I asked about the April 14, 1935, "Black Sunday" dust storm.
"To listen to people talk about that is extraordinary. Their memories are as if it did happen yesterday. They describe what it smelled like and what it felt like, how abrasive the wind was, how their heart was racing, how the sun was snuffed from the sky, how they thought the world was coming to an end. I tried to imagine myself being a boy and looking up and seeing the sky go dark at noon.
"That Black Sunday storm had a drama of its own. The day started pleasantly. People were fooled into thinking that the worst was over. I heard that repeatedly from people I talked to, that they woke up on this Sunday morning, it was a crystal clear, robin's-egg- blue sky; there weren't any winds. The sun shone, the Plains showed a hint of promise and optimism, and people came out of their dusty little homes, their dugouts, and their plank houses and underground homes."
"Those underground houses," I said, "amazed me."
"Yes. A lot of people lived completely underground. On this April Sunday they came out and started to stretch and clean their clothes, and fire up their cars and go to church, and do things that they hadn't been able to do because they'd been prisoners of the weather.
"Around noon, starting in the far north, this enormous storm kicked up and moved its way south, and as it approached these individual communities, people were pointed to it and it was like looking at a three- to five-thousand-foot wall. I described it once I think as a 'moving mountain.' It's brown and raging and moving toward you.
"One of the great things about the Plains is you can see forever. So you would see this thing off in a distance, and it scared them -- they'd been used to dust storms but nothing like this. As it got closer, static electricity was so intense that you couldn't touch the person next to you, because it would actually throw you back.
"I hadn't known that these storms had that kind of kinetic power. But they do, and they did, and everyone spoke about that. I remember one guy telling me, 'We stopped shaking hands,' because you could get a shock, there was so much static in the air after one of these things.
"Everyone spoke about not being able to see your hand. That was the most consistent image. You'd hold up your hand in front of your face, and you couldn't see it.
"The first time I heard that about not seeing your hand, I thought that was preposterous. People tell stories, 'I remember the day the snowstorm was so bad.' I thought, that can't be true. But two things told me it was true. First, the contemporaneous accounts printed in newspapers at the time repeated that. Second, people I interviewed, and oral histories I listened to, time and again, described it the same way."
"But the sound of this storm," I said. "Amazing."
"Yes, this thing, at first, it was quiet. It was deadly quiet. You'd see it and you wouldn't hear anything. And then when it was on you -- of course things were ticking around and stuff was flying. You'd lie on the floor, you'd cover your face. You thought you were going to suffocate. You thought, 'I'm going to drown in this thing.' And imagine falling underwater. And that's what it was like. Like falling underwater at dusk.
"The wonder is, if there's any historical value of this story I tell, is that we all did think that most of these folks fled to California or got out of it. We don't have the sense of what it was like to be in the middle of it for so long. But there are so many terrific memories of it."
"You avoided the caricatures -- the Okie, Arkie, all that. You avoided the Woody Guthrie songs."
"Exactly. That's one of the things that was interesting to me as a writer. Suddenly you realize you have a great story to tell that hasn't been told in full detail. That our image of the Dust Bowl comes in large part from this balladeer, who didn't stick around -- I credit Woody Guthrie, but he left."
"But he left. Yes."
"Right after that Sunday. He went to Hollywood and to the Pacific Northwest. He didn't stick around. The struggle was a class diaspora like we have with Hurricane Katrina. At least two-thirds of the people stayed behind. So if you look at the big story, the big story was not so much the movement, it was people who put up with this."
Mr. Egan reminded me that most of these homes were without electricity. They were lucky if they had a telephone. "Some of them," he said, "got all this during the wheat boom and then lost it soon as the Depression hit. But most of these houses, and most of the rural Southern plains, did not have electricity. That was a great Roosevelt initiative to bring rural electricity. So they were living in conditions that we can't understand. And it made me admire them, tremendously."
"How did these people deal with this in terms of their religious faith?"
"These people were very religious, and they had very strong faith, and a lot of them interpreted the Bible literally. They thought that Revelations predicted this -- the end was near, the Rapture was coming. But this is the surprising thing. A fair amount of them lost faith. I read a lot of diaries and talked to a lot of people who said, 'What sort of God would betray us like this?'
"There were two sides of it. There were people who thought 'the end is near,' 'the apocalypse is upon us.' The Germans were different. The Germans from Russia. They're not extroverts, they're very 'hold it in.' They'd been through hell, coming from Russia to here. So they were used to quite a bit of bad stuff. They were Lutheran. They approached it differently."