A Short Story
Photo from US National Archives and Records Administration
Black Blizzard describes the effects of an epic dust storm on a family living in the Northern Plains of the United States during the Great Depression and devastating drought of the dirty thirties. The storm being described occurred in May of 1934 and was witnessed by the author when he was a young boy. The storm being referred to is described in the book DUST BOWL The Southern Plains in the 1930’s by Donald Worster, pages 13 and 14.
“It was the May 1934 blow that swept in a new dark age. On 9 May, brown earth from Montana and Wyoming swirled up from the ground, was captured by extremely high-level winds, and was blown eastward toward the Dakotas. More dirt was sucked up into the airstream, until 350 million tons were riding toward urban America. By late afternoon the storm had reached Dubuque and Madison, and by evening 12 million tons of dust was falling like snow over Chicago−4 pounds for each person in the city. Midday at Buffalo on 10 May was darkened by the dust, and the advancing gloom stretched south from there over several states, moving as fast as 100 miles an hour. The dawn of 11 May found the dust settling over Boston, New York, Washington, and Atlanta, and then the storm moved out to sea. Savannah’s skies were hazy all day 12 May; it was the last city to report dust conditions. But there were still ships in the Atlantic, some of them 300 miles off the coast that found dust on their decks during the next day or so.”
Although it’s the middle of the week, my younger brother Donald and I don’t have to go to the one room school where Miss. Tilmans teaches all eight grades; some kind of a family emergency. Actually she didn’t teach all eight grades because there are only seven of us kids in four different grades this year. Six of us are from three families that have been in school as long as my brother and I have been. One boy’s folks just moved here this year and are renting a farm house to live in.
I’ve just turned nine, and am finishing the third grade. My brother is a year and a half younger, but because of how our birthdays are, he is only a year behind me in school. I started on time and Donald started early. Besides that he is kind of smart, but I would never tell him that.
I like my brother’s name better than mine. Herald is my name, kind of an old-fashioned name. Donald isn’t so old fashioned. You never heard of a king with that name.
Grandpa led the team of horses that he had just curried, brushed and harnessed and hitched them to the dump wagon. The team looked a little odd because they weren’t well matched. The big horse, named Prince, and the small one named Bess were a good match when it came to pulling since Prince was a little lazy and Bess went all out all the time. They were both black, which helped some to make them look like a team.
In 1888 Great Grandpa Mueller had brought his family from Wisconsin and homesteaded land in northeastern South Dakota; land that Grandpa Mueller now farmed. Grandpa had been ten years old at the time. Grandpa said his Pa got tired of digging out stumps in Wisconsin so headed for the prairie. Trouble is there weren’t any trees on the prairie so they had to build a house with sod. Grandpa talks about how the family lived in a sod hut for five years.
I have a hard time imagining how one would build a sod hut. If you tried to cut a block of dirt out in the field, it would fall apart. You couldn’t build anything out it. But Grandpa said that when you cut a block of soil out of the prairie you could hardly tear it apart with your hands even if you were strong. The sod was grass, dead plants, roots and dirt all tangled together. Grandpa said the prairie is a stubborn thing; wind, dry weather, floods, fire didn’t hurt it. Only the plow, which turned the sod over−like turning a turtle on its back, could kill it.
Grandpa has big rough hands, deep tanned face from being out in the weather no matter how hot or cold it might be. He likes to farm, you can tell that. My Pa; he don’t like to farm, and he doesn’t. He helps Grandpa sometimes, but we only live on the farm, because we don’t have any other place to live. We live in the same house as Grandma and Grandpa. We live in the upstairs. We used to live in town, but Pa had been laid off from a job he had with the John Deere dealer. The dealer l aid off everyone that wasn’t family and there weren’t any other jobs; so we moved into the upstairs of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. There are two rooms upstairs, a small one and a big one. Donald and I use the small one for a bed room, and the other room is sort of a kitchen living room during the day and a bed room at night for Pa and Ma. The upstairs is cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but Pa said we would have to make do, and we do.
Pa works on the WPA, and Grandpa does too when he isn’t busy farming. Grandpa says you can’t make a living farming with the drought and depression going on at the same time, but he keeps trying. It seems like all the farmers put in some time on the WPA except the Dahls. Donald and I walk through the Dahl place on the way to school. They are Hover people, the only Hover people I know about. Mr. Dahl said people that worked on the WPA couldn’t take care of themselves. It seemed like that is just about everyone except the Dahls. They worked a big farm, but it seemed pretty run down. I think my Grandpa does a better job farming than Mr. Dahl does.
Pa went to the tool shed, got a couple of shovels and carried them out to the to the dump wagon. Pa is taller, thinner than most people, and looks worried most of the time. Pa says he makes a dollar a day shoveling gravel. Grandpa, who takes a team and wagon besides his shovel, made twice as much. Pa said if we didn’t have the garden, a free place to live, we wouldn’t be able to make it.
The grown-ups are always talking about the hard times which can be either the depression or the drought; or both. I can understand the drought. You can see it. It has been dry for so long I can’t remember what it’s like to have enough rain. Last summer the crops dried up, wilted in the fields, the lake near where we live has dried up and this spring it’s so dry crops aren’t coming up. The only thing that seems to grow is Russian Thistles.
You can’t see the depression; people talked about it all the time, but you can’t see it. It has something to do with the WPA, Roosevelt, and grandpa’s farm. I heard the grown-ups talk about the bank foreclosing on Grandpa’s farm, then the bank went busted and an insurance company now owns the farm. But the insurance company doesn’t seem to want the farm so Grandpa rents it on shares. The insurance companies’ share must have been pretty small last year and it don’t look good so far this year.
Pa called to Grandpa. The boys are off school, they’ll come along.”
“Ya, good, they like to play in da sand”
Pa turns and looks at us. “You kids fill Grandmas’ cob box before we go. Wear your jackets; it’s going to be cool.”
Grandma and Ma would be baking bread today, so Grandma needed her cob box full. I liked Grandma, she never seemed to get mad, no matter what, and her part of the house is always neat and clean. Sometimes our part of the house isn’t so neat and clean. Us boys are probably a big part of the problem.
It’s cool for the second week in May, so our lined jackets feel good. It takes two wash tubs of cobs to fill the cob box so Donald and I have to make two trips. It takes longer than it should because we get into cob fight after the first tub. Donald grabbed a handful of cobs and started pelting me so I had to get back at him. We used the corn crib as a shield to sneak up on each other.
Pa called, “Hurry up boys, Deming will be docking our pay if we get there late.”
We finally get the cobs done and run to the dump wagon where Pa and Grandpa are waiting. We are going to a gravel pit on the other side of the dry lake where Grandpa, Pa and some neighbors will be hauling gravel to a road about a quarter of a mile away from the gravel pit.
The dump wagon is like a regular wagon except rubber tired wheels replace the wooden spooked steel rimmed wheels and the triple box made for hauling grain and things like that had been taken off and replaced by a bunch of loose planks. The loose planks make up the bottom and sides, of the dump box which after it is filled with sand, is pulled by Prince and Bess to where the gravel is to be dumped and the loose planks are tipped to unload the gravel.
We take the short cut to the gravel pit that runs through the dry lake bed that had been fenced for pasture. Young green grass covers the dry lake bed. Pa observes, “Lot of grass in this old lake bottom; too bad its foxtail.”
Grandpa agreed with Pa, “Cows will eat Russian thistles before they eat that stuff.”
I knew the dry lake bottom grass would grow about a foot high and sprout a fluffy heads which is probably why they called it foxtail. You would never see the cows or the horses graze on it. We stop to open a gate made up of three strands of barbed wire hooked to a willow branch that separated two lakebed pastures. We would have to go through two gates all together, but the short cut saved half a mile, making it only two miles to the gravel pit.
Grandpa fusses about the wind.
“Hope the wind don’t get stronger, could start blowing; nothing to hold da dirt. The wheat and oats should be coming up, keep the ground from blowing. The seeds are just sitting there; waiting for rain.”
The rest of the crew that will be hauling today is already at the gravel pit standing around talking when we get there. There is Isadore Quist, the tall Swede, with a team and wagon, Frank Deming, an Englishman, who brought a shovel and tea in his mason jar. Frank also keeps track of who is working and how many hours they worked. The Bork brothers, Eric and Jon, with a team, wagon and two shovels are standing off to the side. That would be the crew for today.
Donald and I head for the pile of sand we use to crawl up to the holes ground swallows had made near the top edge of the gravel pit. We start enlarging the holes and building roads between them to make an imaginary town in the sandpit wall.
Deming took out his time book, looked at his watch, “Time to start shoveling, got to give Roosevelt a full day’s work for his dollar. Did you listen to him the other night? ”
“Ya,” Grandpa says, “The whole family, even da boys.”
Isadore hadn’t listened. “My battery’s ver dead. I don’t make enough shoveling sand to buy new vons. Everyting is always oke doke anyva.”
Grandpa agreed, “Ya, Roosevelt say’s everything getting better.”
Isadore continued, “You know I shipped an old boar pig last month. You don’t get much for them, but he veighed 400 pounds. Shipped it to St Paul, thought I vould get enough maybe to buy a can of snuff. Know vat I got?
Grandpa didn’t know, but a boar hog wouldn’t bring very much.
Vell, I got a bill. The shipping and selling cost vas more than dey paid for it. Vod you believe it?
Eric Bork laughed, “Have you paid the bill?”
“Vell I sure hope they aren’t holding deir breaths.”
We are keeping busy on our imaginary town along the pit ridge but something strange is going on. Instead of getting brighter, like it should, it’s getting darker. The sun, which had been bright, now looks like a red ball in a dark sky. It’s really weird. We can tell that the wind is really howling even though we’re protected in the pit.
We can hear the men talking about the wind. They are talking loud, almost shouting to be heard. Isadore said. “Yeses Christ, dis vind could blow you avay.”
Jon Bork laughed, “Maybe to a better place.”
Isadore agreed. “Dat vodent be hard to find.”
Jon continued, “When we moved here they told us that the wind would blow the next day if the sun sets in the west. That was no lie but they didn’t say how hard it would blow. Where is all this dirt coming from?”
Grandpa answered, “Fields, “My fields, your fields, every field in da county.”
Isadore agreed, “Ya and mixed in vith da dirt are my seeds.”
Grandpa continued. “I found some seed sprouted yesterday, maybe it will hold.”
“How in the hell could seeds sprout? “Frank wanted to know.
“The field was bare all last year. Must have been a little moisture. Anyway, there were sprouts.
Donald and I hunkered down right next to the edge of the pit, pretty much out of the wind and it didn’t seem too bad. We keep working on our town being built out of swallow nesting holes. Despite the wind, the men kept loading wagons and hauling sand.
Everyone brought a dinner pail or sack for the noon meal. There is pork between thick slices of Ma’s bread in the Karo gallon syrup pail Donald and I normally carry to school. Pa and Grandpa. shared a similar syrup pail. While eating my sandwich I felt the grit from all the dust flying around grinding between my teeth. It seems like it’s getting darker and the wind is blowing harder as we eat lunch.
Jon Bork knew about a way to measure how hard the wind was blowing. “Hang a log chain on a post, if it’s sticking out straight, it’s blowing real hard.”
Isadore said that it must be sticking out pretty straight today.
Grandpa finished his lunch, looks around and announces, “I don’t know what anyone else thinks, but I think it’s time to head home.”
The Bork men thought they could stick it out, wanted to get a full day’s pay.
Frank settled the matter. “I’m marking everyone down for half a day.”
That did it; everyone gathered up their things and started getting ready to leave.
Frank lived half a mile from the gravel pit, so headed off on foot across a field for home. The others got their teams ready to leave.
The end gates and side boards are set up on our wagon and Pa tells us kids to lay down on the plank floor. That gives us some protection from the wind.
We get out on the road and the full force of the wind hits. I stick my head up above the side boards but pull it back real quick when sand big enough to sting hit my face. I know we have to go west and the wind is blowing from the northwest so we are facing the wind.
Grandpa yells at Pa, “I can’t look into the wind, the horses will hafta take us home.”
Pa yells back, “Think they know where they’re going?”
“Hope so.” Grandpa replied, “We’re going where ever they take us.”
Prince and Bess aren’t hesitating. They are keeping a steady pace going somewhere.
Donald and I lay on the plank boards, our bodies pushed against one another as a way to get more protection from the wind.
I feel Donald’s body jerking. He’s sobbing.
“It is just a dust storm, can’t hurt you.” I put my arm around him. “We’ll be home soon. Everything is going to be alright.”
It’s a dust storm for sure, but I had never seen a dust storm like this one. I don’t want to admit it, but I’m not feeling very good either. It’s not like being afraid, like being afraid of lighting in a bad thunder storm. There is something else about this storm, something evil. It’s as though God is angry and decided to destroying the land.
The horses stopped. I hear Pa shouting at Grandpa, “Gate, they took the short cut.”
Pa gets off the side of the wagon. Then the wagon starts moving again. Pa is leading the team through the gate. He gets back in the wagon and horses take over again until we get to the next gate.
It felt good to know we were going in the right direction and almost home. Prince and Bess know what they’re doing. They’re probably as anxious as we are to get back to shelter. They want their barn and some oats and hay.
It’s only a short time and we are in the farm yard where the big windbreak on the north side cuts the wind way down. The horses are unhitched; left loose to find their way to the barn. First the horses go to the water tank; snort bubbles to clear their dust filled nostrils, drink deeply, and then head into the barn. Pa tells us to go to the house and he and Grandpa will take care of the horses.
It is early afternoon, but Ma has kerosene lamps lit to hold back the darkness. Dust is streaming into the house through leaky windows and around the doors. Ma pulls off our jackets, takes a wash cloth and wipes our faces. The wash cloth becomes black with dirt and Ma rinses it out a couple of times before she gets most of the dirt from our faces.
Ma’s not saying anything but I can tell she is upset.
It’s soon evening and time for chores and Grandpa and Pa go out into the storm to do the chores. That night we are all eating at Grandma’s table. The wind is howling and nobody is saying much. I don’t know why we are eating together. We did that when there was some special occasion, and this didn’t seem like a special occasion.
When we are sick or something like that, us kids hardly ever have trouble sleeping, but with the windows rattling, the house creaking and the air filled with dust, sleep isn’t coming easy. Ma gives us some damp cloths to put over our faces. It keeps out the dust but a cloth on the face isn’t good for sleeping either.
We must have fallen asleep because I’m awake and something has changed. I figure out what it is; the wind isn’t blowing anymore. It’s quiet outside, very still. I fall back to sleep.
I’m awake again and hear people moving around. Chores were being done, and I can smell bacon frying. .
We sit at the breakfast table and the grown-ups start talking about what had happened. Nobody can remember a storm like the one we had yesterday.
“There are tree branches all over the yard,” Pa says, “Some trees down, must have been blowing fifty-sixty miles an hour, maybe more.”
Grandma reports that there’s no screen door on the porch, “Don’t know where it went.”
“Grandpa says he’s not worried about the trees or screen doors. He asks, “Vat happened to the land?” Grandpa worries about the land. Grandpa doesn’t own the land anymore, but he treats it like it’s his.
Grandpa says he’s going to the back of the trees on the north side of the yard to look where he found the grain sprouting a couple of days ago. “Anybody want to go with me?”
The whole family wants to go. I want to go. Maybe things haven’t changed. What happened yesterday wasn’t real.
We all go outside and walk toward the grove of trees that run along the north side of the farm yard. We find drifts of black dirt in the trees that weren’t there before, some are two feet deep. The sun is pushing its way up into the sky but there was a kind of an eerie glow, not the usual bright light of a sunny day. Pa says all the dust in the air is making the sun look like that. After a rain or snow storm everything seems fresh, the sun seems brighter, and the air seems purer, but this morning doesn’t seem like that. Today everything seems grey and the air smells dusty.
We reach the field where Grandpa said he had seen seeds sprouting and It didn’t take long to see and understand what had happened. Grandpa had been right. Some seeds had sprouted, and some of them are still hanging by their roots. The top soil had blown away with most of the seeds but some of them that had sprouted clung to the soil.
Nobody is saying anything. Grandma put her arm around Grandpa’s waist, as if to comfort him.
Grandpa points to the edge of the field west of where they were standing and says, “That’s where we cut sod for the hut when we homesteaded this place.”
I try to imagine what that must have looked like. A prairie as far as one could see, Great Grandpa and Grandpa cutting out blocks of the prairie six inches thick and a tangle of plants and roots so tough you couldn’t tear it apart with your hands, even if you were strong. No wind would be strong enough to blow that sod out of the ground.
Alfred Wellnitz Published Book and Short Story Information at:
Copyright © 2015 by Alfred Wellnitz
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this short story are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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