Showing posts with label Dust Bowl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dust Bowl. Show all posts

Friday, April 17, 2020

Growing up poor in western Oklahoma: The Kool-Aid years

My parents grew up in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. And when I say Dust Bowl, I'm not talking about the generic, dust-parched Midwest. 

I'm talking about THE Dust Bowl--the epicenter of an ecological disaster that struck the Texas panhandle, northwestern Oklahoma, and southeastern Colorado. Topsoil disappeared, wheat crops blew away, and cattle herds had nothing to eat.

More than 300,000 Oklahomans fled to California in the thirties, but my mother and father's families stayed put.  My mother went hungry from time to time. She saw her father's cattle shot by government agents who paid him a dollar per cow for the carcasses. 

The Depression went away when World War II started, but the war did not heal the Dust Bowl. As a child in the 1950s, I remember seeing sand dunes piled so high on the dirt road to my grandfather's farm that our family's 1950 Chevy could not get through.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, my family was still poor, as evidenced by the food we ate. My mother purchased margarine, never butter. We bought Miracle Whip because it was cheaper than mayonnaise, and we made grilled cheese sandwiches with Velveeta, not cheddar.

And we drank Kool-Aid for a treat--lots of Kool-Aid.  We favored a red flavor and mixed the powder with water and refined sugar. In those days, Kool-Aid only cost a nickel a packet. Hey, who needs Coca Cola?

Over time, my mother and father clawed their way into the middle class. My father had a government job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and his wages gradually crept up. He also farmed on the side and had a small lawngrass growing business.  He grew bermudagrass in a field at the Wichita Indian Agency, which he sold to people putting in new lawns. No one seemed to mind that he was running a private enterprise on federal property. 

But although we entered the middle class, my parents never got over the Great Depression. My mother's childhood was so seared by poverty that she remained convinced until the day she died that the next Depression was right around the corner. She was a modest food hoarder and had an impressive collection of vintage Jello boxes at the time of her death.

My father never went to the doctor. If he felt poorly, he treated himself from veterinarian supplies he kept on hand for his cattle.  He would cut off a piece of a three-inch-long bovine penicillin tablet and pop it into his mouth. 

As a youth, I scoffed at my parents' attitudes about money, their mystical belief in the value of hard work, and their deep disapproval of neighbors who lived more lavishly than they did. Who needs to drive a Mercury, they asked? After all, a Chevrolet is a perfectly respectable car. Who needs a color television when our Halicrafter black-and-white works just fine?

And now America faces another Great Depression.  Twenty-two million workers filed for unemployment over the past three weeks, and millions more will soon join them. And this time, when the bottom drops out from under our economy, we will be burdened with student loans, credit card debt, and 72-month car loans.

In short, we are going to suffer just like our parents and grandparents did in the 1930s. God grant us the grace to suffer in good spirits, to come to the aid of our family members and neighbors, and to keep our sense of humor.  We will be more cash-strapped in the years to come, but who knows? Life might be just as rich and satisfying even when there are no credit cards in our wallets.


Who needs Coca Cola?