The day of the funeral began clear, with no wind. A rabbit drive was called back on after “a month-long delay” due to dusters. Little Jeanne Clark had just left the hospital in Lamar after “a long bout of dust pneumonia.” She only had dresses made of sackcloth, with the brand names of onions printed on the side. She did not want to go to church wearing the sack; other children would point and laugh. In Baca County, Ike Osteen “had a burst of energy” and used it to do chores around the dugout. The family garden was covered in a dust drift. In a few places, he found arrowheads. He could see the outlines of graves, which made him wonder about the Comanche and what they would think to find the buffalo grass gone and the land destroyed.
Jeanne Clark and her family were crippled both by her illness and by the destitution caused by the Depression. However, even as a small child, she had a sense of pride and did not want to go to school in her makeshift clothes, despite the fact that her classmates were faring little better. Ike forgot his family’s troubles by dedicating himself to work, which resulted in finding an artifact that reminded him of the region’s indigenous history and the destructive changes that whites had wrought.
Baca County was having its warmest day of the year, with temperatures in the eighties. However, about eight hundred miles to the north, the Dakotas were dealing with a cold front from the Yukon Territory. The clash of warm and cold currents caused the air to turn violent. In two hours, temperatures dropped more than thirty degrees. By mid-morning, windblown soil advanced from South Dakota to Nebraska, and the sky grew dark. The weather bureau could not explain what was happening. The storm that had made it to the East coast the year before rode out on a jet stream—this storm was moving south with the cold front, but it was darker than any other that had advanced on the prairie. It looked like a wall of muddy water.
The Great Plains has a naturally diverse climate and is accustomed to extremes of heat and cold. However, the changes caused by excessive plowing made harsh gusts turn deadly. The wind became a current that lifted the soil off of the ground, as well as the fuel that propelled it forward. Changes in weather patterns made it unclear how some storms, like that which hit the High Plains on “Black Sunday,” were able to form without a jet stream to carry it forward.
Robert Geiger, an Associated Press reporter from Denver, went to No Man’s Land with the photographer Harry Eisenhard. They were looking for anecdotes from locals about the black blizzards that blew through the Southern Plains almost daily. They planned on going to the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. Meanwhile, the advancing dust storm “was reported to be two hundred miles wide, with high winds like a tornado.” The sun had been eclipsed. A small boy who had been playing in the fields got lost and suffocated on the airborne dust.
The press had gone to the region expecting to hear stories of how the storms had changed and disrupted the lives of the locals. Instead, they endured their own experience of the dust storms. Fatefully, Geiger and Eisenhard arrived to experience the worst storm that hit the High Plains in the 1930s. The eclipse of the sun and the disappearance of a small boy made the storm seem especially horrific, and even mythical.
At 2:30 PM, Dodge City, Kansas went black. South of Elkhart, people were gathering for a rabbit drive. With cattle gone, chickens going blind and hungry, and no wheat, people were starting to can rabbit meat, along with pickled tumbleweed. Ike Osteen was five miles away from his homestead when he saw rabbits and birds fleeing south. It seemed to be a desperate migration. It struck him as odd that there was no wind, but the sky was still bright. He scanned the horizon. Then, he saw it—"the mother of all dusters.” Ike and the two schoolmates with him were blinded and struggled to breathe. They crawled to a farmhouse that was black inside. Ike could hear the voices of the others, but he could not see them. He could not see his own hand.
Though the purposes of the rabbit drives were to help nesters vent frustration and feel some sense of control over an environment that was out of control, the settlers realized that the rabbits could have some practical use, too, as a source of food. Ike paid more attention to the live rabbits who sensed trouble on the way and fled toward safety. The cloud that descended quickly shrouded Baca County, which had been enjoying a warm, sunny day, in cold and blackness.
The Lucas double funeral was held at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Boise City that morning. More than two hundred people were in the church. Faye Folkers, Hazel Shaw’s brightest student, was there. The funeral procession started in the direction of Texhoma. Hazel and Charles stayed behind to bury their baby in Boise City, but they later learned that the Boise City Cemetery was covered in sand. Hazel and Charles then decided to bury Ruth Nell in Enid, and to wait until Monday to go east. The procession started at 3:00 PM. After an hour, everyone came to a halt. The Lucas men, dressed in their best clothes, got out and started digging sand from a drift that blocked the road.
Hazel and Charles wanted to bury their daughter Ruth Nell in their hometown—a hope that was spoiled by the dust storms. Those who attended the funeral were burdened yet again by the dust. The dust had killed Ruth Nell and her great-grandmother, and it now risked making it impossible to bury either of them as well.
In northern No Man’s Land, Joe Garza was taking advantage of the clear, sunny day to find stray cattle. He was thirty-five years old and his father had just died in Clayton. The cows were acting strangely and Joe’s horse pawed the ground, “nervous and sniffing.” Then, Joe saw an enormous formation—“a tidal wave of roiling black”—only one-quarter of a mile away. The blackness frightened him, and now, it was cold. Suddenly, Joe heard a cry out in the distance, It was the Guyago boy, a sheepherder. He was crying. The boy said that the dust cloud had knocked him down. Using the voice of the other ranch hand, Ernest, as a guide, Garza and the boy crawled back to safety.
As was the case with the rabbits that Ike Osteen saw fleeing across the plains, the livestock, too, indicated that a torrential storm was on the way. There is a juxtaposition between some settlers’ attention to these signs from animals and the vicious attacks on rabbits, as well as the indifference toward livestock who could no longer be sources of food. This attitude suggests a general inattention toward the natural world, unless it served the settlers’ interests.
At around 5:15 PM, the funeral procession, composed of about fifty people, was six miles outside of Boise City. The cars were driving through the flattest part of No Man’s Land. When the Lucas clan saw the black cloud approaching, they debated about what to do. They thought that it would be disrespectful to turn around, so they “closed ranks with the hearse in the middle and raced south, so the storm would not hit the engines first.” C.C. Lucas got drinking water from canvas bags next to the radiator. Everyone poured water into scarves, shirts, and handkerchiefs, and the children crawled under the cars with the damp clothes tied to their faces. Everyone got on the ground or got inside of a car.
By working together quickly, the funeral procession was able to continue on. Bravely, they did not allow fear of the massive storm to deter them from their obligation of laying the bodies of Ruth Nell and Louzima to rest. The attendees were just as resourceful in moving the procession forward as they were each day on their farms, finding sources of water and ensuring that no one, particularly the children, would be exposed to breathing the dust.
The duster picked up more power and intensity as it moved south. The earth went black, and people saw flashes of electricity around their cars. Those flashes provided the only light in the overwhelming darkness. Around 6:30, the winds finally calmed to the point of not knocking anyone down. People were soon able to see their hands in front of their faces. Half a dozen men took off their coats and joined hands. They then walked the road to guide the hearse and other cars to Boise City.
The men refused to allow the storm to prevent the proper burials of Ruth Nell and Louzima. This commitment to proceeding with the ceremony in the face of the storm was a testament to people’s unwillingness to allow their lives and rituals to be disrupted by the unpredictable weather, which controlled everything else in their lives.
People were in the midst of the rabbit drive in the northeast of town when the dust storm hit. At the Folkers’ homestead, Katherine and her son crouched down, unable to light their lantern. Black dust showered their walls and trickled through the ceiling. Meanwhile, the Associated Press team was crossing the state line into Oklahoma. The wall of dirt was closing in on them, and Eisenhard took a picture. Bob Geiger estimated that the cloud was several thousand feet. They tried to outrun it, going sixty miles per hour on a dirt road, but that was not fast enough. Their car went into a ditch. They pushed it out and continued on, finally making it to the Crystal Hotel in Boise City. Geiger had no answers for guests in the lobby who overwhelmed him with questions about the duster. He just wanted to get back to Denver to print the pictures.
The storm had been more spectacular than the reporters expected. The destructive force of the storm and the rabbit drive—forces of nature and of the damage wrought by humans—were occurring simultaneously, as though the forces were at war with each other. The storm seemed to be chasing Geiger and Eisenhard, who could not see where the cloud began. As tired as people were of the dusters, they also could not resist news about another one, reflecting both a fascination with and a fear of the storms.
Thomas Jefferson Johnson was walking home from the funeral when the storm hit. He got knocked down, and crawled forward along the road on his stomach. When his family found him later, his eyes were full of black dirt and he could not see. His vision never recovered. Meanwhile, Hazel Shaw was packing for the next day’s burial of Ruth Nell. Her four-year-old niece, Carol, was staying with them that afternoon. Suddenly, Hazel could not find Carol. Hadn’t slept since she took her dying child to the hospital the week before—now, her niece was missing. Charles grabbed a large flashlight and searched outside. He thought the girl was lost for good, but then voices in the dark told them that she was safe. She had run home when she saw the dust cloud.
Incongruously, Thomas Jefferson Johnson—a large, formidable man, with a name to match—was rendered helpless by the dust storm. He was both blinded and crawling, as though the storm, with its massive force, had returned him to a state of infancy. On the other hand, little Carol remained safe, despite Hazel’s fears that she would be killed by the dust as Ruth Nell had been. Incredibly, Carol was also able to find her way home in the black storm.
Aviators like Roy Butterbaugh, the Boise City newspaper publisher, and Laura Ingalls saw the cloud. Butterbaugh and his buddy decided not to fly, but Ingalls saw it from above. The formation was “a deep purple” and “stretched so far” that one could not see the end of it. Ingalls recalled it being “the most appalling thing” she had ever seen in all of her years of flying.
The contrast between the aviators, who represented technical expertise, and the natural wonder of the storm reveals the disconnect between modernity and nature. Despite having the tools to conquer aspects of nature, such as developing the ability to fly, few people could even comprehend the storms.
The Volga Germans were just leaving church. They wanted to enjoy the sun and clear air. After four years of drought, the Ehrlichs were out of grain and George Ehrlich was too overwhelmed by grief to keep the homestead afloat. His only surviving son, Willie, took control of it instead. On that Sunday, Willie had his calf out for a walk, looking for grass. Willie’s sister then suggested that he recover the calf, for it looked as though it would rain. Willie said that what hung overhead was no rain cloud. He was picking up the calf when the dust cloud knocked him down. The storm had blown open the barn door. He crouched down in a corner and waited until midnight, when he could recognize the world again. He never found the calf, which he had to drop along the way.
George Ehrlich was still mourning the death of his youngest and favorite child, Georgie. When Georgie died, the elder Ehrlich’s hopes for the future and his enthusiasm for working the land evaporated. The calf’s disappearance coincides with the loss of innocence that was felt after Georgie’s death. Willie’s inability to protect the calf is also similar to George’s inability to protect his son from the oncoming cattle truck—both the storm and the truck were forces outside of Erlich’s control, which turned fate out of the family’s favor.
The White family was preparing for evening church services. Lizzie had been talking about leaving Dalhart. She was crumbling emotionally, but they could not leave—Bam was too old. Meanwhile Melt had just found out from an aunt about his indigenous ancestry. Initially, he tried to deny it. The indigenous people were run off the land and routinely mocked. Kids at school made fun of him for his skin, calling him “Mexican” or “nigger.” Melt was Cherokee, Irish, and English through Bam, and Apache and Dutch through Lizzie. He was told it was disgraceful to be part-Native American, particularly Apache—“they were the meanest, sorriest tribe in the world” and only wanted to drink and fight, his relatives said. Melt looked outside and said that they would be unable to go to church. Bam looked, then he hurried back into the house. By then, the dust had overwhelmed them.
The family was both outcast in Dalhart due to their ethnic backgrounds and facing Lizzie’s possible emotional breakdown. In their need to hold to the narrative that whites were the rightful heirs to the grasslands, despite the irreparable damage that they had caused to it, the settlers vilified the indigenous people, telling stories that made the natives sound ill-equipped to manage the land’s bounty. Melt’s classmates pelted him with racial slurs and called him by an identity that was not his own— “Mexican”—to reinforce the racist notion that he did not matter because his people no longer existed in the prairie.
The dust blizzard fell on Dalhart at around 6:20 PM. Cars died in front of the DeSoto Hotel. A nine-year-old boy wandered in, screaming that he had gone blind. John McCarty was reading a book when the page turned black. Dust entered his office and settled there. A woman in southern Dallam County called the newspaper people in Amarillo to alert them to “the biggest duster of all.” Inside of a blackened room in Pampa, Texas, 110 miles southeast of Dalhart, the folk singer Woody Guthrie thought of the first lines to a song about the world coming to an end. The duster produced enough static electricity to power New York City.
Egan evokes a vision of a black hell that consumed Dalhart. The sight of cars dying and the disruption of McCarty’s reading session show how the storm disrupted people’s relative comfort in every how. However, a boy’s temporary blindness also conveys how dangerous the storm could be. The air had become too dangerous to breathe and to touch.