Orphans of the Drought
This essay by Milton Farber was originally published in “The Magpie,” June 1938 and is archived at The New Deal Network.
There were five in the flivver, a wheezy “Chevvy” with a motor which chugged along like an outboard. On either side of the dusty road, the scenery flowed by, a never-ending, monotonous stream of reddish-brown boulders tilted at grotesque angles against each other, in embraces of centuries-long duration.
The car, a fugitive from the junk-heap, was held together by yards of rope and wire and was slowly disintegrating from rust. Its occupants seemed to belong on the human junk-heap; they too seemed ready to fall apart, like the flimsy ashes of burnt paper. Their clothes, which could hardly be recognized as such, were incredibly filthy.Grasping the steering-wheel with hairy fists, sat the father, a week’s growth of beard encrusting his face. Next to him, in front, sat his wife, red-eyed and weary, with a sleeping baby in a faded blue blanket in her arms. At the back, atop a pile of bedding whose stuffing was escaping through the seams, perched two children, uncombed boys industriously engaged in hunting fleas; one was about five; the other eight. In the corner stood several cans of beans and a half-filled bag of flour. The hot sun beat down impartially upon all.
None of them uttered a syllable; it seemed as if the burning heat had withered their vocal cords. A sign-post precariously balanced upon one wooden leg paraded by. On it was inscribed the legend: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE STATE OF COLORADO.
After an interminable silence, the father moistened dry lips and spoke, to the steering-wheel, it seemed: “We’ll have to stop soon, Molly. It’ll soon be dark.” The sound of his tired voice stirred the sun into action. It turned its face away from the Earth, and the shadows of the gaunt boulders grew deeper. The motor of the ramshackle “Chevvy” took on a stronger note, as in eager to reach a place of rest.
The disappearance of the sun aroused them all from their lethargy. The baby awoke and began to whimper. The mother stirred, and comforted it with the crooning, sounds instinctive to mothers. The two boys started to quarrel energetically, to be suddenly stopped by a sharp word from in front. At a spot where there was an overhanging ledge which would provide some shelter in case of rain, the man shifted into first with much clashing and groaning of gears, and steered the “limousine” off the road to a placid stop, much like a cow which has been brought in from the pasture.
The boys tumbled out, and noisily began to explore the vicinity, joyfully testing the booming echoes which their shrill voices set up. Their parents were slower in getting out, and staggered a bit, at the unaccustomed immovable contact of the earth beneath their feet. Molly shrieked after the boys: “Don’t go too far; you’ll get lost!”
Unheeding, the boys scampered about. As the chill of evening began to make itself felt through their thin garments, however, they drew close about the fire which their father was building from scrub pine. Soon after the flames began to send their cheerful glow through the twilight, two other dilapidated cars drew up at the side of the road. Two other families, with clothes in the same stages of filthiness as theirs, piled of.
“Howdy, folks? Bound fer the sugar-beet fields.”
“Yup. Like t’camp here with us?” was the reply.
The new arrivals, working in complete silence, occupied themselves with putting up a pair of patched tents. The father of the first family called over his two sons, and they unearthed from the parked car a tent similar to the first two, except that it was more patched and discolored.
After the tents were set up, the wives squatted about the fire and mixed water out of a rusty five-gallon tin with flour for flapjacks and opened cans of beans. Their husbands meanwhile sat on the running-boards of their cars and started a disspirited conversation.
“We’re from Nebraska. Where’d you come from?”
“I use’ta live in Kansas,-that is, until the top of my farm took off and blew east.”
“Huh, don’t we know it. I used to raise the best wheat in Nebraska. Joe here, had his farm next to mine. When our crops dried up, they foreclosed on both of us at the same time. We bought our land during the War, and it was worth fifty dollars an acre. Now it ain’t worth twenty.”
As they sat and recounted their misfortunes, their faces seemed to grow more wrinkled and old with every passing minute. Their expressions reflected only despair and bitterness.
“Now, we gotta work in the Colorado beet fields or the California vegetable fields. My whole family, even my five-year old kid, has to work all day so that we can make a measly ten bucks a week. Half of that goes for gasoline. On the rest, we try to keep body and soul together.”
“Some future we got ahead of us. I’d commit suicide with my whole family, if I were brave enough t’do it. But I ain’t! Well, maybe in another five years, after the Congress in Washington has finished sittin’ around, they might do somethin’ for us!”
On that note, the little group broke up, and the men went to eat their miserable supper of beans and flapjacks. The outbursts against their lives had exhausted them. They ate in comparative silence, talking only in grunts and monosyllables. As soon as they had finished, they turned in, to fall asleep at once, snoring loudly. Their women stayed up a while longer, conversing in whispers. Soon, they too went to bed and all was quiet in the camp in the shade of the frowning boulders.
The next morning, even before the sun began to burn down upon the parched land, they were up, folding their meager belongings in preparation for moving on again,-to wander about-chaff on the Winds of Time, Orphans of the Drought.