August Newsletter

When the Skies Turned Black

“As it approached it was awesome, majestic, fearsome and fascinating…A shift worker who had been asleep was getting dressed to go to work. Sitting on the bed, he had one shoe on and was reaching for the other one when the duster hit his house. He thought he had suddenly gone blind.” – A.D. Kirk

Kirk was describing the Black Sunday dust storm, the most wide-spread and powerful of the hundreds of dust storms that rolled unceasingly across the High Plains in the 1930s. It was a pristine Sabbath on April 14 of 1935 when a massive mountain of churning dust began rolling south from the Dakotas and abruptly turned day into night across swathes of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado and other Dust Bowl states.

This is how Alma Seitz of Miami, Texas, remembered that April day. “I just happened to be looking out the door and saw the screen of darkness as it moved over the cemetery and after watching it for a minute, decided that I had better pull the window blinds to keep out the dirt…[but]before I reached the last window the darkness was so bad that it was difficult to tell the windows from the walls. Everything was dark…Dust particles were so dense the coal lamp was barely visible. It was just a little yellow flicker.”

Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer and champion of the working man, experienced Black Sunday first hand as a 22-year-old hunkering down in Pampa, Texas. One of his best known songs, “So, Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya,” was inspired by this notorious storm.

Learning about the size, suddenness and abrupt change from sunshine to total blackness of the notorious Black Sunday duster made me think that a murder mystery during such a storm would make for an exciting read.

 

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On Black Sunday, George Marsh, an engineer employed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, took this photo in Stratford, Texas.

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Discover New Deal sites in your area

As Blackie Gold told oral historian Studs Terkel, planting trees and digging ditches was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Blackie was 17 and fresh out of an orphanage in 1937, the height of the Great Depression. Like hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men his options were pretty much nil and none.

Or would have been if it were not for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the first of President Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies. Three million young men were part of the CCC, earning money to send home and food for their bellies.

“Those big trees you see along the highways—all these big forests was all built by the CCC. We went along plain barren ground. There were no trees…We could plant about a hundred an hour.

“I really enjoyed it. I had three wonderful square meals a day. Not matter what they put on the table, we ate and were glad to get it. Noboby turned down food. They sure made a man out of ya, because you learned that everybody was equal.” – Blackie Gold

Many of the picnic shelters, fire towers, soil erosion projects and damns built by the CCC remain.

My husband and I recently visited Washington State Park near Boonesboro, Maryland, and its crown jewel, the first monument built to honor the first president. Initially erected in 1827, the monument was in ruins several times before the CCC boys were called in. They deconstructed and rebuilt the monument, including hauling boulders up South Mountain.

Researching my mystery book set in the Dust Bowl, the CCC captured my imagination. A CCCer plays a central role in my book.

Click here to find the CCC projects in your state and, if you visit, send me your photo for the newsletter!

 

Atmospherics

I was fortunate to spend my grade-school years in Marion, Ohio, home to an atmospheric movie theater built in 1928. Crowding into The Palace Theatre for a Saturday matinee of One Hundred and One Dalmatians or The Parent Trap, was an immersive experience.

“The lobby prepares guests for transport to another place and another time. Entrance into the auditorium reveals the makings of a Spanish courtyard complete with muted stucco walls, crawling vines, and a midnight blue sky with birds in flight, twinkling stars, and clouds afloat overhead. Statues adorn the Palace walls and crests outline the grand proscenium stage.” – Marian Palace Theatre website

A movie house plays a central role in Death of a Rainmaker, but fictitious The Jewel is a much more modest institution than real Palace. However, I did draw on my memories of all those afternoon matinees for my descriptions.

Please send me photos of your childhood movie theaters! I would love to post them.

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