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15. Duster's Eve

SHE STARTED TO COUGH that winter, a baby's ragged hiccup, and it never stopped. Though Hazel Shaw had sealed the windows and doors and draped an extra layer of wet sheets over the openings, the dust still found Ruth Nell in her crib. It was oily and black some mornings, covering the baby's face. Her lips were frothed and mudded, her eyes red. She cried and coughed, cried and coughed. Hazel lubricated her tiny nostrils with Vaseline and tried to keep a mask over her face, but the baby coughed or spit it off. A doctor took tests, listened to the hurried heart. Ruth Nell was diagnosed with whooping cough. You should probably leave, for the life of your baby, the doctor advised.

South forty miles in Texhoma, Loumiza Lucas was tucked under quilt layers inside the family home. The matriarch of the Lucas clan, Hazel's grandma, was coughing hard, just like the baby. Loumiza was eighty years old, a widow for twenty-one years, with nine children, forty grandchildren, thirty great-grandchildren. There was yet no Social Security.

"It is hard to be old and not have anything," a widowed North Dakota farmer's wife wrote the president in 1934, in a letter that was typical in its pleading tone. "I have always been poor and have always worked hard, so now I am not able to do any more. I am all worn out but am able to be around and I thank God that I have no pains."

Loumiza was in pain. The dust filtered into her home like a toxic vapor. She stopped eating. She grew weaker. Every time she brought her teeth together she tasted grit. Her bedroom was a refuge but not a pleasant one. It was a dusty hole in a homestead. She could not be moved because the risk of travel exposed her to the wind-borne sand. Her family begged her to eat. She withdrew deeper under the pile of quilts. The windows were sealed so tightly that light from her beloved land was completely blocked. It did not matter: she hated what No Man's Land had become. It was better to remember it as it was when she came into this country, arriving by covered wagon to Texhoma, and north to a half-section of their own, her and Jimmy, in the free kingdom of No Man's Land. That high bluestem in the corner of the county, tall as the reach of a scarecrow, that carpet of buffalo grass, and Lord what the rains could do in a good year—it was what the land was supposed to look like.

Grandma Lou seemed more worried about her youngest great-granddaughter, the baby Ruth Nell, than her own health. She waved off the questions about her diminishing spirit and asked about Ruth Nell, and she prayed. She clutched the one Bible she had carried throughout her life, a tattered thing that had traveled across time and terrain. As the dusters picked up, some of Lou's friends and even some of her own family believed the terrible storms were a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy—a sign of the final days. But Lou knew better. There was nothing in her Bible that said the world would end in darkness and dust.

Two days before Ruth Nell's first birthday, Hazel and her husband decided to flee, breaking the family apart for the health of the baby, as the doctor had recommended. They had to get out now or risk the baby's life. This year, 1935, had been one duster after the other and April showed no sign of letup, no rain in the forecast, four years into the drought. At the end of March, black blizzards had fallen for twelve straight days. During one of those storms, the wind was clocked at forty miles an hour or better—for a hundred hours. The Boise City News said it was the worst storm in the history of the county. Schools closed, again. An emergency call went out: come get the children and take them home. The schools would reopen when it was safe. Boise City looked ghostly, shuttered from the storms, hunkered down like an abandoned outpost in the Sahara. All the windows were cloaked in brown. Cars that had shorted out on the static were left in roads or ditches, and they soon were covered and became lumps in the sand.

Hazel hurried along her plan to get Ruth Nell out of Boise City. She arranged to stay with her in-laws in Enid, Oklahoma, well to the east. But just as they were ready to depart, a tornado touched down not far from Enid, the black funnel dancing around the edges of the very place where Ruth Nell was to find her refuge. It was a gruesome thing, ripping through homes, throwing roofs to the sky. Now what—stay or go? Hazel and Charles felt they had no choice but to go. It was more dangerous living in Boise City, and if they waited much longer, they might not get out of town. The coffee-box baby haunted Hazel, the little blue-faced infant left in the cold who had died of dust pneumonia.

Sheriff Barrick said the roads out of town were blocked by huge drifts. The CCC crews would no sooner dig out one drift than another would appear, covering a quarter-mile section of road. A caravan of Boise City residents who had tried to leave earlier in the week with all their belongings loaded into their jalopies was pinned down at the edge of town, and they were forced to return. The volume of dirt that had been thrown to the skies was extraordinary. A professor at Kansas State College estimated that if a line of trucks ninety-six miles long hauled ten full loads a day, it would take a year to transport the dirt that had blown from one side of Kansas to the other—a total of forty-six million truckloads. Better days were not in the forecast.

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Digging out fence posts, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936

Hazel made it south to Texhoma, where she and Ruth Nell could ride the train to the eastern part of the state. If the baby could take in some clean air for a few weeks, living with her grandparents, she might shake this horrid cough. The journey to Enid was not easy. A few weeks earlier, a train full of CCC workers slid off the dust-covered tracks and rolled, killing several young men. Hazel's train sputtered its way east, stopping frequently so the crews could shovel sand from the tracks. Hazel tried to stay positive, but it looked awful outside: all of the Oklahoma Panhandle blowing and dead, no life of any form in the fields, no spring planting, no farmers on the roads. By the time mother and daughter made it to Enid, the baby's cough was no better. Her little stomach must have been in acute pain from the hacking, and she might have fractured a rib from coughing, for the baby cried constantly. At times, Hazel cried along with her and prayed intensely, hoping for relief. Arriving in Enid, Hazel rushed Ruth Nell to St. Mary's Hospital. The doctors tried to clean out her lungs by suctioning some of the gunk, but the baby would not settle. She coughed and cried, coughed and cried. The doctors confirmed Hazel's fears—Ruth Nell had dust pneumonia. She was moved into a section of the hospital in Enid that nurses called the "dust ward." The baby's temperature held above 103. She could not hold down milk from a bottle; it came back up as spit and grime. The doctors wrapped the baby's midsection in gauze and loose-fitting tape, as a way to hold in place the fractured ribs and diminish the pain in the stomach muscle. Still, Ruth Nell coughed and cried, coughed and cried.

"You must come," Hazel phoned her husband from the hospital in Enid. "Come now. Ruth Nell looks terrible. I'm so afraid."

Charles got in his car and plowed through the dust, trying to make his way east. Just getting to Guymon, one county over, proved hazardous. He had his head out the window the whole way, as he had done a year earlier during Ruth's birth, but this time the sand blinded him. He wore goggles and a respiratory mask but they clogged quickly and he was forced to remove them both. Once the car veered off the road and tipped, and it seemed like he was going to crash it again. He decided to drive along the ditch, with two wheels below grade and the other two wheels on the road. It was the only way to move forward through the haze and be sure of his direction. It was nearly three hundred miles to Enid, a drive of two days, moving slowly along the ditch. He kept going at night, with the headlights on. In order to drive halfway in the ditch, Charles had to bring up the chain that usually dragged below the car because it picked up too much debris—mostly dust-encrusted tumbleweeds. Without the chain, though, his car had no way to ground the static. What he needed was a lull between dusters. He got his wish during the first hundred miles. But midway into his journey, he drove into a duster and the static shorted his car. He was stranded.

He kicked the vehicle, coughed up a fistful of gunk, and shook the sand from his hair. He lubricated his nose with Vaseline and waited for the duster to pass, imagining his baby girl gasping in the hospital. After nearly an hour, the black blizzard dissipated, and Charles was able to restart the car.

By the time Charles made it to St. Mary's Hospital, he was covered in dirt, his face black. He went to the dust ward. Hazel was crying. Ruth Nell had died an hour earlier. She knew by the look on the doctor's face when he came to her with his hands up.

"I'm sorry—your baby is dead."

Back in No Man's Land, Hazel's Grandma Lou stopped coughing. She had been running a fever for several days and could not hold down food.

"How's the baby?" she asked. "How is Ruth Nell? Any word?"

Her son had not heard. Loumiza turned away and closed her eyes. She would not see the homestead green again, would not see any more of the starving land. She slipped under layers of quilt and took her last breath, dying within hours after her youngest great-grandchild fell. The family decided to stage a double funeral for baby Ruth Nell and the Lucas family matriarch. They would hold a ceremony at the church in Boise City, then proceed out of town to a family plot for burial on Sunday, April 14, 1935.

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