1930 was the second year of the Great Depression and was the first of ten years of a cycle of drought that was to consume the central and southern plains. The thousands of years-old “wooly grass” sod described by Margaret Watkins had been plowed under for farms and townships. Strip mining for coal and discovery of oil added gouged out roads for heavy equipment and great open pits and ponds of sludge oil. Oklahoma and the Great Plains had become “developed.”
The winds which have been constant for millennia predictably began the process of sucking up parched topsoil and moving it to far places. The atmosphere became malignant in every sense of the word, even filled with static electricity so dangerous that automobiles required grounding chains, lest they should attract bolts of lightning. I recall being mesmerized to sleep watching the bouncing axle chain of a car or truck ahead as we traveled on visits to Lawton.
The blotted out sun led to rickets and it snowed in May the year brother David was born. The deaths of all life forms from want of water and food and, for those with lungs, pneumonia will not ever be enumerated. Our father Kendall was near death from pneumonia at least once per year. I recall when he was nearest in 1939 and was spared by that “new” drug sulfanilamide.
Weather systems of a magnitude and violence not seen before created themselves. Only in recent years are they being seen again. The worst of the dust storms culminated on a Sunday in April 1935. It was called “Black Sunday” and led more people to believe the world was truly ending. Dust Bowl troubadour Woody Guthrie of Okemah wrote the song So Long. It’s Been Good to Know You. There is recording of an interview in which he describes the circumstances.The following are some of the lyrics of the song.
“On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.”
Our family’s piece of paradise was being called The Dust Bowl. And many of its hapless citizens seeking respite in migration acquired a unique stateless identity. “Okies,” more than a few with lineage in America to before the founding of the nation, were turned away at state lines; refused opportunity and sanctuary. Helpless high officials in the Federal government turned to blame victims saying there were jobs and people who were not working were so because they preferred to beg or were genetically diseased. And the prolific eugenists recommended involuntary sterilization for such as us. The elites had great concern about “juvenile delinquency’ and there were recommendations that oppositional children be institutionalized. Those in poverty willing to accept public assistance at one time applied to fully 30% of the people in the entire nation. There were many more who refused aid out of nature or fear of stigma.
John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath and the photojournalists began taking pictures. However the extent and meaning of this environmental catastrophe was lost and forgotten, perhaps due to that spasm called WWII and also the hubris in technology that followed.
New York Times investigative reporter Timothy Egan recently published a book on that era, The Worst Hard Time. There is also as of this writing a video interview with him available online or from C-SPAN. The political aspects are prophetic.
Ken Burns has just released and is showing now on PBS A documentary based on the Egan book.