Caves and Catfish
Today the acronym "NRA" means something entirely different to what it mean during the Great Depression. It was the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal agency created to bring together industry, labor, and government to prevent cut-throat pricing and help the nation heal from the Depression. It was one of the ingredients in FDR's alphabet soup of agencies that included the BPA, TVA, and the WPA (which my grandfather referred to as Whistle, Piss, and Argue). For children born in the 1920s, the Great Depression was just life.
Back there during the mid-1930s it seemed as if the great drought and Hard Times would go on forever. The snow that fell in winter seemed to just evaporate back into the dry air without leaving much moisture in the red soil of those Ozark hills. During the summers the sun was brassy hot every day and the rains simply did not come.
One old fellow had a wry joke that he would tell time and again at the store. When someone said, “Shore would like to see it rain,” the old boy would solemnly say, “Yep. Don’t keer so much for myself but I shore would like for my boy to see some rain—he ain’t never seen any.”
There was always someone who would innocently ask, “How old is he?”
“Seven year,” the old boy would answer with a perfectly straight face.
Each spring the Ozark hill farmers kept putting their seed corn and their hopes into the dry earth. The corn would grow stunted from the dusty oil and produce nubbins rather than ears of corn. In good years one could sit in the stillness of the evening and actually hear the corn grow—when there was no breeze from a nearby cornfield you could hear little rustlings and an occasional tiny squeak as the corn leaves grew. No so in those drought years. Instead of hearing the corn grow, you could sit in the evening and hear the corn sort of crinkle as it withered.
We were fortunate that the Missouri and Arkansas hills were not really a part of the Oklahoma/Kansas Dust Bowl from which the Okies were fleeing to the promised land of California. There was plenty of dust, especially when a farmer was working that dry ground with disc or harrow, but the hills and woodlands kept the wind down and the dust did not move around.
Oh, we got plenty of dust, especially in the summers of 1933 and 1934. Regular dust storms would move from the west out of Kansas and Oklahoma. At times the dust would be so bad that even at high noon the blazing sun would be a dim brassy ball overhead.
The dust coated and got into everything. I recall that in the heat of summer when you absolutely could not sleep without having the windows wide open to catch any hint of breeze, sometimes the dust was so bad that Mother would soak extra sheets in water and hang them over the bedroom windows. They did not keep out much of the dust and simply made more it more close and sultry in the bedroom.
We children did not mind too much. We were young enough that, except for dim memories of better times and living in Kansas City, the drought and Hard Times were all that we knew. It was simply our normal way of life. I overheard Mother and Dad talking about it in the kitchen one evening after we had gone to bed. She was bemoaning the fact that we had practically no money and that it was hard on us boys growing up like that. My usually taciturn father made, what for hi was quite a little speech.
“Now, don’t you worry about it, Evy,” he said. “Hard Times ain’t gonna last forever and things will get better. You’ll see. I voted Democrat for the first time in my life for that there nephew of old Teddy Roosevelt, and I still think he’s gonna turn the country around. As for the boys, they ain’t missing something they don’t remember ever having.
“Them boys are all right. We always have something to eat so they don’t go to bed hungry, and you send them off to school in clean overalls. So what if the overalls are patched? Everyboyd wears patched overalls—and I’d be danged if I’ll go on Relief and send ‘em to school in them brown-dyed Relief overalls. I ain’t ever gonna take no charity even if our behinds get to hangin’ out!
“Heard a rumor at the store,” Dad went on, “that they are going to upgrade this here old country road to a farm-to-market road. Going to grade it and put on chat with government money. I’ll get me a job maybe on the rock crusher or a road grader. Aint’ all that much to do on this little old forty acres and the boys are getting big enough to take care of most of it. They say they may build new bridges, too, over the Little Sac over toward Fairplay and over Maz Creek between here and Dadeville. Don’t know much about building bridges, but I shore can learn.
“If nothin’ comes of the road project, I aim to lease us some bottom land down by the Sac River and plant corn—corn did pretty good down there last year, all things considered.
“No you just stop fussin’ about it. Let’s blow out the light and git to bed. Tomorrow is another day. The boys will be all right. Things won’t be this way forever—you just wait and see.”
It had been a long dissertation for my normally laconic father. I lay there in the darkness next to my snoring brother and thought about it, but not for very long. Our combined warmth under the quilts got to me and I dropped off to sleep with a few thoughts of Hard Times, Relief, bridges, and farm-to-market roads running at random through my mind. They were simply facts of life and nothing for a twelve-year-old to worry about.