"Papa had a soft heart. But thar he was walkin' back from the barn with a hammer. My sister and me didn't know what to think. The milk cow had just had a calf.
"Papa said that the mama cow couldn't make enough milk for us girls and that calf. So he'd killed that baby calf with that hammer."
Life--and even death--was tough in The Dust Bowl.
Dad has always tried to instill in us how hard things were in the 1930's around here. There were the hundreds of trips to the Senath farm house and its dirt floor and lack of running water and they made their intended impression. But it took the blunt gavel of Ken Burns' trademark beautifulhorrible filmmaking to drive home the point. His 4-hour documentary, The Dust Bowl, aired this week on PBS.
Many of you must remember. And those of you who do, you must demand that your loved-ones inhale this documentary. Deeply.
Inhaling deeply wasn't easy, apparently.
Burns introduces us to several families who mostly lived in, "No Mans Land." That part of Oklahoma that is bordered immediately by four other states. The part of the plains that, through the 30's was hit harder than any other, according to weather and financial records. We hear tales and see photos of fruited plains exploding with amber waves of grain. We are told how the grasses that existed prior were needed to hold the topsoil. And we are told that, for numerous reasons in the 20's, we had to farm every possible acre for its wheat potential.
And we are told that we did. And we did and we did. But the rains began to not begin as much. The snows too. Caroline Henderson, one of the 'speakers' absolutely nails it here. "Behind the characteristi American nonchalance, one detects a growing anxiety,..."
In 1934, there were 14 days where it turned black as pitch at noon.
And in '35, there were 50.
Growing anxiety swells to panic.
And when the sky wasn't black, it was sand. Not sand-colored. Just sand . Blown. "Right through ya." All day. One time for 21 days straight.
Burns spends alot of time on how American both the cause and effect of this Big Deal were. The promise of big money fast drew all of these once-fringe-of-society type people to build homes and farms and maybe even dynasties. And the price of wheat drove industry and capitalism in general to help the farmers maximize the land. And pointed out strongly was this: Once confronted with bottoming-out commodity prices as far as the eye--and banker--could see, mainly because of the Wall Street crash of '29, farmers did as farmers do, I suppose.
Planted more, not less. And they did.
And they did and did.
There are interviews with several children of shop owners and farmers, all of whom could clearly recall realizing that the bubble had burst, possibly for good. Chilling stuff, all.
One kid kills himself out of guilt about having his parents pay for his school books.
One man tells the poignant story of the day he asked his future bride's father for her hand in marraige: "I saw his car sittin outside , but he wasn't getting out. So I went out there. I noticed the rifle, and it was pointin up towards his head. I got in and sat next to him and it was kinda awkward. Neither one of us mentioned the gun ...I finally did get around to askin him if I could marry his daughter. (Very sheepish quiet chuckle followed by that trademark Burnsian look off into the sky.)"
The elder man, the new potential father-in-law, a very highly regarded gentleman in the community, succeeded in his suicide attempt 2 days later.
It's these types of 1st- and 2nd- hand narrations of American history that connect us to it. And Ken Burns is at his best here.
He shows us those who finally cannot resist the call west to California, and where and how they subsequently end up, and those who cannot resist the gravitational and almost spiritual pull of the home soil. It's probably cursed; but dammit, it's theirs. True Gritty, indeed. Little Dusty Buried House On The Prairie. Home Foreclosed On The Range.
Kids with pneumonia. With goggles. With gas and surgical masks. Trains bringing said supplies only to be delayed because they could not navigate the dirtstorms. Moms sewing flour sacks together just to make dresses for their daughters. A couple burying their twin babies in two JCPenney shoe boxes.
Horse and cow wandering off confused because, as one old boy explained, "The tumbleweed got caught in the fences and then the dirt got caught in the weed." So they just walked over them. Then suffocated in the dirtstorms. Rabbits andgrasshoppers by the millions.
As one of the more reflective and, actually, colorful of the Children Of The Storms recalls, "My whole world was brown."
* * *
I'm sure we 'learned' about the 30's in school. I'm also sure that I had no idea there were actual dirt storms, and certainly not to the degree and number that the photographs and stories in this presentation exposed. I knew there was a drought.
Thanks to Ken Burns, I now know what Dad was talking about.
On this sparkling clean Thanksgiving weekend, that is truly something to thankful about.