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Documentary brings Dust Bowl to life

In Oklahoma, conservation is personal.

About 400 showed up at the student union at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater for an advance screening of The Dust Bowl by documentary film maker, Ken Burns. There were that many at other screenings in Altus and Woodward, and some 300 in the Panhandle town of Guymon, not far from the epicenter of what the movie describes as one of the worst ecological disasters in human history.

The film opens with an ominous wall of dust, one of many clouds that rose up to 8,000 feet and sometimes stretched for 200 miles, blocking the sun, and eventually killing young children with pneumonia.

"Let me tell you how it was," one of the survivors says. "There is now way for it be be exaggerated"

Burns' spare descriptions and stark images and film clips are as powerful as those in his previous works on the American Civil War and baseball. An elderly man still tears up describing the dust-induced death of his baby sister. Children are shown with their faces covered with rags and goggles. Bony cattle pick at plants sticking out of ripples of fine dust. Drifts of heavier sand along roadways were said to have stripped paint from cars. The screening showed excerpts from two 2-hour films that will be shown on public television stations starting on November 18.

Older Oklahomans still remember the Dust Bowl hardship and poverty that is almost unimaginable, even in the aftermath of the current Great Recession.

One of them, Pauline Hodges, who attended the Stillwater screening.

"My dad was a Dust Bowl wheat farmer. I was born in 1929 I don't remember the early start of it, but by the time I was nine, we had lost our farm. It changed our lives forever," Hodges told

Her great uncle had homesteaded in the Panhandle in 1904, but by the time her parents, Paul and Dora Arnett, arrived in the area, they had to borrow to buy their 160-acre farm.

"The first 10 years, they had bumper wheat crops, from 1921 to 1931, and the next 10 years they didn't have any," Hodges recalled.

They lost the farm to the bank. Her father took a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), helping to pave U.S. Highways 63 and 84 for $3 a day. They moved into the town of Floris, and later to Forgan when her father became a foreman, earning $5 a day.

"There were lots of days when the dust was so bad you couldn't see across the road," Hodges said. When her father came back from work, "he'd have to stop and read mail boxes to find his way home."

"Every day there were people fleeing that part of the country. Because we were right on the highway, they asked for food," Hodges said. The Arnett family had little, but her mother would put together bread and butter sandwiches, or fry potatoes. When their guests left, "she would cry and say, there but for the grace of God, go us."

Later, her father was able to return to farming, rending land from the great uncle who had homesteaded early.

But, as Hodges said during a panel discussion after the screening, "My father was never the same after that. I think it destroyed something within him."

Like many Dust Bowl survivors, Hodges seems pretty tough.

She's a teacher who once worked with at-risk students at a high school in Liberal Kansas. Some had chased a younger, new teacher out of the classroom with switchblade knives. Not Hodges.

She also once taught the well-known cattleman, Ladd Hitch of Guymon, Oklahoma to use speed reading, something that Hitch urged other farmers in the area to learn as well.

She went on to get a Ph.D at the University of Colorado and became a national leader in rural education, as well as a department chair at Panhandle State University in Oklahoma. (Here is her bio.)

Hodges was one of the Oklahoma voices speaking from Ken Burns' documentary.

During the panel discussion after the screening, she said that young people need to know more about conservation.

"Our schools are so busy testing kids that we don't talk about the land as part of our science program," Hodges said. "I'm appalled at how many people under 50 don't even know we had a Dust Bowl"

After The Dust Bowl premieres on November 18, perhaps a few more will. Here are details from the Oklahoma Network.

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