Every summer when August rolls around, I start looking for signs and watching for news stories about grasshoppers.
This summer I’m not hearing of major infestations in the middle of South Dakota’s prairie. I don’t get around as much as I once did, so I might be missing the conversations. Maybe somewhere people are saying, “Man, the hoppers are as bad as they were during the Dirty Thirties.’’ I haven’t heard it yet this August.
Grasshoppers showed up almost overnight when I was a farm kid. One day there’d be no sign of them, and the next day they’d be smacking into the pickup windshield, hanging on the fenders of the tractor and lining on the brim of my straw hat or the shoulder of my chambray work shirt.
As hired labor for my farmer father, I considered the insects a minor annoyance. I didn’t care for the way they messed up the windshields of pickups and grain trucks and the go-to-town sedan, but they were low on my priority list. I mean, what’s a 15-year-old care about a few hoppers?
My folks, on the other hand, had experienced the Depression with its dust storms and its plague of grasshoppers. They’d no more forget the damage those things could do to a crop than they’d forget how everyone in the countryside felt when the banks began to fail.
Anytime the grasshoppers began to gather their forces, my dad would be having fits over what they were doing to the crops and my mom would be worried silly over whether the beans and berries in her garden would survive and how much of her favorite hollyhocks they’d destroy.
Dad wasn’t much for reliving the Dirty Thirties. He’d get into it now and then with a neighbor who had also seen those times. But he didn’t tell many stories to the public at large. If they’d seen it, they didn’t have to be told. If they hadn’t seen it, they wouldn’t understand. That was pretty much his thinking on that topic. He was a talker, my dad, but it seemed like he thought the Depression was one topic about which enough had been said.
Mom was more open to sharing her memories of the 1930s. She was 11 or so when the markets crashed in 1929, so her teen-age years included the Dust Bowl.
She could spin the most detailed recollections about dust sifting into the house through every single crack in the siding or gap in a windowsill. She told of stuffing rags and pages of newsprint into those cracks and gaps. As she often said, though, “It didn’t seem to do one bit of good. Every cup and plate that came out of the cupboard came out covered in dust. I got so tired of eating grit with every bite of food.’’
When the hoppers arrived they were just like the dust, the way my mom described them; they covered everything, and they sneaked in everywhere. She told of the side of the barn so thick with grasshoppers that a body couldn’t see what color the paint was supposed to be. When she walked in the pasture, her shoes made a crunch with every step. “My big sister laughed at me because I tried to step lightly and not make that terrible noise,’’ she said.
I traveled some back roads once in the area between Belvidere and Kadoka when the newspaper assigned me to check out stories of grasshoppers eating the paint off the sides of houses and making a county road so slick farmers couldn’t drive tractors up hills. It was worse than the Thirties, one caller told the assignment editor.
Well, I couldn’t find the too-slick highway. I did see a couple of farmhouses with siding sorely in need of paint, but I couldn’t say if it was hoppers or neglect. Later, when I told my mom about that assignment, she snorted. “Worse than the Thirties. Huh. If it had been anything like the Thirties, you’d have known it.’’
So far I haven’t heard anyone say the grasshoppers this year are worse than the Thirties. I haven’t listened very hard, either.