From the Dust

(A short memoir written by my father, Karl Love, that appeared in Citadel of the Spirit. It is the beginning of my coming-to-Oregon story.)

Dust everywhere, choking, necessitating a wet rag over the nose to breathe, became the first memories for my brother and me, ages three and four. Our young mother had died painfully from dust pneumonia December 23rd, two days before Christmas, 1934. Our Dad was left to manage anguish with whatever dignity a young father could assemble. Hard times attacked the old virtues–thrift, grit, willingness to work any job–did not make any difference.

Of course, my four-year-old mind, body noted none of this. I did see, taste, feel the dust. My family and its numerous extensions settled the Dalhart, Texas area during the late 19th century. They ranched, rail-roaded, chicken farmed, worked long hours on Northern Texas’s sage-choked land. Ignorant farming methods practiced throughout the vast prairies from Mexico to Canada injured the thinly-topped soil. Droughts with winds would sweep away the good earth. Dirt and dust clouds formed blankets so thick they darkened the sun at midday and left misery in their wakes. Yet people endured, muttered darkly as they watched Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska pass overhead.

Driven off the land, with scarce work to do that paid, many banded together, moved from town to town, including our father. He took us from Aunt and Uncle to Aunt and Uncle—leave us behind, join up with other men to search for work. My first distinct memory formed seated in an old car, tracing marks on a black dash board in thick layers of yellow dust. We were going to our grandfather’s home in Dalhart, an orange and black, Rock-Island house set beside railroad tracks. Not long in any place the uprooting occurred often.

Within two years Dad drifted to Eastern Oregon, found work in a lumber yard in Pendleton. Soon he met a young woman who had moved to Pendleton from Nebraska. She and her two brothers were among the thousand thousands scrambling for jobs. Our mom-to-be found work as a waitress where she met Dad. It was 1937.

Oregon had been battered by the economic depression. Wages from three to five dollars a day were common. Families doubled up tried to unite their scattered sons, daughters, elderly parents, grandparents. Our family did the same. During the summer of 1937 Father sent for his two sons, ages five and six, to join him and his new wife in Pendleton. Our grandmother and a 14-year old Aunt escorted us to Oregon on a train. The one enduring memory of that three-day journey from northern Texas to Eastern Oregon: how many soldiers aboard. Looking back from now its plain the USA was girding for war. No one on that train knew that then, especially two young boys living among constant change.

Pendleton, Oregon, small in size, tucked itself into brown hills, reflected Oregon communities. Predominantly “white folks” lived in this northeastern corner of Oregon. 1862’s gold rush launched Pendleton, spawned its sister, Umatilla City, and brought ranchers, farmers to the surrounding lush grasslands. Water—rights to it—have always been important to the area.

To two boys from north Texas’s aridness Pendleton’s rains, though infrequent, seemed sent from heaven. Times were tough in 1937 Oregon. Yet people made do. Food, shelter, clothing came to most Oregonians—prosperity beyond this to a chosen few. None of this bothered children then or now—their concerns excluded day-to-day survival. What mattered? Beginning school was first. Small-town Pendleton had no preschool or kindergarten. Reading began from day one in first grade. Students divided along ability levels naturally into groups with colorful bird names: cardinals, blue jays, blue birds, robins. Everyone knew who ruled supreme, and teacher’s voice tones said it all. Also each winter day every student lined up to receive a tablespoonful of cod liver oil. Not much time was wasted on self-esteem lessons. You learned if you could.

Our father toiled every weekday stacking lumber, shoveling coal, driving delivery trucks- all to provide for his family who now numbered a new infant son. For nearly four years this migrant family from the Dust Bowl thrived. It ended abruptly. Dad came home early one Monday morning from work complaining of intense abdominal pain. Surgery for a bowel obstruction ended sadly. Dad died that Thursday night, but not before he had his eight year old and nine year old sons promise him we would stay with our new mother and our two year old new brother. Weepingly we promised.

We took Dad home to Texas after having a funeral in Pendleton where many young couples and friends attended. The train ride back to Dalhart dulled what feelings we had left—Dad, 30 years hard scrabbling, a refugee from national disastrous economics had done his best. His young widow took her three sons to heart, did her best with all she knew from life. I know what dust to dust means.