Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My Father's Words Part 3--Dust Storms, Hail and Grasshoppers

by John Sedwick


DUST STORMS: This was the scourge of the environment. There had been so little rain, and the soil was so dry that it blew with any wind of a little strength. We had it bad up where we were, but it was really much worse down around the panhandle area of Oklahoma.

During World War I, the price of wheat hit the ceiling and stayed high for a time. Land was plowed up to plant more wheat. Then the price of wheat went down, the rains stopped, and all this newly plowed land was ready to blow away. Which it did. For several years the total rainfall was about five inches. That certainly doesn't do much to help raise anything, except dust, and then more dust.
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You would see a dust storm coming hours ahead of its arrival. A brown cloud would form on the horizon, grow larger and larger, until it was filling the sky. About ten minutes before it hit, the wind would die down - sort of like the back draft of a fire - and you ran for the house, closed the door and windows, and waited for it to be over.
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We had one last for three days - the tail end of a hurricane that came up from Texas. Times we couldn't see fifty feet outside the house. Everything was covered with dust. And there were constantly occurring dust storms - at least one a week.

As I said, there were not as many families moving away as there were down in Oklahoma. Oh, we had some. I remember going to one auction up the road a bit. Stuff going for a quarter, 50 cents, etc. I understand that land was going for $16 an acre. Heard that some of the folks were going to Alaska because the government was giving away homesteads up there. These people were farmers. That's all they knew.
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LIGHTNING: Horrific, frightening, shaking-in-your-boots-time. Multiple streaks of lightning streaking across the sky lighting up the land, followed by loud thunder claps. If it hit a fence line it would split out the fence posts for a quarter of a mile until it grounded out. Rolling in from the West you would see the storms coming. And there wasn't always rain associated with them. Some were dry storms. In the years of drought we could have used some rain, but it didn't always come. And many times the flash would not be completely over before you were rocked with the thunder - the lighting was that close.

HAIL STORMS: You might have three or four bad ones during a summer. You could tell one was coming by the color of the clouds that day - hail clouds were very brown in color. Then you would hear a low rumbling, like a base drum-roll being beaten, and to the West would come a white glaze over the landscape. As it got closer you could see the hail stones, anywhere from marble size to golf ball size. They beat the crops down to the ground, flattened them out. And you didn't want to leave your car out during one of those. Would not be good for it.

After one bad hail storm all the neighbors gathered up the hail - real ice in the middle of summer, wow! - grabbed some salt, sugar, and milk, and came over to our place and made ice cream. Their crops were ruined, but they had some unheard of ice in the summer - so let's get something good out of all this. And that ice cream was delicious! Whole milk, sugar WOW!

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GRASSHOPPERS: They say that in the 1930s, they darkened the sky in China as they were flying over. Well, we never had them that bad, but for several years you could see and hear them flying over, and hopping along all day long. And eating everything as they went. Locusts and grasshoppers of every shape, color, and size. And walking along you kept stepping on them, squashing them. Was quite a plague. It seems that after a few years they died down somewhat, but they had all ready done their damage. Bob and I made a collection of them, pinned them to the inside of cigar boxes. We showed them at school when we came back East.

 RABBITS: We were being overrun. Coming back one night from Vona, in ten miles I counted 110 rabbits picked up by our headlights. And those were just the ones I saw. They were eating everything. They were starved by the drought too and wanted to eat. It was either us or them.

Rabbit hunts were held. A circular fence was set up in about a 100 foot circle, with a funnel-type chute leading to it. All the men and grown boys (we were too young) went out in a big semi-circle, oh, a half mile wide. Then making noise and hollering to scare the rabbits, the crowd started walking toward the chute that led to the pen. One time a coyote got in there, but he escaped before the pen was closed up. Then the men went into the pen and clubbed the rabbits to death. They couldn't shoot them with everybody in this tight proximity, and besides bullets cost money. The state was paying a bounty of two cents an ear, so all the men had a burlap sacks and would cut off the ears and stuff them in a sack. So, you could make some money and help get rid of a real problem at the same time. And, the rabbits were a real problem.

We might shoot a cottontail bunny, and then skin it and eat it, but we never tried it with a jack rabbit. Understand from the locals that you had to boil a jack rabbit for about eight hours to even make it chewable. Not worth it.

THE FLOOD: I think it was 1935, when we had eleven inches of rain come down one night during a six hour period. Looking out the window I could see we were surrounded by water forming a lake around us. We were on a little rise, but the water could not drain away fast enough.  But the most amazing thing was that the Republican River, usually a dry river bed, was running a quarter-mile wide and taking everything in its path with it. Even with the rain pounding the roof and the heavy claps of thunder, we could hear that river roaring four miles away. All bridges were gone, so no one got to town for several weeks. Then they had a temporary crossing rigged until a new bridge could be built. And there was water standing in all the adobe low areas. In our pasture the fence ran through one of these adobe low fields. The fence ran down, disappeared, with the water two or three feet above the fence post tops, and then appeared again later as it came out of the depression. It was there for a good six months before it completely dried up.
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And an amazing thing - within days there were tadpoles swimming around in the ponds, and by a week or so later we were serenaded by the sounds of frogs croaking. Probably the eggs lay dormant in the soil until awakened by the new moisture. But somewhere, somehow they had to get there in the first place. But I will not worry about that.

THE BLOWOUT: This was not an element of the environment, but a victim. This piece of land, about forty acres had been a plowed and planted, then abandoned. It was located on a high area, so there was nothing around to check the force of the winds. The dirt had been blown out, leaving a depressed, scooped out area. The sides of this sandy bottom were about six feet higher than the floor of the area. That's how much dirt had been removed by the winds. This was not a recent happening, but somewhat old. And every school picnic or church gathering visited it. Why? It had once been an Indian campsite, so the area was loaded with lost arrowheads. Probably either a Cheyenne or Arapaho tribe, as they lived in that area. And over the years many were found. You walked around, looking down, hoping to see one. There were four big cottonwood trees beside the blowout (but on the leeward side, as far as wind protection would have been), so that meant there was water not too far down, which made it a good camping ground. There were no other trees in sight.
Anyway, I have a collection of arrowheads. The work was so precise, with one a bird arrowhead, only about one inch long, but perfectly shaped. How did they do it so well? Must have taken a lot of patience. Also time, trying to find suitable rocks in this sandy land. I wonder over the years how many arrowheads were found there. 

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