“Is everyone okay?”
Jonathan went around the room examining the children. Most had bloodshot eyes from the sand, their cheeks stained with soiled tears. Others were using their stubby fingers to remove the dirt inside their nostrils. And one eight-year-old girl whose desk was right next to a window coughed incessantly, spitting mud into her kerchief. It resembled tobacco juice. Jonathan handed her a glass of water to rinse away the grit caking her lips and teeth.
Jack Hamsa slapped at the dirt covering his overalls. “Jeepers creepers!” he said to no one in particular. “I don’t know ‘bout the rest of you, but that right scared me enough to get the carbolly-marbollies. Anyone else need to use the privy?”
The room exploded with laughter. Half the class held their hands up to accompany Jack on a trip to the outhouse.
“Not now, Jack,” chastised Jonathan. “Let the dust settle first. It’s not safe.”
He finished wiping the grime from the young girl’s face.
“Okay everyone, you know the drill,” he barked. “We’ve done this before. Jack, Ginny and Mary, wet down some sheets and hang them over the windows to catch any more dust before it gets into the room. Everyone else grab the towels, brushes and brooms and start cleaning things up. A ton of dirt got in here this time.”
The students scrambled for the dish towels and began to wipe clean the desks and countertops. It was better than doing schoolwork.
“Was that Kansas that flew by?” asked lil’ Sammy. He used his rag to rub a peephole in a dirty windowpane and then peered through it. Outdoors, the murky air still swirled with dirt. Here and there, sparks jumped-off the barbed wire fencing as the static electricity dissipated.
The barefoot seven-year-old was the youngest student in the class, and the most beloved. His wide-eyed innocence and unkempt red hair endeared him to everyone.
“Naw,” said Jack, draping an arm over Sammy’s shoulder. “Kansas dust is black and smells kinda like grease. Oklahoma dirt is red and Colorado’s gray. This dust is brown, see?”
He drew a smiley face on the windowsill using the tip of his index finger. “So I ‘spect it’s from right here or perhaps from Wyoming next door. But it’s definitely not from Kansas.
“Speaking of dirt, did ya hear ‘bout the farmer over in Belmont last week who fainted when a raindrop hit him in the face? He had to be revived by having three buckets of sand thrown on him.”
It was a popular joke but it still made everyone in the classroom grin.
Sammy continued to stare out at the forbidding terrain. After a moment he asked, “Is this the end of the world? Are we goin’ to die?”
The room fell silent.
Jack glanced at Master Peirce, who walked over and sat down next to Sammy. “Why do you ask that, Sammy?”
“Well, my paw-du and ma-du say it’s the end of the world. They whisper and cry ‘bout it every night just ‘bout. They think I’m sleepin’ and don’t hear ‘em, but I do. They say God is mad at us. That’s why everythin’ is dead. Grass. Crops. Cows. We ain’t had rain in a long time. Why I can’t even hardly go swimmin’ no more. The rivers is just muck now and the fishes are gone. So it must be the end of the world. Right?”
Many of the children nodded their heads. They had heard their own parents say the same thing.
Jonathan closed his eyes. Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings. He quelled the urge to speak freely, realizing that whatever he said now would be repeated not only in the homes of his students but, more important, throughout the town. He needed to be careful what he said and, conversely, what he did not say. His own parents had lectured him since his childhood that words were powerful, possessing the ability to build-up or destroy relationships. A carelessly spoken remark could swiftly divide people, pitting neighbors against neighbors and loved ones against each other. The damage could not be reversed or undone. Consequently, one had to be mindful and select his words with care.
So Jonathan took a moment to gather his thoughts. “Well Sammy, I know a lot of people are wondering what’s going on these days, your parents and myself included. It certainly seems a lot of strange and bad things are happening, doesn’t it? Dust storms. Heat waves. Fields blowing out. Cattle starving. Droves of rabbits. A plague of locusts. That’s why so many people are frightened. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly okay to feel that way.
“I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. But I do know this: nothing remains the same forever. Nature likes change and is always trying to become something different. We all know this to be true. Times of plenty follow times of hardship. Rain follows drouth. Even grass and flowers grow better after a wildfire burns the prairie.
“So while things are scary now, I know it won’t stay this way forever. Eventually the clouds will return and cool the earth, the rain will fall, the crops will grow, and the rivers will flow. The good life we all remember will return, ‘cause that’s what Nature does.
“So no, I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Things are pretty whacky, but we just need to be patient. We need to believe that God knows what’s best for us even when we can’t see what it is.
“For instance, maybe this summer’s heat was actually good for our crops. Maybe it killed off some bug larvae that would’ve been a bigger problem for us if we hadn’t had this weather. Or maybe the winds will bring us some seeds of a new crop from lands beyond the horizon that will flourish here and make us rich.“
“You mean magic seeds like Jack and the Beanstalk?” Sammy asked excitedly.
“Hmmm, kind of,” smiled Jonathan. “The point I’m trying to make Sammy is that in the end, we need to trust that everything is happening for a reason. There is no such thing as coincidence. Our lives will return to normal. Hopefully, it will be sooner than later. Make sense?”
“Good.” Jonathan tousled the young boy’s hair. “Now what do you say we clean this place up and get back to readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic. There’s a whole lot of work ahead of us.” He returned to his desk and began wiping it down.
“Master Peirce??” whispered Sammy. “Are you sure it’s not the end of the world?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Yes, Sammy, really. Why do you keep asking?”
“‘Cause I think I see God coming.” He pointed a finger at the window. “See? He’s here!”
Sammy stumbled backwards as others in the classroom rushed forward to look out, including Jonathan.
Sure enough, in the midst of the chocolate darkness was a strange, glowing light. It was orange-brown in color and it grew brighter and larger in size as it approached the schoolhouse.
“What the–?” muttered Jonathan.
All of a sudden, a black Model-T Ford pickup emerged from the gloom. It was speeding down the road, its wheels spitting dirt high into the air. The headlamps and a side spotlight were turned on, accounting for the mysterious glow. A single wiper blade jerked side-to-side, carving a view through the filthy windshield. Jonathan didn’t recognize the driver because he wore goggles and had a scarf wrapped around his face to avoid breathing the dirt that blew into the vehicle through the side curtain. The driver apparently saw the school because he sharply turned the steering wheel and raced directly for it, slamming on the brakes at the very last second. The car skid sideways to a halt and peppered the building with gravel. The large, heavyset man removed his scarf and honked the horn twice before leaping out.
It was Robert McKnight, the owner of the hardware store. He cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Jonathan! Jon-a-than! Jonathan Peirce!” he yelled. “Come here, right away! It’s your father! He’s been shot!”
© SF Tomajczyk - All Rights Reserved - No reproduction or use allowed without permission.
Photograph from the Farm Security Administration