. . . In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up--for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground--then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:4b-7 NRSV, italics mine.)
Our faith story about human origins ties us to dust, water and God. The image of God forming the human body of dust and breathing into its nostrils the breath of life is vivid and arresting. I do not tire of contemplating its meaning.
Seldom in recent human history and perhaps never in North America has the story drawn to itself the dramatic force it gained between 1930 and 1940 on the high plains of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas in what became known as the Dust Bowl. Ill-advised agricultural practices combining with the most severe, most prolonged drought in U.S. history and a weather pattern of abnormally fierce surface winds created a human landscape of deep darkness and deadly despair. The precious top soil of the most expansive, deepest and richest plains on earth--the greater Mississippi River basin--was being ripped away and carried so high into the upper wind currents that the dust settled on ships in the Atlantic Ocean thousands of miles from shore.
Dust cloud rolling over Western Kansas Town, Feb. 21, ’35(Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives)
It is not possible adequately to understand me or my family without taking the dust storms into account. The dry winds of my first nine years sweep into and through my being, infiltrating even now my children and grandchildren, my professional work as a teacher, counselor, consultant and pastor. Those winds are in my loneliness, pessimism and fears, in my courage and resiliency, in my compassion and connection, in my complexity, and in my yearnings.
In spring, 1935 we had experienced front after front only a few days apart, relentless in fury, overwhelming the earth and drying up hope. The reality was not only the drought, the crop failures, the death of livestock, the ruin of vegetable gardens, and the literal burying of farm implements. This was also the Great Depression. The stock market crash of 1929 was followed by massive lay-offs, and the price of farm commodities did not come close to the cost of production, an agricultural reality repeating itself in recent years. Many died as suicide. Thousands fled from the plains vowing never to return. Abandoning land and buildings and equipment to their creditors, they sadly packed what they could into old unreliable autos and left for California and Oregon hoping to save their lives and to find a land of promise once more. John Steinbeck’s famous novel, Grapes of Wrath, is true artistically, socially, psychologically and economically to the reality of the Great Depression and the Great Drought.
Although nearly everyone from the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren community along Mennonite Road (Imminence Route) 20 miles NE of Garden City toward Dighton had left western Kansas by 1936, our family remained until 1940, the last year of the Great Drought, the last year of the Great Depression. My parents’ efforts in 1938 to move back to Janzen, Nebraska where Dad was born were cancelled the day of our move (we were all packed) when we received a letter with the news that the well had run dry on the farm we had rented. The dream of joining the California caravans did not ever become bold planning until after Father gave up in 1940. As we shall see in the stories to come, the Friesens made it ninety miles southeast to Meade, Kansas instead of 1,300 miles west to the San Joaquin valley in August, 1940.
As soon as we had moved to Meade and before that decision was put completely to rest, Father, Mother, Harry and Alfred motored to California to work in the vineyards and to test out whether or not the whole family would follow. Ben (12) and I (8) were to do chores and attend Goodwill Grade School about half a mile north of the Rempel farmstead Mom and Dad had leased for $25/year. Mr. Rempel’s completely unexpected offer was only the first of a series of gracious acts that punctuated our lives and confirmed my parents’ decision to move to Meade. Ruth (17) was to maintain the house and be surrogate mother for us during this 7-week absence of our parents. The goodness of our neighbors in Meade and my older siblings’ keen interest in attending the winter Bible School prevailed against moving to California.
By autumn, 1940, when I was eight going on nine, the weather pattern had changed and the rains began to replenish the plains. At the same time, the Nazi conquests in Europe prompted the U.S. involvement in World War II and marked an economic up-turn of employment, the advent of our wartime rationing and a strong farm market. Although no one in western Kansas could at the time know that good crops and very good prices would rule through most of the next two decades, the
dirty thirties decade had indeed ended.
Although there have been several years in the last half of the century that were just as dry as the worst of the 30’s, the region has been spared a continuous year-after-year widespread drought such as characterized the 30’s. Moreover, by 1950, farming practices in western Kansas were being adapted strongly to the soil conditions and weather patterns of the high plains: summer fallowing (two years moisture saved for each crop), terracing, crop rotations, stubble-mulching tillage methods, and a very significant increase in irrigation. Water is pumped out of the Ogallalah aquifer which is a great underground lake extending from western Nebraska into the Texas panhandle. The very center of the dust storms has become at the turn of the century a green garden of wheat, milo, corn and alfalfa. The name Garden City truly fits and describes the high plains now in ways unimagined in 1935.
Terror and Despair, 3:00 PM Sunday, April 14, 1935
The high plains were becoming desolate wilderness under a severe drought. Rarely did it rain. And when the showers came they were widely scattered. Winter snows were light and almost always windblown into drifts on farm yards and along fence rows, leaving the plowed earth bare and unprotected. The wheat seeded in fall, 1934, never germinated. Fields were left with no cover and no root structure to hold the soil. In the spring 1935, a new frontal system roared in brutally from the northwest every three or four days.
Often we were tantalized by several hours of windless lull and then by a most wonderful and joyful smell of rain as a new storm approached. But this happy anticipation became a most reliable forecast: if the smell of rain arrives, there will be no rain but rather despairing dust. Sometimes at the very front edge of the storm system mud rained from heaven and splattered the starving soil randomly, the scant moisture combining with the dust-filled air to create mud drops. It was mud forming in the air that created the taunting bliss and foreboding smell of rain. Thirty-five years later, the smell of rain pungent with the scent of greasewood in the Sonora desert near Tucson enthralled my family but awakened in me dreadful memories of unfulfilled promises raining down mud before another suffocating Black Blizzard clutched, captured and rendered us hostage.
* * * * *
Sunday morning dawns cloudless. For once the wind subsides. All is calm. Yet uneasiness is in the air. From out of the earth, behind the gentle rise of dormant prairie a half mile east, the sun rises, a luminous globe of liquid red-orange. Barn, windmill, trees, house and dust drifts from the past several months are washed in an eerie glow. All point their long dark shadows ominously toward the betraying west-northwest from where the rains should be coming to save the earth and bring to life the dead.
Father gazes long into the sky trying to read its signs and to quell his anxiety. Sister Ruth softly reads from the Holy Bible in Joel 2:30-32:
I will show portents in the heavens and in the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved . . .
Such apocalyptic passages (see also Joel 3:15, Amos 8:9, Matthew 24:29 and Revelation 6:12) combined despair and hope so exquisitely that true believers could act courageously in the face of destruction. If the Word of God paints the darkness and fear true and terrible, then you can also take hold of its promises. With such fascination energizing the family it was good to chew the days-old crust and spoon the cooked oatmeal.
After breakfast, Father and Alfred go out to finish the morning chores, the front screen door slamming shut behind them. That door was powered by a metal spring I had learned to respect with fear. Whenever I would leave the house I had to prevail against that door. Often it would buffet my head or scrape my knees. Sometimes that angry, rusty, noisy spring would yaw greedily open and clutch my fine blonde hair in its fitful grasp to tear out a section of my scalp just for the sheer fun of it. No siree, you don’t pass through that screen door without some quibbling and advance planning! How I ever survived I can not tell you. I do know for a fact that part of my warped brain functioning--a life-long affliction--can be directly traced to that coiled spring 18 inches long and a half inch in diameter. I now believe these devices had been issued by enemies of the people. The other thesis, with nearly equal claim to the truth, is that they were installed to punish lovely, innocent children like myself in advance for sins they would commit much later in life--a kind of suffer-now-and-sin-later reversal of life’s general rule.
So, this Sunday morning I wisely remain on the screened-in porch, out of harm’s way, to watch my world with a solemn care: there is so much to see, so much to hear, so much to think about, so much to feel.
Just outside the door beyond the worn steps, Father is rationing and preparing food from his scanty store for the animals.
Yesterday he had scraped together the last of the ground grain in the feed barrel inside the horse barn. One half bucket he had allotted to the fresh cow that was left from his once promising herd. It would have to last at least until next Saturday. The cow was a life-line. Sorrowfully Father had averted eye contact with Charlie, his one remaining horse, and tried not to see the protruding rib cage of his faithful team captain. He knew that in a matter of days the bloat of starvation would set in. With a sigh he had forked together short dry stalks of kafir corn that had never matured any grain. It would have to do. He had hand fed Charlie one stalk at a time and spoken softly, his huge hands caressing the noble head. A small gallon bucket of the precious ground grain had been carried to the front steps as ration to be sparingly mixed with kitchen wastes, water and skimmed milk for hog slop.
Now I watch quietly. Worry furrows my father’s forehead as once more he squints into the sky and tries to reach beyond its farthest limits to connect with the Holy One. The half pail of separator milk is held awkwardly, arrested in mid-motion by deep anxiety and desperate prayer. I hold my breath and at Father’s feet Old Shep stops whining.
With a muffled moan, Father looks back down to his resources, pours milk into Shep’s pan and adds milk to the slop bucket. He starts for the barn carrying the slop bucket in one hand and the milk allotted to the baby calf in the other.
Yesterday I heard Father discuss with Mother and the older children what plans they had to try to survive another year of crop failures--a reality that was already painfully clear. Father would try to borrow money against the value of the farm, but the depression had made the land almost worthless and of little use for collateral. They would try to get the Farmer’s Co-op to extend credit for tractor fuel, seed and enough feed to keep one or two cows and the White Rock Hatchery Chicken project going. Cooper’s Hatchery in Garden City had recognized Father’s skills with poultry and had entered into contract to pay a premium for fertilized eggs. Egg money would help keep us from going under. And eggs and butchered chickens would provide essential protein for our family. Every egg was precious, every hen, every rooster kept for fertilizing the eggs. As soon as spring rains would come--they were sure to come soon, weren’t they?--we would clear out the dust that had by now filled the earth-banked water reservoir from which we watered the vegetable garden. Then we would re-plant potatoes and put in corn, beans, peas, squash, carrots, turnips, onions, sweet potatoes and peanuts. We would work hard and survive. But, reluctantly, the baby calf would have to be sold. We needed the dollar or so it would bring and we needed the milk for our consumption.
I watch Father put the baby calf’s head in the bucket and teach it to drink by placing a milky finger in the calf’s mouth. Alfred is opening the gate to the corral and chasing the two cows, one dry and probably not carrying a calf, out into the short, dry pasture to find what they can. Harry is tipping the 50-gallon gas barrel steeply to drain the last of the fuel into a gas can so he can add it to the tank of the Model T Ford. We’ve often run out of gas even on short trips like the mile and a quarter to the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church.
Benny who is four years older has come out on the porch assigned the task of cleaning and polishing shoes for church. We have a little pride left, we do. Mother sees to that in no uncertain terms. We are going to get washed, put on our clean clothes and step into our worn out ill-fitting shabby shoes that have had black liquid Shinola applied, yes, Ma’am! And we are not going to embarrass ourselves in front of our few remaining neighbors or be disrespectful to Jesus by not being dressed in our best. We are going to be thoughtful, alert and prepared to answer questions our Sunday School teacher will ask.
My sister Ruth who really knows how to teach, how to make me laugh and how to sneak a cracker or a carrot to me when I am hungry, comes out and coaxes Benny and me to recite our Bible memory verses for the week. Because I’m little and too young to read, Ruth has been coaching me all week while showing me pictures in our well-worn Bible Story Book. I start singing loudly
The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E! I don’t ask everything I sometimes think about, like why would you stand on the Bible--probably with dirty shoes and all--when the book is so holy? If I listen some more I’ll figure it out.
Benny is irritated with my loud singing and threatens me with the working end of the Shinola dauber. I know he won’t do that, but he might cuff me one under the covers tonight if I deliberately irritate him. But I giggle some and then I feel like jumping up and down to make the porch shake. Benny glares fiercely. And then he starts singing at the top of his voice and Old Shep starts to howl. The hens and roosters stupidly run zig-zag all over the yard and the two cows start running around with tails in air and even Old Charlie tries to trot but he is too weak.
Father comes in from the barn and for a moment he smiles at the circus. But not for long. Under his breath I heard him say to Mother,
Minnie, we have to watch the weather very carefully. A really big storm is coming. The children and all the animals feel it and are going crazy. I’m terribly worried.
Soon enough we all climb into the old Ford, overloading it with our family of seven. Harry has swept the dust off the seats with a wet rag, and has cranked up the engine. He steps on the correct one of the three foot pedals and gives it the gas. We lurch forward and Harry provides one long loud Ah-oohga for the Ens’ across the road as they leave their yard in a snazzy black 1931 Chevrolet. George Ens provides a responding Beep rather politely but they leave us behind in a fog of dust. Harry pulls down the throttle and we soon are racing along at 25 miles per hour. What a fine day! What a fine ride! Harry manages to slow down the Model T just enough to turn in at the church without spilling the car’s contents into the ditch.
The Brandts have come early and are just finishing with sweeping up the dust and getting our meeting room in order for the service. Ben Brandt is carrying out the last big scoop full of dust. We worship in a basement with a roof over the top where the first floor was to have been. The building, started in the 1920’s, had never been finished. And this Sunday we are not aware that we are making history: It will be our last service in the basement.
There are two of us young children. Betty Wiebe is only two. We sing some choruses and I am able to recite my Bible verse. Then we hear a Bible story.
Worship is simple and short. The preachers have all moved away and Father is one of the remaining elders. He leads a discussion of a Bible text and prayers are offered for friends who have moved away, for visiting missionaries and evangelists, like the Siemens from South Carolina and Willems from Inman who have come to hold services in our church in the last year or two. We pray for rain even as Father steals an anxious look out of the small basement windows near the northwest corner. We sing
Showers of Blessings most fervently and in lovely harmony and end the service with
God be with you till we meet again.
After church service is over, some of the men stand outside in the sun to talk, but Father is again looking off to the horizon and seems anxious to get home. Mother, Ruth and Benny squeeze into the narrow back seat and I climb up to Mother’s lap. Alfred and Harry combine their knowledge to get the Model T cranked up and running. Then using the throttle and spark advance levers on the steering column with practiced skill, Harry causes a monstrous POP! to explode from the exhaust. I scream, jack rabbits scurry away in all directions, meadowlarks fly south, older women jump in fright and Mother scolds. Harry and Alfred--and the Wiebe boys gathering round--all laugh uproariously. Benny, carefully sizing up the situation, laughs and claps. Ruth looks at Mother and decides to frown. Mother is grim. I decide to be sober even though I feel like giggling. Without a word, Father comes round to the left side, steps on the running board and firmly takes hold of the steering wheel. The Ford leans heavily to the left under his weight and Harry slips from the driver’s seat quite athletically to avoid great indignity and possible harm. But before we sputter, hiss, rattle and chug-a-chug-chug away in the manner prescribed for all Model T Fords, Ted Friesen is running up and shouting to Father over the din:
The telephone is dead, and the hens need culling.
Father tinkers. And reads. And thinks. His huge hands are strong but awkward. Engines do not like him at all and tools do not always obey him either. But he is interested in soil science, animal science and new ideas. Though he may go hungry, he will not think of cancelling the subscription for the Garden City Daily Telegram. We are among the poorest of all, but neighbors come over to read the paper and to discuss decisions they face. Ideas and inventions occupy a dedicated space in his mind, very close to the place of spiritual contemplation and refuge. Uneducated, Father is an educator. Untrained, he is a veterinarian, butcher, carpenter, technologist, geneticist and counselor. Ted’s shout to Father about telephones and hens is not out of the ordinary on Imminence Route.
A fire is kindled in the big black kitchen range when we arrive home. The pot of chicken noodle soup made this morning only needs heating, along with the water for washing up the dishes after Sunday dinner. Father sits at the north end of the table where he can look out the west window. Mother and Ruth serve up bowls of soup and platters of bread from Saturday’s baking.
When the soup bowls are drained and the bread plates are emptied, Sunday dinner is over. Mother asks Benny, in a particular tone of voice cultivated for just such questions, about the brown crusts of bread ineffectively hidden under the edge of his plate. Benny blurts out defensively,
I saved them for the cats; they’re hungry too. But I know he doesn’t like the tough, burned crust, and I wonder how both of these truths can be carried so innocently all at the same moment. (It will be some years before I figure it out with some help from Benjamin S. Friesen, Ph.D., talking about light as both wave and matter. I came at that late moment in life to understand the real significance of these precocious qualities exhibited at Sunday dinner in 1935.)
Mother sighs. She and the oven in the big black range have never been on very good terms. That oven has a mind of its own, and fickle temperatures to suit itself. When you start with the cheapest, most uneven flour available; when you use the precious butter or lard most sparingly; when the yeast is a slow-rising potato-water-sugar concoction kept continuously alive in a green-tinted one-quart Ball canning jar that is lowered 10 feet into a hole in the ground to keep at an even, cool temperature; and when the oven has a rebellious spirit completely disinclined to Mother’s energetic pace, the making of perfect bread that is praised by all the children and eaten on the third day without a murmur is not a grace that is sent from heaven with frequency. There will be burnt crusts to deal with.
I once asked old Calico Cat whether she liked burned crust. Her eyes met mine and she dismissed my impudence with a withering look I’ve never even dared to imitate with my most carefully cultivated enemies.
After Sunday dinner dishes are washed and the crumbs are swept up, I go to the downstairs bedroom and lie down on my cot for my daily obligatory nap. I know better than to resist. I ask Pop for a story but today his heart isn’t quite in it. I can tell because he doesn’t even get as far into his running to-be-continued serial story as he did yesterday. He keeps looking out the west window, his brow furrowed.
I pretend to sleep, but not for very long. Soon I go out to play. Watch the screen door! Don’t wake Father! Beware the evil spring! I find on the south side of the house near the bay window under the Chinese elm tree a few recognizable remnants of The Legendary Red Wagon in which I had once been abandoned in the middle of the buffalo wallow after a rain. (But that’s another story for another day).
work to do, so I clutch the two rusty wheels and grab the bent axle rod to carry them over a big dust drift to the cherry tree.
Slip the wheels onto the axle. That’s good, I say to myself encouragingly.
It’s a truck! A green Ford with black wheels and a bright orange box. You want to go along? I’m going to town to get feed for Charlie and the cows--a big load, lots of feed. We’ll stop at Meyers and get an ice cream cone. I’m rich, I am!
Rrrrrs! I trill the r’s and make the engine noises. Not loud enough.
GRRRR I growl menacingly. That’s better. With both hands on the axle I race my imaginary truck up and into the dust drift with monster power, roaring in low gear. A wheel falls off. No big deal. Flats happen. It’s the way life is. You can’t go to town--twenty miles away--without expecting to fix at least one flat tire. It’s the rule. Repairing inner tubes makes the world go round.
Benny comes running into the orchard calling my name,
Volta! in Plaut Dietsch. He doesn’t see me behind the dust drift.
Where are you? he yells.
Do you want me to play with you?
Sure, what shall we play? I say as I jump up and scare him.
I’ll get some bones. We’ll have horses and a plow. We’ll plow the dust drift and make deep furrows. Bones are very good toys.
Benny goes to look for a pile of white bones we had left behind the garage, but the dust from Thursday’s big blow has covered them a foot deep. He can’t find them. I come and poke a stick into the dust.
We left them here yesterday, says Benny,
but we can go into the pasture and get some more. Come on.
The southeast corner of the pasture is an open graveyard for the animals that die of disease or starvation. Carcasses are dragged with the John Deere tractor to the pile. When scavengers, worms, sun, wind and rain have finished, the white skeletons lie exposed, a growing monument to drought and death.
Benny and I climb very carefully between the first and second strands of barbed wire fence. Amazingly, this time neither of us gets hooked, scratched or detained by the barbs! We make our way through the corral. Charlie is lying completely still on his side, head on the ground.
Is he dead? I ask aloud. Benny doesn’t answer. Charlie raises his head slightly and looks at us sorrowfully but he does not get up.
I watch where I walk, barefoot, avoiding piles of manure, cockleburs and devil’s-claws. This time neither Benny nor I lick the salt block as we walk by it in the middle of the corral. Apparently we feel sufficiently preserved already. We are at the far gate opening to the pasture when suddenly, urgently, fiercely Father calls:
Boys, boys! Stop! Come quick and help!
I hear great fear and turn quickly, anxiously. Pop is running and waving frantically.
Quick! Hurry! The cows in the barn, the chickens! Oil in the lamps! Hurry! Oh, hurry! A terrible storm is coming! We don’t have time!
All is calm; I don’t see a storm. But just then the sun shines less brightly. I look up and watch it turn yellow grey and then orange. Pop, Harry and Alfred with brooms and shovels are already shouting and chasing the hens into the hen house. Then I see. On the far horizon beyond house and yard a long black cloud stretches across half of my world and is billowing into the sky higher and higher. I run as fast as I can.
Inside Mom and Ruth are rushing to cover food inside the cupboard with tea towels, closing windows and taping them hurriedly. Benny grabs the Rayo lamp and the funnel he will need. He has done this chore before. I grab the other lamp and we hurry to the kerosene barrel ten yards north of the house. Heart beating wildly, I try to be brave and not spill the precious oil. Just then, the windmill which has not turned once all day groans loudly into the wind from the northwest and begins to turn very rapidly and pump water from the well. Sand begins to fly in my face and before I can turn off the spigot on the kerosene barrel my lamp is grimy with dirt.
All of us--Pop, Harry, Alfred, Benny and I--run for the house and the door slams shut behind us. Ruth is placing wet rags at the door sill and Mom is lighting the lamp and placing it on the table. We are all panting and Father says breathlessly,
Thank God, we’re all here. I try to be brave and remain silent.
I look out the bay window and then I scream in terror. In the quickly encroaching darkness the windmill wheel has become a glowing yellow ball of fire. Sparks arc from the tail. Ruth comes and holds me tight. I shudder and she holds me tighter.
With a perceptible thud the full force of the storm slams into the house. Sand and gravel from the road pelt the house, windows rattle, the house trembles, outside it is completely black. Inside, the lamps only a few feet away from where Ruth and I are holding on grow very dim. Dust infiltrates the house from everywhere. It is hard to breathe. I worry that Father and Mother will die. I cannot see them. We are all dark and soundless with awe. Instinctively we keep our mouths and eyes shut, but fear and need makes us try to see, to call and to grope for each other until we are all connected. We are completely helpless, but we are connected.
Oh God in heaven, Father pleads,
save us. We are in your hands. If we die, take us to heaven. In the name of Jesus.
Mother breaks the circle and gropes her way to the shelf where towels and rags are folded. She quickly counts out seven pieces. She takes them to the galvanized sink by the stove on the north wall and turns on the faucet to wet all the towels.
Here, she ways,
keep the wet rags loosely over your nose and mouth so you don’t suffocate. We take some comfort but recognize the desperation in her voice.
I try to sing to be brave:
Jesus loves me, this I know, but nobody else sings. I hear Ruth humming, though, and I feel a little better. Soon enough I know why nobody sings and I stop too as my mouth and throat dry up.
After the first hour, the front has passed through and the worst seems to be over. It is still very dark outside but now I can see the lamp on the table more clearly and the shadowy outlines of my family gathering round. I’m thirsty but I don’t say anything. I have to urinate but I clamp my legs together and say no to my bladder. Don’t be a burden, I think to myself. But after a while Ruth takes note of my fidgeting and I announce
Eck mut no’m heuske gonna.
Mother takes my hand and leads me to the summer kitchen where the big pot with cover is kept at night. She helps me aim. I feel better. I can’t see in the darkness but I hear her urinating too. Going outside to the toilet is unthinkable.
I am hungry but say nothing. Then Benny, a spokesperson for such matters, says loudly,
Mie hungat! He has spoken for all, but Mother says to wait until the storm subsides:
Or else you’ll eat more dirt than bread.
Well? I thought to myself but I kept silent, sure that Benny would bring up the subject again before starvation would take his life. The ability to think these thoughts cheers me somewhat and I begin to believe we might survive.
Gradually the wind blows less fiercely and we can begin to see each other. Our hair is dusty, our eyes are rimmed in black, our faces smeared. The oily lamps are caked with mud, the lamp chimneys smudged and dirty. The floor is covered with dust and every step I take raises a little dust storm.
Finally, at about 11:00 PM, eight hours after we had closed the door and circled round, Mother and Ruth clear the table a bit and bring out some slices of bread. The one-gallon Karo syrup bucket too, and some peanut butter that had been covered with a dish. Supper is simple and we do not complain, not tonight.
Before we can lie down and sleep we are all instructed to take our bed covers by the four corners and carry them outside to shake off the dust. Mother shows us how. I am much surprised by the weight of my little cover. We wash our faces with water from the faucet. The first one has good clean running water. But I am not first. By the time Alfred and I are at the sink the water is running quite brown. The storm has blown dirt into the supply tank by the windmill and we are served muddy water inside from the gravity-flow running water system my Father had designed when he built the house six years ago. I fall asleep.
On Monday morning, April 15, 1935, I awaken with the sun trying to shine through the dust-covered east window above my cot. Thick dust is on the inside window sills, and on the outside is a pile of dirt six inches deep against the window pane and inside the window screen. I hear no one anywhere. Have I been left? How long did I sleep? Is this a dream?
I crawl into my overalls one leg at a time and connect the straps over my shoulders. Dishes from supper and from breakfast are still on the table--a mess. But a fire is in the range and water is steaming in a kettle. If I’ve been left behind, they didn’t leave so long ago. Maybe I can catch up with them. Maybe they just forgot me--again. I’ll go find them.
When I open the door I see that my world has changed. In one quick glance I see a dust drift on the southeast of the house stretch all the way to the stock tank settling almost to its upper rim; the Model D John Deere tractor near the barn is almost buried; the Model T Ford in the garage is captive to a big drift; and the lane to the road is covered with drifts as high as the four-foot fence that surrounds the garden and lines the driveway. The ditches are completely filled and at every fence post a long drift has formed. The entrance to the hen house is blocked by dirt.
And that is where I see Father and brothers grimly shoveling aside the dirt to get to the chickens. Tracks over the drifts lead to the barn where I hear a commotion. I find Ruth milking the cow and Mother shouting,
The calf is alive!
All day I am in the way and don’t know what to do with my body. I do not yet have words for what I feel, but if I grow up I will have a name for these things that are happening to me.
Of course there are no classes for my sister and brothers at Harmony School. I don’t have to ask about that. Telephone lines are dead. We can’t call. After the chickens are watered, fed and counted (there are only seven hens missing, probably dead under some drift somewhere, Father says) everyone is assigned work to do. Except Walter. I stand by and watch and wonder and try to stay out of the way.
The big steel grain scoop, two big half-bushel buckets and several brooms are carried up the hand operated rope-and-pulley elevator platform to the top level opening to the two unfinished rooms of the second floor where Ruth sleeps in the south and the boys on the north. Dust is wiped directly into the big buckets, and swept up and scooped from the floor. Bucket after bucket is taken down and carried out--nine full buckets from about 600 square feet of floor space. When Father puts down his scoop Mother starts sweeping down the inside of the shingled roof and creates another storm. When it settles, the beds are all put on edge and whacked until the dust settles to the floor. One more half-bushel is swept up and taken out. The downstairs bedroom, pantry, closet and family kitchen are next. Once Mother gets everyone going and sets her own end-of-the-world pace at full speed, the reclaiming of this house from the grip of deadly dust is certain.
By 11:00 Father and the boys are digging out the Model T Ford and talking about what detour path is to be taken to the road since the driveway is completely blocked. Over lunch--fried potatoes with a few eggs stirred in--the men talk about carefully cleaning the air ducts and filters on the John Deere and Ford before starting the engines and opening up a way to connect to neighbors and getting to town. We discuss keeping the two cows and Charlie in the corral and barn until we can decide what to do about the drifts that allow animals to walk freely over fences and roam loose like the buffalo of old.
Underneath the heavy drudgery of recovering order and control from the chaotic ruins there runs a solemn and unsettling drum of despair beating out the message that dreadful drought and dust still prevail. There is no moisture in the ground. Day after tomorrow another front will blow through. What meaning or joy is to be found? What are we to do? How long can we hold on? I see the despair in the eyes of my parents. I see it in the slump of their shoulders. I hear it in Father’s heavy footfalls. I take note that there is no time, no breath, no heart for Mother’s song anymore. She likes to sing and she has a magnificent voice.
By mid-afternoon the John Deere has been successfully started and broken from its drifts. The Model T Ford has coughed, sputtered and followed a narrow path opened up near the front door, meandered around the house to the north and back over the front yard to the county road. The road grader has been hooked to the tractor and pulled free of its drifts so that the roads can begin to be cleared tomorrow. Other implements, almost buried, have had tall stakes connected so that they can be found after the next storm buries them even deeper. After a lot of probing and digging, the tractor-drawn scraper has been located so that soil can be scraped out of the garden reservoir and from around the yard when the rains come again.
Then, suddenly Father takes charge. In a tone of voice new with hope he announces loudly to everyone:
Drop what you are doing. Come, stand outside on top of the biggest drift. I am going to take a picture.
With this tattered filthy dress on? Mother protests, not yet completely drained of all pride.
Yes, yes, just the way you are. All of you. This is not for looking pretty. This is for telling the story the way it is.
We all look at each other in wonder and obey. The soft earth slips under our feet as we climb the tallest drift that blocks the driveway. The dirt threatens to bury us alive if we persist in this foolish notion of overcoming nature’s fury. But something in Father’s voice has an authority that makes us courageous. For the moment, at least, my Father is
bloodied but unbowed. Many years later the image of that moment will come to mind when I read Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, Henley’s poem
The Eternal Goodness, or Paul’s famous
Nothing can separate us from the Love of God.
We have just climbed to the top of the drift--even Mother, still fuming and fussing about indignities--and Father is ready to
snap the little box camera’s last picture on the last roll of film, when a car is heard coming from the south on Mennonite Road. We all turn in surprise. It is Ted Friesen. He stops. We are glad to see him. He wants to know if we are safe. Then Mrs. George Ens, Pete, Dan, Hulda and George show up from across the road and everyone wants to know what we are doing on the top of the drift.
We were going to take a picture, Dad explains, holding up the camera for all to see.
Well, get up there, Henry. You get into the picture too. We’ll shoot it for you. And with that Pop climbs and slips his way awkwardly to the top.
Three, Two, One! Father waves his hat, triumphing. It is 3:00 Monday afternoon, April 15, 1935.
I have never seen the photo. Was it lost? Or is this only my image of a deeply interior victory seeking expression? Does it matter?
Ted announces that the church basement is half filled with dirt. On April 21 we meet for Sunday School in the Harmony School where faith and education are never separated.
The dust drift in our driveway is shoveled by hand into a homemade horse-powered mud-straw-water mixer from which the mud is poured into forms and allowed to dry in the sun. The adobe bricks become a very large chicken house on Mr. Weisency’s farm two miles east and one north. It stands there today, a curious monument to tragedy and ingenuity.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out John 1:5.