Common section

25. Rain

THEY WORKED THROUGH the hottest days of summer, stitching a flag forty-nine feet long by twenty-nine feet high, the biggest in the world. Every musician in the Texas Panhandle was summoned to fall in line, forming another superlative: the largest single marching band ever assembled on American soil—2,500 instruments. Amarillo had never looked so good. All was in place on the afternoon of July 11, 1938, for President Roosevelt's visit to the southern plains. He chose Amarillo, headquarters for Operation Dust Bowl, because it was the only city of any size in the broken land and because Bennett had told him to go out, have a look, see how farmers were holding the land down, taking what he had started and making it their own.

The crowd was enormous, nearly a hundred thousand people in a city with less than half that population. They jammed into Ellwood Park under uncertain skies and lined the streets for three miles back to the station. At 6:45 P.M., a train pulled into Amarillo from the east. Word went out: he's here! The crowd stirred and a ripple of cheers followed. The wind was gathering force, and the light seemed to fall out of the sky sooner than it should have. The heat dissipated quickly. As clouds thickened, Amarillo's leaders worried that a duster was about to dump a load on the leader of the Western World.

Some people had driven for two days on drifted roads to get a glimpse of the president. He was not one of them, but many felt that this crippled man from New York had kept his promise: he had not forgotten them. The flatland was not green or fertile, yet it seemed as if the beast had been tamed. The year had been dry, just like the six that preceded it, and exceptionally windy, but the land was not peeling off like it had before, was not darkening the sky. There were dusters, half a dozen or more in each of April and May, but nothing like Black Sunday, nothing so Biblical. Maybe, as some farmers suggested, Bennett's army had calmed the raging dust seas, or maybe so much soil had ripped away that there was very little left to roll. Amarillo had begged the government to send its CCC soil-saving and tree-planting crews to the Panhandle, and when they came, they were greeted like firemen arriving at a blaze. Rows of spindly trees—little more than sticks in the ground—now ran through the land, nearly forty million saplings, 3,600 miles of living hope, planted within the most tattered parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In addition, farmers were paid a stipend to list their soil and plant grass alongside the work done by the CCC. Nearly a million acres were under contract as part of Bennett's blueprint to rescue the land. Bennett hoped that seven million acres would eventually be replanted in grass, a prairie reborn in "that delicate miracle the ever-recurring grass," as the poet Walt Whitman called it.

Elsewhere in 1938, the recovery and the energy of the New Deal had run out of steam. More than four million people lost their jobs in the wake of government cutbacks, and the stock market fell sharply again. Some of the gloom that enveloped the country at midterm in President Hoover's reign was back. In the Dust Bowl, the fuzz of a forced forest and the re-tilling of tousled dirt did not stop the wind or bring more rain, but it was a plan in motion— something —and that was enough to inspire people to keep the faith. As Will Rogers said, "If Roosevelt burned down the Capital we would cheer and say, 'Well, we at least got a fire started, anyhow.'" The High Plains had been culled of thousands of inhabitants. In No Man's Land, the plague, as nesters called it, had killed or forced out nearly one family in three. It was almost as bad in the Texas Panhandle. But as the dirty decade neared its end, the big exodus was winding down. The only way that folks who stayed behind would leave now, they said, was horizontal, in a pine box.

Melt White had found his way back to the place where his daddy was buried, next to the old XIT on the outskirts of Dalhart. He bought a colt with his savings from picking cotton and took his horse out for a run every day, scouting for a place where he could dig himself a toehold. There was going to be water available soon, all over the Llano Estacado, water from below. People were drilling deep and tapping into the main vein of that ancient, underground reservoir of the Ogallala Aquifer, as big as the grassland itself, they said. These new boomers, a handful of men in town, wanted no part of Bennett's soil-conservation districts. They wanted money to pump up a river of water from the Ogallala, pass it through a tangle of pipes, and spit it out over the sandpapered land. They would grow wheat and corn and sorghum, and they would make a pile, using all the water they wanted, you just wait and see. They talked as if it were the dawn of the wheat boom, twenty years earlier. Melt thought they had not learned a thing from the last decade. The High Plains belonged to Indians and grass, but few people in Dalhart shared his feelings.

Could the soul be returned to a corpse left to the winds? Could Comanche ever ride free again, lords of the tattered plain? Could bison ever find a home on land that had given up its grass? Could the turf that evolved over eons, tailored by nature's calibrations to take fire, drought, eternal wind, and cold into its life cycles, ever be restitched to sterile ground?

The land all around Roosevelt's parade route showed signs of terminal disorder. How to explain a place where black dirt fell from the sky, where children died from playing outdoors, where rabbits were clubbed to death by adrenaline-primed nesters still wearing their Sunday-school clothes, where grasshoppers descended on weakened fields and ate everything but doorknobs? How to explain a place where hollow-bellied horses chewed on fence posts, where static electricity made it painful to shake another man's hand, where the only thing growing that a human or a cow could eat was an unwelcome foreigner, the Russian thistle? How to explain fifty thousand or more houses abandoned throughout the Great Plains, never to hear a child's laugh or a woman's song inside their walls? How to explain nine million acres of farmland without a master? America was passing this land by. Its day was done.

Roosevelt had first tasted prairie dust in 1934, when it blew into the White House. Now he was at the source. The rain started just after the president's train pulled into Amarillo. What are the odds of that? Hundred-to-one, local reporters said. It came in showers at first, the tight clouds frayed at the bottom, and then developed into a downpour. People strained to hold the big flag in place, but it grew heavy as it took on the weeping skies. They wanted the president to see the biggest flag in the world before it broke under the weight of water. Roosevelt rode slowly in an open car, through the rain, down the three-mile length of town to the park. He was hatless, and water splattered off his glasses and ran down his nose, but he kept his political face forward, jaw out, smiling and waving. The rain pooled in the streets, and people stood in fast-rising puddles, their shoes wet, to get a glimpse of the president. When he passed by the big flag, Roosevelt ordered the car to stop. He saluted the seamstresses standing near their creation, and the young men trying to hold the flag above ground. Music still poured forth from the world's biggest marching band, even as the instruments were pelted. Now the giant flag began to sag; the young men could not keep it from drooping. The stars and stripes bled away from the 150-square yards of cloth onto the wet street, bled purple.

At Ellwood Park, there was no shelter for the honored guest. It had been dry for six years; no one expected a downpour in mid-July. No one even brought an umbrella. Roosevelt was helped out of the car and up to a grandstand. He stood, using the heavy metal braces to lock his knees in place. The crowd roared, everyone on their feet. He was their savior, and he did not betray their trust in him. Some of his experts had told him that it had been a monumental failure to settle this part of the world and that all the conservation measures and tree planting could not bring life back. People had killed this land by their own greed and stupidity—and, yes, hubris—and it could not be restored. Let it die. If Roosevelt believed this, he never let on. Standing in the rain, hair wet and suit drenched, he looked radiant.

"I think this little shower we have had is a mighty good omen."

Thunderous cheers rose, lasting several minutes. It could have been the Texas high school football championship, for the roar. Yes, sir, a good omen. What else could this land throw at them? What fresh hell could there still be? The rain pounded the crowd as the last of the big flag's color leaked onto the street, purpling the water like food dye in a creek. After the cheers and applause settled, Roosevelt resumed his speech. As he got into it, he took on the nester's chip, the righteous anger of the victim.

"I wish more people from the South and the East could visit this plains country," he said.

Yes, sir, Mr. President—we're not all dead, people said to each other. Damn straight. Tell it to the world!

"If they did you would hear less talk about the great American desert. You would hear less ridicule of our efforts to conserve water and restore grazing lands and to plant trees." He told the crowd how their topsoil had blown all the way to his family home on the Hudson and how people in the East did not understand these nesters, but he would never give up on them.

Roosevelt had always believed in the power of restoration. He was also starting to believe that the Dust Bowl could have been prevented. He had taken to heart some of the conclusions of the Great Plains committee, and he saw a way out in Operation Dust Bowl and his own tree-planting design. What happened on this hard ground was not a weather disaster at all; it was a human failure. A year earlier, in a speech at the dedication of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, Roosevelt said if only Americans had known as much thirty years ago as they knew today about care of the arid lands, "we could have prevented in great part the abandonment of thousands and thousands of farms in portions of ten states and thus prevented the migration of thousands of destitute families."

The president said nothing about hindsight on this day, however: he was all sunshine in the rain. "We seek permanently to establish this part of the nation as a fine and safe place which a large number of Americans can call home."

He praised the nesters for their guts and sprinkled half a dozen compliments on local pols before departing with a wave and one last flash of the smile and strong chin. Then it was back to the train, a quick ride to get out of the rain, and away, never to return to the High Plains, away to a world war, fought by some of the same young men straining to hold the flag on the wet streets of Amarillo, away to a day when the Dust Bowl would be forgotten, the flat land left to the winds, the towns shriveled and lost, the last survivors bent and broken, telling stories of a time when the sky showered the land down on them, not knowing if people believed them but not giving a damn if they did.

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