Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chapter 10: Hard Times/Happy Times

Two months later, dark days literally overwhelmed the North American continent. Three years of drought had turned the top soil to dust all over the Great Plains. On May 9, 1934, high winds built into a giant storm. The wind caused static electricity between the earth and the dust, which rose 10,000 feet into the air and blotted out the sun from horizon to horizon. That night, twelve million pounds of soil landed on Chicago. Two days later, darkness enveloped New York, then covered New England before moving out to the Atlantic, where ships found a quarter-inch of soil on their decks the next morning.

People around Farwell, Texas, on the edge of the great storm, were used to dust storms and high winds, but when Joe arrived home the night it started, his voice trembled as he told of his difficult day trying to deliver gasoline.

“I couldn’t even see if I was on the road. I got out of the car to check for the turnoff into the Carpenter place, and almost lost my footing. It seemed like I might be blown away.” He sat at the dining table, wiping his red eyes with a wash cloth.

Bill brought eye wash, poured some into a small cup shaped to fit over the eye. She held it for Joe as he tilted his head back and blinked as the soothing liquid loosened the sand, first in one eye, then the other. She clucked sympathetically. “Were you able to make the delivery?”

“No.” He chuckled. “Mr. Carpenter is a skinny little man. He tied a rope around his waist and secured it to a post on his porch before he came out to talk to me. Neither of us wanted to be pumping fuel in that wind. So no sales today, Honey.”

Though they had very little money, Bill enjoyed her life as a housewife and mother. Joe Mike was such a sweet baby. She felt inspired to write “A Mother’s Poem.”

What do I really want him to be?
This beautiful baby God gave to me?
Will he be kind, good and pure
With a strong healthy body and mind secure?
Will he one day smile as he looks at me?
“Mom, I’m exactly as you taught me to be.
You’re my pattern. I’ve looked at you
And followed your example my whole life through.”

* * *
Pop Hale, Joe’s dad, sold the last of his horses. He grew bored and decided to visit his children in the Texas panhandle. After he spent a few days with Dee’s family in Levelland, he went to see Eula Mae, Tiny and their son Tim in Friona. Bill was happy when it was his turn to visit her family. She enjoyed conversing with him while Joe was at work.

One morning Pop sat at the dining table with Joe Mike on his lap, the newspaper spread on the table, reading interesting bits to Bill as she worked in the kitchen. “Can you believe that the Dionne quintuplets are six months old? Looks like they’re going to make it. They all weighed less than three pounds when they were born.” His awe-filled voice faltered.

Bill looked up, surprised to see his white moustache trembling and tears in his eyes. She thought of the day that she and Joe walked to the family cemetery on Pop’s farm. Four of the eight gravestones were tiny. Two were for unnamed infant daughters who died the day they were born, one in 1900 and one in 1904. One was for Ila, six days old and another for Jesse Hubert, three years old. They both died the same week, in November of 1902. In that context, the survival of the quintuplets indeed seemed like a miracle. Bill went and patted Pop awkwardly on the shoulder, her eyes welling with tears. She loved this tender-hearted man.

During his visit, Bill’s brother Clyde, his wife Mary Belle and their three daughters came from Lockney to visit Ennis and Jewell in Friona. Bill invited her two brothers and their families to come to Farwell on Saturday to have dinner with her and Joe and then go to a dance in town. “Pop is here. He can watch the kids while we‘re gone.”

On Saturday, they enjoyed Bill’s meatloaf with mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits and home-canned green beans. Dessert was chocolate cake. Bill, Jewell and Mary Belle hurried to clean the kitchen while the men talked in the living room and the children played outside.

The women went into the bedroom to get ready for the dance. Mary Belle laughed as she showed her sisters-in-law her new orange party dress with butterfly sleeves. Bill admired Mary Belle’s petite good looks. “I can’t wear orange or yellow, but it looks wonderful on you, with your dark hair. So cheerful.”

While Bill sat nursing Joe Mike, Jewell stood behind her, arranging Bill’s blonde hair into finger waves. “Thank you, Jewell. I’m so glad you all could come. Having family here makes me happy.” She stood and put Joe Mike in the crib and put on her dress of pink rayon with a darker rose sash. She complimented Jewell’s lavender outfit as they stood side-by-side at the mirror, putting on makeup. Ready for fun, they walked out to join their husbands.

Ennis was telling Joe and Clyde the result of the giant storm on his farm. “The dirt stacked up against my fence and the cow was able to walked right over it. Luckily, she took shelter against the wall of the house instead of going the other way.” He laughed. “Our roof sagged from the dirt piled on top of the house. Jewell and I swept it into buckets and weighed it on the cotton scales. It was almost a ton.”

Bill’s brother Clyde spoke up. “I have the chance to transfer to the post office on Galveston Island, and I’ve decided to take it. It will be nice to be away from the prairie wind.”

“Can we come to see you?” Bill felt truly excited at the prospect of going to a beach.

“Sure,” Mary Belle spoke up. We hope everyone will come.”

“Just not all at once.” Clyde said, in his serious way.

When it was time to leave for the dance, Jewell and Mary Belle urged their children to behave for Pop Hale and the three young couples drove to the lodge hall in Clyde’s new Chevrolet.

It wasn’t until many years later that Bill learned what happened that night from her nieces, Denise and Clydelle.

The children played outside until dark. Pop called them in, made them a snack of popcorn and told them to go to bed on the quilt pallets Bill left in the living room. Since they would return to Friona when their parents got home, they merely removed their shoes and lay down in the clothes they were wearing. Pop went to bed in the basement about 9:30.

When all was quiet, Katherine, who was eleven and the oldest of the children, whispered, “Denise, are you awake?”

“Yes. Are you, Doyle?”

“Yes. Why?”

“It’s not far to town. I have a quarter.” Katherine’s voice shook with excitement. “Let’s walk to town and get some candy.”

The five children jumped up, ready for action. They walked eastward, across the railroad tracks to downtown. They found a corner grocer open and lingered over the glass jars of penny candy. Each child chose a lollipop. Katherine generously bought lemon drops, licorice and peppermint in bags for their walk back home.

“Let’s walk around the block and go back on the next street.” Katherine led the adventurers until they came to the steps of the lodge hall where their parents danced. They sat there for awhile, listening to the strains of “Blue Moon,” which drifted out the open doors.

“We better get back,” Katherine decided. They made their way back to the street leading to Aunt Bill’s house. Denise, nine, and Dorothy Sue, seven, walked ahead of the other children. As they crossed the railroad tracks, a train whistle shrieked ominously nearby, startling them into a run. Denise yelled over her shoulder, “Hurry, Clydelle. There’s a train coming.”

Clydelle, only five, struggled to get across the rows of raised steel tracks, almost knee-high to her short legs. As she got to the last track, Denise grabbed her hands and pulled her across, terrified that their sister Katherine was still on the tracks. The ground shook under their feet as the train rumbled nearer. Katherine and Doyle, ten, were walking together. Katherine ran ahead to join the other girls, then turned to see Doyle standing on the tracks as the train approached, its whistle deafening.

“Run, Doyle!” The girls screamed in unison. He seemed mesmerized by the train’s bright light. Finally, at what seemed like the last possible moment, he ran toward them as the train whooshed by close to his heels, making a wind that added to his momentum. He almost fell, but regained his footing and joined the terrified girls. He tried to look nonchalant, but his face was white. The children were silent for the rest of the walk home, collapsing onto their pallets, exhausted. When their parents arrived, they were sleeping like angels.

The next day, as Clyde’s family drove home to Lockney, the daughters confessed the train story. Mary Belle turned pale and looked like she might faint. It was the last time she and her husband ever went to a dance.

* * *

Bill cried when Joe Mike’s first birthday came. “That year went so quickly,” she lamented to Joe at breakfast. She made a white layered birthday cake topped with a single candle on fluffy chocolate icing. As she put it on the table, Joe walked in with a big box. Joe Mike, who had taken a few steps on his own the week before, dropped from standing beside the couch and crawled swiftly across the floor to greet his daddy.

In the box was a simple rocking horse, a board mounted on a curved base close to the ground with a perky painted horse’s head mounted on one end and a tail on the other. Joe Mike squealed with delight when his daddy put him on it.

“Look, he already knows how to ride.” Joe laughed.

Bill couldn’t have been happier, looking at her laughing son and his proud dad.

* * *

Christmas, 1934, was as grand as a celebration could be in such hard times. On their way home from the Cummings’ Thanksgiving gathering, Bill and Joe stopped at The Breaks, where the edge of the cap rock descended, and cut a small cedar tree for the holidays. Bill used part of the Christmas money she received from her parents to buy a tinsel star for the top of the tree and tinsel icicles to hang on the branches. She popped and strung popcorn to complete the decorations. She and Joe had a wonderful time at Woolworth’s buying a teddy bear, a wind-up car and wooden alphabet blocks for Joe Mike. Joe gave her “Evening in Paris” cologne and talcum powder in a fancy box. She gave him “Old Spice” after-shave lotion and a jacket.

Life was good. The little family was content.