Tag Archives: Dust Bowl

They were sturdy folk

By JOHN KANELIS / johnkanelis_92@hotmail.com

I have just about finished reading a book it took me far longer than I thought it would take to read.

The book is titled “The Worst Hard Time.” It was written by a stellar New York Times reporter, Timothy Egan, who chronicled in astonishing detail the suffering that came to the Texas Panhandle during the 1930s.

The Dust Bowl plundered the landscape made vulnerable by farming techniques that destroyed the native grasslands that kept the soil in place, preventing wind erosion. The Dust Bowl has been labeled the “worst manmade disaster in U.S. history.”

“The Worst Hard Time” tells story after story of how these sturdy residents of places like Dalhart, Perryton and, yes, Amarillo weathered the astonishing misery of that era. Black Sunday is still thought to be the most nightmarish scenario anyone ever saw, as enormous, towering clouds of dust blew in over the region.

Just how bad was it then? | High Plains Blogger

Children and old people died of “dust pneumonia.” Farmers lost crops. They couldn’t pay their bills. Livestock died by the tens of thousands of head.

Many of them moved away. Many others of them stayed. Their descendants live in Amarillo to this day. I got to know some of those Dust Bowl descendants during my time there. They are a remarkable lot.

For a time after I left the Amarillo Globe-News, I had the privilege of writing a blog for Panhandle PBS, the Amarillo College-affiliated TV station. They paid me to write about public affairs TV programming shown on KACV-TV in the Panhandle.

In March 2016, PBS broadcast a special called “The Dust Bowl,” which was put together by noted historian/documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. I wrote a blog post that talked about its airing.

‘Dust Bowl’ returns just as Panhandle dries out (panhandlepbs.org)

I do hope that PBS will show “The Dust Bowl” again. I want to witness the accounts of those individuals whose stories I read about in “The Worst Hard Time.”

Yes, it was a hard time. The worst of it was unimaginable to those of us who never lived through it.

Timothy Egan’s book only deepens my pride in my former neighbors and fellow travelers.

Fear not, others will step up

The news of the death this week of Wales Madden Jr. in Amarillo hit me hard, as it hit others who knew him equally hard.

As sad as I am at this good man’s passing, I find myself resisting the urge to wonder: How will the community replace him? How does any community full of giant men and women replace those who pass from this good Earth?

Well, I have what I hope is an acceptable answer.

I don’t know how a community replaces someone of Wales Madden’s immense stature. I only know that Amarillo, Texas, will move forward.

Amarillo is like any community in this great country of ours. It comprises roughly 200,000 residents. It has a long and storied tradition of embodying the pioneer spirit. Trail blazers settled on what was seen as a desolate landscape in the 19th century. They built a thriving community of farmers and ranchers that has grown into the unofficial “capital” of the High Plains region that includes parts of four states.

They endured hardship the likes of which few communities have ever experienced. The Dust Bowl? The misery of that terrible time in the 1930s was centered in the High Plains. Many of them fled. Many others stayed. They powered through it. They rebuilt their shattered lives. That’s how communities learn to thrive past their hardship and sadness.

Other communities with which I have some familiarity also have suffered grievous loss. Civic giants pass from the scene and somehow other emerge to take their place.

Before I moved to Amarillo, I lived and worked for nearly 11 years in Beaumont, Texas, another wonderful community along the Gulf Coast. It, too, is full of dedicated citizens who are the direct descendants of those who built that oil and petrochemical refining community into what it has become. Men and women pass from the scene and others step up, they fill the breach.

Amarillo is going to gather Saturday at the church where Wales Madden worshiped with his beloved wife, the late Abby Madden. Folks will hug each other, talk about Wales and Abby, remembering their philanthropy, their love for each other and for the community. They’ll remember Wales’ passion for climbing all those “14ers” — the peaks that exceeded 14,000 feet — in Colorado and California.

They need not worry for an instant whether anyone will emerge to replace the great man.

Great communities find a way to keep moving forward even as they bid farewell to those who helped build them.

Quite sure ‘Dust Bowl’ won’t return

One of the things I learned about the Dust Bowl was it was manly caused by human fallibility and ignorance.

I also learned that the Dust Bowl was centered right here on the High Plains of Texas and Oklahoma.

As dry as it has been in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles since this past autumn, I will rely on the knowledge that we have learned how to prevent a recurrence of the hideous tragedy that befell the region in the 1930s.

Ken Burns’ fabulous documentary film, “The Dust Bowl,” which aired on PBS in 2015, reminded us that the event was the worst “manmade ecological disaster” in U.S. history. How did it occur?

Human beings settled on the High Plains and began plowing up natural grassland, turning it into cultivated farm land. Many farmers relied on rainfall to irrigate their crops; they were “dry land farmers.”

They plowed up hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland, which Mother Nature put there to act as protection against wind erosion. The grass held the soil together, preventing it from blowing away in the stiff wind that howls frequently across the High Plains.

Well, then something drastic happened. It stopped raining. The region became gripped by a killer drought. Then the wind blew as it always does. What happened next has become the stuff of legend throughout the High Plains.

The dirt blew in sinister, black clouds across the vast landscape. People breathed in the dirt. They contracted “dust pneumonia.” Many of them died; the most vulnerable were the very old and the very young; obviously, the very sickly also fell victim. Many others who didn’t die vacated their farms and ranches.

Other survivors, though, stayed and powered through the misery.

The nation learned a lot from that terrible time. One of the lessons dealt with tilling the land. Farmers started by letting the grass grow back where Mother Nature intended for it to grow. They improved their tilling techniques to minimize wind erosion.

The rain would return eventually. The High Plains would rebuild. The dust settled.

We’re now gripped by another drought. The U.S. and Texas departments of agriculture consider the region to be in “severe drought” mode.

Here’s a glimmer of hope: No one really believes we are going to experience a chapter-and-verse repeat of what occurred on the High Plains more than eight decades ago. The region’s ignorance about Mother Nature’s way has long gone.

However, we’ve got those damn fires with which we must contend.

Looking more like Dust Bowl

This is what the Dust Bowl looked like?

Dust Bowl, anyone?

What you see here is a picture I snapped this evening looking west from where we are living. The wind is howling. The weather apps on my cell phone and my wife’s cell phone tell us it’ll keep howling through the night and into the next day.

This picture frightens me a bit.

I am not going to equate what we’re seeing here in 2018 to what Texas Panhandle witnessed in the 1930s, when hideously ignorant farming practices coupled with a severe drought created the nation’s worst-ever man-made environmental disaster.

Ken Burns’s documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” told that story in a gripping series that aired on Panhandle PBS a couple years ago. Elderly residents who lived through the Dust Bowl as children recalled watching their siblings and young friends die of “dust pneumonia.” They talked about how they either fled the High Plains or remained to rebuild their lives destroyed by Mother Nature’s merciless wrath.

Are we heading for another catastrophe? No. I don’t intend to suggest such a thing.

The picture I have posted with this blog item, though, intends to illustrate that we are getting a touch — perhaps only a smidgen — of what this region’s ancestors endured during a much darker time.

We all are ready for some rain.

Harvey getting set to deliver a second sucker punch

Here it comes … again!

Hurricane Harvey has been “downgraded” to a tropical storm. The beast delivered its havoc to Houston and is still punishing the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Then it decided to back up, move out over the Gulf of Mexico and pick up some more moisture from the overheated body of water. Now the storm is coming back ashore. Where it makes landfall again remains mostly a guess. It’ll be somewhere east of Houston. Possibly near Beaumont, where my family and I lived for nearly 11 years before moving to higher ground in the Texas Panhandle.

What are we to glean from this mayhem, this madness, the utter terror of our friends, neighbors and loved ones having to endure this wrath?

I am going to maintain faith that our fellow Texans are going to show the kind of strength and resolve they usually exhibit in times of terrible distress.

When the acclaimed PBS series on the Dust Bowl aired a couple of years ago, I learned a lot about the steel that runs up the spines of Texas Panhandle residents who survived that terrible time. The series, titled “The Dust Bowl,” recounted the horror that those survivors felt as they watched the ground beneath them blow away. They were children then. Now, quite obviously, they are much older — but their recollections were vivid and so very moving.

Through it all many of them stayed. They fought through the disaster. They rebuilt their lives.

Those earlier Texans have produced generations just like them today and those among us in real time in this moment are enduring another tragedy, brought by another form of nature’s rage.

The storm named Harvey is coming back in. It’s going to do more damage. That’s the terrible news. There can be no “blessing” to derive from this.

However, I anticipate that even after Harvey finishes its terrible task that our Gulf Coast brethren will find a way to rebuild their shattered lives.

God bless them all.

We’re soaked around here, but is drought really over?

I’m going to have to do the virtually unheard of thing later today: At not quite the halfway point in August, I’m going to empty our rain gauge, which is full of water.

We’ve gotten slightly more than 5 inches of rain at our humble abode in southwest Amarillo so far this month. My wife and I empty it at the end of each month before waiting for more rainfall. This month has been a soaker, man!

The National Weather Service station near Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport reports that Amarillo has received 19 inches of rain year to date; that’s 5 inches more than normal and 6 inches more than we had at this time in 2016.

So, put another way, we’ve achieved just about our average annual amount of precipitation — and we still have more than four months to go in this calendar year.

All of this begs the question: Is the drought over?

I’ve heard it said about the crippling drought the High Plains endured in 2011 that it would take an epic amount of rain to bring us officially out of drought status. I cannot remember the specifics, but given that the Ogallala Aquifer takes so very long to recharge given its depth that the rain has to fall in virtually biblical amounts to break the drought.

I’m going to continue believing that and monitor my water use accordingly.

We don’t have one of those automated irrigation systems in our yard. So that’s not a particular issue for my wife and me. We serviced our outdoor faucets during the depths of the drought, so we’re good there. We do things in the kitchen such as turn on the sink faucet sparingly when washing dishes. We remodeled one of our bathrooms a couple of years ago and had one of those “gravity flush” toilets installed, which saves water.

We’re not paragons environmental purity. I don’t intend to portray us as such. Water preservation, though, remains on the top of my mind’s awareness, even when it’s pouring out of the sky.

I keep thinking, too, about that fabulous PBS documentary “The Dust Bowl” that aired not long ago. It told the terrible, horrifying story of how prolonged drought and reckless farming techniques formed a sort of “perfect storm” that created what has been called the nation’s “worst manmade environmental catastrophe.” The Texas and Oklahoma panhandles were in the bullseye of that hideous event.

Our farming techniques have improved since the 1930s. Yes, we can control how we take care of our land. The return of the kind of Dust Bowl-era drought, though, is far beyond our meager effort to dictate to Mother Nature.

Let’s keep that in mind — even as we welcome the rain that keeps drenching us.

Waiting for an epic TV series: ‘The Vietnam War’

I am tempted to start a short-timer’s calendar in anticipation of what I am absolutely certain is going to become an epic television event.

The Public Broadcasting Service is going to broadcast beginning Sept. 17 a 10-part documentary series, covering 18 hours, on the Vietnam War. Panhandle PBS — based at Amarillo College — will broadcast it in real time as it airs.

I am so very hopeful that it deals with a burning question that has nagged me for decades: Why did we fight this war? I spent a bit of time in Vietnam a long time ago as a member of the U.S. Army. I became confused as to the mission and whether it was all worth the fight. So, it is with that lingering doubt about this major American chapter in our national history that I await this program.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are the co-producers of this TV broadcast. I’m sure you know about Burns, the iconic historian and documentarian who has compiled a vast body of work over many years on PBS. “The Dust Bowl,” for example, told the story of how the world’s greatest manmade ecological disaster affected the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, decimated families and steeled those who remained with an unbelievable resolve to recover.

Burns and Novick have collaborated on this Vietnam War package over the span of 10 years.

I read an interview with them in a magazine called “Vietnam.” Novick answered about what made her decide to make this film. with a fascinating notion. “Some people have said, ‘Why are you going to open old wounds? Can’t we let sleeping dogs lie?'”

I would argue that the dogs of the Vietnam War aren’t sleeping. They haven’t slept a wink since the shooting stopped in late April 1975. The nation has been agonizing ever since about the war, its consequence, the wounds it inflicted on us here at home.

“It’s too painful. And it’s still here,” Novick told “Vietnam.”

A generation of Americans who once were young but who now are much older has lived through considerable pain. Some of us came back from that war and were met with open hostility. I did not experience such shameful conduct, but I certainly knew of it occurring all around me. Those attitudes have changed dramatically in the decades since and I accept with gratitude expressions of thanks today for my service during that long-ago conflict.

I welcome this broadcast with great anticipation about what it will reveal about that terrible time in our national history.

I applaud PBS for its continuing relationship with Ken Burns, who has teamed up with another dedicated documentary filmmaker to tell the story of what has been described as the world’s most important historical event of the second half of the 20th century.

Millions of us played a part in shaping that story. We await anxiously this monumental television event.

Hands off PBS, NPR, Mr. President

Now he’s done it!

The president of the United States has just gored my ox. He has hit me where it hurts. He has taken aim at a government institution I revere.

Donald J. Trump is proposing elimination of public money that goes to National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting … a major arm of the Public Broadcasting Service; also slated for elimination is the National Endowment for the Arts.

Trump proposes zeroing out about $445 million for CPB and NPR. Wiping it out. No more public money for public broadcasting, either radio or television.

“PBS and our nearly 350 member stations, along with our viewers, continue to remind Congress of our strong support among Republican and Democratic voters, in rural and urban areas across every region of the country,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said in a statement.

“We have always had support from both parties in Congress, and will again make clear what the public receives in return for federal funding for public broadcasting,” Kerger continued. “The cost of public broadcasting is small, only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse.”

So, with that the president wants to eliminate an element of public spending that in the grand scheme amounts to tossing a BB into the ocean, but which brings tangible benefit for millions of Americans.

I have a dog in this particular fight … more or less.

Not long after I left my job in print journalism in the late summer of 2012, I signed on as a freelance blogger for Panhandle PBS, the organization formerly known around the Panhandle as KACV-TV, based at Amarillo College. I wrote about public affairs television. My text was published on Panhandle PBS’s website.

I got great satisfaction writing the blog and I enjoyed my relationship with the public TV station immensely. It ended when the station went through some changes and decided to divert its “resources” toward more on-air production of local programming.

We bid each other adieu. However, I continue to love PBS and what it brings to the quality of life of all Americans, especially to those of us in the Texas Panhandle. Its programming features some first-rate, top-drawer, high-level production. Ken Burns’s documentary series on the Dust Bowl — and its impact on the High Plains region — will remain with me for as long as I draw breath.

I would hate with every fiber of my being seeing the government remove itself from that kind of programming.

And for what purpose? So we can buy more bombs, missiles and other weapons of war — as if we don’t have enough of it already to destroy Planet Earth a billion times over.

Am I angry over this budget proposal? You’re damn right I am!

Do not do this, Mr. President and Congress.

Wind velocity is relentless

This item came to me the other day from a longtime Amarillo friend.

Linda has lived in Amarillo all her life, she told me, adding that her mother grew up in southwest Kansas.

Neither of them, she told me, had seen it blow as it did on Tuesday, April 29. That event is sort of becoming our version of “Black Sunday,” which occurred during the — gulp! — Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

This is worth mentioning as we’re battling the wind and airborne dirt yet again today. It’s not as bad it was the other day, but my friend’s assessment of the severity of that wind-and-dirt event is still quite striking as we continue to pray for rain to end this merciless drought.

I should add that my friend’s mother is old enough to have some memory of the Dust Bowl. So, to learn that she believes the April 29 dirt storm was the worst she’d ever seen … well, that’s saying something.

OK, are we in the midst of Dust Bowl 2.0? Another friend, Richard, told us today at church that as bad as it has been — and as bad as that particular day had become — it was, after all, just a daylong event. This friend also is a lifelong Panhandle resident. He’s a man of the soil. Unlike me, a city slicker if there ever was one, Richard has worked the land on and off for most of his life.

Thus, I’ve heard two varying reports of the severity of what we’re enduring these days. One of them, from the latter friend, seeks to put this misery into some perspective. Yeah, it’s bad, he says, but think of having to go through these dirt storms for days, even weeks on end! That’s what occurred during the Dust Bowl and it’s a far cry — so far, I should stipulate — from what we’re going through today.

Whatever perspective you want to place around the Spring of 2014 weather, I’m still alarmed to hear others who’ve lived here a lot longer than we have say this is as bad as it’s ever been.

I’m more than ready for rain.

Dust is tough to mow

A word to the wise is in order as the Texas Panhandle recovers from this latest dirt/wind/mud-rain episode.

When you crank up the lawnmower, be sure you’re wearing some kind of mask.

I did precisely that — cranked up the mower — this morning and learned the lesson the hard way.

Every fourth pass I made with the mower across the lawn was downwind, meaning that the dirt that was embedded in the grass blew into my face. I should have known better than to try this chore without adequate protection.

I got the job done, then had to re-bathe to wash the dirt away.

All this is worth mentioning only to remind us all of how it used to be around here, many decades ago.

The Dust Bowl.

Its very name conjures up hideous memories among those old enough to recall when the sky filled with dirt from horizon to horizon. It blackened the sky. It blotted out the sun.

Those who didn’t flee to calmer locations, usually out west, stayed and fought their way through it. They were still standing when the dirt stopped flying. It took years for the weather to cycle its way back to something approaching “normal” around here. But it did.

When I think about that level of suffering, I don’t feel so bad about having to cope with a little dirt flying out of the grass as I cut it.

Still, a mask would have been nice.