Hazel Shaw’s baby, Ruth Nell, was diagnosed with whooping cough. A doctor advised Hazel to leave for the baby’s health. Meanwhile Ruth Nell’s great-grandmother, Louzima Lucas, was dying of dust pneumonia at the family’s homestead in Texhoma, Oklahoma. She hated what No Man’s Land had become. She was also more worried about Ruth Nell than she was for herself. Two days before Ruth Nell’s first birthday, Hazel and her husband Charles decided to leave their home in Boise City.
In the Lucas-Shaw family, two generations were suffering from the dust storms’ impact on health. Louzima remembered No Man’s Land before it had been transformed by wheat farmers into the lethal territory that she worried would kill Ruth Nell. Already elderly, Louzima took less interest in her own fate.
At the end of March, 1935, there had been twelve days in a row of dust storms. During one storm, the wind blew at forty miles per hour for a hundred hours. Hazel initially planned to stay with her in-laws in Enid, Oklahoma, but they had been hit by a tornado. Still, the family had to leave quickly. Sheriff Barrick said that roads were blocked by huge dust drifts—as soon as the CCC dug one out, another appeared. A professor at Kansas State college estimated that, “if a line of trucks ninety-six miles long hauled ten full loads a day, it would take a year to transport the dirt that had blown from one side of Kansas to another—a total of forty-six million truckloads.”
Hazel felt trapped by the storms. Boise City had become overwhelmed by dust and the weather was no less violent further inland. The memory of the baby on the steps haunted Hazel because it reminded her of the possibility of Ruth Nell dying. It may also have made her wonder if she could ever become as desperate as the mother who had abandoned her infant to the wind and dust. Meanwhile, even the CCC was burdened with the or never-ending task of moving dust and replacing it—a job that settlers had previously performed on their own.
Hazel tried to get to her family’s homestead in Texhoma. The train ride had not been easy, as they stopped frequently to shovel sand off of the tracks. The baby’s cough worsened, and she cried constantly. Hazel worried that Ruth Nell had fractured another rib from all of her coughing. The baby had a temperature of 103 and could not eat. Ruth Nell had dust pneumonia.
The dust storms injected a level of heightened drama into mundane aspects of life and into special circumstances, such as Ruth Nell’s worsening illness.
Hazel summoned her husband to come to Enid, Oklahoma, where they had stopped. Charles tried to drive through the dust to get to his wife and daughter, but this proved to be hazardous. He wore goggles and a respiratory mask, but both clogged quickly with dust. He avoided a crash by driving along a ditch. Midway through his journey, he got caught in a duster and the static shorted out his car. After nearly an hour, the black blizzard dissipated, and Charles was able to restart his car.
It was hazardous to remain in one place and equally hazardous to travel. People had to leave home wearing safety equipment, such as Charles’s goggles and respiratory mask. Charles’s ability to withstand such extreme conditions contrasts with Ruth Nell’s inability to hold up.
By the time Charles made it to St. Mary’s Hospital, he was blackened with dirt. He found Hazel crying. Ruth Nell had died an hour earlier. Back in Texhoma, Louzima had been running a high fever for several days and still not eating. She asked if there was any word about Ruth Nell, but her son had not heard anything. Louzima turned away, closed her eyes, and died hours after her great-granddaughter. The family decided to hold a double funeral in Boise City—they would then proceed out of town to the family plot. Arrangements were made for Sunday, April 14, 1935.
The death of Ruth Nell, particularly, is a moment of defeat for the Shaws. Hazel and Charles remained committed to a land that, in a way, betrayed them by taking their first-born child. Louzima hated what wheat farmers had done to the land, and saw that the worst possible outcome—that it would become uninhabitable for future generations—had come true.