They recall the days turning black, the winds whipping through towns, taking with them the family's livelihoods, the soil on which they farmed. In those natural disasters, thousands died, but no one is sure just how many. Survivors of the dust storms of the 1930s tell their stories in Ken Burns' oral history documentary "The Dust Bowl" Sunday and Monday, Nov. 18-19, on PBS.
"They used to say no one will watch; no one has the attention span," Burns says of films tackling history's tough subjects. But he has proved naysayers wrong before. Viewers watched his very long films about the Civil War, jazz and baseball.
"The Dust Bowl"Airs 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, and 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19, on WTTW-TV, Channel 11
Four hours, spread over two nights, is practically a short when it comes to Burns' signature films. And there is a lot here, much of it terrifying, to sustain the four hours.
"It was a man-made catastrophe," Burns says. "It was the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history."
And, it lasted a decade. During that time, the Great Depression raged. Initially people living in the plains states thought they might escape the financial ruin ravaging Wall Street. But a newfound reliance on gasoline-powered machinery encouraged people to farm far more than they ever had. The massive turnover in land, which left the topsoil disturbed, the winds and a persistent drought led to the horrendously perfect storm. Pillars of dust obfuscated the noon sun.
The photos and clear footage Burns uses look as if the hand of God will strike through the clouds at any moment. Everything about these storms seemed biblical. People got through them wrapping sacks around their faces and taking shelter in rickety houses. Burns quotes the first voice heard on the documentary, Don Wells, a survivor of Boise City, Okla., saying, "You are not really educated until you are poor."
"Let me tell you how it was," Wells says. "I don't care who describes that to you, nobody can tell it any worse than what it was. And no one exaggerates that; there is no way for it to be exaggerated. It was that bad."
The dust storms blew so hard and so persistently, carrying so much soil that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to swipe his finger across his desk in the Oval Office and touch bits and pieces of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and other states. To find those who endured these years, Burns had put out a call on Midwestern PBS stations in 2008, asking for dust storm survivors. His producers went to old age homes, and survivors opened up their family albums to him. Many shared their families' stories of resilience.
Calvin Crabill's father, like most people during the Depression, would take any job he could to make money to feed his family. His father worked in the great plow-up, where millions of acres, once grasslands, were turned into farmlands.
"He had not stayed with this practice long because he thought turning over the fragile soil of the southern plains was all wrong, all wrong," Burns says. "But desperate times in southeastern Colorado ensured that he too would have to leave for California, to sell his cattle and horses, a loss from which he never really recovered."
Crabill had been a real cowboy on the range, then moved to Burbank as a child. He never fully adjusted to the richer people he now lived among. Even at his 55th high school reunion, the sharp words of condescending richer classmates still burned.
Crabill is a superb witness of the storms.
"On the plains, often there's a sound, and it's the wind in some way," he says at a press conference.
"You sense the wind because the wind blows so much there. But what was so awesome is that suddenly, you had silence on the plains, silence, almost deafening silence. And then when -- they call them rollers -- when that roller hit, all hell broke loose. It was deafening. But before it hit -- and it came up slowly like this. As you see in the pictures, it came up like this. There's silence, complete silence. And when it hit, it was deafening, and you couldn't see or hear."
Yet the storms took over, and in their wake they left people coughing up black gunk. Already malnourished, many perished. America's breadbasket finally ran empty. The films show a bizarre incident of huge jack rabbits taking over a picnic. If this were not true, it would look like a corny 1950s horror movie. Yet jack rabbits invaded, and people killed them. It seemed as if the people of the plains were under siege. When they finally decided to leave their land -- something no one did lightly -- and head west, they were often greeted with hostility at the California border. They lived in the shantytowns captured in John Steinbeck's classic "The Grapes of Wrath," and they soldiered on, starting from less than nothing.
"This is an American story about how there are no ordinary people, how some of the anonymous among us lead incredible lives," Burns says.