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

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...