Eleven-year-old Lyla’s nose was pressed against the car window, her face a mirror of the despair she felt. It was 1959, and another summer of being whisked away from her friends so her parents could work in the fields of California. She hated being poor. Her parents’ explanation of the economy and the construction industry being in a slump meant nothing to her. So why didn’t her dad just find another kind of job, she wondered.
“Enjoying the scenery?” Her mom patted her shoulder, not once taking her eyes off the road.
“No,” Lyla responded, her voice as flat as the terrain stretching before them. It looked dry and dead and brown, this desolate desert. She turned from the window, her eyes resting on the pick-up truck in front of them that her dad was driving. Another glaring reminder of their poverty was the truck’s camper shell her dad had constructed from wood. It contained household items for the summer. Her two younger brothers rode in the camper, while her older brother was in the cab with her dad. She, her mom, and baby sister were in the family car.
Their two-vehicle caravan reminded Lyla of the family in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ She smiled, wishing she’d brought the book. She loved to read.
“Why don’t you write? It’ll give you something to do.” Her mom’s voice brought her out of her reverie.
Lyla emitted a loud, drawn out sigh, letting her mom know again how unhappy she was about leaving her friends. Reaching to the seat behind her, she grabbed her Big Chief tablet and box of pencils. Glancing again at the dull, flat terrain outside the car window, she flipped the tablet open and poised her pencil in the air, her mind a flurry of thoughts.
'Once upon a time, she wrote, there was a girl named Lucinda who was captured by a band of gypsies, and taken from her friends for the summer.'
Her pencil flew across the paper until the tip was flat. She exchanged it for another one. She finished the story, allowing Lucinda to escape her captors. Lyla wrote The End, absently patting her baby sister who was sleeping on the seat between her and her mom. Within minutes a new story popped into her head.
'Once upon a time, she wrote, there was a girl named Princess Louise who lived in a castle. Princess Louise asked her father, the king, to help all the poor people who worked in the fields so they wouldn’t have to travel to distant lands looking for work.'
Lyla kept writing until their small caravan pulled into a rest area. “Time for lunch,” Mom said. Lyla took in their surroundings, noting that the terrain was no longer flat desert, but lush trees and hills.
She bounded from the car to run and play with her brothers, imagining that she was the liberated Lucinda reunited with her family at last. She climbed trees, and dug in trash barrels for anything salvageable. When her mom called them to the picnic table to eat, she grabbed her box of pencils from the car.
“Here, Dad,” she said, thrusting the box at him while she swung her thin legs over the bench to sit next to her older brother. Her mom dished up cold pork and beans from a can, and made sandwiches of potted meat and mayonnaise on day-old bread. Lyla took a couple of bites, wishing more than anything that they could eat at a restaurant or McDonald’s. Then she could pretend they were just on vacation to Disneyland.
How many times had they passed Disneyland on their way to work in the vineyards and orchards? When she was little--she considered herself almost grown up now--just seeing Disneyland from afar was enough, but not anymore. She wanted to ride the Matterhorn, go on It’s A Small World, and The Teacups, just like she saw on the Mickey Mouse Club.
“Here,” her dad said, thrusting the box of pencils at her. He had used a pocket knife to sharpen all the flat heads to needle points.
“Thanks,” she murmured. Staring at the pointed pencils, she knew what she would do. When they were back on the road again, she would start a new story.
'Once upon a time, there was a girl named Lyla who was on vacation with her family to Disneyland. They stopped at all the McDonald’s on the way, because they weren’t poor.'
**Based on actual events.
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