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Authors: Jeanne Williams

The Longest Road

BOOK: The Longest Road
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The Longest Road

A Novel

Jeanne Williams

For my mother, Louella, who died young but lives in my heart;

for my father, Guy Kreie, who had a generous spirit

and liked to laugh

For my brother, Lewis, my sister, Naomi, my Aunt Dorothy

and Aunt Thelma and Uncle Lou, who remember the blowing

dust and whose memories helped bring reality to this book

Author's Note

This book truly began on the western Kansas-Oklahoma border where my first memories were of drifted dust and tumbleweeds and dreams of the end of the world. The catalyst was listening, half a century later, to Woody Guthrie singing “So Long, It's Been Good to Know You,” and discovering that it was not only a Dust Bowl song but an end-of-the-world song, too. On those marvelous Library of Congress tapes, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1940 (Rounder Records, Cambridge, MA), Woody not only sings of those days when so many people were forced on the road, but he tells of his own experiences. His songs fused with my memories and half-memories and I knew I had to write this story of my homeland and my people.

As well as recording her own recollections, my sister, Naomi Zebrowski, did valuable research and gave many helpful suggestions. I cannot thank her enough for her interest and encouragement during the long months it took to write the story. My brother, Lewis Kreie, told me details he remembered, as did my aunt, Dorothy Thompson, and my “kissin' cousin,” Alice Shook. My cousin, Jack Salmon, videotaped my aunt and uncle, Lou and Thelma Salmon, as they reminisced about their many years in Kansas. Also useful were written and taped interviews made thirty years ago with my father, Guy E. Kreie, and my grandmother, Susanna Salmon. John Wylie was my mentor on Model Ts and the oil fields.

Gaydell Collier lent me a wonderful book from Oak Publications (New York, 1967) titled
Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People
, compiled by Alan Lomax, music transcribed and edited by Pete Seeger, and with notes of the songs (many of them his) by Woody Guthrie. Woody's autobiography of his earlier years,
Bound for Glory
, Dutton, New York, 1968, gives the flavor of the thirties as he rambled to California and composed some of the most “American” songs ever sung, “Pastures of Plenty,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and many others.

Mary Magoffin lent her vintage collection of the
Saturday Evening Post
, Sally Spofford gave me her copy of
Helen's Babies
, a book I remembered with fond nostalgia from my childhood and which is one of Laurie's treasures.

Works useful for oil-field background were
Voices from the Oil Fields
by Paul F. Lambert and Kenny Franks, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1984;
This Fascinating Oil Business
by Max W. Ball, Bobbs-Merril, New York, 1940;
Folklore of the Oil Industry
by Mody C. Boatright, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 1963.

Help on the road came from
The Harvest Gypsies
by John Steinbeck, a collection of articles run in the
San Francisco News
in 1936 published by Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA, 1988;
The WPA Guide to 1930s Oklahoma
, compiled by Writers Project of WPA, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1986;
The WPA Guide to 1930s Arizona
, compiled by Writers Project of the WPA, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1989;
, compiled by the Writers Project of the WPA, Hastings House, New York, 1940, and
Route 66
, a photographic essay by Quinta Scott with text by Susan Croce Kelly, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1988.

The Dust Bowl
by R. Douglas Hurt, Nelson-Hall, Chicago, 1981, gives a stark picture of those days. More emphasis on the environment is given in
Dust Bowl
by Don Worster, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979. Also helpful were several volumes of
This Fabulous Century
by Time-Life Books, New York, 1969. “The Okies—Beyond the Dust Bowl” by Williams Howarth with photos by Chris Johns,
National Geographic
, September, 1984, Vol. 166, No. 3, has eloquent photos and useful maps.

Many people told me their stories of the thirties. I hope that everyone who remembers those days will find echoes here to touch their hearts and memories.

Jeanne Williams

Cave Creek Canyon

The Chiricahua Mountains

May 1991


April warmth had opened the buds of the little cherry tree to lovely pink blossoms and its smooth bark was a deep wine color. The sapling had looked dead when Daddy brought the tree home in February from one of his trucking hauls out of eastern Kansas, but Laurie watered it faithfully and hopefully with water saved from rinsing dishes. Now, Laurie thought, its glory drew the eye from the weathered privy at the back of the lot and the boxlike little house with its blistering yellow paint.

Maybe this spring would be different. Maybe the winds and dust wouldn't blow and the tree would flourish, grow big and strong as the black locust in the front yard, the only other tree in this straggle of houses near the edge of town.

Suddenly, as she stroked the red bark and tried to imagine that the blossoms smelled as sweet as they looked, the light changed. She turned. Her heart stopped, then plunged and began to pound.

Black, towering in the sky, a shadow thickened in front of the sun before obscuring it completely. The sky wasn't really black but brown like a black horse left out in the weather—a darkness not shadowy and soft like night but thick and weighted, roiling in billows churned up from the soil as if the earth had spewed up its center, as if its navel cord had been ripped, and the insides were erupting.

The gleaming galvanized top of the grain elevator vanished first, the second story of the bank, the emblem at the top of the Masonic hall, then the tall steeple of the Methodist church lording it over the white cross of the tabernacle across from the Fields' house.

Jackrabbits streaked by, trying to outrun the stinging blast. Birds flew ahead of it, hawks and great horned owls as frantic to escape as the larks, sparrows, buntings, and curlews that were usually their prey. The poor prairie chickens! Any of them surviving in bits of unplowed grassland would hunker down and suffocate like the flying birds would when their wings could no longer carry them.

Darkness at noonday. Rivers of blood.
One shall be taken and the other left.…
Terror froze Laurie. It was the end of the world, the way Brother Crawford was always preaching. Mama and Daddy would be swept away in the rapture and she'd be left with the wicked to pray for the mountains to fall on them while the angels poured out the vials of wrath. Only there weren't any mountains here.

But there was a tree, a blooming cherry tree. Laurie ran inside the screened porch and grabbed a sheet out of the laundry basket. Biting grit slashed at Laurie's face and fingers as she struggled to knot the ends of the sheet so the tree wore a lopsided hood. Her eyes watered from fear and grief as much as from the stinging dust.

Covering her head with her skirt, she ran inside and took the wet towel Mama gave her to hold over her face while she helped stuff rags under the door and along the crack where it opened. They didn't need to talk; they had done this all too often. The windows were already sealed with tape and Daddy had puttied every crack he could find. Last year, after the blowing season, the family had stayed at Floyd and Margie's while Daddy cleaned dust out of the attic, half a ton of it, and then carefully sealed the walls and roof. Not everyone had bothered, and ceilings had caved in all over the west parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Dust storms weren't like the tornado that touched down last year, whirled up Slim Ellis's barn and wagon, and dropped them in shattered boards over in the next county. That great twisting funnel roared down like a freight train, swooped, and was gone in a few minutes. Laurie was used to spring dust storms just as she was to winter blizzards, but this day's storm was different, and worse, partly because of the cherry tree.

Daddy came in and shut the door as fast as he could. Laurie couldn't see his face but she knew it was him from his height. He was the tallest man in town—six feet two in his stocking feet—the best-looking man, too, with waving brown hair and sunny blue eyes. He had a dimpled groove in his chin and liked to joke a lot and talk to folks. Mama said he'd gotten his easy way of visiting with even total strangers from his father, Harry Field, who was such a horse trader that he'd been able to persuade seasoned buyers that Indian ponies brought down from Montana's Wind River Range were fine horses that just needed a little handling.

Even before Daddy reached her, Mama cried, “Ed! Isn't Buddy with you?”

Daddy stopped, looming in the murk as if he'd been turned to stone. “He's not here?”

“No. He took his .22 and started for Point of Rocks.”

That jutting butte from which Indians had watched travelers along the Cimarron and sometimes preyed on them was a favorite picnic spot for townfolks. Grandpa Field, who was sixty-two, remembered—or claimed he did—when Custer was killed at the Little Bighorn in 1876 and he vowed he'd seen Geronimo when the train carrying the Chiricahua Apaches to prison in Florida stopped in St. Louis in 1886. That was a long time ago, even before World War I.

Daddy gasped. “Buddy's out in this?”

“Maybe he's at Tom Harris's,” Mama said. Tom was Buddy's best friend. “Or when the storm came up, maybe he went in the nearest house.”

“And maybe he's out by Point of Rocks,” Daddy cut in. “I've got to find him!”

BOOK: The Longest Road
5.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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