Common section

18. Goings

THE OSTEEN DUGOUT broiled in the heat. In May, the temperature rose to 105 degrees, the highest the mercury had ever been that early in the year in Baca County. Once again, Ike and his brother Oscar carried buckets of water from the stock tank and threw it over the dugout. When the water hit the tarpaper roof, a hissing sound came from the Osteen home. Only a single elm tree was alive, sustained by water from baths and dishwashing. Inside the dugout, the sheets of mud that hung from the windows were worse than bars inside a prison cell, a reminder that the dust was always there, and they were trapped with it. Cramped as it was, the Osteens tried not to touch each other because of the static, the same kind of electrical energy that caused the windmill to spout a flame from a trailing wire and barbed-wire fences to emit blue sparks. But Ike and Oscar were always rubbing elbows, the connection sending a sharp, painful jolt. Ike's mother was thinking about moving the girls to town, to some little place, doing odd jobs. She had fed her family in part by canning meat from the government cattle kills. You could can anything, she always said.

It seemed like all of Baca County was ready to fold. Three miles from the Osteen homestead, the little village of Richards had shrunk to a post office. When Ike had attended grade school there, the town had two general stores, a cream and egg station, a couple of shops, and a fine cluster of homes. Richards would be gone before the decade's end; it had the smell of death on it, and the dusters themselves seemed to sense it. Baca, so heavily plowed in the 1920s, was one of the most blown-away counties in the heart of the Dust Bowl; more than 1.1 million acres were so eroded they probably would never support a crop again, in the view of the government men. Not long after Black Sunday, a wire service reporter toured a Baca County mail route with a postal carrier. The mail had been delayed for nearly a week because the train could not get through to Springfield, the county's biggest town. They came upon homesteads where people had not seen a fellow human for weeks. At one location, a lone woman was shoveling dirt from a front walk; she was shoeless and hollow-eyed. When the mailman approached, she dropped the shovel and clutched his arm. She said she had been marooned for days.

"What's happened?" the woman asked. "What's going on in the outside world?"

The reporter asked her why she didn't leave.

"I'd like to," the woman said. "But I can't." She said the land was all she had; she thought she would die in a city, not knowing anyone, unsure how to feed herself.

Most Baca residents would have starved without the government. With nearly 50 percent of the county on relief, it wasn't considered a weakness to get help from somewhere else, because the land itself had given up. A church sent a telegram to the wire services in Denver, asking the entire nation to pray for rain in the far southeast corner of Colorado. They set the day of prayer for May 5. It didn't rain that day, nor the next day, or the day after. On May 8, a bundle of bruised clouds appeared on the horizon, rumbled with thunder, then let loose a gully-washer. It rained fast and furious, but the water hit bone-hard ground and drained to long-dry indentations in the earth, filling ravines until they rose in a muddy torrent and smashed sheds and took a horse and then disappeared. It was as if it had not rained at all.

In the summer of 1935, FDR launched the Second Hundred Days, one of the great thrusts of domestic change ever seen—zero to sixty in an eyeblink, by government time. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act to ensure that the pensionless elderly would not starve, started the Works Progress Administration to keep the government payroll rolling, and backed the National Labor Relations Act, which enshrined union rights in the workplace. The farm economy was improving: income higher by 50 percent, crop prices up by 66 percent since Hoover had been turned out of office. Roosevelt took credit, saying the government cattle and hog kills and the plowing-under of surplus land had moved the market by creating a forced scarcity. The Supreme Court disagreed, at least on agricultural reach; they declared FDR's control of farm economy unconstitutional. The government could not be the market. Roosevelt was outraged. He accused opponents of "deliberately trying to mislead people by misrepresenting—no, why use a pussyfoot word—by lying about the kind of a farm program under which this nation is operating today."

But his Resettlement Administration was left intact by the ruling, and the government found plenty of takers, not so much for the loans to stay put as for money to leave. Those who did not own land—or had come as suitcase farmers during the wheat boom—took a thirty-five-dollar grant from Resettlement to move on. One day a boy would be sitting next to Ike Osteen in school, same as always, and the next day the seat would be empty, the boy gone for good. It was no shame to give up on school. Among the nine children in the Osteen family, Ike alone had stayed with the books to his senior year. His brother Oscar didn't see much use for education. Even after Black Sunday, when most of the next year people stopped counting on the future as a way out, Oscar Osteen held out hope of making something from the family land. They had a couple of mules, a barn, the buried tractor. There was always a chance Oscar could wake up one morning and the dunes would be gone, unveiling fields ready for planting, a little orchard, ground for growing broomcorn and popcorn, wheat and alfalfa. You never knew. Ike was more of a realist; if there was something for him in the homestead, he couldn't see it. In 1911, his daddy had hauled lumber by horse-drawn wagon from Elkhart, Kansas, thirty-two miles away, to build the barn and prop up the walls and roof of the Osteen dugout because he believed in transformation by hand. Build it, shape it to your will, and things would happen. In his day, horse freighters on their way west would overnight at the Osteen barn, bringing gossip, material goods, and fresh bits of human insight to lonely homesteads. Even at this young age, Ike sensed that Baca was never meant to be plowed and planted. He loved the land and part of him wanted just to stay put and fight. He was not a quitter.

The Red Cross moved the cots out of the school gym and the students set up chairs for graduation in May 1935. School had always been easy for Ike, even though he got in trouble for pranks, and he missed many days because the dusters kept him home. He was asked to make a little speech as class salutatorian. Only one student had better marks. Graduation day was sweat-your-pants hot inside the gym, but they could not open windows or even the doors for long to catch a breeze because the sand would swirl inside and make people gag. When Ike was called to the front to give his speech, the room went quiet but for the coughs of people who could not hold the soil down. He took a moment to scan the audience and find his mama in the crowd. She was red-eyed, wiping her face. Ike started in with his talk about how the future had to be better than the past, but that even with the black blizzards and the broken land and all the people leaving, Baca County was a great land, and he would always have fine memories of this little school on the prairie. He paused again because his mama was crying now; sitting there in front, she could not hold back the tears. Ike finished by thanking teachers who had seen him through, paid in grocery scrip.

Outside, after the ceremony, a hot wind blew, and Ike's mama brushed the tears from her eyes. She kissed her youngest boy.

"Congratulations," she said. "You did what no Osteen has ever done."

Ike handed his diploma to his mama.

"You take this," he said.

"Why?"

"That piece of paper says I have completed twelve years of education."

"Yes."

"But I want you to know something, Mama: I still don't think I'm smart as you. Not one bit."

Later in the year, Ike's mother turned her back on the dugout for the last time and moved into town with the two girls. The other children were gone, drifted away. She said the boys could split the homestead if they wanted it or sell it to the Resettlement people. Do whatever. After giving a quarter century of her life to raising nine children on the High Plains, she was done with the hole in the ground.

Ike took up the homestead topic with his brother.

"You want it?"

Oscar shrugged. "I don't have no other place to go."

"You're staying, then?"

"I guess. But I can't see how this could support two families. It ain't like it was in Daddy's day."

"Then it's yours," said Ike. "The place is yours."

"You want something for your half?"

"Nope. It's yours, Os."

"Well, all right then."

A few days later, Ike packed a bag with some dried meat, a couple of biscuits, a canteen of water. He walked one last time over the dirt floor of the dugout, looked in disgust at the muck clinging to the browned sheets over the windows, at the stove that had kept him warm through so many nights, fueled by cow turds. Above ground, the place was nearly buried. The fence line formed a barrier of snagged tumbleweeds and dust.

"What you gonna do, Ike?"

"Don't know."

"You leaving, then?"

"Yep."

"For good?"

"Don't know."

"Where you going?"

"Don't know. Not far, probably. Gotta find some work." He had heard there was a job in Springfield, on the railroad line by the Cimarron River.

"I'll see ya, then."

"Yeah. See ya."

Ike walked away from the homestead with just the clothes on his back and his bag of food and water, waded through the dunes, past the nearly covered outhouse, the barn with the wall of sand on one side, the windmill and its crackling static, the muddied trough of the stock tank, past the lone surviving tree— goodbye to all that —and out to the open country, the land that had been so full of ancient mystery, these secrets of the conquistadors, these Indian burial grounds, this place of ghost grass and ghost bison. He just kept walking.

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