s the 2012 campaign season spirals to an end, it's sometimes hard to fathom we live in the United States.
The partisan vitriol is all-too-often ugly, seeking to pit neighbor against neighbor and "us" against "them."
Sometimes you can't help but ask: Whatever happened to the notion of united we stand, divided we fall?
It's never been that simple or idyllic, of course. The American experiment is routinely noisy and messy. And it's frequently maddening.
But just when you think the nation's social fabric is near the ripping point, along comes something like Ken Burns' new documentary, The Dust Bowl, to remind us that we can survive the "worst hard time" if only we take seriously the biblical admonition that we are our brother's keeper.
"We always helped one another," recalls Iris Lochner, 82, who watched awestruck as "this boiling black cloud" bore down on her Panhandle town of Hardesty 77 years ago on what became known as "Black Sunday."
"If somebody was down and out, and you had a little bit, you always took something over (for them) to eat."
In my view, the timing for Burns' two-part, four-hour documentary -- scheduled for broadcast Nov. 18-19 on PBS, including the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) -- couldn't be more perfect.
With the election season over and the new Congress and state Legislature nearing their 2013 kickoffs, what better time to pause and reflect on a bleak era when we pulled together as a state and nation -- not simply as a matter of survival, but also to help create a future of shared prosperity?
It's also propitious timing because Oklahoma and much of the nation have now endured two of the hottest years on record and a prolonged drought -- further evidence that climate change is accelerating, as scientists warned.
The increasingly volatile weather patterns are not-so-subtle reminders that Oklahoma may not be far removed from another ecological disaster, especially if we fail to learn the lessons of history and refuse to become better stewards of Mother Earth.
As Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, put it, "I think the time is right" to revisit what he called "the seminal event in our (state's) history."
"With the drought, and what we've seen (weather-wise) the last two years, it's on everybody's mind."
The polls suggest that more Americans are coming to grips with the reality of climate change, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe's water-carrying for the fossil fuel industry notwithstanding.
But that is not what intrigues me about the arrival of Burns' latest documentary.
If you listen to the stories of those who survived what author Timothy Egan describes as "the worst hard time," it's hard not to be embarrassed by what our politics has become:
--A gridlocked Congress where the Republican Senate leader admitted publicly his party's No. 1 goal is not to help rebuild a recession-battered economy, but to defeat the Democratic president.
--A devotion to Ayn Rand-style principles that led to worship of the Forbes 400 crowd and contempt for the less fortunate -- a worldview that seems remarkably different from the one espoused by Jesus, the religious figure most often cited by American politicians.
There undoubtedly were some you're-on-your-own types in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, but they surely were in the minority.
Most knew -- as Hillary Clinton later famously argued -- it takes a village to build the kind of society that affords all an equal shot at the American dream, regardless of race, gender, religion or social standing.
Just ask Pauline Hodges. She endured the Dust Bowl in which her parents lost their Panhandle farm to foreclosure, but survived because her father worked on Works Project Administration programs that built highways U.S. 83 and 64 across the former No Man's Land.
On Black Sunday, she recalls, she and her mother walked across their fields, 14 miles west of Forgan, to visit some family friends.
"I remember the cloud," says Hodges, now 83 and living in Beaver. "I wasn't particularly scared. I was just a kid. We had had black clouds before."
Everyone retreated to the storm cellar. "I remember in the middle of it, the cellar door opened, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's black as night' and 'I can't see anything out there.'"
Her father made his way home only to find his wife and daughter gone. It was so dark he had to strike a match to see the telephone. He called the neighbors and determined his wife and daughter were safe.
"A lot of adults did think it was the end of the world," says Hodges, a PhD who helped Burns and Co. locate some of the survivors appearing in the documentary.
Not her parents. They didn't view it in a biblical, apocalyptic sense, she says, but rather as an economic calamity: "My parents thought it was the end of the world as far as their farming. It was end of world in a different sense for them" because the Dust Bowl prevented them from producing crops necessary to make mortgage payments to the bank.
Hodges and her family eventually moved into Forgan (population then: 429), where she became fast friends with Lochner, whose father was the local school superintendent and later a state representative.
Lochner's father established one of the state's first school lunch programs -- the only hot meal that many of the students got each day as their families struggled for survival.
"Mother got the mother's club together and they came over and cooked in the basement of the school house," says Lochner, who now lives in Edmond. "Somebody had brought in a couple of stoves. We had natural gas in Forgan.
"If you could afford it, you brought a dime a week and donated it. And with that the mother's club could buy sugar and cocoa to make hot chocolate out of the powdered skim milk. Everything we ate was from commodities."
The menu was simple: On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the students were served vegetable soup -- cooked with bones donated by local butchers.
An estimated 2.5 million fled the Great Plains because of the Dust Bowl, including 200,000 that went to California. Lochner's and Hodges' families stayed, stuck together and excelled.
One for all and all for one. None of this I-built-it-myself malarkey that permeates modern America's self-absorbed politics.
The lesson is that we're all in this together. If this grand American experience is to endure, we best work together to ensure all -- not just a chosen few -- have the opportunity to become all their creator intended.
One final note: A series of sneak previews -- featuring panel discussions with some who survived the Dust Bowl -- are being held across the state, including Nov. 12 in Tulsa.
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