DUST IN THE WIND:

Man recounts tales of life in the Bowl

by Dawn Marks

The following story ran Feb. 23, in the Daily Oklahoman, and is used here with their permission.

While on a bike ride one day in April 1935, John Vannatta knew immediately what was coming and that he'd better hurry.

“I looked up in the trees and I knew what it was,” Vannatta said. “I ducked my head and pedaled that bike.”

A dust storm was on its way, and it wasn't stopping for anything, he said. Vannatta managed to get inside the family's home in Goodwell before the dust nearly shrouded the 100 watt light bulb burning in the center of the room.

“When this thing hit, everything blacked out,” he said.

This week, the fourth-grade students at James L. Dennis Elementary School will put themselves in the place of Vannatta and others like him who struggled to survive during the Dust Bowl era and infamous Black Sunday - April 14, 1935 .

The students, who are studying the Dust Bowl, will write narratives as if they lived during that time. Vannatta, 85, was one of many who answered letters the students wrote to Dust Bowl survivors in the Panhandle.

Friday, during a presentation to the students of Shera Steinhoff and Randy Utt, Vannatta gave the best picture he could of life during the Dust Bowl era - a time of extreme drought and frequent dust storms that gripped the Central Plains during much of the 1930s.

Vannatta, who now lives in Keyes, spent much of his childhood in Cimarron County and told the students that during the Dust Bowl he was only a few years older than they are now.

In 1933, shortly before the Dust Bowl set in, Vannatta went to visit a grandfather in Ohio .

When the family returned to Oklahoma , the scene was far different from when they left.

“When we came home everything was a mess,” Vannatta said.

Dirt was so high in some spots it covered fences and the ground was swept clean of any loose dirt, he said.

Life moved on in Cimarron County , with people banding together to help. Families found ways to adapt, Vannatta said.

“People learned to depend upon one another as they did in homesteading,” he said. “It made us have the faith that every day would be better than the next.”

They stuffed rags in the cracks of windows and doors and hung sheets to keep out dust. Every two to three weeks someone had to go up into the attic and shovel out the dust that had collected, or the ceiling would fall in, he said.

“Static electricity was real high,” he said. “If you walked up to a barb wire fence, it would knock you down.”

Vannatta still has a tangible memory of the drought. He showed the students a small, round jar of the fine dirt that blew into the Oklahoma Panhandle.

“This black blow dust is just like flour. That's how fine it is,” he said. “Try not to take the lid off. I don't want to start a dirt storm in here.”

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