- Discovering the Real Meaning of IITYWYBAD:The Depression Memories of Philip Tobin
This is an account of a felicitous discovery of the meaning of Steinbeck’s IITYWYBAD.
I have always been amazed at the “coincidences” that have occurred in my life. For example, it seemed random when Jackson Benson came across my dissertation in the late 1980s and offered the opportunity for my very first Steinbeck publication or when Ted Hayashi gave me the chance to contribute to his monograph series on The Long Valley. Each was a felicitous occurrence that literally “came out of the blue.” These episodes reminded me of Steinbeck’s short story, “How Edith McGillicuddy Met R L Stevenson,” a true event that happened to Edith Wagner, the mother of Steinbeck’s friends, Jack and Max Wagner. Steinbeck also came across the event by chance and transformed her recollections into a fictional account. What follows is not fiction; rather it contains real events that record a serendipitous connection that occurred as a result of an unanticipated internet link that ensued in quite an enjoyable correspondence.
My godmother and aunt, Mildred Mackensen, was ill in a senior citizen facility, and her niece from Vermont, Donna Fellinger, was planning to visit her. My aunt had given Donna my e-mail, and we chatted online and then by phone; in these conversations, I revealed my deep interest in John Steinbeck. Unfortunately, my aunt died before Donna could come to visit her. But I kept in touch with Donna and sent her several photographs from the estate, especially those that portrayed her mother’s brother, John, who was, of course, my uncle as well. Shortly thereafter, Donna sent me an e-mail with the following message:
I believe that if I remember correctly, your area of expertise is John Steinbeck. Well, this past weekend we celebrated the first birthday of our granddaughter, and one of the guests at the birthday party was our daughter-in-law’s stepfather. Although we had met him previously, we knew nothing about his early life. It turns out that he remembers meeting John Steinbeck when he was working as a child in California [End Page 197] and his name is mentioned in The Grapes of Wrath. He is Phillip Tobin (he and his father are mentioned in the book) and he was about seven years old when Steinbeck encouraged drivers of carts with large containers of cotton to let a young boy ride on top of the load of cotton. Phil has many other stories. I mentioned your name to him, and he would be glad to connect by e-mail if you are interested.
The story sounded fascinating, so I sent off an e-mail to Phil requesting an account of his meeting with Steinbeck. My first attempt failed because of an inaccurate e-mail address, but fortunately Phil eventually replied with several short paragraphs that recounted the event. His comments follow:
The following tells the story of my youthful encounter with John Steinbeck in the cotton fields north of Indio, California. I think I was probably six or seven at the time. I say that because my recollection is that my eyes were scarcely above the table I mention below. I was born in 1931.
As a young boy, I picked cotton with John Steinbeck in the fields of California and have touched the manuscript of the The Grapes of Wrath. If you have access to a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, go to the end of Chapter 28, page 429 [Viking Critical Edition], and at the middle of the page you will see the surname Tobin.
The Tobin family mentioned was my father, my uncle and me (two men and a boy from Maine). I remember Steinbeck merely as John. I remember him vividly because my father used to go to Steinbeck’s tar-paper field shack, and they would talk. Striking to me at the time was the huge book-like thing he always had on his table when we would enter: it had papers sticking out of it like porcupine quills. The first time we went to his field shack, he moved...