Dust Bowl Dad

by Richard Higgs


When Joe and I crossed the Oklahoma line, from Texas, still well before dawn, I let out a long sigh of relief. Almost home. Those were Oklahoma stars above us now. Erick, Sayre, Elk City, Clinton, and Weatherford floated by. At Oklahoma City, we stopped for one last stretch and a cup of convenience store coffee. The sky was growing light as we accelerated onto the Turner Turnpike with Tulsa waiting just a hundred miles away. I’d traveled that stretch of highway many times, in both directions, but couldn’t recall ever heading from OKC to Tulsa at dawn, so the view was strange, fresh. Oklahoma City sits at about 1,200 feet above sea level. Tulsa is just below 700 feet, so we were on a slight downhill grade. From every hilltop the low, dark, wooded hills of the ancient, tangled cross timbers layered out to the smudged horizon, separated by thin strips of summer mist as day flourished in the wings, preparing for its entrance.

There are low, misty, wooded hills everywhere. Why do I love these the most? My father’s death had led me to these Oklahoma hills, where I belong, and to the good life I’ve had here.

When I got the call, in October 1978, that my father had collapsed and was in a coma, and had been rushed from Richmond, Indiana, to a University Hospital in Indianapolis, I’d been living in Portland, Oregon, for about six months. I had no intentions of leaving. I’d become familiar with the bus routes, the city’s streets, bridges and parks. I’d found a job as a clerk in the radiology department of a hospital. When the call came, at work, I quit my job immediately, strode to the payroll department, and demanded that they write me a check for all due wages on the spot. I don’t have any idea how I convinced them to do it. My distress must have been persuasively intimidating because, within a short time, as I paced back and forth in front of the receptionist, they’d cut me a check. By the next day, I’d converted it into a one-way airline ticket to Indianapolis and was flying east. My brothers Danny and Mike picked me up from the airport, and we joined our mother, our sister Elaine, and our brother Tim at the hospital. I remember the way we looked at each other, and the way we looked away from each other. Our familiar faces twisted into unfamiliar shapes.

The hospital air seemed pressurized and poisonous. My father was in a darkened ICU ward, tubes running in and out of him. His face was swollen. When I looked at him, I knew that I’d never seen stillness until then. It was terrifying. Someone told me it was okay to talk to him, that I should talk to him, tell him whatever I wanted, because there was no reason to think that he couldn’t hear me, just because he couldn’t respond. I didn’t say much. I told him that I knew he was going to get better. I knew it because we all needed him to get better, and he’d always, without fail, given us what we’d needed. I told him that, and I told him that I loved him.

My father, Vernon Mack Higgs, was born in a cabin on Spade Mountain near Stillwell, Oklahoma, in Cherokee country, on June 7, 1925. A distant relative who still lived in the area took Danny and me to the site once. He showed us the nearby spring where they’d gotten their water and kept their milk cool. There was no trace left of their home. When Dad was nine years old, during the Great Depression, during the Dust Bowl years, his parents, Daniel and Viola, lost their modest claim on Spade Mountain. They moved to Heber Springs, Arkansas, in the Ozarks, to live with relatives. Within a year or two, his father had died. About that time, probably no coincidence, his formal education ended with the fourth grade. He was exempted from the draft a few years later, during World War II, because he was “the sole support of his mother.” My own mother, Kathleen Elizabeth Adams, first saw him when he was about 19. He and another young man stopped into her school one winter’s day while they were out rabbit hunting, to warm up by the school stove. She was 14. “I never paid him no mind,” she assured me (64 years later).

He would probably be considered “functionally illiterate” by those who use such terms, but he loved to read, and he loved to read one thing: Louis L’Amour westerns. He always had at least one going at any given time. The only thing I can recall seeing my dad write was his signature: V. M. Higgs, in an old-fashioned script. I remember the first time I ever felt protective of him, rather than protected by him. I was about 18 years old. It was time for him to renew his driver’s license. The woman behind the counter told him where to sign his new license, and he signed it in his usual way. But then she told him that he would have to sign his whole name, just as she’d typed it. She typed up another one and set it on the counter in front of him and waited. He looked at it for a few seconds, and then looked at me, and with a nod of his head, he beckoned me away from the counter. “I can’t remember how to make an ‘r’ ” he said quietly. My heart went out to him. I discreetly showed him how to make an ‘r’ on a piece of scrap paper.

He and my mother never had a bank account, ever. They came out of the Great Depression, so they didn’t trust banks, and they came out of the Ozarks, so they didn’t have any money anyway. They had five kids instead. We grew up “rural poor,” although he had a steady union job. There were plenty of things we’d have liked more of, under his “sole support,” but love was never one of them. His every action and thought, and my mother’s, were oriented to taking care of the family. He often couldn’t give his children what they wanted, but he always, without fail, gave us what we needed. He was devoted to us, and we to him.

He did not get better. Eight days after he’d gone into a sudden, terrifying fit of pain from a blood vessel bursting in his brain, as he and Mike were working on a car in Mike’s front yard, eight days after he’d been knocked off his feet by a blow from within, eight days after I’d been called home, the phone rang at Mom and Dad’s house. I remember the six of us, Mom and my siblings and me, shuttling back and forth during those eight cold days, between Richmond and Indianapolis, huddled together in fear, giving the world dirty looks. I happened to answer the phone when it rang. A professional-sounding voice, one of the doctors, advised me that they’d come to the conclusion that my father would not recover—in fact, had not recovered—and was continuing to breathe and pump blood due only to the life-support systems, which they felt they should remove, but they needed permission.

“Go ahead and unhook it.” The words came from inside me, but I didn’t know the boy who spoke them. After those words had passed from me, I felt emptied of all words forever. I had no more use for words. I hung up the phone. My father was dead. My family was all frozen in place, looking at me. Our father, my mother’s husband, was dead.

Up until then, whenever someone had asked me to explain who I was, my self-explanation inevitably led to an explanation of who my father was. The only thing I seemed to know for sure, when asked, was that I was my father’s son. Now that he was dead, now that I had no father, who was I? It would be years before I could devise an answer.

We had his funeral in Heber Springs, where he and my mother had courted and married. We buried him in a country cemetery several miles out along a winding road east of town. In the family gatherings that followed over the next week, I met two uncles, Bud and Bill, whom I’d mostly known from family photographs. Bud and Bill were my mother’s brothers. They lived in Chanute, Kansas, and were in the oil business, which happened to be booming in 1978, due to an OPEC embargo. By the time we’d parted, they’d offered me a job, and I’d accepted.

I was glad to escape from the grim Indiana November, where the world had become white with grief and black with death, and it grew colder every day. Emerging out onto the Kansas plains felt like stepping outside on a brilliant day. I fell in love with the big, blue sky and unreachable horizons of the grassy Flint Hills. Oil prices were at record highs, so oilmen were poking holes in every pasture, woodlot, streambed, hilltop, backyard, or ghost town square in that old oil patch between Kansas City and Tulsa. I spent a little over a year riding in trucks with Bill and Bud throughout that area. They were known and liked everywhere. They were kind and patient with me. Those rolling grasslands were especially sweet when spring came, as new green grass sprouted up through last year’s tall dead stems from the black gumbo mud. Moist, fragrant winds blew up from Oklahoma. Some people say that the name Kansas, from the Kansa Indian tribe, refers to “People of the South Wind.” When I was there it was the south wind that always blew the sweetest.

I lived in Chanute, Kansas, for 14 months and never made a friend outside the family. I loved and admired Bill and Bud, and got on well with my aunts and cousins, but I was grieving for my father. A deep depression lay below my surface. It isolated me, made me awkward, shy, self-conscious. People could see the strain behind my smile, and it made them keep their distance. Sensing their caution isolated me further. I was no fun at parties. Sometimes my depression gushed to the surface, usually unexpectedly, sometimes embarrassingly. A young woman I’d met invited me once to a pig roast. A team of men had prepared a pig, buried it in a pit of hot coals in the ground, out on the prairie, and took turns tending it for three days and nights. When it was ready, they threw a keg party around the pit. People came from all over. The succulent pig was raised from the pit, as people cheered and gathered around with their drinks. Standing in the midst of men and women whose bloodlines had known each other for generations, I began to shiver. I couldn’t stop. The shiver became a quake. I couldn’t speak. “Calm down, now, buddy,” some guy said to me, but I couldn’t. Someone led me away. I suppose it was the woman who’d brought me. I’d wanted so much to join in, but I just couldn’t. I was a stranger to myself and others.

In our oil patch rambles, Bud, Bill and I had had a few occasions to pass through Tulsa. I gawked at its glittering 20th century skyline rising above the Arkansas River. Tulsa is a young city, born with the automobile and raised on oil in the booming 1920s. It had been known as the Oil Capital of the World for most of its brief history, until the oil booms moved elsewhere. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, itmthrived for a while in a noisy echo of its earlier glory days. I gave Bud and Bill two weeks’ notice in December, and moved into an apartment near Riverside Drive, in Tulsa, on January 1, 1980. New month, new year, new decade, new me. I didn’t know a soul in the city, including my own.

But I was ready to get acquainted.

Most people who arrive in Tulsa, or any city, arrive there first, and over time, perhaps, venture out into the surrounding areas, gradually accruing an understanding of its setting. My experience was the opposite. I still meet people, some of whom were born and raised in Tulsa, who have only a vague idea of where it is, where they are. Because I’d spent over a year exploring the back roads, small towns, prairies, and woodlands around Tulsa in the hunt for oil, I understood how Tulsa was situated in the landscape long before I entered the city.

Since Tulsa’s was an oil economy, business was booming, and the population swelled. There were people here from all over the country, and the world, looking for work and looking for business, mixing it up in the jammed saloons. There was (and always had been, and still is) a thriving music scene, with some of the best musicians in the world kicking out rock and roll, blues, country, jazz, pop, and various amalgamations, every night of the week, and usually with no cover charge. Tulsa has been home for me ever since, except for about a year and a half, when I was an over-the-road truck driver. It was my father, Vernon Mack Higgs, in his dying, who brought me here.