Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl
Well this “Blog” is supposed to cover the same things as my book, and the book covers our lives in Oklahoma, as well. The Dust Bowl and World War Two really defined my father’s generation. In the book I cover dad’s time during World War Two pretty well, but I don’t think it mentions a great deal about the Dust Bowl. Also I was a little ticked off about Ken Burns story on television about the Dust Bowl because he seemed to think that in Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl only covered the Panhandle. TAIN’T SO!
As a child I remember hearing stories about the Dust Bowl, and we didn’t live in the Panhandle. Dad would talk about seeing “black clouds” in the distance, and know he had to hurry and bring the cattle back to the barn.
My parents came from Tillman County, in Southwestern Oklahoma. I remember once looking at the census records for Southwestern Oklahoma, and nearly every county in the area had a population of about 30,000 in 1930, and between about 5,00 to 8,000 in 1940 – county after county after county had lost 2/3rds of its population in a decade. Many left for California. I have relatives who went to California that I've never met. So do many others. The loss of two thirds of the population included my parents home county, and all the neighboring counties in both Oklahoma and the neighboring Texas Panhandle.
I remember dad telling Dust Bowl stories as a child. Some of them included stories of him saying he had to walk one, or was it two, miles to school barefoot, because he had no shoes. I have seen a barefoot photo of him in a school photo so I now know those stories were true, although as a child I used to think "sure dad" and didn't take his stories as seriously as I wish I had at the time. 
He had to work from the age of six or so, on, for the rest of his life, because the family needed his efforts to survive. He’d talk about how there was little food, and about eating nothing but corn bread and pintos for days on end. He mentioned that they made their own jerkey, cutting up meat and placing it on the clothes line in the heat of the summer when it was over 100 degrees, to dry it out. Then later in the year when they needed meat, they’d take some of that jerkey and a couple of homemade biscuits of or a slice or two of corn bread, and the family shot gun, take off for the day, and bring back a couple of cottontails or perhaps something else, and have them skinned, gutted, and ready for cooking. This was in the 1930s, not the 1830s.
But they weren’t always that poor. He also talked about them having one or two dozen head of cattle. Dad would always talk about his pet bull. He’d say he really loved that bull, saying he raised it from birth, from a calf. If mom heard him talking about it, she’d get all animated and say that was a mean bull. Dad would smile a little as he knew what was coming – even I knew, after having heard that story over and over. They'd argue over that bull a couple of times a year at least, a long as I can remember. She’d say walking to school, they often took a shortcut through the Hawkins pasture. Dad’s family was the Hawkinses. Mother's Plaster family lived two farms over, with Dad’s Richey grandparents between the two of them. In fact great-grandma Josephine (Brown) Richey was also a midwife and she delivered both my parents, as there being no doctor for ten or 20 miles around, at least. Both my parents were born in 1915, and pretty much no one had cars. Momma would start talking about how all the kids who took the short cut through the Hawkins pasture would keep a lookout for Dad’s “pet” bull, terrified that he might spot them. If he did, he'd come running hard, and as he neared them he'd not slow down his pace, but would lower his head as if he wanted to ram them, horns first. Momma said they’d run as fast as they could, and hopefully get on the other side of the barbed wire fence.
          Now if I’d heard this story 100 times, Dad had heard it a thousand. I also knew exactly how he’d respond. “Oh, that bull was harmless. I raised it as a calf. It wasn’t a wild animal – it was a pet. When it was a young calf it was happy to see me. It would see me coming for a long way off, and come running. When he got close he’d lower his head because he liked to be scratched between his horns.” I guess the family realized he’d grown attached to that bull, and kept him, lucky for the bull. As a calf it wasn’t much to see him come running at you. Dad always said it was harmless while momma always said that bull terrified her and the other kids in the neighboring farms. Every so often, for as long as they both lived, they’d argue about that bull. Dad said he rode that bull when it was a little calf just like it was a horse, and he continued to ride him when he grew up.
          Dad also had a dog he called “Coaley”, saying he was called that because he was black as coal. He said as a child that one day his family was looking for him and couldn’t find him. They got worried after a while. Where did they eventually find him? In the dog house, of course – literally. He’d fallen asleep, and he and his dog were curled up together.
          As a teenager, during the Dust Bowl era, he, his dog Coaley, and his pet bull, a real “pet” bull -- not a “pit” bull -- would work together to bring the cattle in. Dad said as a child, each family member had chores to perform, and it was his job to take care of their cattle, and they usually had a dozen or two head.
          In the heart of the Dust Bowl period, it was dad’s job to look out for the dust clouds coming. When he’d see what he called “black clouds” of dust at the horizon, he and Coaley would take off across the fields to the pastureland where the cattle were. Dad, Coaley, and his bull knew exactly what to do. Dad would hop on the bull, and ride him bareback just as though it was a horse. Coaley would stir up the cattlefrom the rear, keeping them together, doing his part. But their cattle knew to follow the lead of the bull, and and they would follow him back to the barn. If all went well, they’d have all the cattle back in the barn before the dust clouds hit. Dad said all the young men wore bandanas around their necks, and turn them around “outlaw style”, like outlaws on old westerns movies, covering up their noses so they could breathe better during the dust storms.
          Dad passed on in 1992, but he never forgot the Dust Bowl era. I can still remember him talking about Roosevelt and his policies. I remember him saying Roosevelt’s policies “saved his family from starving to death” – Dad said that and I remember him saying it! He also said all the farmers were told to change their methods of farming, which his family did, and gradually the farms became productive again. For as long as he lived, if we were driving down the road and he saw a farmer plowing the field on a windy day, he’d talk about it, and say that farmer shouldn’t be doing that, and then add that modern farmers had forgotten the lessons they had to learn during the Dust Bowl era.  
Oklahoma’s first Republican Governor ever, Governor Bellman, back in the 60s sometime, popularized the term “Okie”. That made Dad furious. It didn’t take Dad much of an excuse for finding fault with anything a Republican did, but this was just beyond the pale. Dad said when he was young, “to be called an Okie was fightin’ words. The Okies moved to California – it was Oklahomans who remained put.” Well, that’s how he saw it.
          And he had a couple of stories about Oklahoma’s greatest governor, too. In his eyes that was our governor during the Dust Bowl, Governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. Dad told stories of “The Red River Bridge War”.
          Texas built a bridge over Red River, they charged a toll to cross it. Well, this got Gov. Murray fired up. He sent the Oklahoma National Guard down there, used bulldozers to tear up the Texas side of the bridge, and left our National Guard troops there to keep the Texas National Guard from rebuilding it. Although there are ten Texans for every Oklahoman, one Oklahoman is worth about ten Texans, so it would have been an even fight. But it never came to that. The Supreme Court sided with Oklahoma, as the southern bank of Red River is the border between the two states.
            Now I know Texan’s are proud of saying “don’t mess with Texas” – that’s just to try to keep their courage up in the event they come across an Oklahoman. They know they’ll need it. So ESPN commentators and others, if you are a little afraid to mess with Texas, I understand, it's okay. Leave it to the pro's -- we'll protect you. Just realize that “rule” doesn’t apply to Oklahomans. We're capable, and we know what we’re doin’. :)
          Dad had another story about Gov. Murray. There is a story about him that a lady came to his office to visit him, and she was crying. He turned his back to her. He was in a swivel chair and all she could see was the back of his chair. But she went on telling the story of how their family had lost their farm to the bank or whatever it was, I really don’t know but that happened time and again, so this is a likely scenario. I remember dad telling this story and that he was quite fond of it. Well she kept on telling the story. Remember there was no safety net in those days, no Social Security or help for the poor and needy. People who had no food simply starved to death. She thought he was just ignoring her, but she kept on telling her story of how her family became poor and homeless. He never said a thing in response, or asked her a question. It was said eventually he turned his chair so it was facing her, and it was said there were tears in his eyes, and he helped her as much as it was possible for a governor, in those times.
          Above is a photo of Gov. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray. There was one last story about Gov. Murray dad told. While Gov. Murray was running for office, Dad said he came to the county seat of dad’s home county – Tillman, the town of Frederick. One merchant in downtown Frederick started to chiding him, nagging and heckling him. Dad said the two men got into a fist fight right then and there, with Murray, not a big man himself, whipping the larger merchant. I think Dad saw it, but I might be wrong about that.
          I remember dad saying one time everyone heard about a meeting to be held in someone’s barn. Apparently officials of some sort, heard about it. I don’t know if this meeting ever took place or not, but supposedly the organizers were thrown in jail, and it turned out this meeting organized by Communist agitators. Yup, someone was trying to organize a Communist Party in rural Southwestern Oklahoma back in the 1930s. Now it never got anywhere, and I don’t think the people back then really knew how deceitful the Communists would turn out to be, but it did happen, and it happened right here.
          Modern day Oklahoman’s have forgotten many of these things, and need to be reminded of what their grandparents thought and the way they felt. There are things that aren’t in the history books. So many people are busy trying to rewrite history. The fact is that our grandparents were proud to have set up a safety net for the hungry and the needy. They thought that to be good Christians, this was their duty. I remember what Dad thought about these things. Today all Christian organizations care about are concerns rich people have, and that's a shame. It's like a modern generation grew up that has forgotten the ways of their fathers.
           Now where have I heard that before?
ps -- those were just "friendly" jabs at Texas -- I have many relatives down there -- please don't take it seriously.

That reminds me of another story. Dad served in the Army Artillery during WW2. He used to say his best friend was this guy named "Thompson" -- don't recall his first name. He was from San Antonio. Dad said when they first met he said somesomehting about Oklahoma Dad didn't like, and Dad responded by saying something in kind, about Texas. well before long they got in a fist fight. Later in the war though, they became best friends. Dad said he was permitted to say jokes about Texas, and his buddy was allowed to talk about Oklahoma -- but nobody else was allowed that freedom! If anyone insulted Texas, Dad had Thompson's back, and if anyone called Dad an "Okie" or something worse, Thompson had his back. As I said, originally the term "Okie" was offensive to Oklahomans. But I think everyone has forgotten about that, now. They went through the war together, from Schoefield barracks on Oahu in 1940, through the Pearl Harbor attack, as cadre stateside (both became Drill Sargeants), then on to Europe, arriving about the time his brother (who was in the First Army) was killed in July 1944 near St. Lo, Normandy. Dad and Thompson were in the 3rd Army with Patton, through the Battle of the Bulge, and into Germany.
           Photo is, Dad said, him and his buddy, Thompson, taken at Schoefield Barracks, Oaho, Hawaii, before the Pearl Harbor attack. Dad is the one throwing the punch, Thompson is rearing back, about to do the same. They were just joking around for the camera.
           That was another breed of man. They don't make them like that any more.

ps 2 -- As a result of this blog I went and read up a little about Murray. It said some disturbing things about him that I didn't know. I read he was a racist. I didn''t know that when I first wrote that up. It read he tried to get the same Jim Crow laws passed in Oklahoma that were in the Deep Southern States and was NOT successful. But we DID have some of those laws -- just not as many.  I also have a friend who said when the grayhound bus passed over Red River and entered Texas, the bus driver stopped, there was a chain 2/3rds of the way back, that had "Colored" written on it, and if there were any Negroes onboard, they had to go to the back of the bus at that point. So we weren't as bad as Texas. But there were race riots in Tulsa in the 1920s, so we were probably not that much better either.



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