Lives blown away, the west beckoned


03/16/2010 2:29 PM

03/16/2010 2:30 PM

The dust rose over homes and Nebraska fields, waves of finely ground earth ready to swallow life and all that sustained it.

Mildred Golding's aunt would wet cloth and stick it to windows to block dust that spilled through cracks and gaps. The soil had become so arid and lifeless that it no longer stuck to the ground. More blew away every day and took hope with it.

Golding was 10 when her family stretched a canvas over its flatbed truck and filled it with everything they couldn't sell. Her grandmother hemmed windows in it and the family set out for California from tiny Sumner, Neb.

By the time Golding's family of six arrived in the Golden State, her father had $12 in his pocket.

"That took courage," she said.

The family left Jan. 15, 1935, a year after storms howled with alarming frequency throughout the Plains.

Since she arrived Jan. 26, 1935 -- a day the valley was so thick with tule fog that she couldn't see across the street -- California has been good to her.

California's agricultural bounty amazed Golding during the long and intense summer harvest season, she said. She tasted apricots and nectarines for the first time and could eat one orange after another all winter long. In Nebraska, she remembers receiving one orange a year in her Christmas stocking.

"My mother made the remark one time that California wastes more fruit than what the whole state of Nebraska has," Golding said.

Golding's family settled quickly in Modesto. She escaped the taunts that haunted others who fled to California to follow the harvests.

She left the worst of her Dust Bowl experience behind in Sumner. Thinking back to those times, she stumbles over those memories and can't hide the stinging pain they conjure -- like watching government workers buy and kill cows dying of hunger.

"We couldn't grow anything. So the cattle had nothing to eat," she said.

The cows were lined up along the railroad and killed one by one, she said, shaking her head and waving away with her hand that image.

"They shot them and buried them," she whispered. "It was just a sad situation."

To comment, click on the link with this story at Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at or 578-2382.

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