Falcon Heavy, Dad, and the Kid

18 02 2018


It was 3 AM on a clear, crisp October morning in 1957 when Dad gently shook me awake and said simply, “It’s time.”

I was instantly alert, and dressing quickly, moved quietly through the house so as not to disturb Mom or my brother and sister, and met Dad in the kitchen of our home in Queens. He poured hot chocolate into matching thermoses, picked up yesterday’s New York Daily News with its stunning story, and we walked into the predawn darkness.

There was a baseball field just a block from the house, and we didn’t say a word till we stood in the middle of the outfield under a star-studded sky.

“Where will we find it, Dad?”  I asked. “How will we know which one it is?”

It was Sputnik, the world’s first man-made moon which had been launched a few days earlier from a Russian cosmodrome. In those Cold War days with duck and cover drills in my elementary school, the notion of a Soviet satellite cruising overhead – and possibly bombing us – was at first terrifying. It dominated the news and triggered scary atomic bomb drills in public schools throughout the country.

It was frightening to everyone except Dad.

To him it was an opportunity one that was not tainted by the racism and discrimination which hung like a cloud over every other occupation in America. Dad said there will be a space race to the moon and the stars, and America will need every smart person it could find to conquer space before the Russians did. If you were good in math and the sciences, he said, the sky was literally the limit.

This was the year after he had “passed” the NY Bar exam on his 5th try. New York had a rule that only the top two blacks who passed the bar could be admitted to the bar. The third time he took the exam he “failed” with a score of 92 – though passage for whites was 65 – but he was 4th among the blacks who took the exam. But he persisted until he couldn’t be denied.

To Dad, space was an untainted field, an arena with no good ole boys blocking the gates. Space was the future for those who were prepared. So there we were in the pre-dawn hours, looking at a story in the Daily News about Sputnik which said it would be passing over NY sometime between 3:30 AM and 4 AM and look like a slow-moving star. And there was a picture of the sky over the Empire State Building with an arrow showing the projected path of this new thing in the sky.

We thought we saw it right about 3:30, though it was headed in the wrong direction. But then Dad said no, that’s a plane and before long we could hear the drone of the propellers as it came in for a landing at LaGuardia Airport. Dad killed the time by asking questions: what kinds of skills were needed to put a rocket with people into space? Who designs it? What kind of wind machine do you need to test the design? How big is it? What do you do for fuel? How do you carry something that burns, like oil, and oxygen without blowing yourself up? Who makes that, a chemist or a pharmacist?

Whenever Dad wanted to me to consider something he’d start with a train of questions, each intended to lead my eight-year-old brain through a logical train till I was able to draw and support a conclusion. In this case, he wanted me to see possibilities in something that didn’t exist outside the pages of Analog, the science fiction magazine.

And then, suddenly, Dad pointed and said: “isn’t that one moving?”

And I followed his arm to a spot low on the horizon and there, in a cluster of stars, one was out of place. It was moving. There was no drone from an engine, no blinking landing lights. Just a slow moving star crossing the Fonda Avenue neighborhood ballfield where a black man and his son stood transfixed at this glimpse of the future till it disappeared on its solitary journey around the globe.

Then we dove into Dad’s question game during the short walk back home. What would it cost and who could keep track of the money and all the parts? Would they need accountants like Mom? Wouldn’t they have to allow black accountants? Dad thought they would – that space was a new frontier and jim crow wasn’t invited.

I wanted to continue but Dad insisted I get a couple of hours sleep before school. I headed towards the stairs and then stopped, turned and said “Dad, I’m going to be a rocket scientist.”

Sleep was impossible, of course. The excitement of stepping into a whole new world, and getting in on the ground floor where you make the rules as you go along had my brain ablaze with possibilities and the determination to succeed.  It was still with me a decade later in the aeronautical engineering program at the University of Michigan. But there I was introduced to journalism, and found I liked writing about the impact of technological development on society more than making that technology.

So the notion of being a rocket scientist was shelved. But the feeling of excitement from that October morning was reawakened when I covered the first Space Shuttle flight from NASA headquarters in Houston. And during a lull in the activities, I called Dad to reminisce. And then the memory of that special morning on the baseball field went back on the shelf, and I went on to spend 50 years in journalism.

And on the shelf it remained. Until this week.

I watched, transfixed, as the booster engines from Falcon Heavy separated and made their precision turn and choreographed double landing at the Cape. 60 years dropped away and I was again that eight-year-old under a long-gone sky watching the future slowly open across the predawn darkness. I was again looking at the limitless possibilities opening up with space travel through the limitless heavens.

And I realized I was crying, and wishing Dad was alive to see this with me.


Morality, Race, and Chemical Assaults in Syria

7 04 2017
Tomahawk launch from USS Ross

Tomahawk Launch from USS Ross

By Roger Witherspoon

In 2013, President Assad launched a massive gas attack on civilians which killed more than 1,400 men, women, and children.  President Obama was both horrified and angry and sought legal authorization from the gop-controlled Congress to launch a military strike against Syria.

The Republicans, who had criticized many Obama initiatives as “overreaching,” unauthorized and illegal, declined to grant approval. They were encouraged in their position by Donald Trump, who had seen newspaper still photos — sanitized for American audiences — of the chemical attack. Trump repeatedly said the US has “no business” in Syria and the use of chemical weapons there was not our problem. More than once the prolific Trump tweeted “stay out!”

That attitude didn’t change with the regular use of barrel bombs (http://bit.ly/2oGZg7S ) which have killed thousands of Syrian men, women, and children.  There were videos and still pictures of destroyed neighborhoods and assorted bodies sticking out of what used to be apartment buildings. But they didn’t earn a 3 AM tweet. Syrian barrel bomb's little victims

And that was understandable: why should a Caucasian billionaire give a damn about a bunch of Muslim babies dying in a Syrian street? And why would a rich white man who associated freely with white supremacists ever side with a black President over a moral issue?

In the ensuing years, on the other side of the globe, thousands of Muslim Rohingya men, women, and children have been slaughtered by Buddhist mobs and military in Myanmar and Thailand.  Thousands of Rohingya tried to flee on overloaded boats, only to be pushed further out to sea to die by navy vessels from surrounding countries whose captains viewed Muslims as vermin to be exterminated.

To this, Trump has said nothing. But then, it was a bunch of Muslims being killed by a bunch of slopes — nothing for a white man to bother tweeting about.

A vulture's patience in South Sudan

In South Sudan there were horrific pictures of men, women, and children being massacred or starving in an ongoing civil war. There were some photos of desiccated bodies rotting in the sun, and others of reed-thin waifs (  http://bit.ly/2nJTQnz  ),    their empty bellies bloated, being held to the last by emaciated mothers with no milk to give.

The incoming president, during the course of his world briefs, would have had these photos if he cared to look at them and thick dossiers if he cared to read them. But then, a bunch of black women and children dying in the African sun was hardly worth a white man’s tweet.

Which brings us to April, 2017. As it happens President Trump, as usual roaming the mansion bored and alone, was looking at late night television and saw real time videos of men, women, and children dying in the streets of Syria from the same type of gas attack launched by the same murderous President Assad four years ago. The videos these 70 victims were riveting, a stark difference from the static photo or two in a local newspaper four years earlier. It didn’t matter that in terms of scale, this brutal assault killed just 5% as many as the 2013 attack he dismissed with a tweet.

This time, there was no black president to automatically oppose. This time, there was no opposition Congress to interfere.  This time, Trump actually looked at the videos — and found it difficult to turn away from the haunting scene: a woman’s writhing, uselessly flailing limbs that eventually stop in death; the straining, heaving chest of children starving for air until their little bodies give up and the heaving slows and then stops forever — children light-skinned enough to evoke images of his own grandchildren.

And that was enough for Trump to loose the weapons of war ( http://bit.ly/2p7XN6G ).

The launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase came less than a week after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the official policy of the United States was that President Trump didn’t give a damn how many people were slaughtered in Syria’s one-sided, uncivil war. A generation ago, Assad’s father secured control of the country by the brutal slaughter of some 20,000 Syrians.  Assad has improved on that level of butchery, with more than half a million dead citizens to his credit as he seeks to kill anyone who isn’t part of his minority sect and a sycophant blindly supporting him. With Tillerson’s announcement, the President of the United States gave Assad permission to continue his murderous ways, secure in the knowledge that America would neither question his morality nor interfere in his slaughter.

But then, there was late night television and the images that Trump couldn’t get out of his head. It would be encouraging to think that the immorality of Assad’s chemical war offended Trump. But that’s unlikely in a man who boasts of sexually assaulting women and openly disdains morality. It would be encouraging to think that as President, Trump realizes America has a longstanding role in the world to oppose evil and could not ignore this brazen violation of civilized norms. But that would be counter to his longstanding position of “America First” and the rest of the world can go to hell. It would be encouraging to think that Trump sat down with all the long-term experts at the State Department to understand America’s role in the face of this reviled throwback to World War 1. But then, Trump fired all the State Department experts.

Which brings us back to skin color.

The man who schemed to avoid serving his country saw Death in Syria stalk scores of women and children who looked like his, and felt compelled to order other Americans’ children into the breach to avenge them. As a parent , I understand the revulsion at the chemical attack. But then, as a father and grandfather I understood it in 2013.

But as a black father whose child is serving her country overseas, I wish I had confidence that decisions that could again place her in harm’s way were based squarely on the morality of the situation and the role of America in a dangerous world and not on the ability of the President to identify with the color of a foreign victim’s skin.

Black History Lost and Found

3 02 2016

by Roger Witherspoon

On Monday, Feb. 1, the New York Times started a Black History Month series of photographs of black life in America in general and the civil rights movement in particular, called “Unpublished Black History.” These were photos taken by NYT photographers that never appeared in the Times, though in many cases, unadorned stories were published.

( http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/us/unpublished-black-history.html )

The text accompanying the two-page spread said, in part “Photographers for The Times captured these moments, but then the pictures and negatives were filed away in our archives, where they sat for decades…”

There is no definitive explanation for the Times’ decision not to run the photos of Black men, women and children, professionals and blue collar workers, the glamorous and the mundane, Americans all, going about their daily lives.

The Times said, accurately, that they used to put more emphasis on words instead of pictures. They did earn the nickname The Grey Lady.  But that wouldn’t explain why a story about the fire-bombing of Malcolm X’s apartment would not have the accompanying photo to show how close his family came to dying. Or why another didn’t show the thousands of Black men and women who participated in the first March on Washington in 1957. And why they chose to forego countless other pictures that would enhance the written word.

The present editors do say that “holes in our visual coverage probably reflect the biases of some earlier editors. They determined who was newsworthy, and not, at a time when black people were marginalized in society and in the media…”

Unfortunately, that half acknowledgement of the possibility of institutional racism throughout the NY Times for decades is not covered by weasel words about what might have occurred. The stain of racism was as much an indelible part of the news media in general – including the Times – as was the ink, overflowing ash trays and paste-pots that littered the newsrooms. Photographers routinely covered events knowing that their work would never see the light of day.

That was especially true in the South, where some papers carried an occasional “Negro page” featuring acceptable events like Negro Day at the State Fair,  while the rest of the paper either ignored Blacks or openly decried “nigger agitators.”

I first encountered this photo blackout in the early ‘80s when I was working on my first book, “Martin Luther King, Jr…to the Mountaintop,” a history of the civil rights movement and its most charismatic leader. Diana Clyne, my photography researcher, tracked down retired newspaper photographers from Birmingham, Alabama to St. Augustine, Fla., who were only too happy to go into their attics and pull down boxes of photos they took during the tumult of the ‘60s, knowing their papers would never publish them.

While southern papers were open in their journalistic racism, that sentiment was the same on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. All of the New York City newspapers had separate and unequal pay scales for white and black journalists – if they had black journalists at all. The Times didn’t drop that practice until around 1979, and the rest followed in the mid-80s after the NY Daily News lost a costly discrimination lawsuit.

And many northern papers followed the unwritten rule that only white reporters could cover racial disputes. That is the reason why the world knows that three members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney – were kidnapped near Philadelphia, Mississippi on June 21, 1964 and killed. The public was not informed that there were three other SNCC workers kidnapped and killed – the youngest a 14-year-old boy who was beaten to death – because they were black and didn’t count. It is questionable that northern newspapers would have mentioned Chaney at all if he hadn’t been with the two white victims.  The track record was that black lives did not matter to the nation’s media.

And while even the hint of terrorism is major news today – if it is by Muslims, not if it is by armed white men in Oregon or Oklahoma – it was not widely reported or photographed that the final toll for Mississippi Summer was 6 murdered, 35 shot, 80 beaten, 1,000 arrested, 30 homes bombed, and 35 churches torched. White Mississippi was in open, murderous, rebellion, but terrorism by white Christians was not reportable or camera-ready news .

A half century later, the NY Times is to be commended for publishing the photos it refused to publish when they were timely and newsworthy. Perhaps other papers will follow their lead, and comb their archives and, belatedly, show their readers the diverse multi-cultural world that many still know little about. Perhaps some of their readers would realize that the aspirations black and white parents have for their kids are not that different after all.

But it is unfortunate the Times did not take one more cleansing step and see fit to more accurately disclose the institutional racism it – and the rest of the news media – has finally overcome.

Chris Christie’s Pity Party

10 01 2014

Gov Chris Christie - downcast

By Roger Witherspoon


“I’m Stunned.”

“I’m Incredulous.”

“I’m a sad guy.”

“I’m humiliated.”

“What did I do wrong to have people think they could lie to me?”


With that Chris Christie – who prefers everyone to genuflect and call him THE GOVERNOR – stood alone on a podium and did something that was, to observers, stunning and incredulous.  He acted almost like a normal politician.

He answered questions without his trademark snarl. He answered repeated queries without telling reporters to shut up, change the subject, or resorting to crude name calling.  For once, he wasn’t a hulking schoolyard bully.  And he admitted that he had been wrong and his callous disregard for mounting evidence, his disdain for legitimate inquiries, and his derisive, mocking comments had not been warranted.

But what was most stunning about The Governor’s prayerful pity party was that he spent two hours expressing incredulity and remorse because his staff and political henchmen and women lied to him. He was not chagrinned that they lied to the people of New Jersey. He was not chagrinned that they played a mean-spirited, dangerous political prank on hundreds of thousands of people using the George Washington Bridge or living and working in Fort Lee. He was not chagrinned that they deliberately blocked firemen, police, and ambulances from serving people in need in Fort Lee. He was not chagrinned that they lied about possibly contributing to the death of a 91-year-old woman who did not get emergency medical attention as soon as possible.

No, that was not the priority.  Today was all about Chris Christie, The Governor. What mattered first and last with The Governor was that his chosen operatives and representatives, who acted and bullied in his name had, apparently, misled him.

The question he should have asked was this:

“What did I do wrong to have people think they could play with the lives of the citizens of New Jersey?”

If he had, just once, indicated that that was his primary concern, then maybe it would be possible to accept his oft-repeated apology to the people of New Jersey. The atmosphere which Christie created, and which his operatives thrived in, was a mean-spirited, spiteful, above-the-law, us vs. them, winner take all political hothouse in which the only thing that truly mattered was continually elevating the national stature of Chris Christie.

What was evident as one watched Christie’s televised tour de farce, was a desperate despot throwing one close friend after another overboard to keep his rickety political lifeboat afloat. There was his “stupid” and “deceitful” deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly. Really? If she was that bad, how had she continued amassing ever higher titles with increasing amounts of authority as she sat a couple of feet from him on a daily basis?

And Bill Stepien, who ran his successful reelection campaign and who he named earlier this week to head the state Republican Party and serve as his point man at the National Republican Governors’ Conference, an organization intended to be Christie’s springboard to national office.  Stepien was suddenly “no longer trustworthy” according to the governor.  Really?

Christie would have us believe that in the space of five years two people who were his closest confidants, who helped twice put him in the governor’s office, and created the image and record that is enabling him to seriously consider running for President of the United States morphed into petty political tricksters without his knowing about it. They worked right next to Christie and felt it was fine to plan and implement a traffic jam that tied up most of the city of Fort Lee for four days. They worked right next to him and saw nothing wrong with blocking kids from their first days at school, or commuters from getting to work or emergency workers from getting to those in dire need.

And then there was David Wildstein, and Bill Baroni his top two appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Wildstein was usually referred to as the Governor’s longtime friend, dating back to their years in high school.

But there was Christie, sincerely declaring that “I barely knew David in high school…We ran in different circles.” To hear him tell it, they rarely spoke. But if their connection was that tenuous, why did he appoint Wildstein to a six-figure job with few specified duties other than to carry out the wishes of the Governor? So how did his classmate act in office?

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Kelly in an August 13 email to Wildstein.

“Got it.” Wildstein replied.

On September 9 Wildstein ordered Port Authority staff to close two lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge, causing the traffic backup that tied up the bridge and the town.

George Washington Bridge - NY Daily News

A cryptic message like that could not have been made in a vacuum. There must have been preliminary discussions about ways to cause havoc in Fort Lee to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Republican Christie’s reelection.  How could such a discussion and planning take place without Christie knowing about it?  Just what sort of tone did he set as governor?

Christie announced he was going to Fort Lee right after his press conference to personally apologize to Sokolich.  That move would have seemed a lot more sincere if he had first called Sokolich and asked if he could meet with him instead of just showing up and expecting the Mayor to drop everything and cater to Christie’s televised moment of simulated sincerity.

There is something unseemly about a man who claims to run an honest organization and demands unwavering loyalty from his well-rewarded staff and then deliberately trashes their reputations and publicly disgraces them in an effort to salvage his own wavering prestige. At least the mobsters he used to prosecute considered loyalty a two-way street.

From the comments in his two hour apologia, Christie wants people to believe he will be spending quite a bit of time in introspection, pondering how all this could have happened to him. He is “hurt” and “humiliated” by the actions of those around him. He is a victim of their deceit.

What nonsense.

Christie has spent the past four years reveling in the well-deserved reputation as a bully and street fighter, one who is quick with insults and penalties to anyone who challenges him – a politician,  a probing journalist, and frequently when convenient, a teacher.

The only victims in this sad political tale are the residents of New Jersey.

The only question Christie should be asking during this period of introspection is why someone like him deserves to retain the respected title of The Governor.

Gov  Christie -


The Dust Bowl: America’s Greatest Ecological Disaster

17 11 2012


By Roger Witherspoon


          “A decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions ensued, with swarms of grasshoppers and hordes of rabbits descended on the fields. The land itself that they had counted on for their prosperity turned on them with a lethal vengeance.”


The scenes are stark. The understated narrator is grim. The music provides the mournful undercurrent of the lone violin, tuning up for a dance that never comes. The setting befits a world coming to an end.

This is “The Dust Bowl”, the latest in the string of gripping documentaries by now legendary film maker Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, his long-time co-producer, historian, and writer. The two-part, four-hour documentary begins airing on Public Broadcasting Stations Sunday night.

It is a subject that nearly everyone in America has heard of. But the details and the personal triumph and tragedy of that epoch are wholly unknown to many. It was premiered before a stunned group of about 500 members of the Society of Environmental Journalists last month, a fitting setting for what the film bills in its opening sequence as “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history. The heedless actions of thousands of farmers, encouraged by their government, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

And it is different from Burns’ previous documentaries such as “The Civil War” in one significant way: the tale is largely told by living survivors, instead of actors reading the letters of participants long since dead. In that regard, Burns and Duncan have crafted and brilliantly meshed together two companion features.

The first is the stark tale of the creation of the conditions that resulted in the environmental disaster that is the title of the documentary, and shows how close America came to creating a permanent Sahara Desert in what was its breadbasket.

The second, as the narrator intones, “Is a story of heroic perseverance, of a resilient people who somehow managed to endure of unimaginable hardship after another, to hold onto their lives, their land, and the ones they loved.”

And that perseverance occurred in “a place where children couldn’t go outside, where the air could kill you, where the dirt could blacken out the sky at midday.”

“We saw this cloud coming in. Black, black dirt. And I’ll never forget my grandmother. She said ‘you kids run and get together. The end of the world’s coming.’ It came like a black wall, choking the life out of everything in its path…”

–Pauline Robinson, Union, New Mexico

The Dust Bowl evolved from the utter destruction of the western prairies, flatlands running from Nebraska to Texas that were anchored by endless miles of prairie grasses.  Donald Worster, an environmental historian at the University of Kansas who is quoted extensively in the film, said the grasses evolved over the millennial for the particular western environment. Their roots extended down to five feet or more, holding the soil in a region which rarely got 20 inches of rainfall annually and nourishing the vast herds of buffalo in a land with few trees.

In the latter part of the 19th century the buffalo were slaughtered to near extinction as part of a government program to kill off the main food supply of the Plains Indians and, as a result, destroy most of the regions Native Americans.

Then, early in the 20th century, Congress enlarged the Homestead Act, making it possible for Americans who previously had nothing – European immigrants to white southern sharecroppers – to own land and become relatively rich from the newly opened farmland anchored by the nexus of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and the Texas Panhandle. Curiously, Burns omits the fact that Blacks, who would have benefited as much as poor whites from homesteading, were not welcome in a region dominated by the KKK. Indeed, in October, 1921 the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Black community of 10,000, was burned to the ground and hundreds of men, women, and children murdered by a white mob led by the KKK and local police.

The land was the incentive to aspiring farmers. Then, government experts told the new arrivals that removing the prairie grasses would allow more rain to penetrate the soil, making it more fertile. Further, the government said mechanization was the best way to farm.

As a result, instead of using the single, deep-furrowed plow, the new farmers used tractors with scores of blades which lightly cut through the topsoil in long rows. The film contains vintage footage showing hundreds of tractors in a horizontal conga line turning age old prairie grasslands into endless rows of wheat. The farmers were not oblivious to the environment: they were following pronouncements from government scientists that the soil was “indestructible…and cannot be used up.”

As Caroline Henderson would tell the film makers, “I saw the whole country transformed in a sunset glow. All the brown prairie turned to gold. I could feel once more the lure of this once lonely land.”

That transformation came to be known as “The Great Plow-Up” and, according to historian Worster, lay at the heart of the predictable calamity to follow.

“The Dust Bowl ranks among the top three or five environmental catastrophes in world history,” says Worster in the film. “But those catastrophes took place over hundreds and even thousands of years of deforestation. We created a world class environmental disaster in a matter of 40 or 50 years.”

With the outbreak of World War 1, the government encouraged farmers to plant more wheat in support of the war effort, and set minimum prices which, in turn, encouraged farmers to plow up more and more thousands of square miles of prairie and supplant them with row upon row of wheat.

As is typical from Burns, the photography is stunning with a deft intermingling of modern scenes of the region with historical footage.  Then, there are the people.


          Duncan, in an interview, said that “Ken taped appeals that appeared on public television stations in Oklahoma, Amarillo, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. The appeals said if you or your family have photographs and stories you’d like to tell, please contact this station.  The stations then passed the contact names onto us.”

They also went to local historical societies, nursing homes, senior citizens’ centers and held discussions about the Dust Bowl period, and found people who lived through it or knew others who had.

“We also had fliers like the old military recruiting fliers. But these said ‘Ken Burns Wants You and Your Stories about the Dust Bowl.’ And people responded.”

The sight of a roiling wall of dirt 10,000 feet high is stunning enough. These were not simple storms, either. There were the small, localized storms, like land-based water spouts. Then there were the slow lingering ones, which basically created a haze over an entire region. And then there were the monsters that turned day to night and could literally last for weeks.

But what brings that picture to life are the people who were there.

There are women like Caroline Henderson, who would eventually own a square mile of land and a two-story home with an indoor bathroom, describing the “almost level prairie, the marvelous glory of its sunrise and its sunsets, the brilliancy of its starlit sky at night…”

Henderson started her homestead in a one-room shack with her two cats that she called “her castle,” and in an era when there wasn’t much electricity.  She later added a windmill to bring up water for her flocks of chickens and turkeys and made additional money by writing about the western plains for the Atlantic Monthly.

The farmers thought they were separate from the rest of the country and immune from its problems. The stock market crash of October 1929 triggered a depression, but it was the best year ever for wheat farmers.

But by 1931, the commodities market crashed and the government asked farmers to reduce the amount of wheat they would plant, to help keep supply down and prices up. Instead, farmers stripped more land and grew more wheat, resulting in a bumper crop in 1932. It was a crop no one could afford to buy.

The farmers had a myopic way of thinking. Clarence Beck, who farmed in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, during the period, said “You kept thinking that tomorrow things would change. So you kept doing what you had been doing. That tomorrow there would be some things that we could do that would be a little better than the way they are.  You couldn’t live without hoping that things would change for the better.”

It was a common refrain. Wayne Lewis, of Beaver County, Oklahoma, added “We always had hope that next year was going to be better, and even this year was going to be better. We learned slowly, and what didn’t work, you tried it harder the next time. You didn’t try something different; you just tried it harder, the same thing that didn’t work.”

And they plowed up more grassland. And they planted more wheat. And the dust storms grew.


Henderson would recall “of all our losses, the most distressing is the loss of our self-respect. How can we feel that our work has any dignity or importance when the world places so low a value on the product of our toil?”

“It was a time when the most diligent of mothers was unable to stop the dirt from killing their children. It was a place where children couldn’t go outside, where the air could kill you, where the dirt could blacken out the sky in midday.”

Among the haunting images in “The Dust Bowl” are those of children, wrapped from head to toe in rags to keep the sand from scouring them as they headed off to school. And sand makes it hard for adults to breathe, and for children to live.

Robert ‘Boots’ McCoy or Texas County, Oklahoma, recalled that when the first major dust storm came, “it scared us to death. We didn’t know what to think. We was at home and Dad was gone…

“When it hit in the middle of the day it was just like midnight, with no stars. It scared the heck out of us. Mother was praying and we stayed pretty close to Ma.”

His Mother was praying because she was pregnant with twins, who were delivered during the midst of the storm. “They couldn’t breathe, though, and died that same day,” recalled McCoy. “A neighbor went to the store and got some number 12 shoe boxes and we got some cotton and put the boys in those shoeboxes and that’s how they were buried.”

And then, there were the Coen brothers, Floyd and Dale, from southwestern Kansas. They sat side by side, talking calmly into the camera about what it was like before and after the storms came.

“When times were good,” recalled Dale, “it was so lush that we would sleep outside under the stars.”

But then the storms came, said Floyd, “and you felt like it was going to crush you.” And he talked about the bed they shared with their little sister Rena, age two, who had more and more troubled breathing in the ever-present dust. They watched as she gasped more and more for air and then, at two and a half, she died.

And they were silent for a minute. And Floyd cried.

“It was an incredible and heartbreaking story,” said Duncan. “And it’s amazing how they – now in their late 80s and 90s – told the story as if it happened the day before. That’s how raw and vivid the memory was for them.”

It is a raw and vivid and extraordinarily well executed documentary that makes viewers marvel at the overpowering strength of nature unleashed, the arrogance and folly of crafting policies designed to tame the environment rather than live with it, and the resilience of those live through such a preventable disaster and rebuild their lives.

Much of the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy resulted from years of over development in low-lying areas without provisions for inevitable floods, and political posturing that ignores ongoing climate change.  For nearly a decade, the region has had studies showing that rising sea levels would result in Category 1 hurricanes having the destructive impact of a Category 4 hurricane because they were starting from a higher sea level and the winds would cover a bigger area. A 2004 report from NASA and the Columbia University Earth Institute even predicted flooding of the subways and tunnels from what would become regular, rather than once-in-a-lifetime storms (  http://rogerwitherspoon.com/pdfs/enviro/risingwater.pdf  ) .

The fact that nothing was done about it is all too familiar. “The Dust Bowl” revealed there was a series of droughts followed by dust storms in 1951 and 1952. These weren’t as severe as the earlier storms because about half the farmers had changed their methods. They were planting windbreaks and prairie grass between discreet wheat fields instead of planting nothing but wheat as far as the eye could see.  But those who didn’t mend their ways, or didn’t believe the cycle of drought and wind could come again, saw they farms blow away.

“After the ‘50s,” said Duncan, “there is an additional wrinkle. The technology was developed that allows the whole region, from Nebraska to Texas, to dip into the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate their land. That encouraged many farmers to cultivate corn, which requires more water than does what.

“There are a lot of concerns that they will deplete the Ogallala, and that water is not from last year’s rainfall, but from glaciers that retreated 10,000 years ago. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Good Night, Kids: Good Night, Gill

9 06 2011


“Was there a touch of spring

in the air?

And did she have a pink dress on?

Wasn’t your first love

A very precious time?


            It was predictable that the accolades to the late poet and singer, Gill Scott-Heron, focused on his political commentary and searing insight to the tenor of America’s transitional era of 1960-80. His “We Almost Lost Detroit,” about the partial meltdown at the Fermi nuclear power plant was as valid then as it was prescient, 12 nuclear meltdowns later, in this year of Fukushima Daiichi.

But there were two Gill Scott-Herons: the social commentator, and the romantic poet.

And for a single father raising two young girls, the overlooked romantic was an integral part of their upbringing. One of the advantages of being a poet is that no one criticizes you for lacking a singing voice. And to two young girls, the raspy, earnest, off-key, note-breaking Scott-Heron was just another Dad, but one who had a backup band. Which meant he was the perfect musician for me to join in the nightly ritual of singing them to sleep.

His ballad, “A Precious Time,” from his Winter in America album was all about the wonder of first love. But Brie, my youngest, and Kir, four years her senior, were too young to know that.  But they did have pretty pink dresses they pulled out for Easter, in a spring ritual that accompanied the blossoming of the dogwood and cherry trees.

“And when she smiled

Her shy smile

Could you almost

Touch the warm?”


            A closing line which would inevitably prompt a “you like our smiles and dresses, don’t you Daddy?”

“Yes Dear. You have pretty smiles.  Now close your eyes.”

Scott-Heron had a ballad for all occasions; something to fit the stories of Blacks in America as told by me or their elders. Their Great Grandfather, Walker Smith – or GG-Pop – gave them several books on  Black Cowboys and regaled them with tales of how his grandfather, the first Walker Smith, wielded a rifle and sword, rode with the Pennsylvania Cavalry, and pretty much won the Battle of Gettysburg single handedly. So when Gill’s gunpowder-rough voice intoned:

“Brother Man run to Nebraska

After the Civil War was through…

Rootin’ tootin’ Wild West shootin’ up Brothers!

Though his-story don’t teach us none…”


they would pipe up from the covers about GG-Pop’s cowboy books and how much they liked riding horses. And if it was a scorcher in August, or the holiday season after Thanksgiving, they wanted to hear me and Gill in a duet on “Winter in America” which, to adults, dealt with the Republican push-back against civil rights but to the kids brought cheerful images of snowy days and family gatherings at Christmas.

And the concerts always ended the same way, with two melodies that signified all was well: “A Lovely Day,” and “Your Daddy Loves You.” The first one said look to the bright side for all would be well, regardless of what happened during the day:

“On a clear spring morning

There’s not a cloud in the sky

…when I see that old sun shining

Makes me think that I can make it through

Yes. And all I really want to say

Is that the problems come and go

But the sunshine seems to stay.

Just look around. I think we found

A lovely day. 

          And the latter, with its refrain: “Your Daddy loves you. Your Daddy loves his girls,” simply meant all was right in the world and Daddy would fix whatever was broken. For years, if they woke up in the middle of the night shaking from a terrible nightmare, a brief concert of just those two songs would chase the looming monsters away. “A Lovely Day” would erase the shakes, and they would be asleep by the end of “Your Daddy Loves You.”

The nightly concerts faded away as they became “big girls.” But growing up does not eliminate nightmares – especially the real ones.  At age 15 Brie needed cancer surgery – a prospect that would scare an adult and terrified a 10th grader. Kir, then a college freshman, missed coming home for the surgery because she was in intensive care in a California hospital, where doctors tried to reduce the swelling of her brain stem from meningitis. Brie cried that she wouldn’t live to graduate from New Jersey’s Teaneck High School. Kir cried over the phone that the pain was unbearable and she wouldn’t live to see tomorrow.

          A day after the surgery, Brie was in bed and Kir came home on a medical flight.  As I prepared to leave their room, Kir said softly:

“Daddy, would you sing to us?”

So I got out the records, and began the familiar duet of Gill and Me till they were resting comfortably and I could ease out the door.

A decade later, Kir is married and raising a family in Virginia while Brie is one of many civilian engineers working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan. It’s after 10 P.M. on a Friday night this past February, and my wife and I are at a reception for Jeff Johnson, a sculptor in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., whose latest show opened to critical acclaim. My cell phone rang. It was from Brie, and she did not sound good.

I found a quiet corner in Johnson’s wood working studio and asked what the problem was.

“We’re in Code Black,” Brie said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s when we have to grab our Kevlar and run for the bunker and wait till the Marines say it’s all clear.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“A bomb went off under my window.  Do you have time to chat?”

She had gone to Afghanistan just before Christmas and this was an ongoing nightmare she had no control over. So I sat on the floor and we talked about stuff: Kir’s pregnancy, my writing, the antics of her three cats now ensconced in my library till she returns.  Then, from an underground bunker a half a  world away:

“Daddy, will you sing to me?”

So I sat on floor, amidst the sawdust, leaned against the sturdy legs of Johnson’s workbench and, going without the aid of Scott-Heron’s raspy voice and tight music to keep me somewhere near tune, sang “A Lovely Day” followed by “Your Daddy Loves You.”

Brie was silent for a moment.

Then: “Thank you Daddy. Enjoy the party.”

And with that, she was gone.


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