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Community Historian

Pampa

We imagine this. . .

He didn't answer her when she said, "We cain't keep doin' this."

It's just not done. A man has to make his family feel safe, and he damned sure wasn't going to let her know he was thinking the same thing. . . and more. He knew the details. When she was big with their last baby and chasing the two-year-old around, she wasn't going to town and listening to the radio that was always playing at the drug store. She didn't know the cotton prices had dropped again and that the soil on their latest patch of dirt was worn out. They had moved three times in five years to patches of land that were only slightly less worn out than the last. Now, they walked away from their car which sat on the side of a dirt road out of gas. A good man doesn't forget his faith just because the fuel tank is low, and the Palm Sunday afternoon church service was not one to miss, and he didn't mind the walk on a clear spring afternoon with his two-year-old on his shoulders and his wife carrying the baby next to him.

"Hang on. I gotta feed the baby," she said, sitting herself on the ground and unbuttoning her Sunday blouse. "I don't know what the rest of us are gonna eat."

"We're good people," he said. "The Lord will provide." He looked away from her to hide his worries, but he saw something in the southwest that added to them.

A few miles away, a farmer was getting onto his tractor.

"Thank God for chickens bein' stupid enough to lay eggs in a Depression," the farmer said out loud, and he laughed at an irony he could never have put into words. He turned the tractor but stopped. He was looking southwest, and he didn't like what he saw. In town, a lady strolled out of the afternoon church service in her white Sunday dress. In minutes, she would be running, and her dress would be brown.

An out-of-work farm hand counted his pocket change and pondered how many meals he could get out of his life savings of $2.46. "Maybe them Reds are right." He didn't look behind himself and didn't see what was coming. A man was getting ready for his night job and changing into his work cloths. He had put one shoe on and was reaching for the other when he went blind. He sat terrified. He remembered a few neighbors who went blind on bad Prohibition liquor, but he had never touched the stuff. He realized his room had gone dark in the afternoon.

A minister comforted his afternoon congregation because the End of the World was upon them.

The sky went black in Amarillo, Texas at 3:50 PM. Pampa, Texas followed at 4:50 PM.

A long drought had sucked the life out of a region already suffering from the Great Depression. Winds from the south routinely scream across the Texas Panhandle prairie in the spring, but the winds of the Dust Bowl's defining storm were not especially strong. Since the late-19th century, western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle had been plowed and grazed, square-mile after square-mile, baring and loosening the soil. The weather conditions of Sunday, April 14, 1935 were not unusual, but they were extreme. Usually, the wind kicked up and the dust followed, but this time, the dust came first. The 200-foot-tall wall of gentle violence looked alive - rolling, boiling, crawling, and enveloping. It wasn't the first storm of the Dust Bowl, nor the last, but it was the worst. The dust rolled north covering houses, choking cattle to death, and trapping people in their homes with wet towels over their heads from eastern New Mexico to the Dakotas. The poor, living in tar-paper-covered box-homes, watched the dust pour through the cracks before it became too dark to see. Even in finer homes, the dust seemed to penetrate, inundating clothing stored in closed drawers and wardrobes.

In Pampa, Love's Cafe kept the candles lit as alarmed citizens tried to calm themselves with coffee and conversation. A.D. Kirk got out of his car when the sky went black and felt his way along the curb until he felt a driveway he thought was his, and once inside turned on his electric lights but still couldn't see as the dust teemed through his home. In the following days, children went to school in wet gauze masks as they had in other recent dust storms, but this time, they heard their fathers talking about moving because of it, and the shared experiences of poverty, saving up the ten dollars it took to buy enough gasoline to get to California, of cutting an old car down into a truck, and turning west on US 66 were typified by John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and Woody Guthrie's "Great Dust Storm." Flat-voweled, Midwestern accents told each that other so-and-so had died from "dust pneumony."

The Work Progress Administration planted 217 million trees on 30,000 farms -long stands of trees called "shelter belts" - to shield the dry soil from the wind, and new techniques of terraced farming have kept the Dust Bowl from repeating itself. The Texas Panhandle's oil industries flourished again by the late-1940s, and the bad times quickly seemed very long ago.

Frank Culberson was the kind of man who sheltered his family from his worries. He didn't tell his family his thoughts when the stock market crashed in 1929, and he didn't take his dust-flavored troubles home in the '30s. He didn't spend hours telling his fascinated grandchildren how he kept his Chevrolet dealership's doors open for the Pampa, Texas public through the trials of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the shortages of World War II. He just worked hard and did it without the complaints or bragging that today's historians would love to hear. We don't know the details of the dealership's Dust Bowl survival, but that Culberson-Stowers Chevrolet still serves Pampa having survived those times is, as a stoic Midwestern rancher would say, "'nuf said."