#133 – Dick Bernard: The Dust Bowl

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Last evening I watched most of a History Channel program on the horrors of the Dust Bowl of mid-America in the 1930s. Interspersed with film and commentary from the actual events, were recollections of survivors of the Dirty Thirties, as well as a fascinating effort by scientists to reenact in the present day what people living in farm houses back then would have actually experienced.
The present day experimenters could turn off the wind and dust making machines at will, and did. They could not tolerate what the residents in the 1930s either survived, or didn’t, when the horrible winds and dust storms and plagues of insects and rabbits and on and on destroyed much of the midwest, especially in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, but all throughout the northern plains as well.
My uncle, soon to be 85, remembered what he recalled as the worst year, 1934, in North Dakota. He was 9 years old. It was horrid. There was no escape.
To have gone through it was to be seared forever…or was it?
I was born in 1940, young enough to miss the worst years of the Depression, and to remember some things about the last years of World War II.
Memory or not, I was totally immersed in the attitudes generated by these life-altering times in American history.
The 30s and first half of the 1940s were times of self-sacrifice, and a need for working together. The nature of humans was no different then than now…the assorted attitudes that plague us now, plagued them then. The difference was that there was, for them, no real choice but to concentrate on survival. Prosperity for the masses was not an active dream. Surviving the dirty thirties, and then getting the war over with were the priorities. People had to pull together. Those who didn’t were noticed….
1945 brought the end of the war, and after almost 20 years of hardship, life began anew. The baby boom began. Today, one of my cousins is 63 – she was one of the first of millions of baby boom babies.
That boom was to last until the end of the 1960s.
An attitude began then that, I believe, has become our fatal flaw as a society.
Those who’d been through the Great Depression and World War II in sundry ways made a pledge to their kids and grandkids to protect them from all that was bad in those years. The boomers made a similar contract with their kids.
A consequence of this new contract, in my opinion, is to diminish the values that allowed America to survive the bad times: a collective will to sacrifice and to work together. Looking out for #1 became a primary value.
In the 1930s, it was not until a dust storm reached Washington D.C. in the later 1930s that the then-Congress began to enact crucial legislation for the dust bowl states. It was a classic “NIMBY” (“not in my backyard”) response to a huge problem. Until the problem was virtually unsolvable, the Congress was essentially an inert mass. The rains came almost before the actions of the People’s House in Washington. Even then, a sense of unity among the “united” states was tenuous.
In a lot of ways we are in a similar quandary today, only much, much worse in long-term implications.
We dodged a financial catastrophe by a whisker this year, and we’re now living as if there wasn’t – and won’t be – a problem later.
Many pretend that climate change is no longer an issue, because some pilfered e-mails allegedly prove it isn’t a huge future problem.
We dismiss a coming crisis as fossil fuels become ever more scarce…and expensive; we ignore water tables receding due to use for irrigation – water resources that cannot be replenished by putting a hose in the ground.
Too many of the same heroes who are extolled as part of the Greatest Generation are now saying that the benefits they have reaped, like Social Security and Medicare, are too expensive to provide for the generations following them. Ironically many of today’s generation seem to agree: it is every one for him or herself. The youngsters too young to decide – our children and grandchildren? Their problem.
We are back to the individualism that led to the ship sinking with the late 1920s financial catastrophe (my Dad’s parents experienced the bank closing at the same time as Grandpa’s employer shut its doors in 1927, two years before 1929.) Both my families were casualties of the Great Depression. It took a long while to recover, somewhat.
Only time will tell if I and people like me are “chicken littles” saying “the sky is falling”.
My guess is we have a pretty clear view of the future if societal attitudes do not dramatically change: not pleasant, indeed, grim. Indeed, even deep change now may be too late…but its worth a try.
Bob Barkley, Dec. 20, 09: In regard to your piece, “Dust Bowl,” it occurred to me today, as I was once again trying to make inroads with my right-leaning sister, that attitudes have context. They don’t occur in a vacuum. For example most Americans believe what they were taught about the nations history, but that version most of us were exposed to was seriously skewed. Consequently I sent my sister two books — both by Howard Zinn: The People’s History of the United States, and A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.
Your story regarding the dust bowl provides part of your context. I was raised well into my teens in Jersey City, NJ during the Boss Hague days. I was in a Republican household in a Democratic stronghold. And my Dad was a Lutheran minister in an overwhelmingly Catholic community. Those were two strong components of the context for my beliefs.
Until we know the context in which people think we will not understand their beliefs. Your rural upper Midwest context is foreign to me. This why we must listen deeply to really understand others. It’s hard but essential.
Dick’s response to Bob: Excellent. We’ve ‘talked’ a bit before about the Jersey City days. Don’t recall the exact context, but something I’d written or sent around jogged your memories of the tense years in Jersey City. I think the primary relevance of your comment is that we all need to ‘farm’ our own circles, since our group experiences are so unique…’city slickers’ out east have not a clue what farmers in the midwest are about, and vice versa.