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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Duststorms Then and Now

This has been a horrible year for folks out in western Oklahoma and much of west Texas. Rainfall is measure in one-hundredths of an inch and every precious drop is welcomed. The drought and high winds have birthed many dust-filled days and wildfires. Thousands (maybe millions) of acres of land have burned along with many homes. More and more people are talking about how this must've been what the "dirty thirties" were like when dust storms came one upon another during the Great Depression.

I have family and friends in the "dustbowl" of Texas and Oklahoma and ventured out there last week to celebrate a birthday, visit, and give a couple of talks. The first full day there was glorious - bright blue skies, wide open spaces that made me want to lift my face to the sky and inhale the beauty of it. Two days later, while I was at my dad's, the wind woke me up at 4 am. Fierce. Howling. Daddy and I stood at the picture window and watched the yellow sky, the wind whipping at everything in its path, stirring up dust. We pointed out a tree line in the distance, its form dark, barely distinguishable. By noon, the trees were no longer visible, the sky just a continuous brown smudge.

Daddy lived through the dust bowl on a farm less than ten miles from where we stood watching the wind blow. It didn't take much encouragement from me for Daddy to tell me about those days. Here are his random memories.

Phyllis, Dall, LaRue, Mike (my dad), Evain

"My daddy went to bed and cried every night, wondering how he and Mother were going to feed and care for five kids. We had milk cows, but we couldn't afford to feed them and times were bad for all of us so the government shot all but one of the cows. They let us keep the one so us kids would have milk. The dirt was so bad, though, that it caked up all over her body and crusted over, clogging all her pores. She couldn't breathe, and got sick. We locked her in the milking stanchion and poured water on her, tried to scrub the built-up dirt off, but it didn't help. Our one milk cow died."

We refilled our coffee cups, grateful for storm windows and the secure house. There were no such luxuries in the thirties.

"We hung sheets and blankets over the doors when the dirt was blowing. Daddy caulked all around the windows so even on nice days we couldn't open the windows and get fresh air.  Even sealed up, the windows leaked dust, and us boys would take our little tractors and plow the dirt that settled on the window sills." He ran his finger along the sill, his chin quivering.

"We had a dog named Jack. Just a non-descript mutt about so high." He pointed to his knee. "We couldn't feed him, so my brothers and I caught rabbits. You could walk right up to them and pick them up. So much grit had blown in their eyes, they couldn't see. We slammed them against the oak wagon wheels and threw them over to Jack so he wouldn't starve."

In better times
"I think I remember Black Sunday. For some reason, a lot of the storms came on a Sunday, but if it's the one I'm thinking of, there was just a black line on the horizon to the north, extending to the west. It got wider and wider and as it got closer, birds started flapping overhead, flying higher and higher trying to get above the dirt cloud. The sky was black with the clouds and what seemed like millions of flapping birds trying to escape the storm. The birds were just about as spooky as the dust storm."

Around four o'clock Daddy and I traced our steps back to the picture window. The tree line in the distance had come back in view, the sky now just dull and tired looking. Daddy pulled on a jacket, covered his mouth with the silk kerchief he wore to keep out the elements. "Time to feed the colt." I watched as he walked to the barn, his body hunkered into the wind which was still pretty gusty. A short time later he returned and pulled two chicken eggs from his pocket - the daily offering from the two hens who'd gone about their business, wind and dirt or not.

And I think that's the way it is. Life does indeed go on for most of us. And on reflection, I'm thankful for a dad who still remembers the storms of life, that he and others have survived to share their stories. I'm thankful for a praying grandfather who saw his prayers answered and lived to see better times. And  I'm thankful to you, my readers, for sharing time with me.

Do you like to hear stories of your parents and grandparents? How do you think events of the past shape who we are today? While I didn't grow up during the Depression, I grew up hearing stories of it. It has shaped who I am and what I write. I hope you'll join me next time as I tell you how those stories have infused my writing. Until then, be safe.


Erica Vetsch said...

What a treasure you have in your Daddy. So much history within his lifetime.

I'm glad you wrote it down for generations to come.

Julie Garmon said...

This is beautiful, Carla. I want to share it with my step-father. He's from Oklahoma--was a sociology professor at OSU.

Love to you today.

Florene or Lori said...

Your daddy's stories are priceless! I so enjoyed reading about a time I have little or no knowledge of. My own father, now long gone, shared some of his stories about the depression and how he and his family survived. I am grateful for those stories and did write them down for my grandchildren to read.
Thank you so much, Carla for sharing!

carla stewart said...

Erica, you would get a kick out of my dad! All you have to do is ask a question and he's off and running with the answers. He would hold you hostage with his stories!

Julie! One of my uncles (the smallest boy in these pics) went to OSU. Wouldn't it be something if he knew your stepdad?

Florene or Lori - thanks for stopping by. So glad you are writing your stories for your grandchildren. Please come by again.