By Elaine Flora Graves
One of my claims to fame is that my father, Glenn Tracy Graves, grew up across the street from author John Steinbeck in Salinas, California and became his close childhood friend. My father lived his whole life in Salinas, except during World War II when he and my mother, Claire, temporarily moved to Oakland to work with the Moore Dry Dock Company. They returned to Salinas when I was a one month old infant, and my brother Glenn, Jr. was a 14-month old toddler.
Most of us have read some of Steinbeck’s books, usually as a school assignment – Tortilla Flat, The Red Pony, Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and East of Eden, to name a few. Incidentally, when the movie East of Eden was filmed at various Salinas locations, my grandmother’s home – full of attractive Victorian furniture – was photographed for interior shots, and my father was credited as a technical adviser on the film. My brother and I were so excited to see this movie but were so mesmerized by the actors that we completely forgot to check the interior shots to see if we recognized my grandmother’s marble top tables and horsehair stuffed sofa!
My revived interest in Steinbeck began when I participated in a zoom Storytelling class in early June that was offered by the Waterfront Village. For my final storytelling project, I decided to talk about my father and his boyhood adventures with John Steinbeck. After all, Steinbeck is considered by many to be one of the major storytellers of the 20th century!
I searched online and discovered audio interviews with John Steinbeck archived at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
I was delighted to find two tapes on Steinbeck’s childhood, recorded from my father Glenn Graves, and described by a Steinbeck historian as “John’s closest boyhood friend.” I knew that my father had been interviewed years ago by local librarians and historians, among many other Monterey County residents, family members, and others who personally knew and interacted with John Steinbeck. I have an old copy of one of my father’s tapes, but it’s hard to hear, scratchy, and skips.
Another event that motivated me to talk about my father’s boyhood with John Steinbeck was on Oct. 19, when I heard an author discuss his newly released Steinbeck biography – the first to be written in 25 years. William Souder – the acclaimed author of the diligently researched Mad at the World, A life of John Steinbeck, discussed his book during a Zoom event hosted by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. Several years ago, my brother and I donated our father’s photo album to this Center because it includes black and white photos of the young Steinbeck. Not only did we want to preserve these photos for posterity, but as an alumna of San Jose State, it’s a way to contribute to my University.
As I listened to Souder, all of a sudden, I heard my father’s name. He said, “All his life Steinbeck supported anyone he thought was being treated unfairly. John befriended a neighbor boy Glenn Graves, a shy and skinny boy who was bullied and lived across the street from him.” I quickly entered the chat room and identified myself as Glenn’s daughter and typed how proud I am that he was a childhood friend of Steinbeck and that he is mentioned in this book. Souder was pleased to hear from me and said he had listened to tapes of my father’s recollections of his childhood adventures with Steinbeck.
Souder wrote in Mad at the World…, “John told a classmate that he played with Glenn because ‘somebody had to take care of him.’ As an adult, John would say that the one thing he could not bear was another human being oppressed, abused, or taken advantage of by anyone more powerful, especially if the motive was greed.”
In fact, my father is mentioned seven times throughout the book, including the final paragraph. I immediately purchased a copy – the last one at The Wharf’s Politics and Prose bookstore. And from their website I ordered additional copies and sent them to my two nephews, Glenn’s grandsons he never knew, and also to his great-granddaughters, so they could know the legacy they all shared.
Glenn Graves was born Dec. 12, 1901 and lived at 147 Central Ave. A few weeks later on Feb. 27, 1902, John Steinbeck was born in his home at 132 Central Ave., across the street and half a block from the Graves’ home.
When the two boys were born, Salinas, the county seat of Monterey County and surrounded by golden hills, was home to 3,300 diverse residents – mostly ranchers and wheat farmers. Beginning with grains and sugar beets, the Salinas Valley agriculture expanded in the 1920s to include lettuce, strawberries, broccoli, celery, and eventually cauliflower and mushrooms – calling itself the “Salad Bowl of the World.”
John formed a little neighborhood gang of boys, including Glenn, Johnny Burchess, and Willie Welt. Mary, Steinbeck’s kid sister, three years younger than her brother, tagged along too. Of his three sisters, Mary and John were very close and loyal playmates.
On the taped interview, Glenn explained: “We had two club houses, one in John’s dirt basement and one in my father’s tool shed.” They became blood brothers after they had pricked their thumbs and pressed them together. John was a big kid, and liked to be the “boss of things,” according to Glenn.
Both boys loved dogs and John taught his dog Jiggs to play dead. On the tape, Glenn laughed and said you had to watch out for Jiggs because he loved to get close and stick out his long tongue planting a “big lick across your face.”
Glenn continued, “Whenever we could get away with it, we climbed up to the Steinbeck attic and walked on rafters in an unfinished section of their home.”
But the Graves’ larger back yard, barn, tool shed, and a more welcoming mother, Flora Tracy Graves, beckoned the children to Glenn’s home. John’s mother, Olive, didn’t like too many children at her home, according to Glenn. Flora Graves liked John and he was always ready to listen to her tales of the pretentious society folks in Salinas. She knew they were hiding their humble backgrounds and that their fathers had been miners and their mothers worked as washerwomen.
John also loved to visit the Williams sisters, Belle and Jenny – two wealthy sisters who regaled him with tales of Salinas’s history and knew all the town’s gossip. Years later, some residents recognized themselves or their relatives in unflattering prose in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Many residents didn’t like Steinbeck for that reason, but as his fame increased, they got over it!
Today, John Steinbeck is the honored native son of Salinas. The city library is named after him. Steinbeck’s home is a popular restaurant. And, the National Steinbeck Center is a fitting monument to the writer – developed as a museum and a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization, it houses Steinbeck archives and artifacts, in addition to showcasing the region’s agriculture history. It also offers education and public programs.
Glenn continued with his stories of their childhood adventures. He told how the neighborhood children played in the sloughs all over town, including at the back of many of their homes. They gathered tulles, plastered the adobe mud on them, and like a slingshot, grabbed the stalk and sent the dried mud flying down the streets.
Glenn remembered: “We decided to gather black bird eggs from their nests in the mustard stalks, so we set off on our bikes with Mary riding on her pony and John leading her.” They tramped through a farmer’s wheat field leaving a wide swath of trampled wheat stalks. The farmer was not happy!
A favorite hangout was the Salinas River. The boys walked or rode their bikes to the nearby river to go skinny-dipping. Sometimes they fished too. When they were older, John and Glenn took their hunting rifles to hunt for rabbits. Glenn chuckled and said they never saw a rabbit to shoot!
Another time, the little gang of boys, Mary probably was not with them this time, discovered a farmer’s stash of raw tobacco leaves mixed with twigs used to make pigeon nests. So the curious boys rolled the tobacco leaves in newspapers and smoked them. Glenn remembered how sick he became and never smoked again in his life. This incident didn’t dissuade John from being a life-long smoker, however.
Glenn recalled that John’s parents were strict and made him mind his manners. John’s mother was very proud of her son and probably spoiled him a little since he was the only boy among her four children. Glenn commented, “It was said that she was a big influence in his love of literature.”
One Christmas, Glenn recalled that he and John, and perhaps a couple of the other neighborhood boys, received store-bought two-wheel scooters as gifts. They would put one foot on the scooter and push off with the other foot, struggling to ride on the uneven dirt roads. Lots of fun, especially when they went to the lumberyard and put large sheets of smooth wood on the ground, enabling them to scoot faster and faster!
The Graves family had a little ranch outside of the town where they raised cattle. John and Glenn ventured out there one day.
It must have been a hot day because John undressed and climbed up the water tower, jumped in and went swimming. My grandfather Ben appeared and yelled at John: “What are you doing? That’s water for us to drink and for the horses. John replied, “You have a strainer on it, don’t you?”
Glenn described John as a “a typical boy, but not very energetic!” Once John’s father told him to scrape off the old paint on their house so that a painter could apply fresh paint. Glenn said John was very energetic when his father was around, but didn’t work very hard when he wasn’t there.
Once they entered high school, John, who had skipped a year in grammar school, was a year ahead of my father. The two youths were not as close as they had been. When he was 14, John decided he wanted to be a writer and Glenn noticed his bedroom light on late at night and knew that John “kept a pad and pencil by his bed so if he got any ideas in the middle of the night, he could write them down.”
Souder ended his biography, writing: “A long time ago, late at night in the town of Salinas, California, a boy named Glenn Graves stirred in his sleep. He got up and walked in his pajamas to the window, rubbing his eyes. He looked out and saw curtains of fog hanging above Central Avenue. It was quiet. Nothing moved. But he could see across the way, to a window in the upstairs bedroom of the big house on the other side, and there was a light on in it.”
My father had no idea that his boyhood pal would become a world-renowned author and receive the 1940 Pulitzer Prize Fiction Award for The Grapes of Wrath and the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The last time my father saw John Steinbeck was many, many years after their childhood when Steinbeck brought his two sons to the big carnival during the annual Rodeo week. The two men shook hands, exchanged brief pleasantries, and then went their separate ways.