Posts Tagged ‘Letty Owings’

Charity Hospital
Charity Hospital by dsb nola on flickr

This is a true story of internship at the Public Health Hospital and at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in 1958, as told by Ray Owings, MD, age 89, and his wife Letty Owings, age 87. This essay represents just one year of a long and interesting history for Ray Owings, and it is part of a series. After this, we will go back and review the history of how he got to this point, and then will share more details about the medicine at that time.

Charity Hospital in New Orleans was specifically founded by grant in 1736 to serve the indigent population in New Orleans, and it was a teaching hospital affiliated with the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans (LSUHSC-NO) for more than 250 years until its close after Hurricane Katrina. The hospital was notable for being the second largest hospital in America in 1939 with 2680 beds and it has been featured in a TLC series called Code Blue, which was a documentary series featuring the ER that was one of the busiest in America. Here is one part of that series about Chavez Jackson, a 9-year-old boy who was accidentally shot by his brother, who was playing with a gun. If you take a moment to watch this, you can begin to get a feel for the intensity and emotion that was a constant given in this ER:

Public Health Hospital and Charity Hospital New Orleans Internship of 1958

Letty relates:

The first thing Ray said to me was, “Maybe you shouldn’t have come down here.” Ray was never, ever able to come home and the place was just a madhouse. It was a weird, weird, weird year. Everything was crooked in the politics, and we had the likes of Earl Long getting out of his car and peeing by the side of the road. It was just bizarre. Somebody shot Huey Long right there in the Capitol because you had to get dramatic in New Orleans. Earl, at thirty-six, called Huey “the yellowest physical coward that God had ever let live.” Huey Long said of Earl: “Earl is my brother but he’s crooked. If you live long enough he’ll double cross you.” Source.

We had the shrimp people who paid for their baby delivery in shrimp because they thought the doctor ought to get a little something for his services and they were very grateful, so they brought shrimp. There just weren’t enough people to man the place, so I was home with the kids a lot and the first thing I did was slip and fall on some concrete slabs because everything was so wet your shoes turned green. It was truly a bizarre year but for all of its utter craziness, New Orleans had such a haunting and deep beauty about it. The weeping trees were gorgeous, and the flowers were so pungent it was like putting your face into a jar of perfume. We had four small children at the time.

Ray relates:

During the internship at Public Health Hospital in New Orleans that year, the interns could go to Charity Hospital right near the Mississippi River as well, so that’s what I did. I reported for duty July 1, 1958 and at first I just rented a room. It was hotter than the damn hinges of Hell, so I bought me a little old fan and had the thing directly on me during the night. Letty moved down there but I wasn’t so sure she should have even come.

The training was very good. At the Public Health Hospital we treated merchant seamen and their families as well as fishermen and their families. Charity was quite interesting because if you wanted to see a disease, you could find it in that hospital. For example, there were very few cases of diptheria in the US, and a physician may go through an entire career without seeing it, but on the Pediatrics ward we had 25 cases of diptheria at one time.

At Charity I worked with a resident named Clarence MacIntile from Idaho. He went back, and we kept in touch. Interns had free run to do what they wanted, so we ran the Pediatrics Deartment by ourselves. The place was always jammed, and I mean there were hundreds of them. But there just weren’t enough hours in the day, and you were lucky to get to a little bed across the street and get a few hours of sleep.

Emory had been a good school because during the clinical years, students got to do a lot of things and this was not true of some medical schools. I felt that my training was much better than others, so I was happy about that.

What took place over my lifetime to get to that point might have been called the ‘American Dream’ just a little while ago. You hear that term, but no one ever talks about the nitty gritty of how this was obtained. It will be important to begin at the beginning in the next few essays, but my philosophy has always been that no matter what it is one chooses do do in life, it is essential to do the very best you can do at it.

End Note: I do not usually put more than one video in, but here is a second Charity ER video from TLC. A 9-year-old girl was involved in an accident where the frame of a swing set fell onto her skull. She has a severe head injury with bleeding and her brain is swelling. The brain has few places to swell to inside the rigid skull except through the foramen magnum at the base of the skull, and this is called herniation. Doctors will monitor the pressure, as they explain. They will also likely induce a coma to rest the brain and decrease oxygen demand. Posturing is an indication of severe head injury, where the arms become rigid and either turn out and away from the body or move inward toward the core of the body. This video is called Kernisha.

Separator
Separator by mallalamuseum on flickr.

This essay is a true story about medicine, childbirth and injuries in a rural farming community in Missouiri in the 1920s as told by Letty Owings, age 87. I must note up front some information on how we compose these essays. Letty’s general health is in decline such that she can no longer write much, although she is a retired English teacher and one of the better writers I have ever known. She tells me her stories on the phone and I actually fact check with additional research to add context and history of events like the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed 25 million people in the first 25 weeks. She remembers much talk of this flu from her early childhood. To my amazement, her recall is not only 100 percent accurate, but it is also substantial in terms of piecing together the history. For example, she recalls cases of encephalitis. As recently as 2007, the flu pandemic was implicated in the outbreak of encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s, which makes her recall all the more interesting.

Her story coincides closely with the beginning of the keeping of vital statistics in Missouri. Record keeping began in 1911 and she was born in 1924 in what she describes over and over as an extremely rural area where there were no records kept. There was no geriatric specialty at that time, because there were no old people: life expectancy in 1911 at the beginning of record keeping was just 54 years of age. I will explain more in the essay, but before I do so I will express an opinion: there are excellent reasons for Federal agencies that keep vital statistics and epidemiological data, and efforts to do away with various Federal regulatory agencies is reckless on a good day. I strongly disagree with any political efforts to do away with health-related regulation.

Medicine in a Rural Farming Community in 1920s Missouri

Our farm house had been a log cabin and the plastered and crooked wooden walls made my perfectionist mother nuts. An artist at heart, my mother was papering these walls. She saved money for the paper and cooked her own glue. She had laid boards onto the base of the cream separator for a make-shift step ladder. The boards slipped and my mother fell onto the metal prong on the base of the cream separator, and the prong tore deeply into the flesh of her hip. My father found her.

Medicine in the 1920s was extremely crude, and death was always so close. In our fatalistic view, life and death were a lot closer than they are now. Infection from an injury like the one my mother suffered could kill as easily as not. The cure for everything at the time was gasoline. On the heels of war and a pandemic flu so severe that we still study it today, we were in a position at that time of being extremely poor combined with a lack of medicine. People never thought of death as a strangeness and the vital statistics from that time, even without figuring in the skew from lack of record keeping in rural areas, are truly shocking:

The overall improvement in the health of
Missouri women of childbearing age (15-44)
during the 20th century is exemplified by two
dramatic trends: (1) the maternal mortality rate
(MMR) declined by about 98 percent, from 770 per
100,000 live births in 1911 to 10 per 100,000 live
births in 2000; (2) female life expectancy increased
by more than 24 years (44 percent), from 54.5 years
in 1911 to 78.7 years in 2000.

We called old Doc Martin to come out and treat my mother. By this time, the doctor had switched from horse and buggy to car. When we didn’t have Doc Martin, the patent man occasionally came around, and sometimes my dad seemed to know the right kinds of weeds to cook for homemade remedies. We used Bag Balm, a horse salve (pink salve) product that is still available today, and we used Blackberry Balsam for diarrhea. Doc Martin sewed my mother’s wound and left with his chicken that we gave him for payment. Predictably, my mother developed a fever and became dangerously sick. She was in agony and she cried and it was upsetting for me as a small child to see my mother this way. She stayed in bed, as was the custom at the time, and there was great concern for her from the community. She survived her injury, but this was not always the case with accidents.

Much of what doctoring was like in the 1920s was simply hoping for the best but expecting death at any time, and this is difficult for us to understand today, where we take much for granted. Almost every family we knew had had some experience with the previous flu pandemic, for example, but we also had experiences with things like malaria, empyema, pneumonia, and a host of other deadly infectious illnesses. Early hospitals did not produce curative results because of nosocomial infections: “In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated roughly 1.7 million hospital-associated infections, from all types of microorganisms, including bacteria, combined, cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths each year.[2]”

Babies were born at home until the close of WWII in our area. There was no pregnancy test, no prenatal care, and although baby bottles were first patented in 1845 are are today regulated by the FDA (for the materials in both the teat and the bottle), in those days we did not have baby bottles available to supplement feeding. So, if a baby needed milk, one had to find someone who was nursing. The infant mortality rate was extremely high and this did not change until after the war. Both economic improvement and prenatal care including early recognition and treatment of complications contributed to the dramatic improvement in these mortality rates.

WAR RATION BOOKS, WORLD WAR TWO...
photo: roberthuffstutter/flickr

note: This is a true account of how life changed for college-age students and college teachers in the immediate aftermath of President Roosevelt’s Infamy Speech of December 8, 1941, as told by Letty Owings, age 87. It is a continuation of this essay.

Everything changed on a Sunday. I had come home briefly from college where I was enrolled in a nature class. I wanted to collect some puffballs from the woods for my class. My father knew where to find these things so we went to the woods where they were, collected some samples, and returned home. I sat in a room with the sample collection, and my father went to the other room to listen to the wind charger radio.

He returned a few moments later and he said to me, word-for-word, “Honey, we’re in a war.”

How Life Changed After the Infamy Speech of 1941

After my father had listened to the wind charger radio and learned that we were in a war, he drove me back to college at Missouri Central University. Since the announcement did not affect our classes, I took the puffballs that I had collected from the woods for my nature class.

The Announcement at the Assembly

On Monday, December 8, 1941, the university called all of the students into Hendricks Hall. The school chose the large hall as a meeting place because it was the only building on campus large enough to accommodate 1000 students for an assembly. A man named H Roe Bartle delivered the speech. He was a large and imposing man and his physical presence at the podium added to his powerful delivery. H Roe Bartle read from President Roosevelt’s declaration of war on both fronts. He ended the speech by quoting from the English patriotic song written and distributed in 1939 called There’ll Always be an England, by saying the words, “There’ll always be an England and England will be free, if England means to you what England means to me.”

The atmosphere in Hendricks Hall at that moment was eerie. It was like electricity and so emotional that while some students cried, others just stared. Many jumped up to enlist. Boys just shy of graduating were anxious to abandon their schooling and had to be convinced to stay in school and graduate. Since there were no speech writers to temper tone in those days, what Roosevelt said, Roosevelt said. Both Roosevelt’s announcement and H Roe Bartle’s subsequent speech conveyed the same gravity and raw heartfelt shock that we all shared. We had no concept of war, no frame of reference. We had entered the meeting as one person and came out another, with the final understanding that yes, our lives have changed forever. America became mesmerized.

Conscription and Rationing

Following the announcement almost immediately, members of regular university faculty were conscripted according to the following formula: the Army, Navy and Marines came in took whoever they wanted and told them what to teach and where to teach it.

Even before the concepts of totally non-negotiable unconditional surrender and the declaration of war on both fronts sank in academically, the government instituted a rationing system in early 1942. Everything had to go to the military, and we were issued ration cards. Rubber was the first thing to be limited: no more tires, rubber boots or yard goods were sold for civilian use. Books, gasoline and sugar were rationed, and it was against the law to trade these things. Farmers could get a little more gasoline for their tractors, but they had to provide documented proof of how much they needed and what it was for. note: Here is a bit more on the rationing from wiki:

Of concern for all parts of the country was a shortage of rubber for tires since the Japanese quickly conquered the rubber-producing regions of Southeast Asia.[5]

and

Tires were the first item to be rationed by the OPA, which ordered the temporary end of sales on 11 December 1941 while it created 7,500 unpaid, volunteer three-person tire ration boards around the country. By 5 January 1942 the boards were ready. Each received a monthly allotment of tires based on the number of local vehicle registrations, and allocated them to applicants based on OPA rules.[4]:133

The War Production Board (WPB) ordered the temporary end of all civilian automobile sales on 1 January 1942, leaving dealers with one half million unsold cars. Ration boards grew in size as they began evaluating automobile sales in February (only certain professions, such as doctors and clergymen, qualified to purchase the remaining inventory of new automobiles), typewriters in March, and bicycles in May.[4]:124,133-135 Automobile factories stopped manufacturing civilian models by early February 1942 and converted to producing tanks, aircraft, weapons, and other military products, with the United States government as the only customer.[6] By June 1942 companies also stopped manufacturing for civilians metal office furniture, radios, phonographs, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and sewing machines.[4]:118,124,126-127

There was no unauthorized use of the rationing system that I can remember. People adjusted to it in stride as something they were required and obliged to do. Abuse and treachery of the rationing system were not done because people had a feeling they might be hurting an officer if they cheated the system.

The Uniform as the Great Leveler

Within a short period of time, hardly any adult man was out of uniform. The men were in uniform whether they were walking on the street, attending church, shopping at the store or going about their daily business. Bellbottoms, khakis, lapel bars and hats were worn everywhere. In a way, the military uniform was a great leveler because men going about their daily lives were now part of something that they had not been part of before. There was some occasional fakery that went on when it came to dating, when, for example, a man would represent himself as rich and accomplished to a prospective date, only to have his wife eventually show up.

The uniform was important to the point where being a “civvy” required an excellent excuse or else drew extreme criticism. A boy I dated had graduated and was teaching math. He went to Scott Air Force Base to teach troops, but the troops ridiculed him because he was dressed in civilian clothing. Because of this, he enlisted and returned to the same job for less pay, where he was not the subject of criticism.

end note: H Roe Bartle went on to serve as mayor of Kansas City, Missouri for two terms. He was also an executive and an organizer for the Boy Scouts of America.

“After Bartle helped lure the Dallas Texans American Football League team to Kansas City in 1962, owner Lamar Hunt renamed the franchise the Kansas City Chiefs after Bartle’s nickname, “The Chief.””

Source.

FDR Profile
photo: dctourism/flickr

This is a true account of wedding customs in a rural Missouri farming community prior to WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 87. The account is limited to the small geographical area. Customs may have been different, twenty miles down the road.

The Shivaree and Farming Community Wedding Customs Prior to WWII

Most country weddings in our community took place in the home. The bride and groom dressed nicely, but there were no bridal shops or wedding dress makers. A preacher would come to the home to perform the wedding. Even if people were not churchgoers, the preacher would “marry and bury.” At the wedding ceremony, someone, usually a couple, would stand up as witnesses for the couple being married.

The usual refreshments and a small reception followed the wedding ceremony. A few days after the couple got settled, the community held a shivaree. The shivaree was a post-wedding noisy party for the community where the newlyweds were pressed into service as hosts. In short, the shivaree was a mock serenade and a roast of the newlyweds. People brought all sorts of noisemakers and pots and pans to bang on, and they sang songs and enjoyed refreshments, compliments of the newlyweds. Adding to the atmosphere of friendly ribbing and polite mockery, nobody bothered to dress up. Supposedly, the shivaree was spontaneous and clandestine. However, it was an organized spontaneous that wasn’t really a secret. Since the newlyweds were expected to provide the refreshments for their own roast, they had to know where to be and what time to be there. Community members organized the shivaree by word-of-mouth instructions. Everyone in the community had plenty of advance notice for this ‘spontaneous’ post-wedding party, and looked forward to the fun. Newlyweds looked forward to the noisy event as well, and they would have been insulted at not being forced to host the shivaree.

The marriage rate in the community was nearly 100 percent in those days. Not getting married was almost unheard of, and for the most part, people married their neighbors. Courtships lasted 1 1/2 to 2 years, and people rarely waited past age 22 to marry. Women were younger than men in almost all cases, so you might typically see a 19-year-old woman marry a 21-year-old man, give or take. During the courtship, the woman never, ever called or contacted the man to ask the man out on a date. Men initiated all the courtship contact.

There came a time when a lot of social customs were clouded by the war overseas. Word trickled in that there was a war raging in Europe. One must bear in mind that we had no television or organized press in our community at the time. We only got our first wind charger radio in 1938. Rumors spread, conversations ensued and people exchanged opinions. Some people took the position that the war raging in Europe was none of our concern. It was Europe’s war and Europe’s problem, not ours. After all, WWI had been a bunch of foolishness that we had no business getting involved in, and there was no need to repeat the foolishness. People voiced this opinion even as Churchill was down on his knees begging Roosevelt for help. Others countered this view with, “Yes, but there’s a crazy man Hitler and listen, this man is a maniac, the rumors are true, he’s killing Jews and he is a madman.” During this time there was a pall hanging over America and it extended to social functions in our small farming community.

No one ever came out and said, “There is a pall hanging over our social functions.” However, it was apparent. For one thing, people had a sense of unease about enjoying themselves at social functions while there was so much suffering going on in Europe, and the conversations often turned to that subject, even at the likes of a shivaree. Also, people began to be self-conscious about speaking German out and about. My father’s side of the family included ancestral illegal immigrants from Germany who did not care for German militarism of the time, so they bribed a ship captain and came to this country to escape it. They brought the language with them and the language sifted down through the generations, even to me as a young child. In one case, a boy’s folks did not want him going out with me, because of the German. It was lost on some folks that descendants of German people from generations past were a peaceful lot. The remnants of the language became associated with the current doings of a madman in Europe.

Everything changed on a Sunday. I had come home briefly from college where I was enrolled in a nature class. I wanted to collect some puffballs from the woods for my class. My father knew where to find these things so we went to the woods where they were, collected some samples, and returned home. I sat in a room with the sample collection, and my father went to the other room to listen to the wind charger radio.

He returned a few moments later and he said to me, word-for-word, “Honey, we’re in a war.”

Choctaw slave grave site

photo by amy_b/flickr

note: This is a true account of how a rural Missouri farming community handled death before WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 87.

The customs and traditions pertaining to death in our community were in place prior to the Civil War and remained unchanged until after WWII. Prior to the Civil War, the land that would become our farm was multi-crop plantation territory where corn, wheat and clover grew. After the Civil War, the plantation area was divided into farms. Our farm was 160 square acres. We had no street address; we were part of a community that included a population of about 300 in the country and 600 in the nearby town.

A woman I knew named Minni had lived through the period prior to the Civil War, and I would often visit her and listen to her stories. On the way to her house, I passed a slave graveyard of about twenty graves that remained on the property. Many of the graves were simple stone markers indicating a child’s burial. In those days death was common among infants and young children in general, and it was not regarded with the same concern that it is today. It wasn’t that people were mean about it, they were just more honest. In other words, deaths of infants and children were almost expected. Causes of death among slave children in particular were never noted or studied during that time, although looking back one can speculate that tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other diseases and childbirth complications common to that era for all children may have been the cause. We must bear in mind that penicillin was not available until after WWII.

Although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not end segregation, nor did it end mindsets, attitudes or plantation thinking. There was no end to segregation until Martin Luther King came along. Minni’s aristocracy mindset was evident in her velvet curtains with beads and her velvet chair and velvet footstool, and in her marriage to a man named George. George had not hailed from the upper echelon of plantation hierarchy, and Minni never let him forget it. While George tended to the chickens, for example, Minni stayed inside on her velvet throne, reminiscing.

One day, George died. Death in those days was in the living room. There were no funeral homes before WWII, so when someone died, an embalmer, usually the local undertaker, came to the home, embalmed the body, placed it in an open casket and took the casket to the living room. The body was never removed from the house before the funeral. Death was also a community affair, so when someone died, a person rang the phone six times on a party line to spread the news. The local German Evangelical Church in the community, on receipt of news of a death, would ring the church bell one time for each year of a person’s life. This practice of ringing the bell was repeated at the funeral. As the casket was carried into the church, the bell chimed one time for each year of the person’s life. There was only one possible exception to tradition that I remember. Someone shot a man named Red in the middle of the day, in the middle of town. The news spread by word of mouth in the form of “Someone shot ‘Ole Red today,” followed by the reply indicating consensus that went something like, “Good riddance.”

After death and embalming, while the body waited in the living room, the custom at the time was never to leave the body alone. People were assigned the duty of ‘setting,’ which amounted to sitting with the body, in shifts. Death was all a part of life, and I mention these customs because most kids today have probably never seen a body. As kids in those days, we might be assigned to sit with the body for a couple of hours during the day. Night shifts were arranged among the men in the community who would ask each other, “Who is setting up tonight?” My father often took the duty. He also sat with the dying. The person doing the night duty would light a candle at each end of the coffin, and sit all night with the body.

Minni did not want to attend George’s funeral, but my father forced her to attend. My father saw no distinction in a person’s worth based on economic status or social class. He saw everyone as equal. In the end, Minni attended the funeral.

My father also took the position that all people were equal regardless of the color of their skin, which was remarkable for the time. Racism was not delineated as unacceptable in those days. Rather, it was an integral and accepted part of the culture, so much so that we had no other perspective. My father forbade the use of the n-word in any conversational utterance. That my father’s view was a dramatic departure from acceptable norms of the times became apparent many years later.

Old Horse Drawn Corn Planter
old horse drawn corn planter by Colbyt69, creative commons, flickr.

This is a true story from the Great Depression as told by Letty Owings, age 87. It is a true account of various farming tasks during the historic drought years of the mid-1930s.

Seasonal Farming Tasks in the Great Depression

In the spring of each year, the community farmers watched the sky and talked with each other in church about when to prepare the fields for planting. For corn, the fields had to be plowed and harrowed, and then the rows were set. The implements used to plow, break up and smooth the soil and form rows were horse-drawn. After the fields were prepared for planting, corn planters were also hitched to horses. A container on the corn planter was set to click open every three feet or so, and release three kernels of corn to the soil. So far, we are talking about mechanization.

The mechanization ended after the planting of the kernels. The next task involved human hands that belonged to kids, for the most part. Once the corn plants were about two inches tall, the kids in the community crawled up and down the corn rows, inspecting each three-plant corn hill, taking visual inventory. We crawled down each row with a knife and a bucket of kernels, to see if three plants were in each cluster. Less than three plants in a hill meant that there was a cutworm in the soil, dining. We dug and chopped the worm, and replaced the eaten kernel with the new kernel. This task was called “replanting the corn,” and if you were a kid, you got that assignment. Replanting the corn was labor intensive and ritually performed every year. In church, farmers would ask each other, “Did you replant your corn yet?”

Cutworm (Noctuinae) caterpillar
Cutworm photo by Futureman1 on creative commons, flickr.

Another task where fingers did the work was ridding each individual potato plant in any given field of the potato bugs. Potato bugs are fat with orange stripes, and they can completely decimate a field of potatoes. We crawled up and down the rows with a tin can of coal oil that served as our insecticide at the time. We looked at each leaf, picked off the bugs and the masses of eggs, and dropped them into the can of coal oil. These were days before pesticides. In addition to coal oil for the bugs, we rubbed coal oil and bacon grease on our skin to keep the chiggers away. Again, our fingers did the work and like replanting the corn, potato bug removal was extremely labor intensive.

Potato Beetle
Potato Beetle by BugMan50 on flickr, creative commons

We were also always bottling the lambs. I do not ever remember a year when we weren’t nursing baby lambs behind the stove in the house. There was always a mama who had triplets or twins she didn’t like or that were born early in the cold, and we brought the orphans into the house and fed them out of bottles with rubber nipples. The lambs were tame and very hungry and they got strong in a hurry. They would butt their little heads against you, and when they were old enough to run, we sent them back to mama. We always had an area behind the stove fixed for the bottling of the lambs.

Perhaps the most difficult but the most pleasing job I did on the farm during those years was a winter job. In the off-season we repaired the gunny sacks for the wheat. There was no time to do this job in the summer; nobody had time to patch their sacks while tending to crops. Since we could not have the gunny sacks in the house, we would sit in the barn and patch the sacks using heavy thread and darning needles.

Patching the gunny sacks was hard work and the barn was always cold, but the good side of the job was that I got to spend time with my dad. He would tell me stories and teach me moral lessons, and this was the time of year that I got to spend quality time with my father.

Also, we never worked on Sundays. My parents were Evangelical (not to be confused with evangelism), and they thought that it was a sin to work on Sundays. While we went to church when we could, we often did not go because we did not have the gas for the old car (although my dad sometimes took gas from the tractor), or because my mother did not have a dress for church. My mother took a nap on Sunday afternoons, but since my dad never napped, I got to spend more quality time with him on these days. He wanted me to know how to identify every tree and every bird, and during our Sunday afternoon walks we gathered walnuts and hickory nuts. My dad did not want me to miss any of the trees in the area, so on one of the rare occasions that we rode in the car, he stopped the car so that he could show me a wild cherry tree.

One day, we had a contest in the county to see who could identify the most leaves, and I won. I won a bible, because my kind and patient father had taught me to be a markings expert.

Dust
photo by Robb North on creative commons, flickr

This is a true story from the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 87. It is a true account of days on a small Western Missouri farm during the drought of the 1930s.

Days on the Farm in 1934

Mom had malaria fever and we had to have her outside. Old Doc Martin, the county doctor, had visited and given my mother quinine. He told us that we had to keep her cool, and that we had to have a block of ice. On the rare occasions that Doc Martin visited, he left with a chicken because we had no money to pay him. Sometimes, he politely declined to take a chicken.

After the doctor left with his chicken, we decided to move outside because we did not have ten cents to buy a block of ice for Mom. The farm houses during the Great Depression had small windows because there was no insulation and no such thing as double-paned windows. Some rooms in the farm houses had no windows at all; there was no breeze in the house. We had no electricity and no fan.

We moved a mattress outside to underneath a tree for Mom. Pop and I moved our comfort and pillows outside as well, and we stayed next to her. We did not have mattresses. There was only the three of us now because my siblings were older and they were gone. That left Mom, Pop and I to tend to the farm. Mom was born in 1889 and was now 45 years old. I was nine. My responsibility now was to care for Mom and for the small animals on the farm. Pop told me not to worry about the big animals, so, during the day, Pop tended to the fields and to the cows and horses, and I tended to Mom and to the chickens, ducks and geese.

On her mattress, Mom would rave and cry and thrash. She was out of her mind and she didn’t know me. She had a roaring fever and there was nowhere to get cool. It did not rain that year until the first snow fell in the fall. Since we did not have ice, I would lower rags in a bucket on a rope into the well to cool them, and then I would wash Mom’s face and hands with the cool rags. We shared the well with the snakes that had gravitated there out of thirst. The well was our refrigerator.

During that summer, also know as a historic Dust Bowl year, we had 53 days that exceeded 100 degrees. Today, every acre is planted, but back then there were not as many roots in the soil to stabilize it; the wind roiled up large clouds of dust. Every living thing on the farm was thirsty, and while my dad was in the fields I dipped well water for the chickens, ducks and geese, and also for Mom. We lived like this, just surviving, hour after hour, day after day. My mom was so sick there were days she didn’t remember.

One day, I thought my mom had died. She was unresponsive to me, and I was so scared. I ran, terrified, to my dad, who was plowing with the mule on the back forty (literally). Pop tied the reins- the mule was a good mule- he wouldn’t go anywhere- Pop tied the reins onto the mule and we both ran back to Mom on her mattress. I was too young to see my mother suffer and die like this under my care. I was so scared because I was responsible for her and if she died I had only myself to blame. Seeing my mother like that haunts and saddens me to this day.

Mom was not dead. She was very hot. We shook her and rolled her and washed her face with cool rags from the well. Eventually she recovered and learned to walk again, but the malaria symptoms recurred in the following years.

During those hot and dry days on the farm, it wasn’t just me and Mom. All of the animals were thirsty and hot- the cows, calves, horses,chickens, ducks and geese- I dipped the well water for them all. My dad was a saint. He never got angry and he never asked for help with the big animals. He told me not to worry, he’d take care of the cows and horses. Pretty much all we had to eat was cornbread, and Pop often made the cornbread out of cornmeal, soured milk and flour in the mornings. At some point, he was able to save enough to get some coal oil burners.

Mom lay on her mattress in her ragged dress and she cried. Pop washed her face and held her hands. His real name was Olando John, and there was never a better man the good Lord ever made.

note: The Dust Bowl years were three consecutive years of drought during the Great Depression. On the description “53 days over 100,” go here to view historic records compared to present day.

Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes and caused by a protist. More here.

Also, the picture above has the following caption and description:

Dust

The human crisis was documented by photographers, musicians, and authors, many hired by various federal agencies. The Farm Security Administration hired numerous photographers, giving Dorothea Lange her start, in which she made a name for herself while capturing the impact of the storms and families of migrants. The work of independent artists such as folk singer Woody Guthrie and novelist John Steinbeck grew out of the events of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.