|Dust storms could rise as high as 2000 feet or more.|
"To be more concise. Rain follows the plow."
--Charles Dana Wilber, 1881, in
"The Great Valleys Of Nebraska"
You hear about a stroll down memory lane, but sometimes it's like a walk down the main street of a ghost town, nothing but empty storefronts and boarded up windows.
"She's too young. Besides, I need her to help me today." Ma had much more to add, but a racking fit of coughing interrupted. I took the wet sheet from her and fixed it over Jacob's crib, carefully tucking in the sides. I'd slept with a kerchief over my face, and yet I still awoke with grit between my teeth and swollen eyes. It was just something you learned to take for granted, like plugging your nose with petroleum jelly or ignoring the muddy color of the water you got to drink.
I looked at Da with what I hoped was my most heart breaking expression. He smiled and handed me a tin can and a wooden spoon. Secretly disappointed, I took them, casting a sidelong glance at the club by the door. If I was a boy I bet I'd get a club or at least a stick.
"Ah, Meg, it's what needs done and a day out besides. I reckon the cousins will all be there; most of the town, matter of fact. I'll keep an eye on her."
Jolting along in the truck, sucking on a horehound drop Da had miraculously produced, I let the heat lull me into a sort of half-sleep. Somewhere in the back of my mind were waves of tender green, cool breezes, the soft smell after rain. I knew that they existed, somewhere, just like I knew that I had once owned a pair of spotlessly white shoes with tiny buckles. Now there was nothing but dust as far as the eye could see. We'd slaughtered the starving cows and found their lungs and stomachs full of dirt. Cut our veins, and we might even bleed dirt.
After a few miles we passed more vehicles, some of them overloaded with passengers, kids hanging on the back or on the running boards. I'd never seen so many people, and I could feel my stomach tightening up with anticipation. We pulled over and parked with what looked to be about a thousand others; mostly farmers and kids, a few government men, and one with a bull horn shouting directions above the noise. I spotted Cousin Toby right off the mark, and tugged at Da's sleeve, pointing. Toby was about fifteen then, big as a man but still willing to carry me on his shoulders and make dolls for me out of whatever he could find.
"Can I go with Toby? Please?" I flung my arms around Da's waist, burying my nose in his shirt. He smelled of sweat, and animals, and tobacco.
"Mind you stay with him, then. I want to be able to find you when we're done. You got your tin? Good. Don't wear yourself out, there's chores to do when we get back or your Ma will skin both our hides."
We lined up, all of us, and marched, kicking and stomping, shouting and singing, the men wielding sticks and boards, the children banging on metal pots, tin cans and cow bells. There wasn't much to see at first, but then they rose up before us, out of their hiding places, frantically trying to keep ahead. We drove them forward, narrowing our lines, forcing them toward the fences in the distance. I was panting and hoarse, sweating and trembling by the time we got to the holding pens. I was starting to feel funny, like the time I'd been sick with fever; the ground shimmied and shimmered, my throat ached, and suddenly I was sorry I'd begged to come along.
The holding area fairly boiled with the long-eared creatures as the people fell upon them, chasing them, clubbing them, picking them up and swinging them against the fence posts. I squirmed and tried to get out of the way as the full horror of the scene registered. One of the rabbits stopped at my feet, sides heaving, eyes almost white with terror, and as I stooped down to touch it Toby smashed it across the head with a chunk of wood. Da was outside the fence to my left, scooping up armfuls of dead jackrabbits and tossing them into a truck.
I vomited, a thin stream of the morning's gruel laced with snot and the ever-present dust. A strange man lifted me off my feet and deposited me outside the fence beside a plump woman, who wiped my face with her apron and gave me a sip of water from a jar.
"There, there, too much excitement for you little ones. Sit a spell and rest till your folks claim you."
You can know things, but not KNOW them. I don't know how else to say it. The jackrabbits ate what precious little sprouted in the fields. They ate the scrub trying to cling to the earth and hold it down from the wind. There weren't enough bullets to kill thousands of them, and even if there were, nobody had the money to buy them. I knew we had to get rid of those rabbits. It was the ferocity, I suppose, the sheer glee in all of the killing that got to me. But you can't blame people who've lost everything, watched their children die, livestock starve, if they reach the point where they've got to take it out on someone or something. You surely couldn't spit in the eye of God, as my Aunt used to say. He's too far away and why waste the moisture. I spit anyway, a pitiful fleck in the dust.
I was sorry as soon as I did it, because Da snatched me up from behind and was legging it back to the truck as fast as he could go. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I whimpered, but the wind snatched it away as soon as it left my lips and then I realized what we were running from.
"Roller!" he hollered as he yanked open the truck and tossed me onto the front seat. People were scattering in all directions, snatching up children, dragging along friends, running for their lives. Peering out the car window, I saw it coming, and I knew it was the end of the world. I thought maybe I had brought it on.
Billowing, boiling, damned near pitch black and yet shot through in places with rainbow hues, the monstrous thing bore down on us. Da floored the old truck and shot onto the road, fingers clenched on the steering wheel and his face white under the dark streaks of sweat. I recalled every Bible verse I'd ever learned and began to recite them under my breath. I realized I knew a lot, as they got passed them out at Sunday school for punishment.
It kept gaining on us. At last, we wheezed to a halt along the side of the road. Da fished out a blanket and tore a piece of his shirt off, wetting it from his flask and tying it over my face.
"Lie down, Littl'Un" he said softly. I curled up on the seat, and I felt him lie down over me, covering us both with the blanket. He smelled of sweat, and dead animals, and tobacco.
Maybe he saved my life. Maybe God did, to spare me for other things. Maybe Da's in heaven now, and if he is then I hope he can ask God to give me just this one thing, and I'll never ask for anything again.
For rain to follow the plow.
*Roller was another name for the monstrous dust storms which plagued the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Another term was Black Blizzard. They could reach as high as 2000+ feet and black out the sun. Pictures courtesy of Wikimedia - Public Domain, US Gov't Photos.
Tags: Depression, Dust Bowl, drought, Midwest, Great Plains, climate, crop damage, heat, environment, manmade disasters,