Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Great American Plains Bamboozle (Part II)

They were no weather phenomenon. The plains states were known for the wind. Tornadoes, flash floods, hail, droughts, and just about every other natural disaster found its way into the Oklahoma panhandle, the southern tips of Kansas and Colorado, and down into Texas. The people there were used to catastrophes. But nothing prepared them for the dust.
It was more than just a gust of wind carrying dirt. For years, suitcase farmers and nesters tried to farm the rough land from Texas up to Montana and the Dakotas, not heeding the warnings of the ranchers. The land was never meant to be farmed at such a capacity. Folks up north had learned their lesson, and the small settlements were ghost towns by the time of the wheat boom in the southern plains. But no lessons were learned.

Farmers had no idea what conservation meant and only a few egg heads in Washington and in the south were campaigning for it. The farms were planted during a wet period, which was more unusual than droughts. And life was good while it lasted. But then the stock market crashed and the United States headed into a depression. Many people couldn't afford to keep up the farm, so they left the land torn to shreds. Those who stayed couldn't make a profit on their wheat with prices so low, so they were forced to expand their farms and harvest more and more wheat.
Times were pretty rough. Then came the drought. Now imagine all this grassland ripped up, lying there, baking in the sun.

By 1934, it was futile to plant a crop. Again, the land was ripped up. Normally the buffalo grass and the other living plant life would hold the prairie soil down. But the grass was gone. Nothing was alive to hold it down. Winds would swirl in from the north, picking up soil from Montana and the Dakotas, hauling in the black earth of Kansas. They were called dusters. Giant storms of wind and dirt. They would appear often times without warning, carrying tons of dust. It would scrape across your skin and burn in your eyes. Surgical masks and wet sponges were kept over faces to keep from suffocating. Static electricity surged through the storms and would jolt anyone who happened into metal objects. Barbed wire fences had a blue glow from the intense electricity pulsing through it. Cars shorted out. Windmills snapped with electric shocks.

The worst duster came on Sunday, April 14, 1935. It began as a beautiful windless morning, one of first days in nearly two years without dust or snow. Families unsealed their windows and went outside without their masks or sponges. Finally they caught a break. The worst was over.
Around mid-afternoon, a cloud was seen in the distance. At first glance it looked like a thunderhead. Maybe some rain would complete this perfect day. As it got closer, the cloud grew. It was thousands of feet tall: a giant black wall speeding across the plains. See above picture.

If you had been caught in the duster on Black Sunday, you would have been immersed into complete darkness. You could not see your hand in front of your face. Dust would be shoving its way into your nose and mouth and scraping across your skin. The temperature dropped over 25 degrees in a matter of minutes. The sun was completely blocked out in the middle of the afternoon. I don't know about you, but that is one of the scariest things I could ever imagine.

FDR saved America in the 30's. But he couldn't do it all by his own sorry polioed ass. Big Hugh Bennett, the father of soil conservation, saved the southern plains. His task was all but impossible. In just 30 years, the suitcase farmers and settlers had disrupted the entire way of life of the plains that had existed intact for centuries. Hugh Bennett had to rebuild an entire ecosystem from scratch. There was nothing left. Families had sold their farm equipment, cattle, horses, pigs, heirlooms, anything of value. They were reduced to eating roasted tumbleweed to stay alive. The banks took houses. The wind took the land. The heat took any last bit of hope. By the end of 1937, over 20 million people had fled the dustbowl. Eighty percent of the land was destroyed. But Hugh Bennett sucked in his gut. With water conservation from the aquafer beneath the earth and cousin grasses from Africa and Asia, Bennett began to rebuild what the farmers had destroyed.
FDR demanded results from Bennett, and Big Hugh delivered. Bt the president also wanted to know what had caused the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States. Bennett and his conservation cronies took a hard look into the past and landed on the Homestead Act of 1862. The Act basically handed out free land to anyone willing to work it. One hundred and sixty acres was yours after five years if you built a house, dug a well, and plowed ten acres. The government had rolled out the red carpet to well-meaning but ignorant settlers.
Today the scars left by those ignorant farmers are still visible. Some of the land, thanks to Hugh Bennett, has come back to life. But where once towns had revelled in their wealth from the wheat boom now loom huge, drifting sand dunes. Ghost towns.
There are many more aspects of Egan's book that I loved. The Last Man Standing Club. The story of the Lukas family. Bam White's face on the big screen. But there is so much heartache in the stories. Lives were ruined. Men tried to be brave and wait out the drought only to be chased out of their homes by poverty or choked by the dust the never quit. They were stabbed in the back by the land they loved, the land that they and many others hadn't treated properly. And the name of the book proved to be perfect. Truly, it was the hardest time in American history because for the first time we as Americans had to own up to what we'd done. We made a mistake. We paid dearly for it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Great American Plains Bamboozle (Part I)

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Cat's Cradle, there is an island of waste and devastation called San Lorenzo. About half a dozen nations had taken control of San Lorenzo only to discover its uselessness. It was then left to the next idiot who stumbled upon its shores. Vonnegut may have very well developed the idea for this island from the American plains, the Texas and Oklahoma pan-handle. No man's land.
When settlers first ventured into this vibrant piece of America, it was controlled by the buffalo, who roamed free and ate what seemed to be the only thing able to grow in that climate: prairie grass. It was a simple ecosystem: buffalo ate the grass, Native Americans would eat the buffalo, and the ground would absorb the leftover buffalo. For hundreds of years the Comanche and other tribes survived in this wind-blown, flat land. But as the settlers pushed west, setting up ranches, they not only pushed out the natives but destroyed the buffalo. Cowboys and Texans would hunt both for sheer fun. Prideful bastards.
At any rate, the Spanish at one time had a piece of this once Indian and buffalo co-op. The Republic of Texas had its mark in it. Even Napoleon had a stake in it, selling it as a piece of the Louisiana purchase during our Manifest Destiny craze. No one wanted it, just like no one wanted San Lorenzo. It wasn't good for anything. All that could grow was prairie grass. Growing crops out here was near to impossible. But, after all, this was America: land of opportunity.
The cowboys began with their cattle ranches, and they fared well in the open plains. Sure there were dry spells, and the weather was unpredictable (remember, this is the heart of tornado alley), but it worked. But soon enough, Americans had reached the Pacific and were running out of land to destroy. So real estate companies, as well as the American government, tried to get some people moving out into the southern plains, which included southern Kansas and Colorado, as well as the northern part of New Mexico. The government promised railroads were being built. Real estate companies boasted rich soil, favorable weather, great farm lands. They were practically giving away hundreds of acres to anyone who would buy into their scheme. And a lot of people did.
Many families, especially German immigrants, flocked to this promised land, this "Eden with a haircut," as one schemer put it. Bamboozled! All of them! They arrived to find the land covered in prairie grass, angry cowboys, and even angrier Native Americans. The brave farmers pushed the Comanche off of their land that, according to a government document from a few years before, was theirs for all of eternity. The natives burnt everything in their path in disgust, leaving the land in probably the worst condition imaginable for farming. But the Americans pressed on.
Life in prairie began primitive. Families dug holes in the ground and in the side of hills, and that was their home. There was no electricity, no running water, not much of anything. Then began the task of tearing up that hard prairie ground. The cowboys warned the new farmers that this was no place to plant anything besides grass. Their warnings were ignored. German farmers had outsmarted the plains. With them, they brought a type of wheat that grew in similar conditions in Russia. So wheat it was. And it grew! At first not much was growing. But the United States soon entered the Great War, and food was needed. The farmers got to work, churning out record breaking numbers of bushels of wheat. Many others saw the money to be made in the wheat plains, and took their chance out in the pan-handle and beyond. Suddenly, the place that no one wanted was the new hot spot in the United States.
The 1920's were prosperous years for everyone in the U.S. The wheat industry was rolling at full speed, and everyone in the small communities were building new houses, buying cars, and investing in whatever was their hearts' desires. Life was good, even with the occasional twister, dust storm, twister, hail storm, etc. In 1929, the farmers produced the most wheat anyone had ever seen. . .just in time for the stock market to crash. As New York and the eastern cities were panicking and hurling themselves off of buildings, life remained the same out in no-mans land. Not until a few months did the people began feeling the pressure of the recession.
The Great Depression is a familiar term, and most people know about the stock market crash. But what you may not know is that the southern plains was hit the worst in every direction by every angle of the depression. Prices dropped. In 1928, you could sell wheat at $1.38 a bushel. By 1932, it had dropped to $.40. There was no demand. Nobody had any money. And what is truly bizarre is that in 1930, the farmers produced even more wheat than in 1929. But they couldn't sell it. The grain piled up beside railroad stations and grain elevators. The rest of the country was starving, and huge mountains of wheat grain were being nibbled on by rats. With prices so low, they could barely cover their costs. What were they going to do? Grow more wheat.
In the next few years, the folks who had come out to the plains to hit it rich had fled. Those who stayed tore up what was left of the broken land in order to plant more wheat. But the land was ruined. Never meant to grow anything but grass, the dry dirt was not being cooperative. Not to mention the worst drought in twenty years was hitting this part of the country. More and more people abandoned the plains to find other work. The farmers who stayed tried to grow enough just to keep their families alive. To add to the hardships, a new weather phenomenon had developed: black dusters.
This area of the country is awfully windy. It had been for years before the settlers came to farm the land. But, with the tearing up of the soil, and less than 24 inches of rain in two years, the land was dry dirt sitting on the earth. In 1930, the first black duster was seen. A huge wind picked up the loose soil and created an enormous wall of grinding sand. It would blind and suffocate cattle and human. There was so much static electricity in the huge cloud that cars would stop suddenly. People were shocked and pelted. Dust would cover anything in its path. It would seep into homes and cover dishes and beds and clothes and hair and faces. The weather service began categorizing the storms by the visibility within the storm. If you could see only a quarter of a mile, it was a pretty rough storm. If you couldn't see your hand in front of you, it was horrendous.
One of the biggest dusters came a few years later that covered Ohio and Michigan, smothered New York City, and even salted ships 200 miles off the coast. What had caused these monstrous storms? No, it was not just the weather. The wind and dust storms mixed with the depression. Americans destroyed the land. No caution was given when nearly all of the land in the southern plains was stripped of its natural grass and planted with whatever we damn well felt like planting. The environment could not sustain the demands of the farms, especially when get-rich-quick men came out to grow wheat while it was hot abandoned the land without care once hard times kicked in. The stock market. The depression. The banks. The arid land. Most of what happened in the 1930's was our fault.
We were bamboozled into thinking we could make something out of nothing.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Living History Over Again

I know most people are sick of hearing about the election, including yours truly. But I cannot ignore the history that is being made. The first black president will be stepping into office in a couple of months. I am both excited and frightened. He has a grace about him, a certain composure, that is very admirable. He will have his downfalls, no doubt. He will get into trouble. But I won't be ashamed to call him my president. He won't create words or fall asleep at dinners or act like an arrogant cowboy. I also am scared for his safety. Being compared to Robert or John Kennedy is indeed a great compliment. But those revolutionary men met opposition in the worst way. I pray that this man is given a chance to change things, to move things around. I believe that he can.

That being said, it's time to hit the history books. I haven't updated in a while because I forgot my password and I hadn't been reading much history. I was going to do an entry on the Miracle at Dunkirk and on Winston Churchill, but, again, I lost my password and didn't feel much like writing.

I started a new book on biological weapons called GERMS by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad. That first name sounded familiar to me. She was the New York Times reporter who had helped the American public buy into war with Iraq. I listened to a book about a year ago called HUBRIS, which focused on the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq war. She took the faulty information Cheney and his cronies had and published it in articles. So, I went into this book a little wary of the things she said.

The idea of biological weapons themselves are not entirely too interesting. You get some germs. You get some viruses. Put 'em in bombs. People die. But the history is interesting. The book begins with the first terrorist attack with biological weapons. A religious cult in Oregan sprinkled Salmonella on salad bars. Pretty brilliant. Their thinking was that if they could get a certain amount of voters sick, that they wouldn't vote and the cult could get their candidates into office. It didn't make a ton of sense. But what cults do?

The part that especially sparked my interest is the Gulf War. Remember George H. W. Bush was in office at this point (1989-1993). Biological weapons weren't being manufactured for use for this war, at least not on our side. Nixon had banned them in the 70's. Instead, the United States wanted to prepare for an attack, in case Saddam got ballsy. The government wanted to protect the military, as well as Saudi civilians and soldiers from a possible attack (We operated out of Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War).

Evidence suggested that Saddam could very well have had biological weapons. The University of Baghdad had bought a pretty sizeable order of anthrax from our American germ bank. There had been reports of this and that, but no hard evidence. Sound familiar? What really caught my eye (or rather, my ear), was the list of names involved in this that I've come to know and fear. Secretary of Defense at this point was none other than Dick Cheney. Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was Colin Powell. And guess who was in the Pentagon with Cheney? Our old friends Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. The government even hired a woman to figure out a good method of defense from a biological attack. Her name is Condoleezza Rice.

Holy Shit!

Shouldn't we have seen this coming? Anyone over the age of thirty should have put the pieces together. Every single one of these men and women were somehow involved in the Persian Gulf War. They were there in Iraq, but couldn't pin Saddam. So what do they do? They sit pretty for eight long Clinton years until the can re-emerge and take care of business. Is it coincidence that they all showed up on George W. Bush's cabinet? Maybe he just made good friends with them while his daddy was in office. The moment we saw him gather this group of hard hitters, we should have known what was coming. All they needed was a good reason (September 11) to get their claws back into Iraq and finish the job.

I'm not saying that our goverment was responsible for the attacks on 9/11. But if fit their needs perfectly. I am not a Bush hater. I am embarrased by his attitude, yes. And as an American, I think he and his posse should be tried for crimes against humanity. For lying to the American people. So many laws were broken, as I'm sure they are broken by every president. In this case, at least, he should be held accountable for his actions.

So, here's to a new president. May he be wiser and more just than our last. I know he will make mistakes, and he will make decisions that will upset us all because that's what presidents do. I look back on Bush's years and shake my head and wonder how the hell we got into this mess. But no matter what happens, whether we succeed and change or crash and burn, I will look back on Barack Obama's presidency and say, "Man, at least we tried." And I will be glad that we took that step.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Happens in Norway Stays in Norway

The Duel by John Lucaks.
Audiobook. Stupid last name for the author. I am only a few chapters in, so I will write briefly about my thoughts on the Norway campaign. I had learned earlier in a World War II class about the Soviets invading Finland and how disastrous that was for the Russians. But I did not realize how much it affected Hitler, Churchill and Chamberlain. Hitler looked at the war in Finland as evidence that Scandinavia was a crucial must for the war in Europe. Norway exported must needed steel and iron, so Hitler decided to blitz on up north. Churchill, who was not yet Prime Minister, but instead, in charge of the Admiralty, foresaw Hitler's move and countered it by pushing the Royal Navy in strategic ports and bays. Hitler proved to be much more genius that Churchill thought. The Germans began by invading Denmark, taking the capital and capturing the king. Next, they went to Norway, but in the dead of night and much further north than Churchill expected.
By chance, a man standing watch in one of the bays saw a shadow moving across the water. He shot an ancient canon from the previous world war in the direction and actually hit the German ship's artillery storage room. The flames made the ship visible and some torpedos finished the ship off. Thanks to this chance canon shot, the Norwegien king was notified and taken out of the capital and into safety.
Norway was still taken, however, from the northern ports that weren't considered. What is interesting is the reaction of the British people. By all accounts, Churchill was the one who schemed up the plan. Granted he needed Chamberlain's approval, but he was the shot caller. The fall of Norway, however, fell onto Chamberlain's shoulders. Instead of being blamed for his own blunder, Churchill was exhaulted as the anti-Chamberlain: the man who would actually stand up to Hitler. Churchill even tried to take the blame but no one would listen. Soon, that fat baby of a man would become Prime Minister in Great Britain's darkest hour.
Call me a jock, but this reminds of me of when a quarterback is not producing very good results and the fans demand the back up quarterback, even though it may not be the former's fault. It was probably a bad offensive line or poor receiving. Luckily, in the case of Great Britain in 1940, Winston Churchill lived up to his task and took on Hitler when no one else would.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


I recently finished an audiobook called The Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, which covered the Pilgrims journey from England to Holland and finally to America where they hit Plymouth Rock and give thanks to Indians for not wearing any clothes.
First, let me tackle the Indians. I think Squanto was a scumbag. He was self-serving, and went behind Massasoit's back in order to gain power for himself. Do I blame him? I mean, he was captured and taken to England. On his return, he discovered that is people were completely wiped out. So, was he forced to take matters in his own hands and manipulate the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets the way he did? It's irrelevant. The truth is that when Massasoit demanded his death for the betrayal, William Bradford stood in the way because of his love for Squanto. This is the critical turning point in Pilgrim-Indian relations. Where did Bradford get the nerve to stand up to Massasoit, after all that man did for the Pilgrims?
Massasoit was in the same boat, however. To his thinking, building an alliance with the English would be the best option for his people. The Pokanokets were in desperate need of some friends, and the English could help defend from the Naragancets in the south. But he did his best to keep to the alliance. I mean, could the English have survived without Massasoit? Likewise, could the Pokanokets and Massasoit have become so powerful without the goods of the English?

Then we come to Philip. The cowardly piece of shit son of Massasoit. Now, Massasoit and Alexander, the elder of the brothers, put Philip in an awkward spot by selling so many plots of Indiana land. The English were greedy, yes. But were the Indians as greedy for English goods? They had no other resources. Wampum was a joke. The beaver in North America were basically extinct, so the fur trade was no longer possible. All that was left was land.
I think Philip tried to stand up for himself by making threats of war. But he never inteded to go through with an actual attack. Those threats, though, go to the warriors and to other Indians in the region who finally realized that the English were not going to stop. Those damned Puritans were going to push them off the continent if they didn't do something.
Philip, without thinking, created an impossible situation. The Puritans were set on settling things once and for all. Now the Puritans looked down upon all Indians with contempt. The other Indian communities had no choice but to defend themselves. Perhaps the best example is with the Naragancets and the battle in the swamp. Since the beginning of King Phillip's War, they had remained neutral. But they weren't idiots. They knew that eventually they'd get roped into the fighting. So they spent most of that year building a fort in the swamp. The Puritans, without any provoking from the Naragancets, and based on a rumor of a pan-Indian army, go after them and take the fort.
After a bloody battle, the English burn down the fort and kill many women and children. The Naragancets were forced to flee right into the arms of the Pokanokets and their allies. They had been attacked and had no choice to join the war.

The pilgrims could not have survived that first winter without the help of Massasoit and his Pokanokets. But as time went on, the English forgot the debt they owed to these people. The want for land was too tempting. Is there someone to blame? I'm not sure. Miles Standish was an aggressive soldier whose murder of Wituamit probably set the course for how things would go from then on. I think William Bradford did what he thought was right. Then he stood up for Squanto, which began the deterioration between the two groups.
Benjamin Church, however, is portrayed as a hero in this book. Do I consider him a hero? Let's look at what he's done.
He was the prototype frontiersman. On the island on which he lived, he had great relationships with the Indians, especially with the female sachum of the area. After a few blunders at the beginning of the war, he finally found his footing as a soldier. He revolutionanized warfare at the time. He took his friendly Indians and learned from them how to track Indians. Instead of finding a killing the Natvies, he took to finding and capturing them. If he couldn't persuade them to join his small army, then he would sell them into slavery. People look at him as a hero because he was more humane toward the Indians because at a time when everyone was suspicious and bitter toward the Native Americans, he took them in his company and fought and learned from them. He quelled the violence by trying to create alliances. What a great thing to do! How nice and friendly of him! But then he made a killing selling them to the West Indies and to the Carribean. This man almost single-handedly began the North American Slave Trade. Can we dub him a hero?
In the end, it turns out that the English and the Indians were both brtual and greedy. But I have to side with the Indians because they tried to help the new comers. When their thirst for land got out of control and made obsolete the treaties of their fathers, then the Indians had to defend themselves and their way of life. Obviously, they lost. Not just King Philip's War (which was not due to the Puritans, but rather to the Mohawks showing up from the north), but lost everything. The English in the 17th century started out playing nice and then demonized the Natives and took whatever they wanted through violence and manipulation.Which brings me to my final conclusion: the only thing worse than a Nazi is a Puritan.