Rubin’s Dustbowl Christmas Story
It’s time for a Christmas story. In these times of overindulgence for many, but not all Americans, I thought it appropriate to tell a different kind of Christmas story. Although I’m an atheist, I still love Christmas the way I did as a child. It was a time of thanksgiving and reunion with relatives. My family was average middle class, we never went hungry and I always had enough hand me down clothes from my older brother. We lived in a small apartment in the Bronx, N.Y.C. that was sparingly heated in the day and not at all at night no matter how cold it was. We did not own a TV until every other family had one, and of course it was black and white back in the 1940s. Christmas toys were the exception; most presents were socks and underpants. We usually had a turkey for Christmas and a rock hard fruitcake for desert. Life was good and I did not complain.
But, as I grew older, I came to realize I was born at a time and in a place that spared me from the terrible years of the depression and dust bowl. I have often wondered how the poor immigrant farmers ever survived. The truth is, many of them did not survive. How quickly we have forgotten that part of American history when times were hard, very hard.
Not long ago, I had the great privilege to read the actual letters written to relatives by a family of dustbowl farmers. They left a scar in my mind that will endure till I die. The following story is about a family of German immigrants who suffered and loved through a 1934 Dustbowl Christmas.
Rubin’s Dustbowl Christmas
Kurt Klaus searched his dusty overall pockets for a pencil as he stared at the tattered calendar on the wall. The last month of the year hung lifelessly under the faded picture of a green tractor. He found the stubby pencil and chewed its end until enough lead showed to place an X over the twenty-fourth day, Christmas Eve, 1934. He couldn’t believe it.
A kerosene lantern, hung on a piece of twisted fence wire, barely gave him enough light to see so he turned to the fireplace and placed another board on the fire. He was grateful that planks from abandoned homestead buildings were plentiful and provided enough firewood for the winter.
As Kurt turned, his wife Gretchen slipped into his arms. They stood together in the flickering light and listened to the howling wind rattle the windows and door. Outside in the darkness a light snow mixed with the ever-present gray dust, and drifted against their weather beaten two-room house and attached barn.
“Another Christmas and we still have nothing.” Kurt sighed. “We should have left last year with the Guttenbergs.”
“Next year my darling, next year.” was all Gretchen could say.
Her eyes were always dry. Kurt had not seen her cry since they arrived at their Kansas homestead five years ago. Against all odds, they had managed to get the house and barn built with the help of neighbors, and borrow enough food to last the first winter. Unfortunately, the following years of drought and incessant dust storms were disastrous for the German families that were lured to America by the Homestead Act’s promise of free land and a new life.
During the bitter winters, Kurt placed both beds in the main room close to the stone fireplace for warmth. Pieces of old sheets and quilts covered the windows and door to keep out the cold wind and the dust. It was a loosing battle. The dust was everywhere, in their food, in their hair, and in their lungs. The four year-old twins and their older brother Hans coughed continuously.
The children slept together in one bed for warmth and all that could be seen of them now were a few moving lumps under the heavy quilts. They were awake, no doubt still clutching their Christmas gifts. Gretchen had made a Raggedy Ann and Andy doll for the girls and Hans loved the little toy mule with moving legs his father had carved for him.
Gretchen and Kurt could hear the children talking. Hans’ head appeared from under the quilts with the Twins’ faces right next to him.
“Daddy, we’re worried about Rubin. He’s out there in the cold all alone.”
The twins chimed in together, “Daddy, can Rubin come inside and spend the night with us… next to the fire?”
Gretchen looked up and her eyes met her husband’s. No words needed to be spoken. Kurt could see her soul through those tired blue eyes; he knew that Rubin would spend the night inside with the family. In fact, he knew it was a good idea. Like the two Airedales sleeping under the bed, Rubin was indispensable. The dogs protected the vegetable garden from the plague of rabbits and supplied their larder with more rabbit meat than they could eat, and Rubin labored all day in the ravaged fields with Kurt.
Kurt pulled on his heavy coat and went out into the howling wind to get Rubin. A few minutes later, he appeared in the doorway holding a rope that disappeared out into the darkness. Hans jumped from the bed, ran to his father, and grabbed the rope. He pulled until a shaggy head and two flaming black eyes, reflecting the fireplace, appeared from the darkness. With another yank, the big black mule cautiously stepped into the room. He looked around and whinnied softly as Hans led him over to the fireplace and tied him to a rusty railroad spike in the wall next to a pail of fresh water.
While Gretchen stirred the last of the powdered chocolate and sugar into hot water, Hans brushed Rubin’s shaggy mane and face. The dust that had caked over the eye lashes and nose of the great beast was lovingly washed off by Hans while the twins worked to comb the dust and straw from his tail. The big mule closed his eyes and lowered his head so Hans could reach his long ears.
“Why don’t you girls give Rubin his Christmas present?” The twins followed their father’s gaze to the vegetable bin and then squealed in delight as they scurried over to it. They returned with all the potatoes and turnips their little arms could carry.
The Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls and little toy mule lay forgotten under the quilts while the children lovingly hand-fed and fussed over Rubin.
“I’ve never seen the children happier.” Gretchen whispered. She snuggled into her husband’s comforting arms and laid her cheek against his chest. Kurt felt the warm wetness of her rare and precious tears through his heavy shirt. He wondered why the god that had promised them so much was no longer evident, even at Christmas.
Author’s comment: Kurt Klaus and his family somehow survived the winter and migrated westward to homestead again. At least I like to think they did. Let’s be grateful for what we have folks, but never accept the negligence of the poor by our leaders. We must elect leaders who recognize that all people are not born with equal opportunity.