The Dust Bowl Children

Photography by Dorothea Lange
Photography by Dorothea Lange

The young man stands on the edge of his porch. A shotgun rests over his shoulder. Looking over the horizon, he peels back pieces of splintering wood from the post supporting the farmhouse, a modest structure of nails and timber his father built before he was born. The once charming white weatherboard is now a reflection of the land its foundation sits on: dusty, withered, and abandoned. The dust that blankets the ground and rages through the air swallows up the house, consuming the lives of those who shelter within it. A windmill stands tall behind the house, groaning and creaking through the storms and keeping the children in the farmhouse awake at night.

The bones of an old tree remain rooted in front of the porch. Its branches and leaves stripped away long ago, it now stands loyal and lonesome, a silent survivor of the dust storms that devastate all other life in their paths. Years ago the tree spread its arms wide over the porch and the mother’s little garden, encompassing the family in a canopy of shade. One of the arms stretched right out to the attic, where the boy slept, its leaves tapping on the window at night, whispering to him, beckoning him outside. Opening his window and climbing out into the cool night air, the boy watched the stars and listened to the sounds of sleeping farm animals. Now, the little boy is an old man at sixteen, his youth impaired by the sights and experiences of the past five years. The tree no longer invites him outside, the stars no longer shine, and the animals are gone.

Beside him on the porch sits a broken oil lamp, its glass chimney shattered and jagged. Two days ago it sat undamaged on the kitchen table, providing light and warmth to the small family, comforting them and guiding them through the night. But a bump of a child’s elbow sent the lamp crashing to the ground, spilling kerosene and glass diamonds across the floorboards.

A child opens the front door of the house, pushing against rags that have been wedged between the cracks around the rusty frame. He pulls the legs of his faded denim overalls up as he tiptoes across the dusty porch to where the young man stands.

‘What’s wrong?’ the young man asks the child, bending down to lift him and rest him on his hip.
‘Sissy’s coughing again,’ the boy says. He is clinging onto the collar of his older brother, eyeing off the gun still in his hands.

‘Come on,’ the young man says, letting his little brother slide off of his hip. ‘The sheets are probably dry. Go get some water.’

The child runs and jumps off the edge of the porch, disappearing around the side of the house. The young man shoulders his gun again and goes inside, pulling the door closed behind him.

There is far less dust inside the house, but a thin blanket still covers the floors, tables and beds. Traces of life before the Dust Bowl, the father’s typewriter, the mother’s chequered curtains and ceramic vases that once held freshly cut evening primroses and prairie clovers, had been discarded of one by one, the young man selling them for food rations or simply discarding them because they trapped too much dust. He wondered how his father would react when he returned and saw that the curtains his wife had sewn with her own hands were gone. But the young man’s sister was sick, and a cluttered house meant more dust. It was easier to clean an empty home.

The girl’s tiny frame lay sideways on the large bed, her legs hanging over the edge. As she coughed they swung back and fro, toes skimming the dusty floorboards. ‘Sit up, now,’ the young man said, kneeling beside her and pulling her up. He remembers the relentless coughing of his mother as she looked out the window onto her lifeless garden, the dust pneumonia slowly stealing her away from him. He tucks his sister’s hair behind her ears, but it falls instantly back in front of her face. He had cut it all off to just below her ears one day, unable to bear her tears each time he tried to comb the many knots and wash the dust from the long strands. She had wept for days afterwards, stroking the handfuls of cut hair between her little fingers just as her parents did when singing her to sleep during the first dust storms.

The little boy returns with a bucket half-full of water. The two boys pull down the sheets that hang in front of the windows and doors, wet them with the water, and re-hang them.

‘This filters the dirt that gets blown into the house,’ the young man remembers his father telling him shortly before he left, ‘make sure they’re always wet,’ he would say, as he passed the wooden pegs to him. Now, his little brother passes the pegs.

‘Why do you stand out there with father’s gun?’ the little boy asks, dropping a peg and bending down to retrieve it. The young man’s tired eyes turn to his sister and then back to his brother before answering.

‘Just watching,’ he says.

‘What for? Who’s coming?’

‘No one,’ he says truthfully.

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