing the new baby Jimmy, whose birth had delayed their departure from Virginia. They slept two or three to a bed, in improvised bunks, and used a bucket for a toilet. The older children—and Hazel in particular—helping out with the everyday chores:

DB: Was it hard for her being the oldest girl as well?

Herb: Oh I think so yeah. She obviously would have helped a tremendous amount with the kids and I know the younger kids she mothered a lot. So it was her responsibility to help in that journey, help feed them and clothe them, wash the clothes and stuff. I'm sure it was a hard life. And I know in later life she alway had the philosophy that her own kids would ever go without. So I know it had a big impact on Hazel.

Paul: We came to Hannibal Missouri. We stayed there. I got a little job there installing a motor for a hammer mill. We stayed there—it was about eight days until I completed that job and continued on. The next place was eh...

And here's where we leave the Satko family, or they leave us. Rolling out of Hannibal Missouri, birthplace of Mark Twain. There don't appear to be any recorded details of what happened between Missouri and the west coast. Paul glosses over it on the archive tape—which leaves a teasing silence about that part of the trip. Particularly since these are the miles that shadow the route of the Oregon Trail: the trading and pioneer highway that was carved out of the landscape by incoming white settlers in the nineteenth century.

When the Satkos trailed their ark over the Cascades and down into the drizzly Puget Sound area, 1938 was nearly at an end. The pioneers who had come before them years ago were being celebrated, and their lives re-imagined—by the people of Washington as they got ready to mark fifty years of statehood.