My favorite Mary Poppins advice is this: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I use this often as a way of spinning an unpleasant task into something enjoyable.
History has been kind of like medicine in my mind, a necessary evil you had to take in high school and college. I blame it on Eunice High School football coaches who sucked every bit of sweetness, all of “the story”, out of the medicine of history. I unfortunately grew up equating history with boring lectures and memorizing unrelated facts, which I promptly forgot after tests. I admire folks who casually bring all kinds of historical stories into conversation as if people and events of hundreds of years ago were personal. Hmm, how did they learn to do that?
Then I discovered documentaries and realized that history comes alive in the hand of a good storyteller. Although I like all kinds of documentaries, Ken Burns is one of the best at this craft. His productions make history go down with an entertaining sweetness that would win Mary Poppins approval. What makes his films so absolutely compelling? He is a master storyteller.
The latest Ken Burns film is called the Dust Bowl, which aired recently on PBS. I am in the middle of this two-part, four-hour documentary. Boring medicine? No way. It is absolutely riveting because of the stories told from people who actually lived through this horrible season. The bonus for me is the connection of their stories to my own.
I grew up in the very corner of southeast New Mexico. My parents were both from Oklahoma and dad’s family were wheat farmers. Great-grandpa George and Grandpa Ivan farmed together. Every summer they needed extra hands to get the wheat cut, so we would load up the station wagon right after school was out and drive 510 miles to the border of Oklahoma and Kansas to Burlington, pop. 153. I remember learning how to drive on those trips, dodging tumbleweeds blowing across long, lonely two lane roads. The highlight of a typical trip was a stop for burritos and bubble gum at the Allsups in Pampa. We always knew when we were getting close because grain elevators began to rise up replacing pump jacks and cotton fields turned into wheat. When we would pull over on the side of the road to use the bathroom (oh yes, we did) I have memories of the station wagon door getting caught by the wind and being flung open with a wrenching grind. The sand from the ditches would whirl into the car flinging grit on everything inside.
After marrying Todd, we would travel from Abilene, Texas to his home in Colorado a few times a year. This trip would take us on the back roads of the Texas panhandle and through the northeast corner of New Mexico. The stark beauty of that drive always seemed to make me melancholy. The dirt roads leading to small forgotten homesteads with their lazily spinning windmills, the vast sea of sky and the wind, always the wind. I now realize that the ghosts of so many difficult and heart wrenching stories float around that landscape in an almost physical presence. The cassette tape of Bruce Hornsby that we played over and over probably added to the haunting feeling of that long drive.
I am just fascinated by the stories told in this film. Not only do the landscapes and town names all seem familiar, but the people telling their stories remind me so much of my grandparents. Their turns of phrase and mannerisms echo things I’ve heard my whole life. What a hard, desperate time it was for those people living in the 30s during the dust bowl days. As I watch this documentary, I gain a new appreciation for how that period of time must have shaped the generation who survived those days. I want to sit down and ask my two remaining grandmothers to tell me their stories. Perhaps I will share them here sometime soon.
Regardless of your interest in the effects of one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, this documentary relates a good story of the grit and perseverance of people determined to survive. In the long days of winter ahead, I think this film would redeem time spent in front of a screen. You can watch in its entirety on the PBS website.
An interesting book that goes right along with this story is The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. We have so much to learn from the stories of our past and I am thankful that no matter how old I get, the love of learning is fresher than ever. For me, a good story is the sugar that helps the medicine go down.