To Be or Not to Be
I’m very grateful for the kind comments about this story and in particular about the characters. It was my intention to showcase strong women in this story. Women were, in my opinion, the unsung and rarely-written-about heroes of the Great Depression, the spine that kept the family erect while all hell was breaking loose, and I felt it was important that they have their moment in the literary sun.
That’s not to say the Harper men don’t deserve some credit, because they do, but for me, the author, it is the women in this story I most identify with.
So, shall we continue? It’s time to head for the setting sun.
All Packed and Ready to Go
Two weeks flew by in a flurry of last-minute details, all seemingly important but in reality, just busywork when compared to the job ahead of us.
The paperwork had been signed and the bank now owned the Harper farm, two-hundred acres of prime Iowa farmland, ninety years of Harper blood and sweat in that soil. We signed over the corn growing on the remaining hundred acres as well, a good deal for the bank, a deal ending with nine-hundred and twenty-six dollars resting in the center of a hollowed-out Bible packed with our clothing in a trunk.
Peter Junior helped me lift that trunk into the back of the pickup truck, the truck we were depending on to take us out west to Wenatchee, Washington, apple capitol of the United States. Also in the back were boxes with dishware and clothing, family keepsakes and other “essentials,” as well as an old sofa upon which sat Emma, her son Timothy and soon Peter Junior as soon as we were underway.
My wife, Evelyn, joined me as I took one last look at the farmhouse where I was born, where Peter Junior was born, where the Harper family had carved out a name for itself, a name built on integrity and love.
She had tears in her eyes. So did I.
“It’s only a building, husband,” she said to me as she put her hand on my arm. “It’s only land. What’s important is in that old pickup truck and you know what I say is true.”
“I can’t help but feel like a failure, Evelyn. I know none of it’s my fault but still, there you have it.”
She squeezed my arm and stood on tiptoe to kiss my cheek.
“Come on, my love. Let’s follow the sun to our new home.”
The Journey Begins
The only problem with Iowa is it sits east of South Dakota. That’s what I was thinking as we left Iowa behind and said hello to the Mount Rushmore State, all dust devils, parched land, streams barely a trickle and crops dying a slow death. As we drove through Canton on State Road Forty-Four, I was struck with the realization that the Depression was a massive thing, stretching across borders, affecting millions, a living, breathing creation of terror and hopelessness. The road stretched straight and true westward, like the shaft of an arrow piercing the hearts of those who were brave enough, or foolish enough, to live along it.
Thunderheads rose to the south and shadows moved swiftly across the scorched landscape as clouds danced with the sun and fought for supremacy. We passed farms occasionally, were looked at with curiosity by cattle, saw farmhouses leaning with the wind, abandoned cars standing as sentinels in wheat and corn fields, all in all as bleak a scene as you will ever see. A young boy raised his arm to wave, his tattered clothes barely serving their purpose. A farmer worked on his John Deere, a broken-down man with a broken-down tractor, while chickens scratched the rock-hard soil looking for another day of life.
Evelyn saw it all as I did. Occasionally a mew came from the passenger seat, a muffled cry born from the desperation of it all.
“What will become of them all, husband? How will this country ever stand tall again?”
I had no answer for her. I gave her hand a pat, perhaps the only response she expected.
Now I Lay Me down to Sleep
We stopped for the night on the outskirts of the Badlands. Peter Junior, with the help of young Timothy, made a small fire for cooking while Emma and Evelyn unpacked sandwiches and cheese for our feast. The sun found solace in the distant Pacific, mixing with clouds to turn the sky scarlet, a blood-red hue spreading over the grasslands as they blew in the wind.
As we finished our meal the red turned to gray, then black, and as the cooking fire died out, the sky exploded in stars, millions of stars, more stars than a team of scientists could count, dwarfing our tiny traveling party and filling us with awe. Minutes passed in complete silence, for words simply could not capture what we saw above us. Finally it was young Timothy who summed it up perfectly.
“Look at all the angels, Mommy!”
We spread blankets on the ground in a semi-circle, fifty yards off the main road, the countryside too vast to comprehend, our mission’s goal too Herculean to consider. We were dead-tired from traveling and being worn down by nerves and fear, and as the coyotes howled in the distance and the wind whispered to our inner demons, Evelyn said, “Good night, Harper family,” and sleep embraced us.
The second day would find us finishing off South Dakota only to meet its bigger brother, Montana.
It was a day of the Little Bighorn and the Powder River. It was a day of scrublands and jackrabbits, rattle snakes and antelope, more dying towns and more hopeless town folk, dust-covered, peering at us from faces of despair.
It was also the day we said hello to the Rocky Mountains, awe-inspiring and terrifying all in one, a fortress of stone protecting the west from interlopers and insuring that only the strong of will would proceed. They rose in the distance, oddly from the south as we drove through Laurel. By the time we reached Livingston they blocked the western and southern horizons.
We had heard of them, of course, but hearing about them and seeing them in person are two different matters, and I began to have serious doubts whether the old Ford would be able to climb the Rocky flanks. My concerns were confirmed when the truck overheated on a rise just west of Bozeman. I pulled off on an access road, got out, opened the hood to billows of steam and silently cussed the gods. The rest of the family kept their distance and gave me some much-needed space until I settled down.
“Looks like we’re spending the night here, family,” I told them. “I don’t see no hose damage, so we’ll let it cool down overnight, fill it with water in the morning and be on our way. It was almost time to stop anyway, so this just forced the matter a bit. Peter Junior, how about taking a walk with me? Let’s see if there’s a source of water nearby. Evelyn, would you and Emma be so kind as to set up camp? Timothy, you might as well come along with the men folk.”
About a quarter-mile to the east we found a stream, not big by any standards, but running true and big enough for our needs. We had brought along a couple jugs so we filled them from the stream and headed back to camp. When we were a hundred yards out we saw Emma and Evelyn talking to two men. When we were fifty yards out we saw one of the men holding a rifle and pointing the damned thing at the women. When we were fifty feet out the rifle turned in our direction and we were told to stop where we were.
To Be Continued
Tough times back then, and desperate people surviving any way that they could.
Join me next week?
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)