Janet Smith and Don Kirby / Claire O’Brien 2013
The last Americans who were caught where the Great Depression met the Dust Bowl will be gone in another decade or so, taking their singular and historic childhoods with them. The memories of children always have a distinctive and revealing slant, and draw me like a magnet. So I felt lucky when two old friends invited a stranger to pull up a chair as they settled in to compare Depression experiences at the plucky Sierra County Senior Center in southern New Mexico.
Tuning out the instructive voice of a Tai Chi teacher and the routine clack of a swift game of 9-Ball, Don Kirby and Janet Smith quickly zeroed in on the kinds of shared memories that take root in human bone, such as prolonged periods of hunger over several years, and the shock of discovering adult powerlessness. But they eventually agreed that the Depression had done no real damage to Kirby, while impacting Smith’s life in long-term, often profound ways. What made all the difference, the two told me, was the small Kirby family’s ability to squeak by and remain together – an impossibility for the very large extended Smith family, crowded together on the same land. Here are both the story, and the stories: at least the way I heard them.
Don Kirby was born into a world of blowing dust. His father grew dryland wheat in the Texas panhandle, near the little town of Vega, where Kirby and the Depression arrived together in 1930.
He remembers dreaming of fields of wheat when he was four years old. Kirby had never seen a field of wheat – or of anything else – but he knew what everything in the world revolved around. Like the other young children of the Dust Bowl, Kirby understood the life-and-death stakes for those who had gambled everything to remain behind on farms half buried in dust.
Either they would outlast the dust and bring the land to life again – or the dust would outlast them.
So the region held its breath while dust piled into drifts three and four feet high, surrounding the Kirby farm and waiting for the next high wind to send it on its way.
“I remember one of the worst dust storms we ever had, just as easy as I remember yesterday,” said Kirby,” I mean it’s that clear in my mind. I was nine years old and I was outside playing. I heard my mother shouting and shrieking,”Get in the house! Get in the house!”
Kirby looked at the horizon once, and ran.
“It was the the most gigantic dust cloud you can imagine, too huge to describe – like it couldn’t even be from earth”, he said. “It looked like the whole universe was attacking us. And it was headed straight for us. My mother yelled for us kids to get into her bed, then she covered us from head to toe with a pile of blankets, taking particular care to block our eyes, noses, and ears.”
Kirby added that during the storm, the entire house was so packed with dust that it was impossible to see his hand in front of his face.
‘You were blind. You couldn’t see anything,” he said. “After the storm had passed, my parents spent hours and hours taking buckets of dirt out of the house.”
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With no way to raise a crop, Kirby’s father took every kind of job he could get, hiring himself out to anyone who would pay a dollar or two. His focus was solely on feeding his family, but in spite of his efforts, his children were often hungry.
“Of course I remember. You don’t ever forget hunger, not ever,” said Kirby. “When I was about six, my mother asked me what I planned on doing when I grew up. ‘I’m going to eat,’ I told her, ‘When I grow up, I’m just going to sit and eat.’
However, Kirby was always aware that his parents did the very best they could to provide food.
“No matter how young I was, I knew how hard my father was trying – of course I did,” he said. “So I understood that I was going to be hungry, and there was nothing more to be done. Mama would put a tablespoon of sugar in tall glasses of water, as cold as she could get it, and tell us to drink up fast to fool our stomachs. It worked, too – for a bit of a while anyway. So the trick was to hop into bed and get to sleep before it wore off.”
Kirby paused briefly.
“I hated seeing Mama and Daddy feeling so bad about it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d tell them a story, maybe how my teacher had given the class a government sandwich, or one of the Amirillo churches had sent up cold boiled potatoes to the school. I’m not sure if they believed me, but they always made out like they did – you see, they didn’t want me feeling bad neither.”
But Kirby also recalled his father’s triumphant returns, carrying as much as a bushels of potatos, or food he’d exchanged for long days of labor: beans, eggs, biscuits, flour, dried fruit and coffee.
While still a small boy, Kirby learned that when everyone is in need, everyone shares. In fact, watching his hungry parents share their food with strangers is one of his strongest memories.
“There’s one time I can still see so clear,” he said softly. “A man came to the door and said to my mother, ‘M’am, I’m very hungry.’ You could tell that just by looking at him. Mama told him to wait.”
The family had just slaughtered a hog – a very rare event – and Kirby’s mother prepared a large plate of food for the traveller.
“Mama cooked him up some eggs, meat, and biscuits, and he ate real fast, but then he took a deep breath and stopped when he was halfway through. He packed the rest of the food carefully away in a pouch he wore around his neck,” Kirby remembered,”He said to Mama ‘I don’t have any money – but God will pay you for this.”
Kirby’s mother remembered what the hungry man had told her for the rest of her life.
“It made her happy to think of it,” he said. “And now, it makes me happy.”
These days, Kirby is still sharing food. It makes him happy. He’s 84 years old, and he works two acres now – but he really works those acres. He cuts, chops, splits,
and stacks wood. He has a small orchard of apple, quince, and plum trees, and a big garden. Every year, Kirby gives away bushels and bushels of vegetables and fruit..
He thinks of his parents with every delivery.
“Mama worked until she was 95, and she lived to be 101” he said. “On her 100th birthday, I bent over her and said “Mama! You’re 100!” She thought for a minute, and then she kind of cocked her head and looked up at me, wondering, like a little old child,’
‘Am I really 100?’ Mama asked. “Am I really?”
Kirby looked into the distance, smiling to himself, and then he chuckled loudly.
Janet Smith grew up in a poor Nebraska farm family, among people who took pride in their ability to make it through hard times. But the Depression wasn’t just hard times. The Depression killed people.
Janet leaned forward in her chair to emphasize her point.
“Today, there’s really no way of understanding what is was like,” she said.
” I mean people lost absolutely everything but the clothes on their backs,” Smith continued. ” My grandparents had spent their entire lives in endless labor, building up their farm, and raising ten children. My father was the oldest, and was set to inherit it. And then it was gone – all of it, everything. There was nothing left”.
Smith believes that the loss broke her family, because the farm was the center of their lives. Her grandfather soon died, and her grandmother took a small house in the nearby town of Elmo, while her father searched desperately for work – any work. His siblings held out as long as they could, trying to make one last go of the farm.
“They just couldn’t. They had nothing,” said Smith. “They couldn’t feed the stock. When the horses starved to death, I think that was what finally did it. They were in agony, watching the horses suffer, but they kept holding off just one more day, thinking they’d surely find something the horses could eat by then.”
Smith was six years old in 1941. The Depression was officially over, or at least departing well ahead of schedule, propelled by the momentum of the war industries as the U.S. entered World War II. But the recovery didn’t reach places like rural Nebraska in time to make a difference for children like Smith. For them, the Great Depression was far from over – and in fact, for many Americans it has never ended.
Still unemployed, Smith’s father was drafted and deployed overseas, leaving their severely depressed mother overwhelmed and withdrawn. Local authorities declared her incompetent and gave custody of the children to the state, citing reports that the young Smiths were roaming the streets at any hour of the night or day that struck their fancy.
“Sometimes we looked for food and a lot of the time we just roamed about and explored,” Smith said.”We felt free at night, like we had the world to ourselves. Although I admit we didn’t turn down many opportunities to make little pests of ourselves.”
Without the family’s knowledge, arrangements were being made to order the siblings placed in an orphanage, many miles away in the Nebraska town of York.
Mother Jewel’s Orphanage
Seventy years after authorities banged on the door one Nebraska morning in 1941, Janet Smith hasn’t forgiven them for yanking a little girl from her mother, and forcing her into a car with strangers. She remembers screaming for an hour straight.
“Throughout the long drive, they kept telling us we’d be eating nothing but bread and water until we were eighteen. I’ve never been that terrified. I knew grown-ups aren’t supposed to treat a first grader like that,” Smith said.
The bread and water part turned out to be a cruel joke, but the indifferent coldness of the orphanage staff stunned Kirby. She remembers
thinking,” I’m too little for this!”
“Well, they fed and clothed us, and taught us the basics in school,” Kirby said. “We got a bed to sleep in. But they never showed us a slight kindness, or even smiled at us. No sign of feeling. They were distant and cold, and every orphanage child knew they didn’t care about us”
For the next three years, Smith and her brothers prayed every day that they wouldn’t share the fate of those kids whose parents had never returned for them. They knew she had problems, but they loved their mother, and were certain she wanted them back.
The sandbox in Mother Jewel’s playground
They were right. Smith’s mother had never given up her efforts to get her children back.
Several months after the little girl’s ninth birthday, she and her brothers moved with their mother into a small house in the town of Huntley, NB. It had no running water, but the children didn’t care. They could take hot baths at their nearby grandmother’s house, and return with water for their mother.
“All that mattered to us was being a normal family, living with our own mother in a normal house,” said Smith.
But it soon became clear to the children that their mother remained too depressed to care for them properly, nor to manage the small house. They staggered under the blow – but the Smith children did not fall. They had learned some hard lessons about the world during those three years in the orphanage, and were determined to remain free of official clutches. Older, tougher, bigger, and extremely watchful, the siblings had become experienced housekeepers, janitors, and yard workers who could cook well enough to get by.
“We were angry, I guess we felt sad and sort of cheated -but we also knew it wasn’t our mother’s fault,” said Smith. “She’d done the best thing she could manage for all for us – she’d gotten us out of there. And by then, we had this attitude that told people to stay away from us. They learned not to talk about our mother and pretty much let us alone, especially seeing as Grandma lived a few blocks away.”
Their hopes rose when their father was discharged from the army, but he returned only long enough to get a railroad job that kept him away from home most of the time. The children rarely saw him, and when they did he remained a remote figure. They knew he had a drinking problem. All their aunts and uncles, the nine brothers and sisters who had grown up together on that lost farm, drifted apart and away, taking the children’s cousins with them.
“Our mother never recovered and we took care of everything from then on, but still we knew she loved us,” said Smith. “Our father was never the same again. None of my uncles and aunts were either. They were from generations of farmers, you see. They were never meant to be town people, or soldiers or railroad men. And what can children do about something like that?”
Their father’s return brought one crucial change, however: his job with the railroad was steady and he sent most of his pay to his family. It was enough to keep them afloat, and although they had to watch every penny, they didn’t go hungry again.
“Knowing our father was feeding us told us a lot,” said Smith. “Eventually, that was enough. It had to be.”
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The Smith children resolved the issue of the adult world by turning their backs on it and immersing themselves in play. They constructed and navigated various kinds of rafts, and spent weeks at a time building things. Their father had left them his tools, and her oldest brother knew how to use them. He taught his siblings, who had to prove their competence tool by tool before getting the green light to use each one independently.
“For a long time, I was stuck with sandpaper, a small hammer, and nails that someone else had nailed halfway in, so I wouldn’t bend them,” said Smith, who was the baby of the family. “I rebelled, though, so finally they let me saw. To this day, I refuse to use sandpaper. My very favorite thing was how we’d frame a small pane of glass, you know the kind that are about six by eight inches, and make one tiny window.”
The builders installed the little windows in treehouses complete with roofs and railed porches, while the woods below were spotted with Smith clubhouses, each with a signature chimney made of a small piece of pipe, leading to a tiny working stove. The children also built cars from wooden crates equipped with an odd assortment of wheels, and raced recklesly down steep inclines without benefit of brakes. They played a lot of baseball, and raced the river as soon as it froze, like a flock of birds on their homemade ice-skates
“We loved fishing too; we’d clean and fry those fish right where we caught ’em. If it was a nice night, we’d sleep out – and we swam at all hours,” Janet remembered.
She thought for a moment.
“Overall, it wasn’t the best childhood, but I think we did a good job with what we had,” she said. “We missed out on a lot, but we also created our own freedom, because we knew how to play. The secret to being a kid on your own is to take that time and PLAY. Just play your heart out, because you’ll never get another chance to do it again.”
Smith married at 16. She knew she was too young, but felt she couldn’t wait for a normal family of her own. Later that year, her first child was born.
That was the beginning of another story about another family.
Today, Smith is a fixture at the Senior Center, where she’s volunteered for 20 years. Everyone knows her. She’s spunky and smart, and knows how to get things done.
“I understand the past, but I don’t live there,” she said.”I’m too busy living in the present. I’m very active in the Senior Olympics and in the First Christian Church. I stay busy, basically – I help out wherever I’m needed”
She was too modest to reveal the number of gold medals she’s collected over the years – but we do know this much: Janet Smith won the Sierra County Senior Olympics Spirit Award three times.
That strikes me as the sort of medal a community of people might give to someone they value and love – not so much because she’s helpful, but because she is home.