1. Primal Stomp

           (A word of explanation: In the late 1930’s both sides of Chet Helms’ family left Texas and moved to California, the maternal side temporarily, the paternal side permanently. That having been said, what follows are the opening paragraphs of Chet’s biography.)


             One day in 1931 the rains stopped and the winds began.

            A year later, millions of acres of ill-farmed, bone-dry topsoil began to swirl skyward, fueling a seemingly endless procession of massive dust storms that swept across The Great Plains and beyond, blanketing crops, roads, houses, cars and farm equipment with deep, drifting layers of grainy, gritty earth.

             In 1932, 14 major dust storms were recorded; the next year the number of “black blizzards” grew to 38.

             Then it got worse.

            On May 9, 1934 a dust cloud rose out of the Midwest and quickly grew to 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across, and two miles high. Lasting for more than 36 hours the dense storm, propelled eastward by strong, arid winds, affected more than one-third of the country and damaged or destroyed 100 million acres of crops. According to the February 1935 edition of the Monthly Weather Review, 12 million of the estimated 350 million tons of earth displaced by this single storm fell on Chicago. Dust fell like snow on New York, Boston, Charlotte and Washington D.C., and contemporary newspaper accounts report that remnants of the storm coated the decks of ships 300 miles out in the Atlantic.

            Then it got worse.

            On the afternoon of April 14, 1935, which became known as “Black Sunday,” the 19th in a series of storms that had been recorded in less than a month roiled and rolled out of Kansas. This was the biggest, meanest “black blizzard” yet. The huge storm plowed through the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, blotting out the sunlight in the middle of the day, reducing ground visibility to nearly zero and dropping even more tons of debris over the already desiccated land. Additionally, the persistent drought now affected more than 75 % of the country and was especially severe in 27 states.

            Then it got worse.

            As the drought and dust storms continued to sow widespread destruction, a vicious heat wave descended on the Midwest and much of the East during the summer of 1936. On July 25, the temperature in Lincoln, Nebraska soared to 115 degrees. Dozens of daily and monthly high temperature records that were established that year were still on the books seven decades later. 

            For millions of people, the summer of 1936 was a literal hell on earth.

            Unwilling or unable to wait out the ongoing, unholy alliance of the environmental disasters of the dust and drought and the economic disaster of the Great Depression that had been jump-started by the stock market crash of October 1929, thousands of broke, tired, hungry and sometimes desperate families packed up whatever belongings they could carry and left their ruined lands behind, hoping to salvage their ruined lives.


Published in: on June 2, 2009 at 3:23 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Feeding Farmers to the Fish!

    I took a drive this week from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and had an eye opening experience. Down the entire length of the 5 freeway, we saw not the green luscious fields of produce or green orchards laden with fruit, but dusty dead and dying orchards. Rows after row, acre after acre, miles after mile of them, perfectly formed, perfectly helpless….lifeless.

    By way of explanation, these signs dotted the dusty dry roadside: “Congress Created Dust Bowl. Thank You Sacramento!”

    My lawn is green. My kids have plenty of water to spray in the yard, yet California’s orchards aren’t getting a drop this year despite the best rainfall in three years and five reservoirs filled to over capacity.

    There’s no doubt that we’re in a drought, but why the sudden drop in water availability only for farmers? Are the politicians in Sacramento more concerned about the plethora of city votes than the small handful of agricultural ones? We will all be paying for Sacramento’s blunder. The Central Valley provides up to 8% of the nation’s fresh produce.

    Watching the staggering waste just made my heart ache. We had to pull over and take pictures. The contrast with past green was stark—it takes 30 years to build an orchard like this up to full production! Almonds, walnuts, citrus… Why do we have green lawns while these resources are left to die?

    Dead and Dying–California’s Central Valley Dust Bowl

  2. Sheesh! Could we please now cut to Clark Gable and Jean Harlow tooling though the lush orange groves outside Pasadena in the King of Hollywood’s new Duesenberg? Go to the clinch and bottle of Dom Perignon popping in the picnic basket? Your scene hurts too much.

  3. Great introduction to the story, Greg. I love it. As ponderpig says, it isn’t pleasant. But the important thing is, it’s real.

    I remember the sand storms that still came two decades later to our home in Fort Worth, Texas, when I was in my early teens. We thought they were terrible then, but the earlier ones you describe must have been immensely worse.

    Who else would have thought to use the sand storms to paint such a vivid picture of the world into which Chet was to be born? I understand now why my cousin chose you to write his biography.

    Keep on keepin’ on, my friend.

  4. Oh my my my my my my my. My word, my stars, and my God!!!!

    Stunning, vivid, breathtaking(pun intended!)What a visual! I am there, man, and shaking the dust off … off me, my hair and my upsde-down boots! It WILL be a movie. Like it or not. So get used to it, baby. It flows — ribbon-like — with no seams, no cuts, no rips, no frays, no tears, no beginning and no end. Just one, continuous flowing masterpiece. Can’t wait for the saga to continue . . .

    Absolutely flawless.

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