Feeling the Heat of Hell

July 22, 2011

This current heat wave is shattering records that have stood since the 1930s Dust Bowl days. From Texas to Vermont, roads are shimmering molten and mirage-like as road crews gulp fluids to stay hydrated. The WPA writers captured the unworldly weather of that other time in their guides and books, including a photo essay about the devastating hurricane of 1938 that strafed New England.
    In the Midwest, the newly republished WPA guide to Nebraska shows us searing heat in the state’s western sandhills, where mostly pioneer families made a hard living. Sandhills native Mari Sandoz was a mentor to workers on the Nebraska WPA’s staff in Lincoln, and in the Nebraska guidebook they quoted her hardbitten memoir of her father, Old Jules, and her folklore studies including “Sandhill Sundays.” In that a traveling preacher translated the emotional weirdness of the harsh weather from the wagon where he spoke and conjured hell as he invited families to the relief of a lake baptism:

You see them heat waves out there on the prairie? Them’s the fires of hell, licking round your feet, burning your feet, burning your faces red as raw meat, drying up your crops, drawing the water out of your wells! You see them thunderheads, shining like mansions in the sky but spurting fire and shaking the ground under your feet? God is mad, mad as hell!

The account goes on to subvert the stereotype of backward rural people by describing how Sandhill communities held cultural events with spell-downs, singing and debates on issues like Popular Elections of Our Presidents. People traveled up to 40 miles to enjoy late night dances, with snacks at midnight. A good time to go out when the day is hot as volcanic brimstone.

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