On a summer day in 1935, a few weeks before she turned 13, my grandma Margery was in the yard of her family’s southwestern Kansas home, pulling laundry off the line. She dropped the clothes and underwear, sheets and towels, gray with dust and baked dry in the villainous sun, into the basket at her feet, then ran back into the house. Her sister Norma and their mother were yanking the beds out of the bedrooms and into the main room.
Margery pulled the oldest sheets out of the laundry basket, put them in a big metal bucket in the sink, and filled the bucket with water from the pump. All over Meade County, in towns and on farms, every household was preparing for the black blizzard that was pushing toward them. If she paused to look out the open door, she would see the enormous black cloud moving, the ground rising up to meet the sky, choking the world in between. She didn’t pause, though. The scene was too familiar to bear scrutiny. Her mother’s mouth was tight beneath eyes that darted between her work and the door, watching the road for her husband and her youngest child, Billy.
As Margery, Norma, and their mother worked, they coughed. The coughing – deep, painful, noisy – was with them constantly. They coughed while they slept, while they worked, during their meager meals, and during their walk to church. As the family worked to keep the ever-advancing dust out of their house, their food, and their eyes, their lungs worked to expel the muddy mess that tried to choke them
Dust blizzards in cool weather were easier to tolerate; they could close the windows and doors, seal the cracks with wet towels. In summer, though, with the temperature often stretching to well above 100 degrees, the heat in a closed house was as deadly as the dust-saturated air and they had to control the dust the best they could in spite of open windows and doors. They lifted the dripping sheets out of the bucket and hung them over the windows and the back door, pinning them tight against the wind. They closed the bedroom doors; during a storm, the family slept together in the main room because there weren’t enough sheets to cover the bedroom windows. Margery’s mother left the front door uncovered for her husband and Billy, who had been away from the house, helping neighbors.
When the sheets were hung and the beds made, Margery reached into one of the kitchen cabinets, the cabinets her father had made when life was better, before the dust, when there was wheat to harvest and cows in the pasture and grass on the prairie all around the farm, and pulled out a stack of cloths that she and her mother had made from worn sheets. She put them in the bucket and added more water to cover them. While she did that, Norma put the chamber pots under the beds. No one would make a trip to the outhouse during the storm.
The wind began to pick up, the advance wind that heralded the storm to come. Margery looked over her mother’s shoulder into the yard. She could see the wall of black dust moving toward them, carrying dirt from hundreds of miles away. The haze of dust was thickening now, dimming the light. Mother stood in the doorway watching the road. She crossed her arms, uncrossed them, stepped out into the yard, then back into the house. Norma sat on the bed nearest her mother, twisting a fold of the fabric of her dress until Margery was afraid she would wear a hold right through.
Margery’s mother suddenly jumped back from the door into the house. “Cover the door! Margery! Get a sheet!”
Margery snatched up the last sodden sheet and passed it to her mother who hung it. They were still tacking and weighting it when the storm slapped the side of the little house. The dim light that the sheets had allowed into the house was instantly gone. At four o’clock on a sunny summer afternoon, everything was suddenly dark as midnight, the windows and doors no more than faint gray shadows in the overwhelming blackness. The dust haze that never settled, even in the calmest weather, became thicker, grittier, more sinister. Margery’s hair crackled with electricity; she saw sparks move in the air and on the walls. After a storm, when they walked to town, they would see cars abandoned on the road where they had shorted out in the storm’s electricity. They would start again when the storm was over, but not before.
Norma coughed long and hard and Margery went to the sink and got three of the wet rags. She tied one around her nose and mouth, then felt her way to her sister and tied a rag over her face, too. Her mother was there, sitting with Norma, holding her hand, and she took the third rag for her own face. Margery sat down on the bed with them. The wind shrieked and screamed, whistling under the eaves and in the cracks, snapping the sheets at the doors and windows, snicker-thump, snicker-thump. The wind was so hot, so laden with dust, that even in the house her skin felt raw and blistered everywhere it was exposed. She kept her eyes closed against the dust, but she couldn’t close her ears.
The wind in the house suddenly increased, a great gust of choking dust swirling into the dark. Under the screaming wind, Margery heard her father and brother fall in through the door, coughing hard against the vile black dirt. Norma and Margery fought the sheet, pinned and weighted it back into place, then turned to the choking boy and man. Margery’s mother was helping Billy to untie a dirt-clotted shirt that he had tied around his face. Norma filled two jars with water and gave one to her father and one to her brother. Billy rinsed his mouth and spit mud onto the floor again and again, until another coughing fit got hold of him. The boy and his father struggled like this for a long time, rinsing and spitting, then coughing up huge black wads of Kansas.
They ate some dusty cornbread and sat together through the long evening until it was time to sleep. Margery lay down on the narrow bed she shared with Norma, covered her face with a wet cloth, and tried to sleep. She lay awake for hours, trying not to hear the wind or her family’s wretched coughing. She tried, too, not to think of tomorrow when they would begin the day by shoveling the dirt out of their house, wash sheets and towels, boil gritty cornmeal porridge for lunch, and prepare for another duster.
If you want to get a sense of the horror of the black blizzards, there is a wonderful collection of Dust Bowl photographs at Kansas State University.