Rev. Edgar F. Wheeler: 20 Things We Feared

Our country had not fully recovered economically in the 1920’s following
World War I, when a severe depression struck in 1929. Banks failed and closed, investors lost funds held by banks, farmers lost their farms in debts. A further calamity was the severe drought in much of the country that followed in the 1930’s. This included unprecedented dust storms throughout the Midwest. There was a sense of doom prevailing. The one benefit realized was the churches and religious faith. These were guiding lights and sources of faith and perseverance. In this atmosphere our family grew to their teenage years.

Disease was rampant, and medical care was not far above primitive. We feared especially the life-threatening illnesses. Among them were tuberculosis, pneumonia, polio, blood poisoning, spinal meningitis and hydrophobia. The latter two were regarded as almost certainly fatal, and vivid tales we were told described such deaths. We were on alert for animals that might be “mad”, and whose bite or saliva could infect humans. The name derives: “hydro” – “frothing at the mouth (from water)” and “phobia” – “violent and uncontrolled violence”. Our family collie dog was bitten by a wandering dog, and began to show signs of approaching madness. Dad had to shoot him. My brother, Bob, had a great love for the dog (Shep) and the loss affected him deeply. Not a strong child, Bob did not want to eat. Dad and Mom became anxious and took him to the doctor who prescribed medicine that helped him. At this date (2004) Bob is still a doctor in Weiser, Idaho, at the age of 81. He is thinking of cutting back on what he does.

Tornados were feared, also. Kansas was in the “tornado belt”. We were familiar with the signs of a developing storm. A sudden drop in temperature from a high, humid temperature to sudden cooling, and an almost unearthly stillness caused us to watch the skies, ready to seek safe shelter. A dark cloud would develop a dropping area which formed into a funnel shape. This meant “Get to safety!!” A few times our parents sensed a possible approaching tornado at night and roused us children, taking us to the storm cellar near the house. We stayed there until the threat was past.

One tornado was memorable since it demolished our silo and did major destruction in the nearby town (six miles away). Charles and Merlin had been sent to bring in the cows from the pasture. As the accompanying winds began to blow, they thought it was fun, at first. As they got near home they got down on hands and knees and the wind threatened to pick them up from the ground. Then they began to panic, as Dad found them and took them to the storm cellar.

Lightning was a threat that we made every effort to avoid. Lightning and thunder were often a part of heavy rainstorms. If we were in the fields or pasture, we moved fast when we saw such a storm approaching, first identified by rolling thunder in the distance. Once, when heavy rains did not subside, Dad went with two of us boys to try to bring the cows in for milking. We found the creeks overflowing and had to turn back. The storm grew worse with almost steady lightning. At one point Dad fell down on the ground and we thought he had been struck, but he had just fallen. Just about a hundred feet from the house I reached for the fence to climb over it and got a shock up my arm from the lightning.

Lightning was most treacherous during the drought when it might strike from a clear sky. As we were trying to retrieve the dying corn for fodder, clouds came up, there was rolling thunder and lightning. Without delay we headed for safety, only to discover that no rain came after all. During those dry years, Dad rented a farm that was bordered by a stream with a high bank. A cool spring flowed from the bank, a tin cup had been hung nearby, and we could enjoy the refreshing cool water on a blistering hot day.

We had an unreasonable fear of snakes, as there were no poisonous ones in our immediate area. Perhaps our fears were an inborn repulse dating from the Fall at Eden. The slightest wiggling object or stirring grass put us on our guard.

The yelping of coyote packs at night was terrifying when we were young and had to be out in the dark of night. If Dad was there with us, we felt secure. Of course, the only threat from these animals was their harm to small livestock or poultry, or the possibility of their being rabid, in which case they could be a threat of spreading hydrophobia to humans and animals.

But, no, these fears were not an overwhelming obsession by any means. We enjoyed nature and life.

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