Alta in South Dakota in 1932
In May of 1998 I was mulling something Mom [Pat Hoffer] had told me relative to Grandma [Alta Padgett] and her love for horses and riding, was starting to formulate a song, but felt that I needed a lot more information and inspiration. So I gave her a call and asked a couple of questions, she began answering, and I had to scribble like crazy to keep up with her flow. Everything she said came out in vivid images and poetry.
I lifted much of what she said directly into another song altogether, complete lines. That became “In ‘32”, attached herein. The other, “Alta’s Ride,” has never come together, though I get a jolt of inspiration every now and then: interestingly enough, had just had one shortly before Al sent out this correspondence. I really need some kind of a tune, something pretty driving in beat – Bobby? Other Padgetts? Any ideas?
At any rate, this is what I remember, set in Mom’s voice, with many liberties taken and gaps unfilled [I am particularly bad at place names, something someone else might be able to fill in]:
In 1932, Daddy [Herb Padgett] had been working hard at a lot of odd jobs, unable to teach school - though that was his training - due to his refusal to join the Ku Klux Klan. It was big in southern Indiana back then and had a lot of political clout and control. But there was no way that Daddy would ever have considered membership in such a mean-spirited, hateful organization, and he ended up working where he could, often farming, to keep ends together.
That summer, he and Mother decided that she and we children would go back to South Dakota to spend some time with her family there. They could manage the tickets and having all of us up there might keep expenses down for the duration. Mother had not been back since I was just a baby and missed everyone keenly. Fiercely.
Let’s see, in ’32 they’d been married 9 years, so Emory was 8, I was 7 and Bob was maybe 5. We were still pretty little and this was a big trip. We got in a Greyhound Bus in Evansville, changed busses a couple of times, but rode for two days and two nights up to Sioux Falls. There were a lot of other folks on the buses and most of them seemed to be having tough times, too. Mother made it quite clear that we were to be on our best behavior, regardless of the difficulty of being a small child on a very long bus ride.
When we finally arrived at Sioux Falls, what relief to be getting off that bus, able to walk and run around at last! But we watched Mother as she stepped down first, turned her face directly into a blast of wind, and then wept, tears streaming. I have always believed that it was not just the return to her family and the place she loved so well, but simply that evocative taste of South Dakota wind that brought on those tears. Nonetheless, that first scene startled all three of us kids: Mother rarely cried.
We were met at the bus by Aunt Bea and Uncle George Potter in their farm truck. Mother and they were so delighted to reunite, but it was just the start of a parade of relatives that we did not know, or at least remember, as Emory and I had been so young when Mother and Daddy moved us to Evansville. And all of them so loving and friendly, including us in everything for the entirety of our trip - quite disconcerting at first. We didn’t have a lot of family back in Indiana. We had to adjust to all the welcoming hugs.
Things looked pretty bleak in Sioux Falls – dry and dusty, and on the ride to Bea and George’s farm we passed innumerable fields of corn and wheat ankle-deep in dust, the plants dying early. It was like miles and miles of moonscape.
Their place was outside White Lake [?] so within a day or so, family from all around gathered. We were amazed to find that we had cousins! Lots of cousins! Sometimes it seemed that there were streams of small children running everywhere. We ran all day long, playing, then at night the South Dakota kids had a tradition of putting on plays in Bea and George’s basement, hanging a big white sheet from the ceiling for a backdrop, setting up chairs for the adults, and they included each one of us. Such a thrill!
I remember, too, that all the boys would take turns trying to ride the hogs in the pigpen. Even Bob, though so small, got into that stinky business.
Then, one night a group of us went out after dark, creeping down to where there had been a large pond, now empty. Once we got close enough, the older boys switched on their flashlights, and there, ringing the pond bed, were what seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of pairs of eyes shining back at us. The jackrabbits would converge there every night to nibble on the little that grew in that low place. All those eyes staring back looked so fierce, but they were just jackrabbits, hungry jackrabbits.
That S Dakota wind blew constantly – I don’t believe that it let up even once while we were there, for two months solid. The oddest thing to us, though, was that it never brought on any rain. Just dust, and one day, locusts.
The sky far away came on all black and horrific, and blew closer and closer. At first we thought it was a dust storm, like the one that had blown in on the Fourth of July and forced the cancellation of the usual festivities. But the folks who had been through so many said that, no, this was different. We watched from inside and when it was almost upon us we could at last discern individual bugs, a cloud of bugs.
They flew in and stayed for days. Everywhere one went there were locusts, covering everything, eating everything. Even fence posts! Laundry! There were so many that the roads got slick from their squashed bodies, and they kept coming. Eventually there was no living thing left and they had to move on.
We went on to a couple of relatives’ homes to visit and stay for a few days, making a circuit of the family within range, spreading out the honors and the burdens of hosting us. We were so warmly welcomed everywhere we went, it was like being visiting royalty. It was moving to see all the love and cherishing of one another, even in these times that were so universally trying, and it was an entirely different experience of Mother, too, seeing her as someone’s daughter, sister, cousin, and friend. She had a wealth of experience and life that existed long before us and at times we felt like spectators to her drama.
When she was a child and young woman, one of her favorite activities was to work with her dad to break and gentle their horses. She had grown up with those horses and was quite accomplished as a rider. A singular joy for her was to take off on horseback and simply ride for hours, something she did more than once on our trip there.
Where was Mother? we’d ask. Oh, off on a ride. When will she be back? When she gets back. I came to know that the wind was not just her South Dakota talisman; it was her companion, bearing her down all those dusty dry country roads.
When she was in college, she worked at a cafeteria as a waitress. The kitchen had a swinging door with no window, and one day someone coming through the other way knocked her flat while carrying a large tray of dirty dishes. Her back was never the same, causing her pain all the rest of her life. Her pregnancies were quite difficult, probably giving her and Daddy the idea to keep their family on the smaller side. When she was older and in such pain she had X-rays that showed a couple of fractured vertebrae, most likely from that fall in the kitchen. How she could even ride with that pain is something I’ve always wondered, and think that maybe it was therapeutic for her; soothed her somehow. At any rate, she seemed to need to get out, get away, and go riding.
When the two months were over, we had to leave. It was somewhat excruciating - like we were having to leave behind new brothers and sisters - but at the same time, we were so anxious to see Daddy. As it turned out, we were in for a surprise - our bus ride back took us only to Chicago, where Daddy met us and we were able to go to the astonishing World’s Fair of 1932. It was like being in Oz, transported to another world altogether!
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