Friday, June 3, 2011


Margot just sent me an MP3 of a new Allison Krauss tune, "Dust Bowl Children". I am moved to tears by memories.

My Great-uncle Allie was a farmer in Tillman County, Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. His father Tom (my great-grandfather) had gotten their land by running for it as it was stolen (a second time) from native peoples, him and all his kin trying to make a new start away from the ravages of the Cilvil War in southern Tennessee. Tom's wife Sarah was 1/4 Choctaw, though she didn't at all look it, thin-faced with blue eyes and sandy hair. Her brothers Ace and Shep did, though, looked pure blood native in the family photos. They were in the land runs as well: How did they sort it out in their minds?

Allie was mostly a bastard. His treatment of nonwhites and women was equally contemptuous, and his only child Obbie Tom lived in terror. For some reason, though, Allie liked me and treated me well. My strongest memory of him is sitting at the table with all the older folks after a meal, when we kids had been released but I was the sort who stuck around for the stories. Those Okie farm folk had a habit of ending every meal with a biscuit or slice of bread spread thickly with salty butter, then crumbled and drenched in blackstrap molasses. They ate this whether there was dessert or not. Mama said it was a way of getting iron and minerals when diet was otherwise inadequate.

My grandad Renza Barnett lost his farm during the Depression, couldn't keep it going. He collapsed emotionally and retreated into nearby Frederick all day, playing 42 for money and at least he broke even. Grandmother Villa somehow started a cafe and kept the family together, although she never let him forget what a failure he'd been. During World War II, Renza finally got a job at one of the new airfields, and after the war he went to work for the Oklahoma Highway Department. After he retired at 60, he got a job as a local cop where he terrorized the black population of Frederick.

Allie somehow held onto his farm, maybe because it was snugged up right alongside the Red River. He liked to rub Renza's nose in it as well.

This night, the overhead light was off, with only light coming in from the adjacent kitchen. There was the usual haze of cigarette smoke, a pot of strong coffee, and unfastened belts on all the men. Somebody mentioned the Depression, and Allie reached out to the sugar bowl -- it was a dark green cheap ceramic -- and poked it with a blackened nail, saying with his ever-present but not really friendly grin "We woulda never had a bowl like this without a lid on the table."

"How come?" somebody younger asked.

He swiveled his dark eyes in their direction. "They call it the Dust Bowl, didn't they? The wind never stopped, and sand blew in every crevice. We'd wet burlap sacks at night, roll 'em up and line the winderpanes, under the doors, every cranny we could, like chinkin' a cabin, but still in the morning, the table'd have a film of dust on it you could write your name in. And the sugar bowl lid wan't quite tight enough, neither, so you'd taste the grit you spooned into yer coffee."

We sat in silence for a minute. Then, to our complete shock, Allie choked out "It was our farm we was swallowing each morning at breakfast" and burst into tears. For sure it was the only time I saw him cry. All the adults abruptly fled the table, as if he had crapped on his plate, and suddenly it was just me, Mama, and Allie. Mama blew a smoke ring and looked away. Allie caught me looking at him as he sucked back snot and said "What're YOU staring at?" I didn't answer. He went outside, and that was that.

1 comment:

C. Diva said...

this is good storytelling.