In the winter of 1935, everyone in the Osteen dugout had a cough, a raw throat, and incessantly itchy eyes. They hung wet bed sheets against the walls to filter out the dust, but the dugout was like a sieve. A black blizzard in February knocked down telephone poles. In March, the worst dusters came from the north and blocked out the sun for days. Every school in the county was closed for a week that month. Ike considered dropping out of school to get a government job paving a road across southern Baca County into New Mexico, but Ike’s mother said that “it would break her heart if he left before making it out of high school.” He stayed and signed up for a senior play, which was cancelled when the Red Cross converted his school’s tiny gym into an emergency hospital. Nine people died that month, including some of Ike’s classmates.
Ike’s school life provided a level of teenage normalcy in his life, which had been burdened by respiratory ailments, poverty, and the constant presence of dust. Though Ike was not interested in school, he remained to please his mother, who valued education. His wish to participate in a school play indicates that he too was interested in participating in activities that gave him some semblance of a normal social life. This was especially necessary given the deaths of some of his classmates, which may have alerted Ike to his own vulnerability, despite his youth.
In Oklahoma, Dr. John H. Blue of Guymon treated fifty-six people for dust pneumonia. All of them also had signs of silicosis. Other patients were suffering from early symptoms of tuberculosis—people were filled with dirt. Doctors saw a pattern of children, infants, and the elderly with “coughing jags and body aches, particularly chest pains, and shortness of breath.” Others had nausea and could not eat, and some died within days of being diagnosed with dust pneumonia.
The plains region, once lauded for its fresh, wholesome air, was now the cause of a litany of illnesses. Dust pneumonia was particularly feared. Children diagnosed with the respiratory illness were not expected to survive, and those who did ended up with permanently scarred lungs.
Desperate parents begged the government for help to escape. One hundred families in Baca County gave up their property to the government in return for money to move. Roosevelt had not yet created a relocation plan, but there was money and there were some relief efforts that could help people move. Meanwhile, the Red Cross opened six emergency hospitals across No Man’s Land, Baca County, and southwestern Kansas to assist people who lived too far away to get to hospitals.
People who might not have wanted to leave the plains now felt that it was necessary to do so to ensure the survival of the next generation. Private organizations like the Red Cross provided medical assistance in areas that were underserved by the government, demonstrating that both public and private sectors worked to serve those in need in the Dust Bowl.
Jeanne Clark’s mother, Louise Walton, who had left New York for the High Plains to cure her respiratory ailment, now watched her daughter cope with a high fever, chills, and a chronic cough. The doctor did not know if Jeanne would live to Easter Sunday 1935. The former haven for "lungers” had turned deadly, and the Red Cross warned people against going outside. If they had to, they were to wear respiratory masks. Rail travel was hazardous, too. People had to scoop the dust out of passenger cars.
The air had become toxic and Jeanne, like many children, had contracted dust pneumonia. There was a cruel irony in Walton’s original decision to leave New York for the cleaner air of the prairie, as the prairie, like the city, had now developed dangerous air as a result of human activity.