Diane Haithman contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.
When documentarian Ken Burns speaks, everything sounds like poetry. At today’s TCA panel on his latest PBS documentary The Dust Bowl, Burns didn’t say that some of the survivors of the devastating 1930s dust storms that were interviewed for the documentary have died. He said: “We have already lost four of them to the merciless passage of time.” The documentary will air in two episodes November 18-19.
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But some of them are very much alive. Cal Crabill, 87, appeared on the panel with Burns, his producing partner Dayton Duncan, and author and columnist Tim Egan, who appears in the documentary and whose book The Worst Hard Time served as an inspiration to the filmmakers.
Burns and Duncan said they connected with some of the approximately 25 survivors interviewed through appeals on PBS stations, visits to nursing homes and running notices in local newspapers. Crabill was one of them. “I watch PBS primarily. NBC for the local news and then I watch PBS, nothing much on TV will really excite me much,” said Crabill, drawing laughs from the television journalists assembled. Now living in the Bay Area, he saw one of the trailers urging him to contact local station management, and he did.
Like the other survivors interviewed Crabill was a child when the dust storms began to hit. His family moved to Burbank when he was 10. He went from a country school class of 3 students to a Burbank high school with 600-700 students. “It was culture shock, and I’ve been in culture shock ever since,” he says. He says when he saw his first dust storm rolling in, as he was trying to drive the family’s cattle home as he always did after school, “I thought it was the end of the world.”
Burns, Duncan and Egan compared the ravages of the Dust Bowl, and the tribulations of those who fled and those who stayed, to contemporary situations, including Hurricane Katrina. They pointed out how the raging dust storms were caused by human disregard to the effects of over-farming the land. Said Duncan, “It’s a cautionary tale … we believe we can ignore the limits on nature and the environment if it suits our purposes. All those things converged on the Southern Plains.”
They also drew parallels between the experience of the “Okies” who fled the Dust Bowl and the cultural clashes that come with contemporary immigration. The displaced Okies, Burns said, were seen as “unwelcome job stealers” just like some current immigrants.
Old feelings die hard. Crabill talked about returning to Burbank for his 55th high school reunion and meeting a schoolmate whose family had owned the little house on the alley his family had rented. When he told her who he was, she recoiled saying he and his family were “Grapes of Wrath people, they were horrible and poor.” While other classmates apologized for her behavior, Crabill said, “I’m not sure we change that much.”
Burns likened interviewing the children of the Dust Bowl to interviewing World War II veterans for his documentary The War in two ways: One, the race against time to capture their stories before they die, and two, the deluge of emotion that poured out when reticent people finally began to open up.
“I did my first interview on 16-millimeter sound film in 1972,” Burns reminisced. “That’s 40-and-a-half years ago, and I still feel like an amateur when it comes to an interview.”