"Surviving the Dust Bowl" is a cautionary tale well-told. 

Blowing in the Wind

"Surviving the Dust Bowl"
Monday, April 26
9 p.m.

The Joads.

Funny, isn't it, how a simple family name — and a made-up one at that — can summon up a whole era. John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" taught us all we needed to know about the Dust Bowl and the great western migration it caused.

But Steinbeck's job was to write a novel, not history. "The Grapes of Wrath" only tells a part of the story of what happened in 1931 when the rains stopped in parts of five states.

Life got real tough, real fast, in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, western Kansas, and eastern Colorado and New Mexico. Like the Joads, a quarter of the population in the Dust Bowl packed up and moved away, sometimes leaving the front door wide open with the dirt blowing in.

But three-quarters stayed where they were and stuck it out. They watched massive, whirling dust storms pile dirt up as high as the windowsills. They coughed up clods of mud. They came down with "dust pneumonia," and some died from it. They could taste the dirt in their food and feel the grit between their teeth night and day. But they stayed.

"Surviving the Dust Bowl," airing on PBS's "American Experience," is about those who stayed behind. Their stories — compelling, first-person history — are told for the most part by their children, with archival film and still photographs providing the visuals. The result is one of the most interesting hours of TV that will be broadcast next week.

The seeds of destruction were sown early in this century by the first influx of farmers into the Southern Plains. They were lured by soil so rich it "looked like chocolate." What they didn't know was that they were seeing only a brief moment in an endless cycle of rain and drought.

In 1931, the droughts began, the crops withered, and the topsoil began to blow away.

Times only got tougher. In 1934, stockpiled feed began to run out, and the government began to buy up Dust Bowl cattle and slaughter them. That same year, hordes of starving jackrabbits came down from the hills, and farmers killed them with guns and clubs. On April 14, 1935 — they called it Black Sunday — the wind began to blow and it kept up for 27 days straight.

It wasn't until 1936 that the government began to teach Dust Bowlers the elements of soil conservation, and in 1939, the rains came.

"Surviving the Dust Bowl" is history done well, and it's a cautionary tale well-told. Keep in mind what we know that those farmers at the turn of the last century didn't know: On the Southern Plains, good weather is always followed by drought.

Can it happen again? That's another story, and PBS addresses that question on its Web site — www.pbs.org

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