Monday, July 13, 2009

Reflections of the Dust Bowl

Charlie Bale, 1925 , Haskell County Kansas

In his book In Cold Blood Truman Capote called it the vast tumbleweed tundra, the flat, empty and dusty world west of Dodge City. The singer/songwriter Roger Miller once said that it should have been a separate state altogether – Southwest Kansas, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, Eastern Colorado and parts of New Mexico. “The people there are different from anywhere else,” Miller said. “Between the relentless wind and the unbroken horizon, the people of the plains seem to have the ability to withstand the toughest trials yet still keep the faith.”

The pioneers who settled the prairie were used to circumstances that tested one’s mettle. They understood cold and heat and danger. They had faced down war parties of Cheyenne and Apache, violent lightening storms and tornadoes. Any of which could hit without warning.

But the toughest trial of all would be during a time known as the Great Depression, and a place called the Dust Bowl, one of the worst ecological blunders in history. Plains states land was overworked and over planted during the days when all seemed possible with little thought for the consequence of excess. When the dirt began to blow across the plains the farmers neither understood the cause nor could predict when it might stop. As Woody Guthrie wrote, “It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down. We thought it was our doom.”

The long drought began in 1930 and lasted through the decade. The flatlands had always experienced wind, but by 1932 it had settled into a constant howl, and what topsoil was left after years of poor soil management began to blow. Cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, and farmers began to starve. In Southwest Kansas, wheat, not cattle, was the prime concern. Wheat was a cash crop and the area farmers had long considered themselves quite advanced. Determined to raise wheat in this, among the bleakest stretches of land in the Great American Desert, families invested in not just land, but the machines needed to ease the workload. For decades the area was a breadbasket, and those who had homesteaded the land prospered. But all the tractors and combines and grain elevators were no match for the black blizzards. People left for California in droves, believing the pamphlets promising good money picking fruit in a state resembling a garden.One small farmer hung on for most of the decade before getting out.


His friends called him Good Time Charlie, and his mother-in-law called him no-good. He was the son of a Dodge City gambler, and had grown up playing draw poker, three-card monte, faro and mustang. He loved to dance and was an outrageous flirt, a ladies man in his younger days.But he was a hard worker, and quickly proved his worth when he signed on to work at the prosperous Johnson family farm.

It was no surprise to those who knew him well. Charlie had stopped his formal schooling in the sixth grade to help support his family. He worked for several farmers around Dodge, through the 1920’s, sometimes dividing his time between two and three jobs a day. He was known as a man who could ride any horse, although he disliked the idea of "breaking" an animal. He often said he "gentled" horses. By the time he arrived at the Johnson place he was as good a farm manager as anybody had seen.

The trouble started when the eldest Johnson girl, Liz, returned from her studies and met this son of a disreputable card shark. She later said that the first time she saw Charlie, she vowed to marry him.And against her family’s wishes, the college girl married the hired hand in 1929, an infamous year in the nation’s economic history. The in-laws entered into an armed truce with the new family member, even gave the couple a little house and 80 acres of land as a wedding present, although the way it was offered it seemed like a consolation prize. Charlie and Liz viewed it all with a sense of amusement.

He worked long hours on the Johnson farm, took on extra responsibilities at a family grain elevator, and fathered three daughters in quick succession. But finally the dust prevailed, and by the time a fourth daughter arrived in 1939, much of the Johnson land lay in dusty ruin, the grain elevator all but closed down. Money and food were in short supply.

Charlie still played cards some, and since he won more than he lost, it brought in a few dollars. But bets were small and chances few in those days. Several stores vital for survival were still open, so Liz found a job selling hardware and farm equipment to help supplement their income. People kept hearing rumors that things were looking better, stories of a few ears of corn being grown in hill country Oklahoma, of cattle operations beginning again in Eastern Kansas. Some even said that the Depression was now just a part of history. But in the Southwest corner of the state, along the Cimarron Cutoff portion of the Santa Fe Trail, the desperation that had set in years earlier remained.

In Charlie’s case, desperation was compounded by illness. Years of plowing in the face of blowing dirt and working inside an unventilated grain elevator felled Charlie with a case of dust pneumonia. He ran a fever, coughed and awakened with night sweats. Doctors told him that if he stayed, the dust would kill him. But he was financially unable and emotionally unwilling to take his wife and four children on a journey that might prove futile.

It was fear that drove Charlie back to Dodge City for one last seat at the poker tables. He talked over options with Liz, then put together most of what little cash they had and set off for a back room in Dodge. Charlie’s stake went up and down over the next three days. Finally, when he was still up over a hundred dollars, he lost four hands in a row. That’s when he gave up. He’d been around long enough to give a losing streak a quick kiss goodbye.

Charlie gave most of the cash he’d won to Liz, and spent one last night with the family. He would not see them again for nearly two years. Promising to write, he took off for California in a 1927 Chevrolet truck he’d bought on time from his father-in-law back when things were better.

The first letter he sent home came from New Mexico, where he told of picking up a hitchhiker who said the WPA in Santa Fe was hiring day labor. There, it was still dusty, he admitted, but it was a different sort of dirt, real dirt, not the finely ground drifts that made Kansas and Oklahoma look like the morning after a dark snowstorm. But the best news he reported was that a man at the Santa Fe WPA knew of a doctor who’d had great success treating dust pneumonia with penicillin. Rest and antibiotics, the doctor said, that was the miracle cure. A friend of the doctor’s from the local Kiwanis Cub offered Charlie a bed for a few nights, to let the medicine “grab hold of the pneumoney.”

He slept fitfully for the next 48-hours, but when he awakened on the third day, his fever had broken and he could take his first deep breath in months. Energized and hopeful, he worked the next week loading trucks, then heard of jobs in the rail yards of Flagstaff, Arizona, closer yet to his final destination, California.He got another penicillin shot, then spent the next morning and a day’s wage working on his truck, before setting off on Route 66 across the desert.

Time and again he met people traveling in patched-together old cars and trucks, heading back to Oklahoma and Kansas. He had a mechanics touch and a set of tools. Sometimes he could help them get up and running, sometimes not. He was driving on the Southwest edge of the Colorado Plateau, and the San Francisco Mountain Peaks Lay ahead. It was the first time he’d seen a mountain range, though the Rockies were but a few hundred miles from where he’d lived his entire life. He’d seen photos, heard tales from those who had made the trip to Denver, but nothing had prepared him for it.“It’s like seeing a picture on a calendar come to life,” he wrote. “The mountains are beautiful to look at. But I don’t think I’d give a plugged nickel to own an acre of ‘em. What could you grow?”

At a job center in Flagstaff he was told there were indeed a few jobs at the rail yards, but they weren’t permanent and paid little. Again, he worked a few days, then headed back out on the highway. One thing he learned from many of the people he’d met on the road and his fellow workers in Flagstaff was that the fruit picking business was – well, fruitless as an opportunity. California wasn’t waiting with open arms for transient workers. The Los Angeles police no longer guarded the Arizona border against indigents, but many Californians were not happy to see more rattletrap vehicles and overall-wearing yahoos heading their way.

According to those fellow yahoos he met, the camps on the outskirts of the city were not as dangerous as they’d been some years earlier, but they were still rough. In a letter home Charlie said he’d seen just as bad in Dodge City during the cattle drives of his youth. Having had a father who played cards for a living and was never seen without a pistol strapped to his side, Charlie was comfortable with an element of danger. In his own way, he was street smart, able to move easily in most circles.

One fellow he met at the encampment spoke of work around Pomona, just outside Los Angeles, so that’s where Charlie headed. If he slept in his truck, he figured he could last a month or two with the money earned in Santa Fe and Flagstaff. He wanted to find the kind of job that would allow him to mail some money home each week as well as to save to send for his family. Two weeks later he met a man who, despite some local outcry, was wildcatting for oil in the area. Charlie wrote home, “Things are looking up. I’ve found work.”

At first it looked like a replay of the many stories Charlie had heard along the road. The boss offered a certain amount as salary, but on payday he gave the workers what he called “eatin’ money” and IOUs to make up for the rest. After a few weeks Charlie confronted him.“Tom, an IOU is not gonna get my family here or rent us a house to live in. I’ve got to have my money, or I’ll have to move on.”Charlie later recalled that for a few minutes he expected to be fired. But Tom finally smiled and said, “You’re the best worker I’ve got. You’ll have your money.”

After living in his truck for several months, being promoted to a supervisory position and saving his money, Charlie was able to rent a small two-bedroom house in Pomona. It was a wreck, but he worked on it nights and weekends in anticipation of the family reuniting. In letters home he bragged about Pomona, named after the Roman goddess of fruit. It was a lush town, filled with flowers, orange and avocado trees, surrounded by vineyards. Like her husband, Liz had never been off of the American plains, and, he knew she would find this as much a paradise as had he.“When you come we’ll put in a garden,” he wrote. “The planting season lasts all year out here. And I can’t wait to show you the ocean. In a way, it reminds me of fields of waving wheat.”

On the home front, Liz continued to sell hardware, wait for the letters she dutifully read to the children, and listen to her mother’s dire predictions of being abandoned. It took two years for Charlie to save the money for his family’s trip to California. Even though his boss appeared to have had the best of intentions, there were too many times when wildlcatting came up dry. And by this time Charlie had convinced his landlord to sell him the little Pomona house with no down payment, so stakes were high.

There was other uncertainty through the entire country. By the spring of 1941 it seemed likely that America would be pulled into war with Germany and Japan. Two of Liz’s brothers had joined the Air Force and were training as pilots, and Californians were especially alarmed at their vulnerability as a Pacific Coast state. But the country was still at peace when, in the late summer of 1941, Charlie wired money to Kansas. He had a relatively stable job, was making payments on a house and thought within another year he could even afford to replace the 1927 Chevrolet truck with a sedan. Before reluctantly putting her daughter and grandchildren on the train, the unconvinced Mother Johnson said if things didn’t work out, to write home for return tickets.

Just four months after they arrived, before the family’s awe for California’s flora and fauna had even begun to wear off, Pearl Harbor was attacked and America was at war. And of course, in many ways, the war created the middle class in America. Charlie quit wildcatting and joined the war effort by going to work first in the steelyards and later in the munitions industry. He and Liz put in a Victory Garden on a vacant lot owned by the man who held the note on their house.

Even though he was no longer a farmer, Charlie spent considerable time reading about agriculture, about crop rotation, top soil erosion, and what had been going wrong in the Great Plains for almost a half century. It was a shame, he said, that nobody had seen it coming.“If we had it to do again…” Charlie often reflected with regret.

Then, in late 1944, as the war wound down, a letter arrived from Mother Johnson. “The land is coming back. People are planting wheat again. We need you.”There was a decision to make. Like so many of the migrants, Charlie and his family had grown to love California. Their daughters picked fresh avocados from a tree in their own yard. The fruits and vegetables they grew could never be rivaled on the plains. They had prospered, owned a house, a car, and for the first time in their lives thought in terms of trips to the beach and driving vacations. Moreover, Liz was pregnant with their fifth child. Going back represented a risk to the growing family.But as much as they had thrived in their new life, the couple remained tied to the plains. And there was really no choice once those magic words had been written: “The land is coming back.”

They would return because there was wheat to plant. Charlie would go on to utilize the ecological lessons he’d read of in books and journals to revitalize both his in-laws land and his own small farm. Sometimes he told his friends that the waving wheat fields reminded him of the Pacific Ocean.

In addition to his farming, he purchased a gas station and garage in later years, and made that a success as well. The farmer with a sixth grade education never forgot the lessons he learned from reading, considering any book purchased for his family as an investment in someone’s future. He encouraged Liz to return to college in her fifties, and put all five daughters through college, the youngest of which was this author, conceived in California, born in Kansas.

One thing Charlie Bale didn’t do. He never turned down help for a family driving across country and in need of gasoline or car repairs. After his death in 1979, Liz found a cache of letters with postmarks from numerous states. Most of the letters began with a similar kind of thank you. “Here’s another two dollars on our repair bill. The car made it all right and I’ve found work.”


  1. A fascinating story and lovely homage to a father by his loving daughter.
    Tony Sylvester
    Kitty Hawk, NC

  2. Patsi, what a wonderful story. I think I understand now. I enjoy our sometimes too spirited debates. But I love your spirit and your input,you are a great person. God Bless You

  3. You are one of my absolute favorite writers, Patsi, and I am proud to have you as a friend. Being a poker player myself I especially enjoyed this story about your father. It sounds like he was a wonderful man.