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The dust storm in 1935 that never eased

Dust Bowl survivor Cal Crabill, a longtime Davis resident, recalls his boyhood in Colorado in the 1930s, where his father was a cattle rancher. His family eventually gave up and moved west. Crabill is featured in filmmaker Ken Burns' newest documentary, "The Dust Bowl," which examines the worst ecological disaster in American history. The documentary airs Sunday and Monday, Nov. 18-19, on PBS. Rahoul Ghose, PBS/Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | November 13, 2012 |

Watch it

Who: Cal Crabill of Davis, featured in Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Dust Bowl”

When: 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, Nov. 18-19 (repeating at 10 p.m. both nights)

Where: KVIE, Channel 6

Cal Crabill remembers a frightening afternoon from his youth, watching in terror as a massive black cloud stretched toward the country schoolhouse in Holly, Colo., where he and other students had huddled in safety.

“The teacher eventually said to go home, because we were all scared,” recalls Crabill, now 88 and a retired Davis teacher. “I didn’t go home, though. I spent my time rounding up the stock. … As I was doing that, the cloud continued to get closer, and blacker.

“Before the storm hit, it was deathly still. Then, when it hits, bang,” he exclaims. “It was as loud as anything you could imagine. Louder than any thunderstorm. Louder than the crashing sea. It was deafening.”

Crabill also remembers the other severe dust storms of 1935 that devastated millions of acres of farmland in the Midwest, an area that came to be known as the Dust Bowl.

“Within six months, things got so bad that we had lost everything we had,” Crabill says of his family’s ranch.

Instead of storing away the harrowing memory of a terrified 10-year-old boy, Crabill decided to contribute it to a PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl produced by Emmy Award-winning director Ken Burns.

Reading “The Worst Hard Times,” Timothy Egan’s chronicle of the calamity, inspired Crabill to take part in Burns’ production. He said it was directly after reading that book, nearly four years ago, that he responded to PBS’ requests for participation by Dust Bowl survivors.

“If I hadn’t read it when the notice came out from Channel 6, I would’ve said, ‘So what?’ ” Crabill explains. “When I read it, I thought differently. He’s such an artistic writer that he can make the past come alive. As you read it, it’s just like you’re reading a novel.”

Crabill, along with many other Dust Bowl survivors, sent their personal experiences to Burns’ staff via the Internet. The staff then conducted hundreds of interviews to narrow the candidates down to 25 for the film.

“One of the principal people in Burns’ group interviewed me,” Crabill says. “Then they started to work on the footage, and they let me know I’d be in it at some places. I’m probably in the film three or four times.”

Among Burns’ other documentary films are “The Civil War” (1990), “Baseball” (1994), “Jazz” (2001), “The War” (2007), “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” (2009) and “Prohibition” (2011).

Dayton Duncan, a partner of Burns, also will publish a book to accompany “The Dust Bowl” film. It will be composed of snippets from interviews that were not used in the documentary.

The two-hour documentary is set to air at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, Nov. 18-19, on PBS (KVIE Channel 6), and will be repeated those nights at 10 p.m.

Crabill is a retired Davis High School math teacher and trained math teachers at UC Davis. He has lived in the area on four different occasions since 1960.

Being part of Burns’ project has allowed the longtime resident and the other contributors to the documentary to travel. They were featured at a publicity event in Los Angeles in July, and took a trip to Washington, D.C., several weeks ago.

Crabill had the opportunity to meet with Burns, Egan and Duncan as he made the appearances.

But the allure of touring wasn’t his primary reason for getting involved in the film, Crabill says. He did it to honor a struggling cattle farmer who lost everything when disaster struck.

“Basically, the reason I’ve done this is for my father,” Crabill says. “He went through some hard times.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052.

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