(Written in May 2007 in Tucson, Arizona)
The wind blew today, hot and dusty with lots of fuzzies from Mesquite trees and Desert Broom floating in the air. For some reason, it made me think of a day in my childhood on the plains of Kansas although in severity, there is no comparison.
The year was 1939 or there about. My brother, Dwight Pepperd, and I are still uncertain about the exact year. Our father, Merrill Pepperd, Dwight and I were living with Grandfather William "Will" Pepperd and Grandmother Harriet (Baker) Pepperd on the farm about ten miles east of Coldwater in Comanche County, Kansas. It was a hot blustery day, but not so hot that a five-year-old would stay inside. The morning went well with the usual bustle of adult chores. After milking the cows, breakfast was prepared, eaten and cleared away. Grandmother and Aunt Oleta began weeding the garden, and the men went off to the barn or somewhere.
I played with my cat, Boots. He played with a mouse that he dropped into a bushel sized pail. I tried to reason with Boots, but he would not give up the mouse. When I overturned the pail, Boots pounced on the mouse and killed it. He carried it away in his mouth. That outcome had not occurred to me. I considered Boots’ behavior very bad and felt sorry for the velvety little mouse. It was not a fair fight.
I took up the matter with Uncle Jay Pepperd’s wife Oleta but got no sympathy. She said it was Boot’s job to catch and kill the mice on the farm. I knew that of course, but Boots didn’t have to play with it in the pail. Aunt Oleta agreed that was not nice, but pointed out that Boots was a cat and not a Christian. Therefore he did not know any better. Aunt Oleta was a Bailey before she married my Uncle Jay. To me, she was wonderful and beautiful with dark hair and big blue eyes, and sometimes she giggled like a little girl.
Mid-morning, the adults began to behave strangely. Dad, Granddad and Uncle Jay had reappeared, and Grandmother and Aunt Oleta left the garden. Even Granddad’s hired hand, Carl Redfield joined them. They were watching the western sky. I looked, but I didn’t see anything in particular. On a hot day, the horizon appears to run in waves from left to right. The waves never run right to left. I wondered about that.
Even more curious was adult behavior. I was told to stay indoors. Grandmother and my aunt and uncle were ripping up sheets into long narrow strips. They set up a team. While one tore strips of tough material, two of them were stuffing the strips around all the doors and windows of the dining room with table knives. The wads of material looked very tight. They were in a terrible hurry and very impatient with my questions.
Grandmother got the leaves out for the harvest table. She used them all. Then she began to drape tablecloth after tablecloth and even sheets over the table. The drapes hung clear to the floor. I wandered outside to play. It was a hot day with the sun overhead.
It was strange outside too. It was nearly dark, like after sundown but before it is night. The sun was in the sky, but you could not see it very well. I could hear the cattle bawling in the big barn. Usually the cows and the horse were in the pasture, but I did not see any animals now. Even the chickens had gone to coup, and Dad was locking them in. He scolded me for being outside. That was puzzling. I was nearly always outside except at bedtime.
When I went back in the house, Grandmother was looking for me. She told me to get under the dining table so I did. It was like a tent, but there wasn’t much to do, and it was getting pretty dark under there. Someone handed in Boots. Boots did not want to be there so I had to hold him while everybody else got under the table. He hissed at me. Granddad walked with the help of canes. He had to be helped getting down under the table. Grandmother had told me he was crippled by a threshing machine when he was still young.
We had never gotten under the table like this before that I could remember. At first, it seemed like fun. Someone had brought in the wash pan with water in it. Grandmother wet a washcloth and told me to hold it over my nose and mouth. When it got brown spots on it, she would rinse it out in the pan and give it back to me. I thought we would be under that table forever. There was not even room to lie down with the whole family and Carl Redfield under there, and they looked like bandits with handkerchiefs tied around their faces. It was hot. I complained. They told me to be patient.
There has never been a lonelier sound for me than to hear the moans and screams of the prairie wind. All afternoon the wind howled and railed and hammered at the big old farmhouse while we huddled under the harvest table in the sealed up dining room. The water in the wash pan was getting pretty dirty toward late afternoon. I was tired of having to put the wet cloth on my face, but all the adults insisted that I had to use it.
They threatened me with dust pneumonia, whatever that was. It was something evil. It killed little girls by filling their lungs with dirt. I was suspicious. I knew adults had lungs too, but there was no reasoning with them. What I did not know was that dust in previous years had affected Dwight’s ears. He had been rushed to the doctor for a mastoid operation. While he was in the hospital, the young girl in his room died of dust pneumonia. The dust storms were particularly deadly for children, and it terrified Grandmother Pepperd.
Just when I thought we would never get out from under the table, one of the men came back to say the storm had passed. He had gone out and back a number of times before he gave us that welcome message. He said the sky to the East was still brown, but he could see the sun in West. My father, who was deaf, made a sign that indicated it was bad, and later I saw what he meant. There were inches of dust in the house. Outside the fence posts were half buried.
The world outside the tent of the harvest table was deep with silky dirt. The adults called it silt. It had sifted around the carefully sealed doors and windows. No one could walk without kicking up clouds of dust. Dad and Uncle Jay got out the wheat scoops and began to shovel out the house. Granddad and Carl Redfield went off to the barn to check on the livestock. Grandmother and Aunt Oleta began to uncover things and wash them down. I sneezed a lot.
It seemed a long time before the farm looked like it had before the dust storm; and whenever the adults started watching the western sky, with dread in my heart, I watched right along with them. None of us wanted to see that strange brown cloud bank billowing up from the far horizon. I knew then what it meant as well as anyone. When the wind blows like that there is little we creatures on the Earth’s crust can do but wait it out and try to survive.
My brother, Dwight, is four years older than me. When I told him I had written this story and asked him what year we had had the dust storm, he asked, "Which one?" He then went on to tell me that he remembered several. He also said that as a baby in 1934 and 1935, I had often slept in a bassinette covered with damp tea towels. He said Dad and Mother kept wet tea towels in the car when they went anywhere. It was a different world during the Great Depression years. Whenever I hear of bad droughts now, I wonder if other families or children are experiencing what we did on that particular day in Kansas.
Merrill Clyde Pepperd, father of Margaret (Pepperd) Greene.
Thanks to Margaret (Pepperd) Greene for contributing the above story to this web site!
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