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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

Gray Matters: Dust Bowl Days

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Not long ago, while chatting with a young friend, I was made to feel truly ancient. I had mentioned remembering the Dust Bowl Days and my remark was met with a totally blank response.

Now that history is being reduced to a minimum in our schools I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Still, being reminded that so much time has passed since that seminal experience of my youth gave me a bit of a shock.

There were multiple causes for that disaster. Demand for farm land, as immigrants moved westward encouraged by the Homestead Act and the building of intercontinental railroads, was a part of it. They started cultivating and planting the thin soil, which was held in place by the amazing root systems of hardy prairie grasses.

At the same time, a cycle of unusually copious rains encouraged European-style cultivation. But by the early 30's the cycle reversed, drought set in and the die was cast. Strong winds began to pick up the shallow earth and the swirling clouds moved eastward.

I will never forget those black menacing skies. My most vivid memory is of Sunday, April 14, 1935. A pot-luck dinner had been scheduled following morning services so we all gathered in the church basement which had high small windows. Coming up from the basement by mid-afternoon we were met with an unforgettable situation.

The howling winds had brought dust clouds so heavy that it was like night. We struggled to locate our car and Dad drove home with headlights blazing. That day has been memorialized in our nation's history as Black Sunday.

There are two other events, which left indelible impressions. One Saturday that same spring our family was going to Fort Dodge to shop for some necessities for my older sister's up-coming graduation.

The howling wind promised another miserable day, so Mother tried to make certain everything was secured before we left home. She sent my sister to check the front door, which she thought she did. But when we arrived home, some hours later, we discovered that the door had blown open and there was a drift of dust across the front hall and part way up the open staircase. It took days to clean up after that disaster.

The second recollection was of awakening one morning to find everything outside the house covered with a red film. That was when I first learned that all soil isn't black like our Iowa loam. Those dust clouds, which had originated in Oklahoma, were reported to have made similar deposits all the way to the east coast.

The drought, combined with the economic depression, left an indelible mark.

Stories of displacement, such as that of John Steinbeck's Oakies and many others, are a part of our literary heritage. Displacement, forced when crops failed and mortgage payments couldn't be met, affected my own family. Dad lost that farm and, against all better judgment, tried, unsuccessfully, to buy another.

Eventually things began looking up as the weather returned to a more normal pattern.

My father had swallowed his pride and rented a farm, and agricultural prices were improving. But my story does not have a happy ending. He was diagnosed with inoperable cancer early in 1945 and died a few months later at the age of 62. Life, as we all must eventually discover, isn't always fair.

But with faith to sustain us we seem to manage to make it through--each of us to live out our own destiny.