Davis resident among those interviewed for Ken Burns' 'The Dust Bowl'

11/13/2012 12:00 AM

02/26/2013 8:17 PM

Cal Crabill was 10 years old, standing outside the country schoolhouse he attended in southeastern Colorado, when he spotted it in the distance.

"There was a low, black cloud from horizon to horizon," Crabill, a longtime Davis resident, said of the biggest dust storm of his youth.

"Then it started to grow a little bit, and it was black – this was maybe 2 o'clock in the afternoon."

The students were scared. The teacher sent everyone home. But it was Crabill's job to round up his family's cattle after school. So he rode his horse three miles toward home, completing his task just as the storm hit.

"It was loud, it was unbelievable, it was awful," Crabill, 88, said during an interview last month at his home. "Somebody asked me, 'What did you think when it was coming?' Well, I just assumed it was the end of the world."

His worried parents, who had assumed the boy would come home directly from school, were relieved he made it back. But "things went downhill very fast" for the family after that 1934 storm, Crabill said. "We lost everything."

The Crabills fled to Southern California, where Cal's stockman father, John, tried to scratch out a living as a laborer.

It was still the Depression. But at least they were away from the dust.

Crabill, a retired Davis Senior High School math teacher, is one of 26 Dust Bowl survivors interviewed in "The Dust Bowl," a two-part, four-hour Ken Burns PBS documentary premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday on Channel 6 (KVIE).

During the great wheat boom of the early 20th century, farmers plowed under the grasses that protected the soil. The land became even more compromised during the Depression, when wheat prices plummeted and desperate farmers over-plowed to try to compensate. A prolonged drought turned a perilous situation into a disaster in the Oklahoma Panhandle and parts of the four states it touches.

Winds churned up millions of tons of unprotected earth, creating walls of dust 10,000 feet high. Homesteaders who had been the first in their families to own land lost their crops, animals and livelihoods.

Children died of "dust pneumonia."

"It is an amazing story that kind of creeps up on you," Burns said by phone from his office in New Hampshire.

Most people have some idea of the Dust Bowl from John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" and the classic film that followed, he said. But few know the Dust Bowl was "the worst man-made ecological disaster in U.S. history," Burns said.

Whereas "Grapes of Wrath" followed characters from eastern Oklahoma who migrated to California's Central Valley, "The Dust Bowl" focuses on people, like the Crabills, at the epicenter of the disaster – in the Oklahoma Panhandle and nearby parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

"The Dust Bowl" covers the famous migration west but maintains its focus on the disaster's geographical center, before and after the migration.

The documentary is filled with poignant accounts from people in their 80s and 90s who lost loved ones to dust storms. There also are extraordinary tales of fortitude, like one about a man who traveled several blocks on his belly and hands and knees, trying to get under the dust storm to search for his missing niece.

"The Dust Bowl" carries strong ecological and environmental messages that seem especially relevant today, on the heels of severe droughts in Texas and the Midwest.

A sense of currency can get teased out simply from "trying to tell a good story," Burns said.

"If you tell a good story, lots of good things get churned up," he said. "You don't have to point out the environmental (impact), or that human beings think their crops will always come in."

Getting a Dust Bowl documentary together meant a long process of gathering survivors who were still alive and willing to speak of their experiences.

Those firsthand accounts are needed to flesh out Dust Bowl history lessons that usually amount to "two paragraphs in a textbook," "Dust Bowl" producer Julie Dunphey said.

That's partly because the disaster happened in a sparsely populated region when there were so many other tales of woe to be reported in more populated areas.

"It is a really important but almost overlooked part of our history," Dunphey said by phone from New Hampshire.

The faces on screen in "The Dust Bowl" are of octogenarians. But they are telling children's stories, Burns said.

"This is a film filled with old people who were children or teenagers and are remembering. What you have are searing, unbelievably personal reflections that remind you all of history is memory."

The interview subjects in "The Dust Bowl" showed the perseverance associated with what has become known as the Greatest Generation, Burns said.

Crabill, a World War II Navy veteran, illustrates that spirit, Burns said.

Crabill's cattleman father knew it was wrong to plow the grasslands. But he worked part-time for wheat farmers in an attempt to survive financially during the Depression.

By the time they moved to California, the Crabills had moved several times within Colorado, with John Crabill trying and failing to make a living on the land. Life as a laborer in a more populated area seemed a better option.

Co-workers teased his father, Crabill said, because the family's rented Burbank house sat on an alley. Sometimes Cal slept in the garage because there was not enough room inside. Neighbors considered the Crabills "Okies," though they were from Colorado.

His first summer out of high school, Crabill, a trumpet player, took a gig playing in the mountains with a swing band. When summer ended, he was sent to fetch his sister in Colorado. She had spent the summer with an aunt because food was so scarce at home.

That Colorado trip helped him recognize that his family was better off in California.

"Even though we had little food, it was better food," he said. "In Colorado, all we ever had was beans and oatmeal."

Crabill served in the Navy, attended UC Berkeley on the GI Bill, taught at Davis High and co-authored three math textbooks, one of which remains in print. He was married for 64 years to Judy, who died in 2007, and is father of three children.

"It was crushing for his father, but Cal emerged as a beloved high school teacher," Burns said. "Crucibles of suffering often produce extraordinary results. (People) being forged in this kind of fire can emerge to do something extraordinary."

Tall and neatly dressed, his still-abundant silver hair combed in a wavy style reminiscent of screen stars of his youth, Crabill has experienced several acts in his life. The Dust Bowl was just the first one.

"You have enough things happen in your life that you put it on the back burner and don't think about it hardly at all," Crabill.

But he was perusing the shelves of a bookstore a few years ago when he saw the cover of Timothy Egan's National Book Award- winning book about the Dust Bowl, "The Worst Hard Time," with its photo of a giant cloud of dust.

"I just saw the words and the picture, and I didn't need anything more," Crabill said. "So I bought it, and I was stunned by it. Great writing."

He was in the middle of Egan's book when he was watching KVIE and heard that Burns' producers were looking for Dust Bowl survivors who might want to share memories.

"If I hadn't been reading the book, I might not have contacted them," Crabill said. "But my psyche had gone back to thinking of my past."

But he did not appear in the documentary for himself.

"My responsibility is to honor my father," Crabill said. "My memory of my father is that he would come home from work and be so tired he would eat, sit in his chair and pass out immediately."

"I have had so much other satisfaction," Crabill said. "And he was sort of cut off at the pass."

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