Gil Andrews knows what it’s like to hate something so much that it spurs you to do something great with your life.
Andrews hated poverty, even though that was all he knew as a boy.
The 1964 Colusa High School graduate (real name Andy Gillespie) has documented the story of his life in a new book “Gettin’ by,” which tells of his struggle to achieve the American Dream – and his struggle to hang on to it.
“I hated being poor,” said Andrews, 72, at a book signing last week at the Williams Library. “For many years, I would lie to my friends about what my father did for a living. I did not want my friends and classmates to know that we were on welfare and were just getting by on it.”
Growing up in the mid 20th century when seasonal agriculture jobs in California paid just a fraction of what manufacturing and other unskilled laborers earned, poor families had few options but to move from crop to crop for seasonal work, supplemented by welfare.
His mother, and the man he had thought was his father, who had been disabled from a construction accident, had few options to get by as a family with six children. They lived for a time near Cannery Row in Seaside before moving to the old Arbuckle POW camp, which had been used to house German prisoners during World War II before being converted to migrant housing.
Times were always hard, Andrews said, and he couldn’t wait to get out of Colusa County, although several members of his family remained.
“For girls in the family, the options were few – get married, get a minimum wage job, or in a few cases, join the military,” Andrews said. “With the boys, the options were also few – get a job working in minimum wage seasonal agriculture or at a gas station, or get drafted or enlist in the military.”
For all of the children in Andrews’ family, finishing high school was important, but not for the sake of an education.
“We were conditioned by our mother at an early age that at 18 years of age, or if you dropped out of high school before 18, welfare would cut off benefits to the family for you,” he said. “If you stayed in the family household, you would be expected to contribute that amount that welfare provided for you. If you did not contribute to the household, then you were expected to move out.”
With few aspirations other than unwillingness to face a lifetime working in the fields, be drafted into the Army during the buildup of the Vietnam War, or pursuits that would lead him down the wrong path, Andrews joined the United States Air Force after graduation, which changed his life forever.
“It was the wisest decision I would ever make,” he said. “It would be the start of a 40-year federal career, 29 of those in federal law enforcement.”
Andrews, who now lives in Tularosa, New Mexico, compiled the book from the many stories he told friends throughout his career, including his time as an air marshal in the 1970s when hijackings and bombings plagued the air travel industry. Most of his career involved drug smuggling operations in the Mexico-U.S. border.
The book is written with his wife, Anne Farris, and is also a revealing look into the skeletons in his family’s closet, including finding out in 2015 through DNA that his father was not his biological father.
“I don’t really know what my family thinks of the book,” he said. “So far, I haven’t gotten any flack about it.”
Andrews said baring his soul to the world by writing “Getting’ by” was both humbling and frightening.
“It was also cleansing and therapeutic,” he noted in the book. “I am sure there are those who will judge me negatively, but they never walked in my shoes.”
In addition to the book signings last week at the Arbuckle and Williams libraries, the Friends of the Colusa County Library hosted an author’s evening Nov. 15, at the Colusa Library.
The book is available on Amazon for $21 or Kindle for $4.99. ■