The Dirty Days
Wow, what a giant step from the poverty of the 1930s Dust Bowl to a 2014 upscale restaurant with delicious leftovers.
The young woman shown in the background, my granddaughter ‘elect’ and mother of the two young children pictured (my great grandchildren), set a good example when she asked for take-home boxes for the leftovers.
She was thinking of her husband (my grandson) who would be arriving home tired and hungry later that night from his job as an airline pilot.
I’m so grateful to have such wonderful family! Also pictured, my daughter and my husband, Bob.
Bob and I at his 90th birthday party last October!
My birthday is later this month and I will be 89 years old. Since I first published my book THE DIRTY DAYS two years ago, many have asked me if I would go back and change anything about my life if I could. My answer is usually well, yes–but then again, maybe not. So many of the events that changed my life forever were never under my control. I was born the oldest child of a tenant farmer during one of the most difficult times in our country’s history. A great depression, the dust bowl, and then WWII. All of these events had a profound effect on who I was and would become.
As a result of our hard times, I learned the importance of friends and family (on whom we often relied), the necessity for resilience and tenacity (giving up was not an option), the need for charity and faith (someday things were going to get better–they just had to). My daddy and mother taught me integrity, the value of hard work, frugality, and pull-togetherness.
Do I wish my little baby sister had not died, causing my daddy to weep behind the house so no one would see him; or my mother seemingly lost and inconsolable over a tragic death that could have been prevented had we had the money to seek the best medical help possible? Do I wish I could have had store-bought dresses to wear and bakery-bread sandwiches to eat? Do I wish I could have had enough to eat–so often I went to bed hungry, yet never told my folks. Yes, yes, yes, and yes!
What I did have was a close-knit family that worked together, played together, grieved together, and stayed together. There’s no question I grew up with more hardship than I’m fond of remembering, but I also grew up in a house filled with love, courage, and hope. Would I ever want to change that–of course not!
Just some observations from a woman who has lived 89 years–and I’m looking forward to stacking up my 9th decade!
It couldn’t have been a better time and place. It was an exceptionally balmy April 11, 2014, and I was the guest in Stillwater High School teacher Peter Schield’s Junior English classes. Fresh spring air wafted gently though the open classroom windows, and much to their credit, the students conveyed very pleasant vibes as they entered the room, then later with their ‘thank you’ and/or pleasant nods as they exited the classroom. I so appreciated their polite withholding the desire to be sitting outside in the sunny breeze, or strolling in the park with a friend.
They had recently completed a unit of study on John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which depicts a poor Oklahoma family who migrates to a far less pleasant time and place in California than the students could scarcely imagine; and I, their guest speaker, was there to tell them what it was like for those who didn’t leave the Oklahoma Dust Bowl——an experience unfortunately equally unpleasant. And I did share some of my experiences.
After my presentation, students asked some thought-provoking questions. Here are some of them: Did you have hope? What kind of food did you eat? Did a poisonous spider or insect ever bite you? It was very dry, so where did you get your water? Did you ever want to go ride the rails? What was your clothing like? Did you ever want to move to California? What did you do for fun? What was the saddest thing you experienced?
There were more, but I think these “from their perspective” questions exemplify the range of thoughts these students had about my experiences. I hope you enjoyed this peek into the minds of this very nice group of teens, who made that day for me, one of the most beautiful days in the twilight years of my life.
You might wonder why I chose to go to Greece, and I would tell you up front that I didn’t just bop off to Greece for the summer. Truth is, Scholastic, the publisher, sponsored a summer session in Greece, which was strictly for teachers. Scholastic named the program Scholastic International and the course title was Classical Civilization. The first half of the session would be at the university in Thessalonica, the settlement to which Paul sent his (and other’s) writings, titled Letters to the Thessalonians. It is located in northern Greece not very far from Mount Olympus.
The second half of the session would be held at the University of Athens where we would continue our study of ancient Greek history and visit additional sites we would study. Of course there would be numerous photo opportunities for us, including shots of Greek folk dancing, all gleaned in order to enrich our future teacher lesson plans.
And so, after the quick-study student pictured with me to the left had proved how easily the dance could be learned, all the student desks were moved to the back of the room so that the entire class could do the grapevine step in a line dance, then a circle dance that looked pretty authentic. Some students expressed how ready they now were to study Oedipus Rex, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Of course the rhythm of the tape recording of Greek folk dance music I had purchased while in Greece added to the feel of authenticity.
Those of you who have read my book The Dirty Days based on my life growing up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depression know that since childhood I had longed to become a good teacher. You also know that my chance of ever going to college and becoming a teacher seemed next to impossible, much less attend a summer session in the Mediterranean country where OEDIPUS was performed on the outdoor Greek stage many centuries earlier. Greece is also the country from which we inherited the stories of Homer, whose condensed and edited story, THE ODYSSEY, was usually taught at the ninth grade level.
As it turned out, when I found myself in the tumultuous 1970s facing freshmen of multiple abilities daring me to breath life into THE ODYSSEY, I was thankful for all I had learned about Classical Greece as well as modern customs; and, I wore my Greek dress, played my tape of Greek folk music and showed them my slides that illustrated numerous customs of Greek culture. Most freshmen were surprised to learn the Greeks were the first to conceptualize the theory of the atom. More important, I was able to show my students slides of where democracy was first conceived and eventually implemented and how that fact likely paved the way for the growth of Christianity in Greece. All of that sharing, so that the student’s learning experience would be, ahem, hopefully a long-lasting, positive experience.
Yes, a lasting positive learning experience is ideal, but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak; and sometimes a teacher gets an inkling of proof many years later.
For instance, not long ago, a well-dressed and well-spoken man approached me in Macy’s and told me he recognized me, then told me his name, that he had graduated from college and went on to become a minister. He said he really got a lot out my class and then reminded me that instead of being put into a special needs reading class, he had been main-streamed into my ninth grade English class. Then he confided that to this day he is embarrassed when he recalls an essay he wrote at the end of the unit on The Odyssey.
I didn’t tell the minister, but I could still see his essay in my mind. Its content was very much like this:
“At first I thot that Odeesee story was junk because it was as hard to understand as the Bible. But the teacher told us intressing stories about Greese and after we got into it like when the one-eyed monster giant chowed down the stupeed guys that dranked too much wine. Odeesee did not need thos kind on his ship.”
I believe those words were from his heart, and assuming the significance of his long-ago essay, along with his positive comment as a former student, I couldn’t ask for any more proof of the importance of infusing as much relevance as possible into teacher lesson plans—and the tremendous impact a past student’s kind words can have on a former teacher.
Author’s Note: Many of you living in western Wisconsin are third and fourth generation of the Dutch immigrant families whose names were Klanderman or Wubbels. Some of you in Wisconsin, Michigan, and other areas might have seen this picture long ago and may recall that one of the students in this picture was pointed out to you as being one of your ancestors. If you recognize a relative in this photograph, I would love to hear from you.
A Tribute: Mildred Klanderman married Harry Wubbels in the early 1900s. She was the mother of now-deceased Harley Wubbels, Maurice Wubbels and my future husband, Robert Wubbels. She also was grandmother and great-grandmother to numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she never got to know. Now with that basic data on Mildred, and as the mother of two of her grandchildren, I would like to pay a tribute to her.
Mildred was a bright, young woman, as most Klandermans were (and still are) and she wanted a teaching career prior to marriage. She attended River Falls Normal School, at that time one of the finest teacher colleges in the state. She taught until she married and then resigned, as women teachers were often expected to do in those days. Barely in her early twenties and her beloved teaching career was over!
She and Harry lived happily on a farm a few miles northeast of Baldwin, WI, which to them in those days seemed a great distance when traveling to town by horse-pulled wagon, or by horse-drawn sleigh.
Harry worked hard, was well-liked and respected in the community. Mildred worked hard, too, managing her home and mothering her three young boys. She was every bit as quietly warm and friendly as she appears in the picture surrounded by her students.
One chilly late September morning when Mildred rose from sleep, she discovered Husband Harry was already out in the barn doing the milking. The house seemed especially cold and she thought she should not wait until Harry finished his milking to build a fire in the wood-burning stove. She wanted to take the chill off the living room for the two older boys when they awoke and dressed for school near the stove. Little three-year-old Bobby wouldn’t wake up until his brothers were off to school and the warmth of the stove had spread throughout the house.
Fortunately Harry always kept a good supply of kindling wood and a few split logs all cut to the right size in a box just inside the back entry. Unaccustomed as she was to building a fire, she put the kindling into the stove first, then lifted the nearly empty can of kerosene and doused in a little fuel. But before she could strike a match to set the kindling ablaze…. Well, she never had a chance to even strike the match.
Unbeknownst to her, there was a small live cinder underneath the ashes from the day before, and when the fuel….
I shall not write the details. I’ll just say she managed to slam the stove door shut against the sudden burst of angry flames and toss the flaming kerosene can outside. Then she rolled herself inside a large rug to extinguish the flames on her clothing.
She had kept the fire from spreading and she had saved her sleeping children’s lives, but they lost her several hours later.
Little Bobby, who became my husband about twenty years after that sad day, once told me he remembered standing at the foot of her bed with his father and two brothers. The doctor stood beside his mother’s bed sadly shaking his head, saying, “If she makes it until morning, she might survive.” But she didn’t. And those words stuck with my husband all his life.
Yes, it made him sad to recall that tragic scene–and to remember overhearing talk of how his mother died; yet it meant a lot to him to recall the story he had heard of his mother’s quick-thinking heroism that saved the three young boys that long-ago chilly September morning.
Mildred, on behalf of your progeny, this brief story is to honor you as a good Christian, a dedicated educator, wife, mother and a truly heroic woman.
Thank you, from your family of many generations and your community, too.
It was the beginning of the 1940s, and we were still in recovery from Oklahoma’s worst economic hard times, which was compounded by drought and dust storms. My forever-frugal mother, knowing brown wasn’t my best color, found the brown dress I’m wearing in the picture on the right on a clearance rack. But to her credit, she splurged a little and bought a piece of white lace to trim the collar and a strip of white taffeta ribbon for a matching hair bow. I had just learned how to coax my very soft hair into the then-trendy high pompadour style, which was not an easy feat in that pre-hairspray era.
A large bow anchored with bobby pins behind the pompadour and wearing a blob of red lipstick were the mark of teen fashion consciousness that linked us in those days to the big world. Just being a part of local teen look-a-likes also may have given us a healthy feeling of a cohesiveness that subsequently quelled a bit of the gloom of WWII.
Here are two links to some wonderful photographs of the Queen that I think you will enjoy:
Although she lived in a palace and I lived in a shabby farmhouse in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Queen Elizabeth II and I really aren’t so very different. She was born less than a year after my birth. I took notice of the media photos and stories of her through the years, feeling almost like we were growing up together. She was quiet and reserved as a child and I appeared quiet and reserved because I was basically shy.
During WWII the future queen donned a uniform and served a stint in a British women’s auxiliary military as a non-combat trained mechanic and first-aid truck driver. During the same war I served my country working as an assembly-line riveter on US military planes for two years.
Finally, here is the clincher. Several years ago I was watching an old video on TV or possibly the computer of some sort of British jubilee parade with numerous horse-drawn, ornate golden carriages moving along on a street near Buckingham Palace. The queen was not standing on the palace balcony as usual. She, husband Philip and Prince Harry at about age three and a half (or possibly Prince William at that age) were standing in the front row of a crowd that lined the street.
Suddenly, no one but the queen noticed little Harry taking off toward a set of horses pulling a carriage; and in a nano-second the Queen sprinted the two or three steps after him and ushered him back to safety. She didn’t shout out to a guard or to anyone else, “Go, run after Harry!” She, like any normal, loving grandparent, instinctively ran after her young grandson in an automatic response to protect him.
No one seemed to notice or comment on what she did, but I saw it and I understood the moment. And that’s when I, also a grandmother, knew the Queen and I weren’t all that different. We are both devoted to our countries, and we love and protect our families.
I know, I know! I’m running over a month late in writing about my visit to the University of Wisconsin post-graduate writing class on April 29. But you don’t want to know the reason why. (Okay, I forgot my camera in River Falls and it took me awhile to go back to retrieve it—and I wanted to post only after I had some pictures.)
But back to my writing class visit. The class meets evenings once a week for two hours and forty-five minutes, and that is a long time to hold the attention of students, even of post-graduate students who are twenty-something in age. No worries, however.
I was very privileged to team with Dr. Geoffrey Scheurman, the University’s Chair of the Department of Teacher Education. His excellent presentation followed mine, and I was so absorbed in his teaching technique and Dust Bowl visuals that I forgot to take his picture. I deeply regret that missed opportunity. But I’m very grateful we could share that enjoyable, spectacular evening!
My visit to a Hudson book club last month turned out to be a very unique experience. It began with not-unique sleet and snow driving conditions that
caused most of the members and me to be late. Subsequently, we were told that our reserved private dining room had been inadvertently double booked and the other group was already in the room. But this book club group had read my book and their pulsating perseverance spurred them to accept a narrow hallway-size room in the back of the restaurant.
So we sat in the windowless hallway facing each other along the two walls so close our knees almost touched. My reward was a wonderful meeting/discussion. What a gracious group of women, and wow, they were set for discussing THE DIRTY DAYS and to learn much more about life in those times! Meanwhile, the bad weather conditions had escalated outside. But my almost two-hour energetic discussion with these very bright women was worth my hazardous twenty-mile drive back to St Paul.
I would do it all again in a minute!