Challengers of the Dust

by William Bernhardt



Guymon, Oklahoma, 1935 

I stepped off the westbound Santa Fe passenger train and entered Barsoom.

Four years before, I left Guymon to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Society of Natural History—what they now call MIT. In the early days, the main campus was in Cambridge and most folks called it Boston Tech. I had great ideas and expectations. I planned to become a civil engineer, to build bridges and skyscrapers. To be a man of substance. Once I went east and shook the red dirt off my shoes, I felt as if I’d been released from bondage. Like I’d shed the chains binding me to mediocrity.

Seemed to me, everything that mattered happened back east. In Cambridge, you could have an intelligent conversation. You could meet someone you didn’t know at the diner and end up talking about Newton or Kant or Darwin. For the price of a cup of coffee, you could spend the day discussing that crazy runt in Germany, or whether FDR was smarter than Hoover, or whether Carole Lombard was funnier than Myrna Loy. Massachusetts provided the intellectual stimulation a man of my cranial capacity craved. Which is why I hadn’t been back home for almost four years.

Good thing I saw the sign at the train station, because otherwise I never would have known this was the town where I grew up. The wind hit me hard, slapping me across the face the same way my pa used to, only without the cussing. Dirt blew so fierce my eyes teared up.

What happened? Guymon used to be a sweet little panhandle farming town. I knew there’d been some hard times. I saw the newsreels and occasionally borrowed a newspaper. But this was a completely different world than the one I’d grown up in.

Maybe I should’ve called home more often. When I left Oklahoma in 1931, it was one of the most prosperous places in America. After the Crash of ‘29, a lot of big city folks were jobless or homeless. Entire families got kicked to the streets. But Oklahoma experienced an unexpected boom. New farming techniques made it possible to plow and plant land previously thought untamable. While the rest of the country suffered, we had bumper crops. Some folks called Oklahoma “the New Eden.”

I clutched a kerchief to my mouth to help me breathe. Right now, New Eden looked more like the seventh circle of hell. Maybe worse.

I passed a few folks at the station. Not many. I noticed they didn’t have a kerchief but they appeared to be able to breathe. I guess that meant you got used to it after a while. I didn’t want to get used to it. I wanted to get back on that train and return to Massachusetts. But I couldn’t do that yet.

I had a funeral to attend.

Just after I left the station I passed a young girl, maybe 12 years old. She was so emaciated I might have judged her younger than she actually was.

“Hey, friend.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “Got a spare nickel?”

My pa never approved of beggars. They’ll just spend it on drink, he used to say.

“A nickel will buy a cup of coffee and a good breakfast,” she added, as if answering my unspoken concern.

I gave her the quick once-over. She wore a brown muslin dress, frayed at the bottom and bearing several good-sized holes throughout. Her smudged and dirty face seemed almost hidden under hair stiff with grime. She smelled bad, too.

“Miss, if you need food, I’ll bet you could get
the local—”

“It’s not for me. It’s for my brothers.” She hitched her dress up some and that’s when I saw them. Two boys, no more than three and four, just as skinny as the girl, clinging to her legs like they were a life preserver.

I made eye contact with one of them. Biggest eyes I ever saw in my life, on the tiniest of humans.

I gave her three nickels, one for each. When she kissed me on the cheek, I felt the dirt in her hard-chapped lips.

The walk back to my childhood home would take a while, and I hadn’t eaten anything, so I decided to get a sandwich. I thought I’d follow the girl to a diner or some such place, but she disappeared into a cloud of dust and I lost her. That black dirt was everywhere, at times so thick I literally couldn’t see where I was going. I didn’t think I’d been away long enough to forget the lay of the town, but the dirt made it difficult to navigate. The wind blew so hard that at times it could knock down a grown man. Folks ducked between buildings or clutched a hitching post for dear life when the big gusts came.

I saw a dying dog on the side of the road. Funny how things like that affect you. Just a dog, after all, but for some reason, that dog got to me even more than the girl. Seemed like dogs were always happy, even when they had no right to be. But that poor thing couldn’t even move. It just lay there, tongue out, ribs showing.

I looked around for some water. I had a flask, but it didn’t contain water, if you know what I mean. In those days, people would’ve thought anyone carrying around a bottle of water was a complete idiot. Don’t even start on what they’d think about someone paying good money to buy water.

I spotted a hand-operated pump near the general store. I filled a cup, or tried. Dust got into the drinking water. I took a swig. Like drinking mud. Still, I brought some to that poor whip terrier. He wasn’t interested. Didn’t need any more dirt in his system, I imagine. So I pulled out my flask and gave him a snort of some medium-grade distilled whiskey. I don’t know if that did him any good or not, but he lapped it up.

Truth was, I knew that dog was a goner. All I did was apply a little anesthetic to the situation, so he could pass more gently than would’ve otherwise been possible.

I made my way home. With all the color drained out of the land, everything looked black and gray. Where was all the green and yellow and blue? Even the sky was a dingy brown.

My grandfather, Gustav Ehrlich, came out here in the 1880s. His folks started in southern Germany, then moved to the Volga River, then to the Cherokee Outlet of Oklahoma. Russlanddeutschen, they were called, which technically meant both Russian and German, but really neither. I heard that the treeless stretches of the
Oklahoma plains reminded them of their original homeland. These were hard folks, toughened by exile, ridicule, and constant hardship.

My grandfather grew up in the Russian village of Tcherbagovka. His daddy was a leather tanner. They traveled from town to town looking for work. At night, they shackled their horses’ legs to their own ankles so the nags wouldn’t get stolen while they slept. Eventually my granddad married and started a family. My dad got a draft notice from the Russian czar when he turned 16. They knew if he joined the army he would never return. So they packed up and left.

They eventually made it to Oklahoma. Pa changed his name to George Earle, but they still met with all kinds of prejudice from the “Anglos,” especially during the Great War. Anti-German attitudes spread all across the country, sometimes for understandable reasons. Most German-Russian immigrants became conscientious objectors. They had an inclination toward pacifism and a strong distaste for war. Draft-dodging was not uncommon. That only increased the prejudice against them “Rooshians.”

We never fit in, even later when I was growing up. We liked high-top filzstiefel shoes better than cowboy boots. We liked featherbeds better than hard American mattresses. We liked schnapps better than corn whiskey. We sang “Gott ist die Liebe” in church. We made a bigger fuss over Christmas. I always felt like an outsider, someone trapped between two worlds, never truly a part of either one. An outsider who couldn’t wait to go somewhere else.

But we Rooshians ended up being the best thing that ever happened to Oklahoma. My pa said those tough ancestors were why wheat got planted on the dry side of the plains. They brought over Turkey red seeds sewn into the pockets of their clothing. Turkey red is a hard winter wheat, short-stemmed and resistant to cold and drought. They brought the thistle, too—what people ’round here called tumbleweed. Before the Rooshians came, people called this the Great American Desert. Afterwards, it was farmland.

Or used to be. Now I didn’t see a square foot suitable for cultivation. I couldn’t imagine anything surviving here. Including people.

I soon became aware of two serious problems. One, there were so many beggars on the road that if I’d tried to help them all I would’ve been out of money before I made my first left turn. And two, people were following me. Just kids, teenagers. But there were three of them and only one of me.

In retrospect, I can see why they caught my scent. When I gave money to that girl—too much—I’d flashed my coin purse, which probably had the same effect as if I’d dangled a T-bone steak in front of that dog.

I decided to take the initiative. I pivoted on one heel and faced them down. “You boys need somethin’?”

They looked to be around 17. They wore patched jeans and suspenders. The one in the center, the tallest, wore a newsboy cap with a frayed brim. He was the leader. I judged the others to be brave about as long as he was and no longer. So I figured that if there was any trouble, I’d take him down and the fight would be over.

I’d studied the sweet sport in Massachusetts.
Ended up the champion fighter in my fraternity house. These underweight ruffians, I reckoned, wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

The leader replied, “Ain’t seen you ’round these parts.”

“Been away for a while,” I explained.

“I’m a little short today,” the leader said. He bounced up and down on his toes, unable to stand still. Far more afraid of me than I was of him, I thought. “Loan me some money, will you?”

“How much you want?”

“All of it.”

I pursed my lips. “ ’Fraid I can’t go along with
that idea.”

“Doesn’t matter if you go along with it, friend.” His bouncing accelerated. “The only question is how bad we got to pound you before we take it.”

I didn’t say a word in reply. I just raised my fists in the classic pugilistic stance, left fist higher than the right.

That kid grinned. His two buddies glanced sideways at one another, like they knew what was going to
happen next.

As it turned out, they did.

“Last chance,” the leader said. “Hand over the purse.”

“I respectfully decline.”

“Shame to mess up that pretty face of yours.”

“You may give it your best effort.” I returned a steely-eyed stare.

That’s when someone hit me from behind. Hit me hard. With a club or something equally solid. I fell to the ground like my legs had been erased by a celestial editor. I hit my head and dirt blew into my eyes.

And then those four boys started killing me.


Excerpted from Challengers of the Dust, a forthcoming novel by William Bernhardt, published by This Land Press. Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016