Uncle Bob Comes Along.
Newly pregnant in March 1919, Eileen faced some real terrors. Living in a Shebang in the Casmalia, California Oil Field was akin to living outside. Dust and dirt blowing in through the floorboards made them impossible to keep clean, Her little girls played outside in the dirt and Bruce himself was filthy to the point of distraction. Eileen and Grace strove constantly to protect their families from all that they could.
Pregnant all through the summer of 1919, Eileen faced not only the lack of prenatal care we take for granted today she faced the extreme threat of the “Spanish Flu” which ahd begun wreaking havoc world wide in 1918. The flu would eventually kill between 50 and 100 hundred million people worldwide. In the states, returning military would bring it home during and after the war. The exceptionally contagious, unknown strain of influenza virus spread rapidly and attacked all ages. Whereas previous epidemics had affected those under five years of age or the elderly, the new virus especially targeted young adults, ages twenty to forty-four—the age range of sailors, marines, soldiers, pilots, physicians, nurses, and oil workers. Influenza spread from person to person by close contact, especially through sneezing, coughing, or sharing items such as drinking cups. All the men working oil rigs were young and in an age where tobacco chewing was rampant the constant spitting on floors spread the flu like wildfire. Add to that Tuberculosis, which was the leading cause of death in 1919. spread in the same way.
For women in the early twentieth century, pregnancy and childbirth were natural facts of life. But because of economic, cultural, and demographic circumstances, pregnancy and childbirth could also present great risks. Women, especially rural women, often lacked access to reliable care and information. Remoteness, harsh weather, poverty, and cultural taboos against openly discussing pregnancy made childbirth unusually hazardous.
Several factors contributed to the high risk of pregnancy. Economic realities meant that rural women had limited access to prenatal care and education and had to continue to work no matter their condition. Women in remote areas also had trouble finding qualified physicians or midwives. The vast majority women had no prenatal care, and while many tried to arrange for professional care at the time of delivery, plans could, and did, fall through. One young woman and her husband who worked on the lease “had planned to have a physician, but she went into labor so quickly it was impossible to send for him.” The nineteen-year-old mother gave birth alone while her husband was away on his tour at the well. She delivered the baby, cut and tied the cord, cared for her infant, and “did all of her own cooking and housework until her husband arrived with help a day later.” She and the baby survived but she was too weak to work for the next six months.
Sometimes lacking reliable medical care, women frequently called on neighbors for help. Almost 40 percent of the women in 1919 had a neighbor or a family member help them deliver. Those who helped often did so “with fear and misgivings,” and only because a woman “can’t be left alone in such a time.” Some communities had women who, though they lacked formal training, had extensive practical experience. A midwife “whose only training was having ten children herself.” Said she acquired most of her skills as she went. “You learn as you go along,” She said. “You feel the pulse in the cord and when it quits pulsating you tie it. You tried to make it so there wouldn’t be any infection.”
Starting in the 1920s, women more often began to opt for hospital births. Hospitals were seen to offer the “newest technological and scientific methods to aid women giving birth while affording patients comfort and freedom from domestic duties.” As obstetric practices became regulated in the 1930s, and antibiotics and transfusions were used to treat the problems of infection and hemorrhaging, maternal death rates dropped dramatically.
However, as the process of birth was professionalized and doctors replaced midwives, women lost a great degree of control over the birthing process. An increasing emphasis on “scientific motherhood” took away women’s agency as mothers: “Mothers were pictured as passive learners, taking their direction from experts, usually a male physician who insists that female patients must heed his every instruction.”
Eileen had had her two little girls at home. Mariel in the little house the family shared with Sam and Vancey Hall and grandmother Pritchard, she of the generation born before the civil war. Both women were likely veterans of home birth and may have had the help of Doc Clark who lived just a few miles away in Arroyo Grande. Barbara was born just eighteen months later in Madera. The Halls were working a ranch with the family that September. WWI had just begun a scant five months earlier and Barbara and Mariel were the prime reason he wasn’t training to go overseas with the army. He was ruled exempt from conscription in May of 1917 because he was married with a family.
Bruce and Eileen had moved up to Madera to live with his half-brother Marion and wife Grace because Samuel and Vancey, along with Grandma Pritchard had pulled stakes for Arizona. They traveled by buckboard from Creston to Madera in the heat of early fall when Eileen was 8 months pregnant. 130 miles across the Temblor Range, country they would someday know very well, to Madera where just a month later she gave birth to my mother. At home, no doctor just a neighbor woman, Grace and Bruce attending the delivery. The resourcefulness, courage and sheer practicality of those women is astounding by todays standards. Don’t discount the men either. As a farm boy Bruce would have seen and assisted in many births and though they would have been animals, There isn’t much difference in the processes of nature.
Two years later Eileen was about to birth another child in Casmalia, in a tent this time. It had been a tough year all together. Earlier Mariel had seen her little sister Barbara holding a knife in her hand, something she wasn’t supposed to do. She promptly said, “No,” and pulled the blade from Barbaras little hand, slicing the palm to the bone. With blood squirting everywhere and Barbara screaming, Mariel screaming too, scared to death about what had happened. Eileen grabbed Barbara who was just two and leaving Mariel with her sister-in-law Grace careened out the door. They had no car so she turned towards the hills and ran across the plowed fields as fast as she could carrying the shrieking child more than a mile up to the drill rig where Bruce was. Bruce tied a handkerchief around the little girls hand and calling to the Tool Pusher that he needed to take the car down to the doctor at Los Olivos, he quickly they jumped in the Ford and bounced down the dirt road, racing the 34 miles into town where they found the doctor at home. The knife had cut nearly through my mothers tendons and there was fear that she would be permanently damaged but that old town doctor, used to patching up all kinds of wounds from hands crushed on the rigs to farmers slashed with knives during harvest quietly sat down with my mother and carefully pulled the tendons together, suturing them together and then closing the wound and applying a bandage. With her arm in a sling, Barbara rode home with her parents. The wound took months to heal and had to be massaged every day to keep the muscles supple but hard work, time and the luck of a child prevented any permanent damage. Consider that this was long before antibiotics and specialized therapies and the operation was done without anesthesia other than a little chloroform. The unknown Doc really knew his business. He was soon to have another occasion to be of service to the little family.
On the 16th of November Eileen’s water broke and she went into labor. In the early twentieth century labor and birth could well be a death sentence and in fact about one in every six babies died. Even though Eileen had been through two births she must have been anxious for she knew well the risks. Bruce did too. The delivery was to be a bad one.
My uncle Bob was born in his parents bed. Aunt Grace and uncle Marion kept the other children away as Eileen lay sweating and groaning as she did her best to bring Bob into the world. A phone call from the Associated Oil library brought the doctor up from Los Olivos in a hurry. He doctor stood on one side of the bed and Bruce on the other as Eileen strained and pushed to deliver. Aunt Grace came over to the Halls side of the tent with the ubiquitous pans of hot water and stacks of clean towels and rags. The doctor asked Bruce to take cotton placed in a small cup and pour a few drops of chloroform into it and as Eileen began to push in earnest, hold the cup over her nose and mouth, counting to three and then removing it to allow her some relief from the pain and overwhelming fatigue. As a mother’s conscious participation is regarded as highly important for a safe and efficient birth, the chloroform served to keep Eileen calm but not to hinder her labor. The doctor had Bruce put the mask on and then take it of in a carefully thought out rhythm. Just enough chloroform to keep her relaxed and lessen the pain but not enough to cause unconsciousness.
In 1919 researchers already knew that chloroform could decay and release Phosgene gas. Phosgene in its gaseous form was a type of mustard gas used in WWI to disable and kill soldiers. It causes a build up of fluid in the lungs and in severe cases the soldier dies choking a day or two later. Bruces’ brother Bill was lightly gassed in the trenches of France and it affected his lungs for the rest of his life. The great pitcher Christy Mathewson died at the age of 45 from the lingering effects of Phosgene he inhaled during the war.
The doctors instructions were explicit, Bruce was to hold the cup over Eileens nose and mouth for the count of three and then lift it off until the doctor nodded to him to put it back on for a further count of three. One, two, three and lift.
With the baby coming very slowly, Eileen began to hemorrhage, her blood soaking the towels Grace held, one after the other. Bruce saw this and in a panic forgot to take the mask away after the count of three. The doctor saw this and said, “Take it off now man, you’ll kill her if you don’t.”
Bruce calmed down and pretty quickly little Bob was born. As the doctor took him up and placed him on Eileens stomach in order to cut the cord, a great gout of blood flooded out of her the result of a postpartum hemorrhage. It frightened Bruce even more.
Eileen was greatly weakened by the loss of blood and was initially nearly unconscious. Grace, Bruce and the doctor moved Eileen to the little girls bed and began cleaning up the bloody towels, disposing of their own mattress until Bruce could get down to Los Olivos to buy a hew one. Eileens blood loss made her very weak and aunt Grace and Bruce had to take up her duties. Aunt Grace had her own husband and little boy Don to take care of and helped when she could. Bruce took his tours on the rigs but came home every day, put his head down and became the de-facto mother. He cooked, cleaned, did laundry, took care of the girls and baby Bob for a long time as Eileen gradually regained enough strength to began normal life.
The daily routine slowly returned to normal or as normal as it could be for a small family living in the Oil Patch. Like most families, they did it because they had too and like many, it brought them together. For all the trials they endured simply taught them to rely on one another.
Cover Photo: Associated Oil Ball Team, Casmalia California 1920. Bruce Hall, back row, fourth from left.
Chapter Eight, Here We Go, Off to Oildale.