“It’s the dust,” the old man said. “I can’t stand the damned dust.” And he couldn’t.
Moving through the house, he dusted reflexively, compulsively: the dampened cloth swinging and swiping in defiance of the elements. He considered dry heat a personal affront; wind an insult; dust a threat — inescapable reminders of those wretched childhood days atop the Caprock when dust was not merely an annoyance but a destroyer.
Even after the worst of the Dust Bowl years had passed, he absorbed his family’s grief and fear-filled stories. There was the blowing sand, stripping his uncle’s car of paint in less time than it takes to tell the tale. There was his mother, wedging damp towels into cracks around the windows and doors of the old house, re-wetting them with her tears. One neighbor, caught out in a fast-moving storm, became disoriented, unable to see and certain of death by billowing and unconstrained dirt. Although he survived, it was said he never recovered.
Even the apocryphal stories rang true. Did a Panhandle priest flee back to Illinois after that terror-filled Ash Wednesday service: seeking solace in the valleys, verdant fields, and rivers of his midwestern home? No one had proof, but no one doubted it was possible. Priest or not, what man could endure reminding his fellows that from dust they’d come and to dust they would return, even as the dust of destruction overtook their lives?
“Were you afraid it would happen again?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “It didn’t take much to remind folks. Still doesn’t. When the rains don’t come, people get nervous — kind of alert. They watch the sky; look for clouds; sniff the air. When the first well goes dry, if there’s no hay, if the springs stop running…”
He trailed off, considering. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I’d sit on the front step of the house. There wasn’t anything around but the lane out to the road, and the fields. I’d sit there and watch the wheat blow, bending and waving. It looked like I thought the ocean would look if I ever could see it.”
“I looked at that wheat and thought about water while I waited for the clouds to build. Sometimes I’d think about what it was like to have a really good rain. Anybody living in the Panhandle better hold on to a few good rain memories. They’ll stand you in good stead in the dry days.”
It’s a dry day, now. Coastal marshes are growing shallow, leaving water birds perplexed. Tendrils of smoke curl in from distant fires; even the frogs are silent. Perhaps the creatures are remembering other dry times: considering their own experiences of endurance and survival. Perhaps, like people of the drought and like the earth itself they, too, are waiting for refreshment; for renewal; for rain.