Monday, July 30, 2012

Going Against Nature

Dietrich Kalteis

     By the fall of thirty-three, the okies had skedaddled to California, the dusters having blown most of Kansas into Oklahoma. The ground became harder than the wife’s biscuits, and the only visitors were the government men in their polished shoes. They came to the Worthy farm, miles from the criss-crossing backroads that went no place special, preaching for Floyd to hang on, promising things would turn green soon enough.
     The first one to come was a fellow named Morgan, crusading for what he called the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, introducing the Worthys to his associate, Melba, representing the Farm Credit Act. Between them, Morgan and Melba hatched a financial plan, promising money would spring from the dry earth. All Floyd had to do was back their plan with Worthy assets; the bank holding the mortgage would stay on title until the good times rolled around again, then Floyd would pay them off. Simple. Their troubles were over.
     Floyd wasn’t so sure, but Hazel pulled him aside and showed him the three-burner kerosene stove she earmarked in the Sears and Roebuck, followed by the Franklin rotary sewing machine and a rocker churn. How grand life would be, Hazel near dizzy at the thought of never having to collect another cow chip for the old wood stove.
     Going against his nature, Floyd signed the paper, and the Worthys were in cream and butter once more, Hazel not having to wear her fingers thin on the old vertical plunger.
     Six months in came the mix-up with the bank. Morgan and Melba were long gone when banker Little came around talking compound interest and amortization, talking while the saliva formed at the corners of his mouth, eyes lighting when he used the word foreclosure. Prattling on about the terms being right in the fine print, Little tapped his finger on the document, asking, “Isn’t this your signature, sir? And that’s your kerosene stove, isn’t it? And your churn?”
     “Show you something else I got,” Floyd said, getting up, reaching down Orin’s old Cooey from over the fireplace. Little didn’t wait for Floyd to pull back the hammer; he was out the creaking door, calling over his shoulder about default being immediate grounds for foreclosure, dashing to the Packard as Floyd fired a round at his hood ornament.
     A week after the sheriff let Floyd out, a fellow named White drove up, got out in his polished shoes. Showing a smile and keeping his hands raised, White promised the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act would clear up Floyd’s miseries, quoting how the act restricted bankers like Little from de-possessing good folks like the Worthys of their property. The bottom line, Floyd would come away with clear title to half the original section, the house and all the equipment, including the kerosene stove, sewing machine and rocker churn. Floyd lowered the Cooey, and Hazel invited White in for lemonade and biscuits.
     Losing half the family farm wasn’t cause for celebration, but life went back to the business of farming amid the drought and dusters. When more fellows with polished shoes showed at the door, bringing new acts designed to help the poor farmer – the Taylor Grazing Act, the Drought Relief Service Act, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation Act, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the Soil Conservation Service Act – one or two of them getting a look down Orin’s Cooey barrel, Floyd thinking better of firing at any of them.
     To his mind, Floyd wasn’t the only one getting a helping hand. The day he rode into Hoxie, hoping to collect the Cooey from the sheriff for the second time, he caught sight of that fellow Morgan out front of the courthouse talking to the old boys that ran things. Morgan wasn’t crusading for the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act anymore; he wasn’t even Morgan anymore. Sticking out his hand, he introduced himself as Eugene Cobb, giving the old boys his spiel. For a fee, he swore he would bring rain by firing his patented rockets called Cobb-busters into the heavens. The percussion was meant to cause a chemical reaction in the sky, rain clouds forming out of thin air. Things would turn green before you could say Sam Hill. Claiming it worked in Laramie and Denver, Cobb promised to show documented proof along with the patent as soon as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe people found his misplaced luggage.
     And so the old boys allowed Cobb to wage war with the sky until an angry Nebraska duster whipped along his sulphur trail, bringing a good head of steam with it. When the dust settled, there was no sign of Cobb or his Cobb-busters and no sign of rain.
     Next ride into town, Floyd stopped at Tucker’s for a wet-your-throat and spied a couple of Hopi Indians out front of the courthouse, selling the old boys on a snake dance sure to bring the rains. A ritual of loincloth and beads. While one brave clenched a rattlesnake, the other waved a feathered stick, blowing smoke from a pipe and sprinkling cornmeal on the snake’s rattle. As the old boys watched the snake slither off to the netherworld in search of the rain god, the Hopis climbed into their Ford with their money and were gone, and for the second time the only thing that took a soaking was the county coffers.
     Some months later, Floyd heard a flimflam man named Endicott showed up at the courthouse with a confederate twelve pounder hitched to his truck. For a real deluge, he swore to the old boys cannon fire was needed. The old boys held back this time, promising payment upon delivery; and for three days Endicott tried to concuss rain from the cloudless sky, leaving a milk cow mad and the old boys near deaf. The only thing he struck was a neighboring windmill.
     The county was spared further artillery damage when a howling duster tore across the horizon, its terrible static electricity knocking Endicott (who refused to run) to the ground. After the funeral arrangements were made, the old boys had the sand-plugged cannon placed on the courthouse lawn as a reminder to everyone that you can’t mess with nature. It sits there to this day, next to a plaque honoring Eugene Endicott.
     It wasn’t till the fall of thirty-seven that FDR sent out the army along with the Department of Agriculture on his Shelterbelt Project. His brainchild was for the men to plant a line of drought-hardy saplings a hundred miles thick from the Canadian border al the way down to Mexico. FDR’s trees would stop any prairie duster. The same theory the French deployed when they built the Maginot line to hold back the Jerries.
     While army boys stuck saplings in the ground from one end of the country to the other, God finally showed some pity and sent the rains that finally stopped the drought and dusters. Wheat sprouted once more, and FDR declared all was well and deployed his army to the Foreign Theater, the fellows with polished shoes among them. Floyd was held back, classified as 2-B, deferred from service because an army marches on its stomach, and they needed plenty of wheat.
     By war’s ended, Floyd watched his miles of wheat turn from green to gold once more. Paying out the mortgage, he bought back the half section back from Little’s bank. Floyd was a wealthy man, free to stand waist-deep and hear the hush of miles of wheat swaying in the breeze.


Dietrich Kalteis is a writer living in West Vancouver, Canada. Over forty of his short stories have been published, and his screenplay MILKIN' DILLARD has been optioned to Bella Fe Films/Los Angeles.