Rain is obviously a natural resource in this area that we cannot live without.
It has to come, in order for the crops to grow. If the crops don’t grow . . . well, need I say what the consequences are in an agricultural economy?
As a kid, rain was something we prayed for all summer. At mealtime, we’d thank God for the food and then ask Him for some rain. At bedtime, we’d ask God to take care of our parents (upon their prompting) and of course, ask for rain. When it rained, we asked Him to keep it coming. When it didn’t come, we begged for blue in the west.
I remember in particular an extremely dry summer when I was probably nine years old. We moved pipe every day. It seemed the towlines never stopped. Every night, we were lulled to sleep by the whirring of the irrigation motors in the distance.
One great danger was the lack of hay. That was a major requirement, raising dairy cattle and all. The alfalfa wasn’t faring so well. The prairie grass was close to being completely burned up altogether. The typical first, second, third and fourth cuttings became a first to be followed by a meager second.
My father was worried. Having only a few irrigated fields (back in the day, the majority was still pretty much dryland), things didn’t look good. I’d hear him and Mom talk in the living room at night, their voices filled with stress. I’d tightly close my eyes and whisper to God, “Please, please bring us rain.”
The hot temperatures continued and there was no rain in sight. Even Dorothy’s Creek, down the road where we kids often played, was drying up. It was so shallow that we couldn’t call it “swimming,” any longer. It was more like “getting your feet wet.”
So with the lack of a creek, we were resigned to sitting in the house in the hot afternoons, snipping beans by the fan and watching Big 8 Television (the only channel we got at that time). I remember we were watching some old western show. The cowboys were talking about “the drought” and the old Native American horse trainer raised his hand. As the cowboys quieted, he provided them with words of wisdom about the sun, rain and gifts from nature.
We listened intently as he explained the theory behind “a rain dance.” He said his forefathers often performed it, as a way “to please the gods.”
“If they are pleased, they will bring rain,” he said.
My brothers and I stared at each other. Huh. A rain dance? We watched carefully as the story unfolded on the tiny screen in that hot house. The Native American and his kin donned their feather-covered headdresses and began to chant while the cowboys stood in a circle. They danced around, inside that circle, singing and playing the drums. The cowboys waited . . . staring at the sky. They danced longer. The cowboys watched.
And of course, because it was a television depiction, the clouds darkened and the thunder began to roll. The cowboys laughed while the old man danced. Before the commercial break, the rain fell on the dancers and he gave the cowboys an I-told-you-so-look.
Fascinated, I decided we needed to do a rain dance of our own. What could it hurt?
I gathered up feathers from the chicken yard with my sister, Nancy, and we grabbed a roll of elastic from my mom’s sewing closet. Using tape and several safety pins, we quickly created make-shift headdresses for the two of us and our brothers. I don’t think Terry wore his . . . he was already too mature for such fantasy. But I clearly remember Steve and us girls putting them on our heads.
We went to the back yard, under the big cottonwood, to practice. Steve played the drum (an upside down bucket with a stick), and Nancy and I tried to awkwardly mimic what we’d seen on television.
Of course, nothing happened. It stayed 100 degrees and the sun continued beating down on the dried up farm.
“We just need to practice more on our rain dance,” I assured them.
That night, I decided to do some research. My only reference books were my “Little House on the Prairie” collection . . . so I scoured them for anything referring to Native Americans and/or rain dances. I came up with nothing.
That didn’t stop us from enhancing our choreography. We added a few moves and jazzed up our chant. But after about a week, we began to tire of our efforts. Nothing was happening. We obviously weren’t very good at the rain dance.
One evening, Mom said we needed to go to Grandma Onie’s house, because she and my father were going to move pipe. So we climbed in the back of the pickup for the trek to the other side of the farm. Before we left, I made sure to grab our head gear . . . maybe Grandma knew something about doing a rain dance. After all, she’d told stories about her ancestors settling next to a Native American village.
Mom dropped us off and we ran to where Grandma was sitting in her hard, metal lawn chair, peeling potatoes.
“Grandma, we want to show you something,” the three of us said. “It’s a surprise. It’s something we learned.”
She said she was interested . . . so we went behind the house and donned our feather/elastic bands. Steve grabbed a bucket from the steps of the building we called “the little kitchen,” and the show was on. We danced and chanted, Steve played the percussion as if he were a professional. Grandma tapped her toes and then asked what this new performance was called.
“Well, Grandma, it’s a rain dance!” we exclaimed. “The Indians say it makes all the gods happy and then we get rain!”
“What do you mean, ‘the gods?’” she asked.
“You know, the moon god, the sun god, a bunch of different gods that make it rain,” I said, just repeating what I’d heard on television.
Then the dance came to a screeching halt, as Grandma looked at us in horror.
“Take those things off your heads!” she exclaimed as we stared at her in surprise. “Catholics don’t rain dance!”
Shocked, we removed our feathers and shamefully sat in the grass. She didn’t say another word — well, at least directly to us. She picked up the peeler and mumbled some sort of prayer “for our heathen souls.”
“Are we in trouble?” Steve whispered.
I said I really had no idea. But whatever we did, it was enough to create a lively conversation between Onie and her son when he arrived to pick us up. I remember Dad saying we were just having fun, we were just kids and that we didn’t believe in worshiping multiple gods. She said if he’d be raising us right, we wouldn’t believe in “such evil things.”
Completely mystified and confused, we carried our feather bands into the house, feeling as if we’d robbed a bank or maybe committed a mortal sin that would condemn our souls to hell.
Dad told Mom what Grandma had said. They chuckled at her ramblings until Mom realized we felt so bad and were so worried.
“Oh, kids, that’s just Grandma,” she said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Matter of fact, why don’t you come outside and show us your rain dance?”
“Yeah, heck, it might even work,” my father joked, as he took off his dirty shirt and sat on the front steps while the sun went down.
We put our feather hats back on, Steve started drumming and we started dancing. We did our routine perfectly . . . better than we’d ever done it before. The little kids clapped at the end and we took a bow.
“Man, if the Lord doesn’t make it rain after that . . .” my dad said, laughing.
We went to bed, relieved that we still had a chance of getting into heaven. The parents led us in our nighttime prayers . . . we thanked God for each other, prayed for Grandma Onie and of course, asked for rain.
The next day, the clouds were a little darker. Dad kept moving pipe — he’d seen the teasing from the sky before and didn’t think it would amount to anything. Later, we headed to the pasture, to bring the cows in for milking. As we walked behind the herd we heard some unfamiliar rumbling in the heavens. Dad just winked at us.
“If it actually rains, heck, I’ll do the dance with you,” he said.
That night, as we sat down to eat supper, the God-given moisture began to fall. As the tinkling on the tin roof of the trailer house grew to a dull roar, my father’s grin grew to laughter. He grabbed my mom around the waist, reenacting our rain dance while she joyfully giggled. He chanted and stomped his feet.
“Mel, stop it!” she said playfully. “Remember, Catholics don’t rain dance.”
“Well, right now, this one does!” he exclaimed, throwing a little Elvis hip into the mix. “Just don’t tell Grandma.”