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The Dirty DaysA Young Girl's Journey to and from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl
By Norma Welty
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Norma Welty
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was moving day! Mother was not entirely happy, and only a few hours before she had said to me, "It's an ambitious plan for such hard times. Pulling up stakes here and all and moving on to Oklahoma. Oh, I pray about it considerably."
Still, excitement was in the air, and my own earlier twinge of anxiety about moving from our home in Arkansas vanished. Mother also tried to do her part in propelling the excitement. She glanced mischievously at Daddy while softly singing "My Old Kentucky Home," changing the lyrics to Arkansas. Daddy almost skipped as he moved about, even when Maribelle, his youthful step-grandmother, stopped over to say good-bye.
Mother, Daddy, and I scurried about packing the back of the old truck with our possessions piled high above the sideboard extensions Daddy had built himself. He grinned and said, "Hey, Molly May Dowden, my nearly seven-year-old, make yourself useful and keep this here rope from tangling up while I tie our stuff down so's it won't fall off once we get on the road." He soon finished securing our belongings, and we were quickly on our way.
After all three of us had been jostled about inside the cab of the truck, bumping and careening down the rugged mountain road, we were soon relieved to be on a smooth highway—a new road that would take us to a whole new world.
I was sitting in the middle, and I could see Daddy's white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel relax as he peered over my head and said, "Well, Elsa Ruth, here we are on our way, with our cash stashed."
Mother responded, "Yes, Tillman. We're on our way! Oklahoma, here we come!"
I liked it when Mother and Daddy joked. However, Daddy's mention of the cash caused me to worry. I'd heard Mother say it was coming up on four years since the stock market crash of 1929 had caused bad times for many folks, and some people were doing desperate things just to survive.
She'd also told Daddy—when she didn't know I was listening—about a bank robber named Pretty Boy Floyd who sometimes hung out in eastern Oklahoma. I intended to help my parents watch out for him once we crossed over into Oklahoma because I worried he might rob travelers, too. I was afraid he would guess our money was hidden inside one of our mattresses.
The money was from Daddy's step-grandmother, Maribelle—a cash settlement in exchange for our leaving the Arkansas farm that had belonged to Daddy's deceased Grandpa Dowden. She wanted her brother to take over the farming of the land, instead of Daddy. Daddy took Maribelle's offer—the cash and her old truck—and his vision of a better future was sweetened. And so we were on our way.
After several delays from oil leaks, flat tires, a broken fan belt, a leaking radiator, engine problems, and sleeping nights upright in the cab of the truck, it seemed we had been on the road for weeks. But my concerns about Pretty Boy Floyd and our numerous truck issues were nothing compared to the encounter we were about to have with a dust storm about a hundred miles west of Oklahoma City.
* * *
As the dust engulfed us, I recalled that before we left Arkansas, Daddy had casually told us that Oklahoma had seen a number of dust storms that late winter and early spring. But there was nothing casual about the nature of this particular dust storm, nor any of the others we were destined to experience in the years to come.
Before long the dust storm made me cough; Daddy was coughing, too. Mother, blinking her eyes from the dirt all around us in the air, nervously cautioned, "We seem to be the only vehicle on the road."
"I know it," Daddy acknowledged. "I can't tell the road from the ditch. I saw a little old gas station about ten miles back with a cafe. Did y'all see it a little bit this side of some dinky burg of a town? A little ways back?"
Mother said she'd noticed, and Daddy said he was going to turn the truck around and go back. Turning the truck around in the blinding dust without going into the ditch wasn't easy. But Daddy did the job well, and we soon were glad to be rolling with the wind instead of against it.
* * *
Two cars were parked right in front of the cafe, and we had to park next to a third car along the side. Getting from the truck to the cafe door was a feat to remember. The wind flattened me as soon as my feet were on the ground, and Daddy picked me up and carried me. Mother, nearly blinded by the dust, walked close behind Daddy with her arms clamped around his waist. At times the wind's force caused them to gain a step and then lose a step, and it was a genuine struggle for them to get to the cafe door without losing me. But fear had bolstered our inclination to cling to each other, and we finally lunged through the cafe door in one clump. Several heads turned toward us in understandable surprise.
Two other families were taking shelter in the dingy cafe as well, bringing the total to eleven customers all together; add the owner, and there were twelve people in the room. Everyone was holding a wet rag over nose and mouth, and right away the owner of the place tore three pieces from a dish towel, wet them, and gave us ours. A few minutes later a thirteenth person—a hitchhiker, or tramp, as homeless people were generally called then—flung the door open with the help of the wind and stumbled into the cafe. The owner gave him a damp rag, too.
* * *
We had arrived at the cafe around three in the afternoon, and everyone endured near silence for what seemed like an eternity. It was an awkward situation at best, but we were a group of brow-creasing strangers with wet cloths covering our noses and mouths. Talking was nearly impossible, but at least we were inside. At suppertime the owner served us a family-style meal of chili, red beans, onions, and corn bread. When we finished eating, he waved away anyone who tried to pay him. He simply motioned toward an empty glass jar on the counter and said, "If any of y'all want to leave a few pennies in that jar there, you can. But if you can't, you can't. Don't worry about it."
With humble demeanor, the tramp responded, "Sir, I can stay around for a few hours when this here dust storm is over and clean up the dust for you."
The owner thanked him for his thoughtful offer, and he said, "The food woulda hada be throwed away anyway. Tomorrow'll be Sunday, and I ain't open Sundays. Besides that, I reckon the ice man heard a dust storm was on its way, and he didn't deliver ice today. And things'll be gone bad by Monday anyways."
"It's awful nice of him to treat the tramp so respectfully," Mother whispered to Daddy. "I've read that tramps these days are usually family men out trying to find work." I felt sorry for the man, and I was glad Daddy wasn't a tramp.
Mother and the other women cleared the tables and washed the dishes. When everything was done, our host turned on the radio and we listened to the famous Carter Family singing toe-tapping gospel songs from Nashville. I'd heard them sing on a phonograph record at Maribelle and Great-Grandpa Dowden's once, and it was exciting to hear them on the radio. But intermittent static spoiled our listening pleasure, and so the owner soon turned off the radio.
"None too soon," Mother said quietly. "I imagine all of us are worn out from the strain of all this." She was right. We all seemed ready to pack it in.
"The toilet's not working right—wants to overflow," the owner announced as he was about to go to his cot in a back room, "and I'll put a bucket in there so's y'all won't haf tuh go to the outdoors toilet in the storm."
I saw Mother roll her eyes slightly, and at the same time a frail-looking boy about eleven years old caught my attention when he said, "Mama, I'll be too scared to go in there in the dark."
The owner heard the boy and assured him that he would leave the indoor cafe lanterns burning low all night so people could find their way.
By then all of us, the families and the tramp, had found spaces on the floor of the kitchen and the small dining area and settled down for some sleep, still clinging to those damp cloths over our faces. That is, until we were startled out of our wits by the screams of a woman, followed instantly by a strange whacking sound.
It turned out it wasn't a woman's scream after all. It was the high-pitched squeal of the frail-looking boy. When his mother asked him what had happened, he held his inner wrist close to her face and choked, "Something bit me right here."
A man standing next to the injured child pointed to a very large crumpled centipede lying about two feet from the boy and said, "When I heard the young feller yell, I looked over and I seen the longest old centipede I'd ever seen in my life. And the closest weapon I had was my hat, and I whapped the dern thing with it."
We all stretched our necks to see the centipede; some stepped over for a closer look at the black-bodied, yellow-legged intruder. Each of us swore it was at least nine inches long. One woman bent low for a better look and blurted, "Merciful heavens, I saw it quiver. Hit it with your shoe or something!"
The man who had zapped the centipede assured her it was dead. But he layered several paper napkins in his hand, picked up the lifeless creature, struggled to open the door to a blast of dust, and threw it outside.
As soon as everyone had settled down, the owner said, "Centipedes hardly ever bite humans, but lately over to the northwest in the panhandle and places not far from there, centipedes has been coming into homes and businesses in droves during dust storms." He looked around as if he were expecting someone to comment. No one did, and he continued, "Looks like now they's gonna to be pestering us, too." Everyone nodded. And he suddenly seemed to realize time was fleeing, and he turned toward the kitchen saying, "I gotta go now and fix up something to hep this here chile."
At that point Mother leaned close to Daddy and whispered, "He talks as much like a hillbilly as some of the folks on the mountain."
"A centipede's venom's only a large enough amount to kill insects for food, not to take out a human," said the tramp while stepping forward to fill the silence left by the owner, who had disappeared into the kitchen. "But that one's a real big one, and its bite would hurt a boy his size real bad."
The tramp apparently had forgotten the child's mother would hear his remark. But she did, and it didn't soothe her.
While she caressed her son's hair and cheeks, her silent tears made tracks through the dust on her face, already smudged by the damp cloth. The boy's father furtively swiped a tear from his cheekbone with the back of his fist while he comforted his wife and son. I felt my eyes getting watery, too. I deeply regretted that I was too shy to talk to the distraught family and say I was sorry, like some folks and one older child had done. Mother and Daddy talked to them, too, and Mother promised she'd pray for the boy's quick recovery. The others echoed her words, also promising to keep the boy in their prayers.
Soon the owner returned with a pan of warm, soapy water mixed with a few drops of ammonia and washed the boy's wound with the smelly mixture. After the first-aid treatment, the boy vomited into the pan. "I expected that," the owner said to calm the mother's rising fears. "Centipede bites kin bring that on. Here's a cup of ginger tea I made in case you'd need it. It's been said it quells the puking. Here, boy, aspirin for your pain, too."
The youngster soon fell asleep, and the rest of us slept, too. By morning the boy appeared paler, and his mother approached my mother and confided, "He does feel better, but he has a scary-looking yellow fluid sack around the puncture on his wrist."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. But it's probably a normal reaction. You might want to take him to a doctor, though," Mother sympathized.
The father indicated that his son wanted to lie low. So we all readily gave him his space and hurried toward the restroom door, where we stood in line waiting to use the makeshift toilet. Then we waited in line again to get into the kitchen, where the owner had invited us to wash our hands and faces before we ate the breakfast he had set out for us.
After two bites of the leftover corn bread with applesauce, my stomach felt queasy, and I was glad the injured boy was sleeping and wouldn't have to eat the dry corn bread and overly sweet applesauce. But it seemed like everyone else enjoyed the breakfast. And, although the owner had neglected to put a container on the counter for our payment, I was glad to see Daddy and another man leave some money on a table.
* * *
The dust storm moved on by mid-morning. Daddy shoveled away the knee-high pile of dust that had drifted against the outside door so the owner could get out and put some gas in our truck and add water to the radiator.
After Daddy paid the owner for the gas and thanked him for the water, he and Mother said their polite good-byes to everyone, and the three of us headed toward our truck.
"He may not be running a legal eating place, with no working indoor toilet and all. Ha, I bet it never has worked," Mother said as soon as we were in the truck with the doors closed. "Still, that man's a bighearted person," she continued. Daddy and I nodded in agreement, although I was surprised to hear that the man might have told a lie when he said the toilet wasn't working. I certainly thought he was a very kind man, and I sure hoped he was being truthful.
Still feeling travel-worn, we drove on. I was looking forward to sleeping in a real bed, and I was sure my folks were, too. After two nights of sleeping in the truck and the third on the hard floor of the cafe, I thought a bed would be a luxury. So with only a few more hours of travel ahead of us, I put my mind on sleeping in a soft bed with sheets, quilts, and a pillow in what I hoped would be a dust-free home.
Thinking about sleeping in a nice bed should have caused me to feel drowsy, but my mind wouldn't stop thinking. I wondered how long it would be before I would again see Mother's parents, Grandpa and Grandma Dryden. I hoped Daddy's older cousins, where we would be staying in Oklahoma, would seem a little like them. I had loved Grandma's cooking and Grandpa's singing or playing the fiddle while Mother's brothers and sisters sang religious and folk songs, later called bluegrass. My mind took me back to the family songfests and the one time we went to a barn dance to hear my grandpa and family play and sing. I felt my foot wanting to tap to the rhythm, but the urge didn't last. The monotonous sound of the old truck's engine soon took over again.
* * *
As we drove, Mother dozed. Daddy stared at the road, hardly blinking. But then a sudden thud underneath the truck caused all three of us to jump.
"What was that?" Mother asked, eyes wide open with alarm.
"Oh, a dad gum jackrabbit jumped right in front of me. Came from out of nowhere on the right-hand side! Now he's dead as a doornail," Daddy answered, shaking his head.
The thud had jolted me right out of my imaginary soft and clean bed and my thoughts about my mother's family and back to reality, and I instantly visualized another long delay caused by more truck problems. But my worry lasted only a split second. We drove on without losing a bit of time, and I quickly peeked around Daddy's head to the left side of the road and saw the poor, dead rabbit's companions hopping across the vast, flat land. They didn't seem to know that something terrible had just happened.
I couldn't stop feeling sad about the rabbit whose hopping days were over. My folks must have felt the sadness, too. Then after a long silence Daddy took a deep breath, peered at Mother over the top of my head, and said, "Well, Elsa Ruth, here we are still heading west with our cash still stashed."
"Yes, Tillman. Here we are in Oklahoma, and I imagine some folks in Oklahoma are hankering to be heading west, too. Only they want to go to California."
Never missing a chance to worry, I wondered if very many people would be leaving Oklahoma. Judging by what I'd seen from the truck window, it looked like there might not be very many children, and I wanted to have lots of friends in school. But I appreciated my folks' humor—if Mother's comments were truly meant to be funny.
Excerpted from The Dirty Days by Norma Welty Copyright © 2012 by Norma Welty. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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