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23. The Last Men

PEOPLE SHUNNED BAM WHITE in Dalhart, blaming him for that picture show that made it seem like the nesters had killed the land out of greed or ignorance. They called him half-breed and traitor to Texas, even if all Bam did was guide a plow across a desiccated field as the documentarians filmed him. Most days, Bam didn't care what people said to him or about him. Gossip in town wasn't worth a cup of curdled spit. But it hurt when young Melt came home from school, fevered over what people had said about his daddy. Melt was proud of his father. Seeing him up on the big screen at the Mission Theater made him a bigger man. Bam, Andy James, and the old XIT cowboys knew they were right, that the nesters had ripped up the grass without a thought to what it might do to the natural order. That huge sand dune on the James ranch looked like a transplant from the northern Sahara, all misshapen, growing daily. The irony was that Andy was a rancher; he never got into the wheat game, and the desert dunes on his ranch were somebody else's dirt. More than 700,000 acres in Dallam County were seriously eroded, by the calculation of Hugh Bennett's men. It would not change a thing to say it wasn't so. Much of the land felt like the powdered residue left after an explosion.

Still, in the spring of 1937 in this place of next year people, it was hard to corral the impulse to put something in the earth. Nobody had money for tractor fuel, or hiring farm hands, or even for buying seed. The government handed out seed for grass and gave grants for gasoline, so long as people agreed to try a new way of tilling the ground. Bennett's project, Operation Dust Bowl, was in full swing. An army of CCC workers, aided by unemployed farm hands, was called to duty each morning from barracks on the High Plains, in a war against dirt. The CCC workers pushed the huge, creeping dune on Andy James's ranch around, trying to level it, and then making furrows so that the dust was shaped to offer the least resistance to prevailing wind patterns. The dune had been fifty feet high at one point, topping the roof of any barn, a monster that had grown to nearly a mile in length. They seeded a section of the exhausted ranch with African desert grass and cane. And while they did not say it would ever be a working spread again, they did say it might spring back to life, an awakening of green. In a few years, some grass might grow again without the help of the CCC, and maybe some wild plums in the draw will take hold, some sagebrush, maybe some tamarisk, and it could look in parts like it did when the James family had first come to the High Plains and pronounced it the most heavenly place on earth. If they could make it work here, Big Hugh said, they could do it anywhere in the Dust Bowl. Dallam County was the lab. Bennett started out working with 16,000 acres, but the project expanded quickly to 47,000 acres, with a goal of ten times that size. After so many years of destruction, of hearing how they had killed the land, people wanted to be a part of restoration. It felt good to be trying to heal something.

The Whites planted corn and some grass on the patch of ground outside their two-room house. There was a little section of intact sandy loam that had not been dusted over or ripped up. Bam had kept it in grass, and though it browned early and looked dead for most of the last six years, it held the earth down. Another part of the ground was as hard as cement. When Bam took his hoe and hacked at it, he could barely make a dent. He got his axe, called out to his boys to come have a look, and tried to split the armor of dirt. Only after repeated big swings could he make a slit. He ran the horse-drawn plow, the same one that was in the picture show, over some bundled-up dirt, and got it moved around enough to get some seeds in there. He planted alfalfa because he wanted a little hay to give his two horses, and because after it was cut the stubble would be left on the ground as a way to hold the ground in place. The rain came right in the spring, an inch one day, half an inch another, then ten days of sun, followed by a two-inch downpour. Bam told the children they might actually have something to show in the summer.

Doc Dawson took time off from his duties at the soup kitchen to give his land a final go. It looked so defeated: tumbleweeds snagged against the barbed wire, the surface shaped like an old brown rag. There were dunes ten feet high and hillocks of red dust from New Mexico and heaps of that sickly yellow sand that blew in from other parts of Texas. He followed the advice of the CCC crews, plowing in furrows so the wind would ripple instead of rip and lift, and he pushed the dunes around. He tried planting grass seed as well and drilled holes for corn and maize, which had always been easier to grow than a toenail.

People across the Panhandle had finally agreed to strict conservation, setting up sanctions for any landowner who let his property blow. It was out of character, not very Texan, to allow a committee of farmers and ranchers to determine whether one individual was not in compliance with the laws of nature, but then it wasn't very Texan to let the New Deal conservation men have the run of the Llano Estacado. But they had begged for the help, sending a telegram to Washington. Even Dalhart's lone banker, Lon C. McCrory, had joined in the plea for outside relief, saying, "We need somebody to save us from ourselves."

The remedial efforts did not keep cattle from dying or black blizzards from rolling over other parts of the Dust Bowl. In 1937, there were more dusters on the High Plains than in any other year—134. To people who lived with death and gray land, it had become the palette of life, almost unnoticed. But to people who had been away or came to the Dust Bowl with fresh eyes, the sight of this sick land was shocking. A minister's son, Alexandre Hogue, had grown up on a relative's ranch not far from Dalhart, left for the city, then returned with a plan to paint what he saw. Hogue was a careful student of the land, studying the way a grove of trees he remembered from his youth now looked like standing skeletons, or how farm animals gnawed on fence posts, or what happened when their eyes were hardened wide open with dust, and the pained expressions on their faces. He saw death on the plains like a black plague. Hogue painted starving animals, drifts that covered tractors and homes, a surfeit of predatory snakes and bugs, a landscape of rotting hell. Life magazine ran his paintings in 1937, calling him "the artist of the Dust Bowl." The painting that drew the most attention was an oil-on-canvas piece named Drouth Survivors, a portrait of an agrarian nightmare, with surreal touches. It showed two dead cows face-planted into a drift, the top of a leafless tree buried by dust, a tractor half-smothered by sand, a fence drifted. After Life ran the painting, it hung in the Pan-American Exposition in Dallas.

McCarty railed against the painting, backed by his Chamber of Commerce. It was bad enough that The Plow That Broke the Plains was still playing in some theaters, but now here was this fancy-pants ar-teest making the High Plains of Texas out to be like an open-faced cemetery. McCarty pushed a plan through the Chamber to buy the painting, bring it back to Dalhart, and burn it to the cheers of his Last Man Club. The town sent an emissary to Dallas with fifty dollars. The painting couldn't be worth any more than that, they figured. But in Dallas, the Exposition wanted at least two thousand for Drouth Survivors. This here painting had been featured in Life magazine, after all. The Dalhart representative returned home empty-handed. The painting was later purchased by the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, a museum in Paris, and burned in a fire.

In early summer, a couple of decent storms visited, and the rain didn't fall in a fury, like the kind that caused flash floods. It was just simple rain at intervals in the middle part of the growing season. It wasn't pure and clean—there was dirt in the downpour—but it was steady enough to do some good. Parched earth that had been planted in grass, hay, and corn looked spongelike for the first time in years. We finally got our break, folks said. Bam White's little patch of green grew to a blanket of green by early July. Doc Dawson's beaten-down sections also had a little blush going and rows of healthy corn stood tall. Even the grass planted on Andy James's ranch went from a nice start to ankle-high carpet. It seemed like a miracle, and people gave God and Franklin Roosevelt equal credit. God had brought the rain, and FDR showed people the way to bring the land back. Dallam County had the largest soil conservation project in the nation; and in the summer of 1937, it was a trophy. Most of the county was still a wasteland. But on the sections where dunes had been moved, the ground furrowed, and the conservation restrictions put in place, it looked alive—a resurrection. Hugh Bennett came back for another visit and posed for pictures in fields of waist-high alfalfa. Big Hugh was cautious and urged people not to read too much into this little spurt of life. Again, he nagged them all about holding together a sea of conservation districts, not just a small patch of cooperation here and there.

In July the rains gave out and the heat returned, pushing the mercury well past 110 degrees. The ground burned in the big areas that were barren or drifted, and blast-furnace winds browned the crops to a crisp. The corn was not ready for harvest, but maybe some of the grass and hay could be cut and stacked for feed before it crumbled. Some people decided to wait, hoping for one more soaker, gambling that they could outlast the heat or another big duster.

Melt White was outside in early evening, temperature still above a hundred, when he heard a buzz like the electricity of a snapped power line. He poked around and could not find anything that would cause the noise, just a soft breeze at the end of a clear, oppressively hot day. The buzz grew louder. He looked up at the sky and saw a strange-looking cloud, about three times the size of a football field, moving toward him. At first he thought it was an odd duster, some new type of dirt cloud. This mass was thick and dark, and it moved quickly, erratically, the sunlight filtering through as it flickered. The buzz sharpened as the cloud approached, a whirring sound. It scared the boy. He called out for his daddy. Bam White ambled outside, his bowlegs moving slowly in the heat.

What is it, boy?

That cloud. Funny-looking duster, making that noise.

Bam crinkled his eyes and shaded his brow, taking in the moving, buzzing cloud.

Damn! That ain't no duster. It's hoppers.

The cloud dispersed in a few minutes' time, descending on Bam White's grass, latching on to his hay, smothering the garden. Melt was scared—an uncountable swarm of grasshoppers had invaded his home. They consumed everything the family had grown. The grass was gone in minutes. The hay disappeared in a hurry. Melt took a broom and tried to swoosh the hoppers off the grass, but it was no use. Some of them attacked him, chewing on his clothes. They swallowed every cell of fiber in the ground until nothing was standing, and the field looked dead and brown again, and then they lifted off, fortified by the White family's season of labor.

When the grasshoppers hit Doc Dawson's fields, they chewed the corn down to thin stalks and then sucked up the standing strands as well. Grasshoppers are eating machines, each bug consuming up to half of its body weight in a single day. The insects took out all Dawson's grass, all his corn, all his maize, and moved on to the wooden handles of his farm tools. The Doc had left a few shovels, some pitchforks, and a rake lying out. In their feeding frenzy, the hoppers crawled over the polished wood and tried to consume it too. Then they were on the fence posts. His acreage looked like a solid layer of moving, munching hoppers, and his hope for any income in 1937 was destroyed. He had nothing. The Doc's wife said it was like the Biblical Exodus and they were the Egyptians, coping with one plague after another.

The grasshoppers were not selective. The insect clouds moved from county to county, looking for any living thing, leaving not a flower or leaf or a sprig of grass standing. In No Man's Land, they chewed all the turf on the irrigated Kohler ranch, and in the shaded draws on the Lujan spread, and in fields where people had felt encouraged enough to try and nurse wheat through to harvest. The buzzing clouds dropped down on Fred Folkers's place and gnawed his garden to dirt, a plane of winged, bent-legged omnivores. His orchard was long gone, but he had some knee-high wheat planted in furrows. The hoppers got it all. The county ag man, Bill Baker, said he had never seen a bigger surge of insects in his lifetime. He estimated there were 23,000 grasshoppers per acre, fourteen million per square mile. A farmer with two sections faced twenty-eight million of the voracious creatures.

Nature was out of whack. In place of buffalo grass, prairie chickens, and mourning doves were black blizzards, black widows, cutworms, rabbits, and now this—a frenzied sky of grasshoppers. They had come out of the dry Rocky Mountains, the government men said, locusts that laid eggs in the flatlands and multiplied during dry years without predators. A wet year would usually produce a fungus that killed many of them. Birds that used to populate the High Plains year-round or descend on its stubble during the migrating season had disappeared. Same with rattlesnakes. A farmer used to fill a bucket in the spring with all the rattlers he shot on his half-section. But no more. For five years, people had rarely seen a rattler. Snakes and birds ate grasshoppers. When they were taken out of the prairie life cycle, the hoppers metastasized. That much, people could see; it was obvious. The early ecologists in Bennett's soil service were only beginning to examine how much life had frayed below the surface, among the small world of insects and microorganisms.

The National Guard was called out and instructed to exterminate the grasshopper plague by any means necessary. The troops tried burning fields. They tried crushing the insects, using tractors to drag big rollers over the ground. They brewed up tanks of poison and spread it over the land, as much as 175 tons of toxins per acre. If there was anything still alive in the ground, it would die under the blanket of poison. CCC crews were diverted from their furrowing and dune-reshaping projects and put on the poison campaign. In No Man's Land, eighty trucks from the state highway department joined National Guard troops in mixing and hauling grasshopper poison around the clock. A combination of arsenic and bran was settled on as the best method, and it was sprayed from the air and distributed by seeding machines. In places where it killed the grasshoppers, roads were slick with dead, squashed bugs. But the poison killed everything else as well. After the promising rains, the growing season had turned in a few days' time to another disaster.

Just as the hoppers were piling up dead in the fields, the dusters kicked up again. By the fall the tally was put at half a billion dollars' worth of lost crops—to dust, grasshoppers, or drought. The southern plains were in no better shape than at the start of the drought five years earlier.

In Dalhart came a surprise announcement: John McCarty was leaving town. The founder of the Last Man Club, the Dust Bowl cheerleader, the Empire Builder, the director of the Dalhart Chamber of Commerce, the editor and publisher of the Texan was pulling up stakes and moving south to the city of Amarillo. Nothing personal, he explained to slack-jawed friends around the DeSoto. Nothing against Dalhart, this fine town, full of Spartans, he told Dick Coon and Doc Dawson and all the people who had signed a pledge to never leave, a virtual marriage contract with a town. McCarty wanted a divorce. Nothing against Dallam County. It was just that a man had to follow opportunity when it called your tune. He had had a good job offer in Amarillo and could not afford to turn it down. Nothing against the other members of the Last Man Club. He said good luck and goodbye and turned his back for good on a town he swore he would never leave. The betrayal lingered through the last years of the dust storms.

So Dalhart lost its biggest booster and the Dalhart Texan was without its unique voice. The promising crop was ruined by hoppers. The land was on the move again, worse than any time since the start of the black blizzards. Children were dying of dust pneumonia; it seemed like one death every ten days. Uncle Dick was the only community pillar left in town. The survivor of the Galveston hurricane looked around at his shriveled, humbled town, coated in grime, as colorless as the inside of a gopher hole. The First National Bank had folded and never reopened. The pool hall was gone, taken by Dick himself in reluctant foreclosure. Herzstein's was gone, also lost in foreclosure. The DeSoto could barely hold on. Bennett's project had brought a payroll to town and provided rental income for folks who opened up their houses to the CCC workers who didn't want to bunk in the camps outside town. But when Operation Dust Bowl folded its tents, what would be left for Dalhart? Coon found his answer at the card table, where he looked into the weather-creased, sun-blasted faces of XIT cowboys playing their hands and spitting tobacco into cups. Dalhart had a resource after all: this history, the biggest ranch in the state, the spread that built the capitol, the largest grass under fence in the world, the boys of original Texas.

"We oughtta have ourselves a barbecue," said Uncle Dick. "A reunion, all the XIT cowboys, get 'em here in Dalhart and hold a barbecue."

The idea was an easy sell, especially since Dick said he would pay for the chow. That first week of October, they gathered up as many cowboys as they could find, after a call went out near and far, and held a big feast, with spits of pork ribs and sides of chicken and slabs of beef, grilled in the open air, on a day when the dirt clouds kept their distance. Bam White brought his fiddle, and he was joined by other cowboys. They played all afternoon and danced into the evening, the finest time in Dalhart since the start of this dirty decade. Cowboys gave speeches and toasted the great ghost—the grassland of the XIT. Old-timers told their stories of riding herds and sleeping on the good, soft sod of the Llano Estacado, and how this place was so green in the spring you would have thought it was Ireland. They could not put a stopper in the stories; they just kept coming, late into the night: about how Doc Dawson's sanitarium was a cowboy refuge for a man carved up by barbed wire after a drunk, about all the antelope running over grass, about lightning killing a horse during a thunder-boomer, about how you could ride from sunup to sundown and never get out of the XIT, about snowstorms that came down the prairie lane from Canada, northers so cold they froze your piss in midstream. People laughed late into the night, danced to fiddle music, sang, and ate bread pudding with corn whiskey sauce poured over it. Everyone felt they had something good here with this reunion, that they should not let these stories go.

A few days later, Uncle Dick was leaning against a rail in front of the DeSoto when he spotted a young cowboy and his family drifting through town. For five years now, Dick had watched a steady parade of jalopies and wagons float through Dalhart, the people staying only a night or two, and then moving on to some place where there might be work or stable land. California had turned its back on the Exodusters. A billboard posted outside of Tulsa told people traveling west on Highway 66 to stay away.

"NO JOBS IN CALIFORNIA

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WORK—KEEP OUT"

Dick rolled a cigarette from the plug of tobacco he kept in a vest pouch, staring all the while at one cowboy and his family. He overheard part of the conversation, the man telling his kids he knew they were hungry but would have to hold on a little longer, maybe at the next town they could get something to eat. The cowboy had wandered into town with the XIT reunion. He thought with all those old saddle-riders around, somebody might know of a place to get work.

"You there," Uncle Dick called out to him.

"Yes, sir?"

"Wha'cha doing here?"

"Fixing to leave, sir. I came hoping to find something on a ranch."

"You know how to ride?"

"Yes, sir. And rope. Fix a fence line. Mend a windmill. I can do it all."

"What's holding ya back?"

"No jobs around here."

"Nothing?"

"No, sir."

Uncle Dick reached into his pocket and pulled out his hundred-dollar bill. He handed the money to the cowboy, told him to take it—it was his. The young man was stunned.

"Are you sure?"

"You take it," Uncle Dick said. "Get yourself situated. Good luck."

The cowboy broke down in tears, sobbing on the dusted streets of Dalhart. Later, when the cowboy asked around about his benefactor, people told him it was Dick Coon, the richest man in town. He owned everything. But they were surprised to see him give up the C-note. He probably had another hundred-dollar bill to replace the one he gave to the cowboy. Only Coon's closest friends knew the truth: Uncle Dick was broke. All his properties were mortgaged and not bringing in any income. He had four dollars left in his bank account. And he was sick. The Doc told Dick Coon he had placed himself in peril by staying on the High Plains. But he had signed the Last Man pledge and took his oath seriously. The Doc said people would understand if he pulled up stakes and said goodbye to Dalhart. It wasn't like that hypocrite John McCarty leaving to take a better job after getting everybody worked up into a froth and pledging to stick around. Dick had to leave in order to stay alive. Okay, then. He moved into the Rice Hotel in Houston and died with little more money than he had when he came into the world, the son of penniless parents.

Lizzie White's great fear was starvation; it kept her up at night and made her weep. After the grasshoppers ate everything that Bam White had put into the ground, he was forced to go on relief. The family got government clothes and government food to go with a government mortgage on the shack. That winter was not easy. Northers blew down and drove the temperature so low that Bam's handlebar mustache froze stiff, just like the water inside their place. The boys would get up early and get the stove going to melt enough water for coffee and washing. Bam seemed to have lost his spirit. He did not want to go outside or kick around with cowboys. He looked rusted.

"Get me that fiddle, boy."

In the winter, trapped for days in the enclosure of cold and darkness, a little music could change the mood inside the White shack. But Bam didn't often feel good enough to play. His hands were cracked, chipped and arthritic; he could barely close them. Melt brought his daddy the instrument and Bam started in. He winced at the pain of moving those cracked hands, but the music came, and as it did, Bam's fingers started to bleed. Melt told his daddy he should stop, but the cowboy kept at it, playing soft fiddle music for his family in the drafty shack, blood trickling down onto the cold, dusted floor.

A few days later, on a Saturday during the first week of February 1938, Bam did not get out of bed. He groaned and wailed, said his stomach was killing him. He was burning with fever. The boys were sent to town to get something for him and rushed back with a pink fluid, like Pepto-Bismol. Bam White drank the bottle of pink liquid, but it did not still the pain. He held his stomach and groaned so loudly his cries could be heard outside. Sunday brought no improvement. He tried to hold it in, to keep his children from seeing him in such agony. The pain was sharp and persistent, like he had a cat inside him clawing to get out. On Monday he died.

They buried Bam near the old XIT, a small service, just family and some cowboys. It was noted that even though Bam White had been shunned by people in town for being a part of that film and had not been asked to join the Last Man Club, he never gave up on the High Plains; he stayed longer than McCarty himself, stayed till his last breath. A few days later, the Resettlement agency came out and sold everything the family had left—a cow, a couple of hogs, every bird in the henhouse, a pair of horses, a mule—to satisfy the debt on the house. When they were done, they told Lizzie White that the family still owed the government $2,300. She had nothing. Resettlement took title to the shack and its dirt patch. Lizzie moved the family south, as she had always wanted to, settling in with her sister in a part of Texas that was not so dusted and torn. They found work picking cotton. Melt could not stand it. He needed freedom, open space, just like his daddy. One day he said he'd had enough. He would never pick cotton for a living. A boy of seventeen, Melt packed a few things and said he was going home.

Home? His mama was taken aback. Where's home?

Melt said he missed the old place where his daddy was buried and that he was born to horses and the open range. He was going to get back to Dalhart and find some way to work a ranch. His mama tried to dissuade him, this headstrong boy, and asked him why he could possibly want to go back to that place of horrors. Melt didn't know himself, at first. He said later his Indian blood was calling him back to the Llano Estacado because it was a place that belonged to Indians and grass, and one day both might be restored.

Dalhart was a lonely town for Doc Dawson in his last years. He missed Dick Coon's generosity, John McCarty's blustery boosterism, Bam White's fiddle. A lot of the faces he did not know; they were strangers, working for the CCC on the big soil conservation project north of town. People had started bringing water up with deep wells, reaching into the Ogallala Aquifer, in a hurry to get that water out of the ground and running. If only they could get the soil to settle, folks said, the Panhandle would be back on its way, for now it had its own liquid gold. But Dawson was done with the land. He had tried for nearly a decade to raise a decent crop—first cotton, then wheat, corn, sorghum, anything—on his couple of sections, but it was a cursed piece of dirt. Through cycles of drought and black blizzards, grasshoppers and blue northers, he had nothing to show but tumbleweeds snagged on a fence line. As his strength faded, he gave up his duties at the soup kitchen. He still kept a little office in town where he saw patients every now and then, but most of them could not pay for his services. More often, people came by just to talk. He spent one afternoon helping a woman with her domestic troubles, and by the end of the day, she had decided not to seek a divorce. But he felt bad because "this may be taking a shingle off the lawyer's roof," he wrote to his son.

The winter of 1938 lingered well into April, a white blizzard entombing the town one day, a black blizzard smothering Dalhart the next, and in between a snuster, followed by a three-day blow of midnight dirt that blocked out the sun almost as bad as the dust of Black Sunday.

"Never in all the 31 years we have lived in the West, have we seen the thing continued for three days and nights without a stretch, without one minute between violent gusts and lambasting dirt deluging us unceasingly," wrote Willie Dawson in a letter to her son John.

On a rare clear day in early May, the Doc went into town. He found the entrance door to his office had blown open and the floor buried by dust. A small dune had formed in his little doctor's office. It took him and a friend most of a day to shovel it out. The Doc decided it was time for him to move as well. But his thoughts were stuck in a loop of despair: he had come to the Texas Panhandle for his health, and now it was one of the unhealthiest places on the planet.

"We are all so discouraged and ready to go," he wrote his son.

How could he leave? His fine house was worth little in a town where one in five people had packed up and rolled away. And how could he stay? If the dust had defeated Dalhart's most vocal cheer leader, and its richest man, and its toughest cowboy, how could an ailing, aged doctor expect to hold on? Dalhart, like Boise City, was closed to the outside world for days on end as dusters buried roads in and out of town, covered the railroad tracks, and made it impossible to see. Some days, the only thing on the Doc's calendar was a visit from an old friend. Even that small joy was taken from him in the spring of 1938 as the black blizzards kept people off the roads.

A massive brain hemorrhage killed Dr. G. Waller Dawson. Going through his belongings, his son John found a tattered, crumbled card inside the Doc's wallet. It was his Last Man Club card, signifying Dawson as the fourth person to join, with his familiar doctor's signature attached to the pledge that he would be the last man to leave the High Plains and that he would always be loyal to it.

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