That’ll Learn You
A standing joke down South … “We were so poor, mama would bleach the coffee grounds and serve ’em as grits the next morning.” Out West, people joked about birds flying backwards during dust storms so they wouldn’t get sand in their eyes.
The Dust Bowl and Great Depression were no joking matter to the people who survived them. Affirmation of misery aplenty is out there.
A fourth-grade classroom: A teacher worries about a girl in ragged clothes. “You look pale. Go home and get something to eat.”
Little girl: “I can’t. It’s my sister’s turn to eat today.”
The Oklahoma Panhandle: Static electricity wreaks havoc on the ignition systems of cars. Motorists desperately trying to drive through black, swirling clouds thick with dust go nowhere. That’s the beautiful-ugly thing about the laws of physics. They’re relentlessly consistent. Swirling dust particles, colliding constantly, get all charged up—just as volcanic ash does. Charges built up on fences, cars, and windmills, anything metal. The sparks crackled and arced beautifully among barbed wire strands and windmill blades—a blue lacework from Hell breaking loose. Some windmills spouted fire. Touch a pump handle all charged up and you fall unconscious into ever-thickening dust.
Dust pneumonia ran rampant. Many died—at a slow pace—as dirt caked in their alveoli. It wasn’t pretty.
A rundown village in Appalachia: Eleanor Roosevelt is watching a sad little boy stroking a pet rabbit. The boy’s sister looks up at Mrs. Roosevelt. “He thinks we’re ain’t going to eat it, but we are.”
I’m too young to remember those dark days, but I’ve heard about them from my Mom and others touched by the Depression. My mother, born in 1928, grew up watching her parents struggle through the ’30s. Her Depression impression stuck. I see misery in her eyes every time she brings up the Depression: Two classes of society existed then: the haves and the have-nots. Mom knew her place. It hit the poor hardest. Many sank into shame and despair. People didn’t have time for pride. They were hungry.
My Mom’s older sister, Aunt Evelyn, clearly remembers having a delicacy—eggs—but not eating them. “We bartered them for things we didn’t have.”
What was it like to have an addiction, a craving during the Depression? Like this. “My mama made her own snuff,” said my aunt. “She’d get a tobacco leaf, dry it out, and put it in a sack and pound it into a powder. She’d add sugar and dip it.”
A montage of memories rattle off my aunt’s tongue. “We made homemade syrup … we ate organic and didn’t know it … the soles of our cheap shoes would flap and daddy would wire them together … the wire would scratch others if they got too close … in spring daddy would borrow $65 to buy cotton seed, fertilizer; in fall he’d pay back the $65 when the crop came in; what was left was all we had to make it to the next year … I remember mama made a wonderful meal soup with a hambone. Each family member could get a bite or two of meat and she’d mix meal and green onions from the garden—It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten … We entertained ourselves with seesaws and a flying jenny that we greased with the fleshy side of an old animal skin … We picked cotton and played in piles of cotton … On Saturdays, we’d dig up white dirt (kaolin) and whitewash the fireplaces chimneys and sweep the yards with brush brooms to clean up behind the chickens … Everybody wore dresses made from bolts of cloth provided by the WPA so everybody looked alike. I wore dresses made from flour sacks but they had to be washed a lot to get the numbers and printing out … Summer some nights it’d be so hot we’d sleep on pallets on the grass beneath the stars … Daddy wouldn’t let us throw anything away, but the truth is there was nothing to throw away.”
Nothing to throw away … How the times have changed. We live in a throwaway society today, but back then a scrap of most anything was prized. People throw away things today Depression-era sufferers would consider treasure. My Granddad Poland had a saying, “Keep something seven years, and you’ll find another use for it.” That philosophy trickled down to my Dad who kept things ranging from heaps of tangled metal, broken equipment, and lumber scraps to PVC pipe. Someday, he’d need it.
The Great Depression, this country’s worst economic crisis, drilled unforgettable lessons into several generations. One Georgia woman, a child of the era, remembers how her family made a stepladder into a Christmas tree. They wrapped tissue paper around the ladder and placed candles upon the steps. They could only light them now and then or they’d burn up before Christmas day. She has no memory of any toys come Christmas, just homemade gloves and scarves. Things that helped them weather the winter.
Most everything was in short supply. People had no money to buy dishes so companies gave away “depression glass.” One thing, however, existed in abundance. Heartbreak. Said one man, “My daddy was the strongest man I know, but the Depression brought him to his knees.”
People who endured the Depression took on new attitudes. One attitude was forget being rich. Save. My Granddad Walker told me something I never forgot. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make,” he said, “what matters is how much you keep.”
Yes, what you managed to hang on to mattered, but it was near impossible. Down here in cotton country, the boll weevil’s devastation greased the way for the Great Depression. Many farmers abandoned their land. Banks took it, if they hadn’t failed already.
People did, indeed, go hungry. It’s not some made-up admonition designed to strike fear or some parable about pity. People starved. It was bad enough to make one dredge up Scarlett O’Hara’s lines. “As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
During the Depression, my Mom said a biscuit was a banquet come Sundays. Everybody was in the same boat, a boat called Abject Poverty. Some good came from the misery though.
My aunt remembers how people stuck together … “We shared a good garden with those whose garden failed. Daddy would kill a beef every year. He’d put it in a wagon and take it to the neighbors and share part of it. Neighbors would do the same thing. When they killed a beef they did the same thing. So everyone had some beef that way.”
Beef, a miracle in the 1930s, a time known also as the “Dirty 30s.” While people in the South suffered mightily, people in the prairie lands suffered even more. Severe drought along with decades of destructive farming methods ushered in the Dust Bowl.
During the drought of the 1930s, soil had no grass to keep it in place. With no roots to cling to, dirt turned to dust and blew eastward and southward in monstrous dark clouds. “Black Blizzards” and “Black Rollers” turned day to night, a day so dark chickens roosted. And, remember, touch a farm implement blasted by dust. Well you’d learn a lesson.
The media, then as now, covered tragedies such as Dust Bowls and the Depression. And one truly extraordinary effort resulted. In the summer of 1936, James Agee, a writer, and Walker Evans, a photographer, set out on assignment for Fortune magazine. Their mission was to document the lives of Southern sharecroppers. They lived with three families in Alabama, where people were suffering mightily. From there, and from them all, artists and sufferers, a haunting book, an American classic, arose from dust and poverty: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I own the book and it’s among the books I prize. The title comes from a passage in Ecclesiasticus: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.”
What Evans and Agee accomplished stands as an undisputed masterpiece of the 20th Century. It paints an unforgettable portrait of human dignity and the American soul under grueling conditions. You’ll not forget Evans’ images of gaunt faces, mistrusting eyes, and families huddled in bare shacks in the Depression-era Deep South. Agee’s combination of reporting with literary passages etches indelible ruts across the soul of anyone with a trace of compassion. He gave us a poetic look at poverty and revealed a segment of America invisible to most, an America in dire straits.
It wasn’t easy. Agee and Evans were to spend eight weeks working and living among three white sharecropping families deeply mired in desperate poverty. They were unwelcome intruders. (Would you want a writer and a photographer to live with you in your worst time ever?)
The three families did not want these better-dressed, well-fed strangers among their midst. The men, however, respectful of these plain folk and in a bewildering way finding them noble, made themselves a home among them nonetheless. They slept, ate, and shared days and nights with them. When their work was done, everything ended. They told one family, the Tengles, it was time to leave for good.
Elizabeth Tengle recalls that moment. “They said they was leaving and wouldn’t be back, and mama’s children cried. Every one of us cried. They were so good to us, you know. They told us not to cry. And Ruth told them, she said, ‘Yore going to leave and ain’t never gonna come back?’ ”
With Thanksgiving approaching and with the Depression and Dust Bowl Eras long in our rearview mirrors, we are fortunate and we owe these people some belated respect. They received no bailouts. They simply picked up and survived. True pioneers in the American spirit.
Perhaps their spirits walk among us still. I wonder what the ghosts of front-line Depression-era folks think. On every other corner they see a fast-food restaurant. They see well-fed people so overweight they struggle to get out of their cars. They see people wearing a dazzling array of clothes holding strange contraptions to their ears talking to themselves. They see kids wearing baggy pants with enough fabric for a family. They see teenagers who should be sweeping yards and gathering crops parade as if they’re rock stars and models. What might these phantoms think of our extravagance and us? I think I know; I bet you do too.
As surely as fire tempers steel, hard times shape people’s character. Life hammered a realistic outlook into the psyche of the people who came out of the Depression and Dust Bowl era. They clung to what worked and they passed their proven beliefs and knowledge on. Some survivors’ children cling to those virtues today. Among them walks my mother. They’re not about self-indulgence and the immediate gratification material things offer. And that’s a lesson we all could benefit from, if only we stop long enough to reflect and absorb it. Perhaps eyes caked with dust would help us to better see, and a jolt of electricity from the car door? Well as my Granddad used to say, “That’ll learn you.”