An Amarillo photographer's personal journey through the Dust Bowl- with past and present eyes.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the anniversary of Black Sunday - a brown Saturday.

I find it very interesting on the anniversary of the largest dust storm in American history - the winds whip up a good ol' fashioned duster.

Photo by Steve Douglass

Ken Burns in Amarillo to promote Dust Bowl documentary

By Chip Chandler
Filmmaker Ken Burns has trained his camera on some of history’s biggest moments: The Civil War. World War II. Prohibition.

Now, he has moved his focus to the people of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles with “The Dust Bowl,” a two-part documentary debuting Nov. 18 on KACV and PBS stations around the country.

“You just want to be able to tell human stories,” Burns said in an exclusive interview. “Sometimes, it’s Abraham Lincoln agonizing about how to prosecute the war. Sometimes, it’s the story of Jackie Robinson trying to make it in the major leagues.

“In this case, it was all these folks out in ‘No Man’s Land’ in the Dust Bowl, trying to make a go of it.”

Burns will arrive in the area Saturday as part of a weekend-long promotional tour, meeting with survivors and their families in Amarillo; Goodwell, Okla., and Guymon, Okla.

He and his producers conducted interviews with 26 survivors of the 1930s environmental disaster, including residents of Amarillo, Guymon and more.

“No one can appreciate (better) than those who lived through it,” he said. “Memory is not some distant thing, but present.

“When you see someone break down in their 80s over the loss of a family member decades and decades ago, you realize history is not a was, but an is.”

“It’s amazing to me,” said Linda Pitner, KACV general manager, “how they have captured the pioneer spirit, the tenacity of people of this area, the love of the land, the ties that people here have to this area.”

Archival photos and film footage fill out the stories, which tell of not only those who stayed in the area but also those who fled to California, where life wasn’t much better.

“I had always thought people who went to California had gone out there .... to the golden streets of California and made millions,” said Ellen Robertson Green, Amarillo city commissioner and host of KACV’s “Face to Face.”

“It was eye-opening to see that they had such difficulties out there and encountered so much bigotry there, too.”

Green will interview Burns on Sunday for a special airing this summer.

“I’ve been thinking about what I would ask him for about a year and been researching him for about a month,” she said. “I can’t think what I can ask him that nobody else has asked him. But I’m going to have fun with it instead of being nervous.”

Green has a personal connection to the documentary: Her mother, Pauline Durrett Robertson, is featured prominently, discussing how her father lost his business and his health during that decade, and how her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized.

“I’ve always thought that my family had this great tragedy happen to it ... but when you hear the stories of other people, you realize that everyone was suffering,” Green said.

“A lot of people had nervous breakdowns, or committed suicide, even. It was emotionally and physically and economically tragic for so many people across this area.”

Burns will give a news conference Sunday with a Dust Bowl survivor interviewed by KACV for a series of spots that will begin airing in May. He’ll also present clips of the documentary at an invitation-only dinner.

He said he hopes the film will flesh out a story residents here have grown up hearing.

“It turns out much more complicated than you think. You find out about ‘dust pneumonia,’ the plague of jackrabbits and, later, locusts,” Burns said. “This is a story about Mother Nature, but it’s also about human nature, good and bad.

“Remember, this is a man-made ecological disaster, not just a bad time that happened to the area,” he said. “Humans do stupid things, and humans do heroic things.

“If you ignore either one of those things, you do it at your peril.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Part 3 : On location with Dayton Duncan and Buddy Squires - The Dust Bowl

Dayton Duncan is passionate about history. You get a sense of it - in his writing, the productions he's worked on and his lectures but there's a particular scene in The National Parks - Americas' Best Idea that illustrates it perfectly.

He's talking about his son and how they encountered a wild goat on a path in one of our national parks and how his son reacted and wrote about as being one of the best days of his life.

Dayton's voice catches - as he describes the memory. In that brief emotional and very human moment he defines how (in a very personal way)important it is to be stewards of the land and to save it not for just ourselves but for our sons and daughters and grandchildren that they might too experience the wonder that is the natural world.

When I saw that scene I thought to myself - I am very - very lucky indeed to have a part (albeit a small one) in the production of The Dust Bowl.

The sun is a long time setting in Northeastern New Mexico. Except for the mountains to the southeast it - flat -almost treeless and desolate. It's a wonder settlers thought of making a go of it here. It's not in the middle of nowhere - but you can see nowhere from there.

It is also beautiful in it's starkness. People not from these parts think it's amazing that from Amarillo one can see a storm brewing in a neighboring state be it Oklahoma or New Mexico. One can actually see into another time zone from hundreds of miles away.

Dayton is friendly and explains to me the shot they are working on. "You recognize this don't you? This is one of your locations. You helped us find it. It's perfect for illustrating the isolation of the High Plains. Can you imagine what it would have been like to live out here?"

To quote Timothy Egan's book The Worst Hard Time: More than a quarter-million people fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Looking around now, it may seem that most people just hurried through the southern plains and left in horror. Not much was heard about the people who stayed behind, for lack of money or lack of sense, the people who hunkered down out of loyalty or stubbornness, who believed in tomorrow because it was all they had in the bank. Yet most people living in the center of the Dust Bowl, about two thirds of the population in the 1930 never left during that hard decade.

It was a lost world then: It is a lost world now.

I try. I also think of what it might have been like to experience one of the "Black Rollers" the dust storms that rolled out off this side of the Rockies blotting out the sun and choking off the air. It must have looked like Hell on Earth and felt that way too.

Why would anyone stay if they didn't have to?

Cinematographer Buddy squires is busy - taking a meter reading of the sunset. He suddenly picks up his tripod - camera and all and runs fifty yard closer to the old house he is framing. Everyone sprints - because it is "magic time" when during the dusk the light is fleetingly perfect. In minutes the light will be gone.

Dayton takes notes while he talks. Despite it being crunch time - he's open and friendly. Ken Hanson and I suddenly feel like we are in school again - a master's class as he expounds on the history of the area.

"Dust - dust and more dust. How did they endure? What did they see here?" he asks.

I venture a guess as I look at the sky - "I'm guessing a blank slate on which to make there mark." I say.

"Exactly!" he replies.

I glance over at Ken Hanson, he's using his Sony video camera to photograph Buddy - well - photographing. I decide to take a few shots as well, digging in my bag for my well-worn but trusty Nikon. I enter the menus and turn off the beep not wanting it to distract.

"Can I shoot a few shots? I'll be quiet and as unobtrusive as a field mouse" I ask Duncan.

He smiles at my request - "Sure - we aren't recording audio so you can yell if you want to."

And as if in cue we here a pack of coyotes yelping - as if they were waiting for their cue.

"Of course that would have been perfect if we were." Dayton says.

Buddy Squires - who has been quiet except for some technical chatter with an assistant suddenly says, "This isn't going to work - we need to be back about fifty feet further."

Without warning he picks up the camera off the tripod, and again we go running back toward the east. Quickly he quickly remounts the camera and lines up the shot - an assistant dusts off the front filter.

Buddy takes another meter reading. The sun is setting fast. It's time to shoot.

"Want to take a look?" Buddy asks me. "If you do - hurry." he ads.

I take a quick peak through the viewfinder. It's looking great.

"Do you approve?" he asks.

Buddy Squires asking me if I approve? He's being gracious, I tell myself.

"Shoot that baby!" I reply - as if he needed my approval.

For the next forty minutes he films. The sun sets and the glow slowly goes away, fading from bright orange to cobalt blue. We chat - they pack the gear away and it's time to go our separate ways.

Ken & I take the opportunity to take turns having our photos taken with Dayton. He graciously allows and puts up with it.

"Now - I have an extremely important favor to ask you." he says.

"Anything." I reply.

At this point if he asked me to jump off a cliff I'd probaly do it.

He takes me over to the SUV they came in and lifts out a large trunk.

"In this trunk is the bulk of our Dust Bowl photography and represents about thirty-thousand dollars worth of shooting. Could you please take it back to Amarillo tonight and deliver it to KACV so they can ship it to us? We can't take it on the plane because the x-rays will fog the film and quite frankly - we don't trust them to keep from loosing it."

"Sure!" I answer, "No problem." Ken echoes.

We carefully haul the box over to Ken's car - open the hatch and secure it in the back. Only then when it is in our possession does the preciousness of the cargo and the trust Dayton Duncan is putting on us two relative strangers sinks in.

We shake hands and part ways.

As we wind our way along the dark roads back to Amarillo, every few minutes I glance back at the cargo - making sure it's safe. I can't help but envision the worst - a car wreck that destroys the box - thieves stealing the film - stupid stuff - like a fire consuming my apartment while I slept.

I tell myself - It's going to be a long sleepless night as long as that film is in my trust.

The next morning, without incident I deliver the film to KACV. I call Florentine to confirm the film has been delivered and it will be FedExed that day.

Over the last two years I keep in touch with Dayton and Florentine films. I send them weather images often and a few of the Dust Bowl images I created for this blog. I also shoot some b-roll HD footage of wheat fields and sunsets they requested - but I don't know if it will make it into the film or end up on the cutting room floor. If it does - I'll be thrilled - if not - that's life. I'm just happy for my small part in the production.

The Dust Bowl will air in November of this year - some two years after the project started. I cannot wait to see the finished product.

In the meantime I started this blog. I was inspired by Dayton Duncan to dig a little more into the amazing history of this area. I plan to keep it going as long as there is interest. I now find myself seeing Dust Bowl type scenes everywhere - especially during our long time of record drought.

When the "haboobs" roll in - I flash back to the Dirty 30s and get a sense of what it must have been like to live through the dusters.

Then - a few weeks ago I get a gift in the mail. It is an invite to a premier of sorts - dinner with Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan - here in Amarillo! I can't believe I'm on the guest list, It is a true honor.

I am permitted a guest - and I call Ken. he's thrilled too.

We decide - in the spirit of The Dust Bowl two arrive in style - in Ken's Model T. I'll post details on the dinner soon. Stay tuned.

In the meantime I hope you enjoy this blog and will be compelled to watch The Dust Bowl. I also highly recommend you buy a copy of The Worst Hard Time. It's a great read.

More soon!

-Steve Douglass



Ken Burns on "The Dust Bowl"

NEWS OK: Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns knows a thing or two about history — which makes him something of an expert on memory, as well.

Filmmaker Ken Burns is producing a four-hour documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” for PBS.

“One thing you learn after awhile in this history business is you think that the past is really far away, and in many cases it is,” Burns said in a recent phone interview. “But memory, the thing that recalls the past, is present.

“When someone breaks down and cries over the death of a little baby sister who died of the dust pneumonia ... it's happening to them now. The feelings are now. The memories of the wind and the dust and the sand rattling like an evil spirit against their window is now.

“Watching the sand dribble from the ceiling onto your tabletop and being able to etch with your finger a little painting, a child's painting, into the dust on your dinner table is now.”

This month, Burns will debut footage from his latest project, “The Dust Bowl,” at the Oklahoma History Center.

The full two-part, four-hour documentary is set to air on PBS in November.

The Dust Bowl lasted as much as a decade in some areas, spanning the 1930s, a confluence of bad luck and poor planning that created “the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history,” Burns said.

Farmers overworked their fields, replacing the native deep-rooted grasses with shallower crops, and did little to stop wind erosion. A years-long drought parched the soil.

The wind-fueled dust storms swept the loose earth from the Southern Plains toward the East Coast and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

“There was a moment after several storms when FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in the White House in Washington, D.C., could move his index finger across his desk in the Oval Office and pick up Oklahoma on his fingertips,” Burns said.

The hub of the disaster was Boise City in Cimarron County, the westernmost county in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Neighboring areas — the Texas Panhandle, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico — also were among the hardest hit.

The massive dust storms peaked on April 14, 1935, a day that became known as Black Sunday. Towering columns of dust choked out the daylight, reducing visibility to a few feet in areas throughout the Dust Bowl.

“A young itinerant singer found himself in Pampa, Texas, in the midst of Black Sunday ... and everybody all around him, God-fearing Christians all, were certain that this was the end of the world,” Burns said. “And so he looked up and wrote down a song called ‘So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh.' His name was Woody Guthrie.”

Burns and his producing partner, Dayton Duncan, knew little about the Dust Bowl before they read Timothy Egan's compelling book, “The Worst Hard Time.”

(In an equally compelling review of the book, The New York Times said: “Racing at 50 miles an hour, the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s blasted paint off buildings; soil crushed trees, dented cars and drifted into 50-foot dunes. Tsunamis of grasshoppers devoured anything that drought, hail and tornadoes had spared. ... Families couldn't huddle together for warmth or love: the static electricity would knock them down.

Children died of dust pneumonia, and livestock suffocated on dirt, their insides packed with soil. Women hung wet sheets in windows, taped doors and stuffed cracks with rags. None of this really worked. Housecleaning, in this era, was performed with a shovel.”)

The book piqued their interest, and Burns and Dayton resolved to collect oral histories from the survivors and put them together into a film.

The documentary includes interviews with 26 survivors and the written accounts of two women who lived through the Dust Bowl years.

“Unlike any other story that we've told,” Burns said, “this is almost completely a bottom-up story, told by the folks who experienced it, their own memories. That's what makes this particularly special for us.”

Burns' other films have won 12 Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations.
His work includes “The Civil War,” “Baseball, The Tenth Inning,” “The War,” “Jazz” and “The West,” among others.

He was heralded in The Baltimore Sun newspaper as “not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period.”
The late historian Stephen Ambrose said, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Abandoned home with storm shelter - Boise City Oklahoma

(C) Steve Douglass

Artist: The Call
Song: Oklahoma

We were shaking in our beds that night
There were strangers in the streets that night
Preacher cried out hell has been raised
Another hot Oklahoma night
Another hot Oklahoma night

The kind of night where you just sit still
The kind of night where you just don't move

We were shaking in our beds that night
We were shaking in our boots that night

Tornado hit and the roof gave way
Tornado hit and all we could do was pray

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Part 2 : On location with Dayton Duncan and Buddy Squires - The Dust Bowl

But I digress ...

By Steve Douglass

I have a confession to make. I'm in love with our Panhandle Skies.

The depth - color and immensity of the open West never ceases to amaze me. I'm always looking up - and have so since our family moved to the Texas Panhandle in 1970.

My awareness of the sky happened soon after we had moved to Amarillo. A few weeks after we arrived - the sky opened up with a barrage of monster sized hail that beat the city almost into submission - destroying almost every roof in town, propelling grape-fruit sized hailstones horizontally through the windows of our home with the velocity of a major-league pitcher's fastest sling and stripped every tree of every leave in a matter of minutes.

I remember we had little warning in those days. Moments before the onslaught from above, I had been out in the street with my brothers and our new neighbors - playing kick the can.

Totally engrossed in our adolescent game, I hadn't noticed the sun had been blotted out by an approaching storm until I heard my mother's call. "Come on in!" - she hollered cupping her hands around her mouth to amplify her shout. "TV says a tornado is coming!"

Although I was only ten - I distinctly remember that catch of fear in her voice - which pulled me away from my game. I looked up and saw a massive blue-green cloud - rolling in from the west. It crackled with constant lightning although I could not yet hear the thunder.

It was an eerie sight - like looking into the depths of a floating electrified green pool - suspended over the city like a monster - poised to pounce.

I had never seen anything like it - and it wouldn't be until many years later (when I became a storm spotter) that I would know that green skies meant large hail and lots of it.

It seemed like we had only been inside a few seconds when the hail descended on our tiny house like a wave. I so clearly remember the horrendous sound it made - like thousands of people stomping on the roof. And then the crashing came - as hail began breaking out the skylight on the back patio and hailstones as big as a boxer's fist hurled through the windows.

Our family huddled in a windowless center room of the house - waiting for the storm to pass.It seemed like forever - but eventually it did. And then it stopped.

My older brother timidly looked out the front door to see if the hail had really stopped and in fact - it wasn't even raining. We both had to push the door open, struggling against a foot-deep drift of hail that had piled up on the walkway.

I walked outside donning my cheap plastic dime-store Army helmet - just in case any more stones fell. I cautiously stepped out into the front yard. I gasped.

Although it was June - it looked January. The ground was covered in white hailstones ranging from the size of gumballs to the size of softballs. There was a thin layer of haze hovering over the hail - like the wisps I'd seen trailing off dry-ice at the ice-cream parlor.

The temperature difference between my feet and my head was puzzling and a bit unsettling. My feet were freezing but the atmosphere around my face was warm and humid. Curious. I picked up some of the hail- examined it - sensed the solidness and the heft and showed it to my brother, who immediately chucked it into the street.

And then the sky lit up.

The setting sun had broken through clutter and bathed the backside of the retreating storm in a glorious orange light.

Strange bulbous pockets - looking not unlike bubble wrap descended from the anvil.

The round bulbs caught the sun but the space between them glowed blue. I would learn much later these strange cloud nodules were called "mammatus clouds" and were a common formation on severe storms.

And then I saw something I have not seen since. Rolling through the mammatus was a mysterious orb of blue lightning - or ball lightning - that slowly passed through and out of the top of the storm anvil.

It was (to say the least) awesome.

Ever since - I've been a sky watcher. I love storms and sunsets, dusters, and toad soakers, high winter cirrus clouds and tornado producing wall clouds, glorious sunny summer days and foggy cold winter nights. I even love our dust storms.

Yes - they an irritant and the dirt gets in the lungs and eyes - but when the sun sets into a cloud of airborne dirt - it's miraculous.

As soon as I could, I bought a camera and began documenting the Panhandle Skies.

I was thrilled the first time I was able to capture lightning on my cheap "Swinger" Polaroid camera.

I learned the secret to capturing lightning was not a fast shutter speed but a slow one. I jury-rigged the "electric eye" sensor on my Polaroid to stay open for minutes by covering it with black electrical tape.

Panhandle skies are like no other and were a major influence in my becoming a photographer.

No matter the season, our skies are often spectacular. Often violent and severe - be they filled with hail or dirt - Texas weather is hardly ever boring. I have this poetic idea I come up with to justify my sky obsession that Mother Nature is at her most beautiful - when she is angry.

"There is no bad weather - only non-photogenic weather." in my mantra.

Naturally I when I heard Ken Burns & Florentine Films was producing a documentary on the Dust Bowl, I was drawn to the project.

Dayton Duncan's lecture was an eye opener and it was a pleasure to hear him speak. It was clear this was a man who had a deep passion for history and telling it in ways that clearly defined the American experience. "We cannot define our future if we disregard the past." he said.

After Dayton Duncan's lecture I waited patiently at the end of line to meet the man and introduce myself. I purposely put my self at the end of the line so I could have a modicum of time to talk to the man without anyone behind me pressuring me to shut up and give them their face time.

I told him how much I truly loved "The National Parks - America's Best Idea." and how much I looked forward to The Dust Bowl. I told him I was a photographer - a storm chaser and handed him a DVD containing samples of my work.

I then summoned up my moxy and stepped up to the plate. I told him I was very interested in Florentine Film's Dust Bowl project and as a storm photographer I could be a big help to the project as a location scout.

From what I had heard, Florentine was already actively seeking out the Dust Bowl stories of locals who had lived through it and they would be filming in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle area that spring.

I told Dayton Duncan that I had an intimate knowledge of the back roads of this area (having traveled down many of them in pursuit of storms and knew the locations of many abandoned Dust Bowl era farms and homes. I then explained how I'd be more than happy to photograph, map and GPS tag locations making their job much easier.

I then added, "If I could be (even in a small part) associated with this project, it would be a great honor."

Dayton said the idea was intriguing and added - "We sometimes employ local photographers because they not only do they know the area - but they have an eye for the photogenic."

I left the lecture cautiously optimistic. I had given him my card and my DVD containing my portfolio and hoped for the best.

I did have second thoughts on the way home though. Had I seemed too pushy?
Who was I to ask for such an important job from such a prestigious Oscar-winning production company?

But I told myself I had the passion and you can't win at poker if you aren't at the table.

Plus- it wasn't if I hadn't any experience - I had worked with national and international film crews before having been associated with many programs produced for The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and was a writer myself having written two books - a screenplay and countless article for many magazines - so why not me?

So imagine my disappointment when a few weeks later I received in the mail the DVD I had given Dayton and a rejection letter from Florentine Films basically saying, "Thanks for you interest - but we have no job openings at this time ..."

I consoled myself by saying I tried. Life goes on and nevertheless I would look forward to the day The Dust Bowl aired.

Then two weeks later - my phone rang. I looked at the caller I.D. and it said "Ken Burns."

It couldn't be THE Ken Burns I told myself - and when I answered it - it wasn't.

It was Dayton Duncan. He said - "I was looking at your photos and must say - some of them are truly remarkable. How would you like to work as a location scout for us?"

A few months later I found myself not only on a location shoot with Dayton Duncan & Buddy Squires but entrusted with safeguarding and transporting $30k worth of exposed movie film - the bulk of all the location shots.

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