“Oklahoma farmers facing uncertainty”, from the Los Angeles Examiner, 20th April 1935

Today had been a good day for Tom Stutzman. He and his family had worked on the farm all day, laying a new ditch and repairing some blown-over fencing. Now they were sitting on the porch, with beer and water in their hands, and looking at a day’s work in peace. The crops were good. The stairs were swept. They had to be, because otherwise they would be covered in dust.

First they had heard from other states, of black dust curtains rolling over entire villages, for days on end, covering everything. Of entire harvests being buried. “We’ll be fine because we’ve always been fine. The storms can’t get us,” they used to say.

The children would soon be sent to school. They would buy new equipment, and they would continue living their life, even while the rest of America was sinking deeper and deeper into their misery. That’s why his ancestors came out here, Stutzman said. To live on the plains, by themselves. To build a paradise with their own hands.

And they worked for it. Farming had always been bone-breaking labor. But nobody in the family complained. They brought in the crops, and they sold them in town, and they bought groceries and brought them back home. That’s how life has been, and that’s how life would always be, everybody knew.

It was the promise everyone believed in and adhered to. And every election renewed that promise, when the whole town went to vote, and again voted solidly Republican. Each year before the election, they would get sent a basket with slogans and posters and flags. And part of the promise was hanging those up for everyone to see.

The basket was still sent. But this time, there were no flags hanging, and no posters either. Some grocery shops had “Share our Wealth”-signs hanging in their windows. In the church, the priest was praising Christ as the world’s first union man. A few weeks ago, a truck had stopped by with some people in lab coats. Opinions were kept private.

There was no time to lose for Stutzman. The farm demanded his attention. But he, too, had listened to the sermons and bought groceries in those stores.

“You know, Indiana elected this congressman, this Robert H. Quayle person. And in Washington, he sits in the subcommittee that’s supposed to deal with this, with us. He really likes to talk, was on the radio a few times. ‘this nation needs to talk about its problems’, stuff like that.

And he says that and then he probably goes to bed, because I ain’t seen no government man since the dust started coming. And what I fear is that he probably thinks he’s doing a really good and important job. That’s what I fear. Damn Indiana for him. He doesn’t speak for me.”

Stutzman kept working, holding on to the slipping promise of paradise. Even with the dust, he was trying to make it work. Simply work a bit harder, he thought.

When the wind started tasting of earth, they worked from dawn until dusk. They cleaned the porch and repaired the barn. They bought the cheaper chicken for Sunday, when they would say their prayers and then the children would tell their proud father what they had learned that week. They would read together and listen to the radio they had bought back before the storms started. Only music, no politicians. They only ever talked anyway.

Then they started thinking about building a shack for the equipment – they hadn’t needed one until now. “I know we have to start cutting corners, but we really shouldn’t cut on this,” Mary Stutzman, Toms wife, said. “It’s bad timing. We should have done it before.” He said. “It’ll blow over,” he said.

They’ve lived with the dust for two years now.

They had to build the shack. And they had to go into their savings for the material. The other people in town helped them out, slipped them a bill or two. The Stutzmans did the same when others had their first problem: A child that wouldn’t stop coughing. A roof that broke under the weight of the piled-up dust.

Just make that belt a little slimmer this year, they thought. We have savings, we can weather this year. “Next year’ll be better,” the eternal farmer’s saying.

When it didn’t, that was when the first families gave up.

In the shops, there were crates of oranges from California. Glowing fruits, coming from healthy trees, standing in a valley with a river flowing through it. Large white houses, happy workers. Work for every single one, some thought. So they sold whatever they could and bought a car, drove to the new Garden Eden in the west.

They left behind empty shells of houses the wind shot full of the ever-present dust. Cracked windows, roofs half-undone by the storm. Gravestones at the roadside. Not all who left, arrived. And those who did sent cards and letters telling of few jobs. Low wages. And of vigilantes cracking the skulls of “job-stealers”. Making them kiss the flag if there was talk of unionising. “Don’t need any more of those Dust Pan Refugees.”

Stutzman leaned back in his chair. “We didn’t bite the apple, but god is throwing us out anyway. There really ain’t any options left. The whole system is broken. Maybe it’s time to blow it up and start from scratch.”

His wife rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, come on. You’re a Republican.” “Yes, I was. That was before things started going down the gutter,” he said. “There won’t be anything left. Just a big desert and tumbleweed.”

“Fine, but so what?” she said. “We just turn everything over to the guy who yells the loudest?” Stutzman leaned in and banged his hand onto the table. “They’re doing nothing! And they’re laughing at us while they’re at it!”

“That doesn’t really seem like you,” she said, and for a few seconds stared back at him. The sky was clear. The sun was shining. Theirs was a happy home, a good farm. “You used to say things always even out,” she said.

“Well, maybe,” he said, now with a quieter voice, “maybe I was wrong.”

“You said things have this weird way of just always working out.”

“Maybe they don’t.” he said. They both looked at each other, breathing heavily. Then they shook their heads. They closed the windows, jammed the tablecloth in between door and framing.

During the night, the wind came back, howling through the cracks. It seemed like judgement day. There was no sleep to be had.

The windows stayed dark when the storm went and morning came. Stutzman opened the door, and the coating of dust fell off, into the living room. The porch was covered. As was the barn. As were the crops, lying and crooked under their load. He looked at his wife, standing beside him, as if to say everything was going to be okay. Then he shook his head again and sighed.