WAWAKA, Ind. (AP) — Tom Franks was 15 years old in 1936, the year that Indiana and much of the country suffered through a severe drought that spawned the Dust Bowl era in many parts of America.
Now, at the age of 91, Franks still can recall the horrible conditions his family had to endure on their 77-acre farm in Wawaka.
"The corn only got to about 3 feet high, and with no water available, it just turned brown," he said. "Back then, we didn't plant corn until the first of June, because of the chance of frost and freeze. I can still see that short corn and how brown it got. Just like it's going to get this year if we don't get any rain."
Franks said his parents, Frank and Vida Franks, had six daughters and one son, William Thomas Franks. "I was fifth in line," he said.
Franks has lived an extraordinary life. Living through the drought as a teenager is just one of many trials for the man who is a hero in many respects.
Along with his many years in farming, he's a decorated World War II veteran who was presented with the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. Twice he was shot by German soldiers in Europe, and each time he went back to the front lines after being patched up.
"I've pretty much outlived my friends and my enemies," he said with a well-earned chuckle.
"Our farm had just about everything back then," he said of the 1930s. "We grew red clover, oats, corn and wheat. We didn't know anything about soybeans back then. We didn't have beef cattle but had dairy cows. There were lots of ducks, geese and turkeys that had the run of the yard. We had 10 cows and probably 100 laying hens, plus four sows and a few ewes.
"I know it was dry back then, but I don't remember us having the heat like we've had this summer," he said.
(According to the National Weather Service, the highest temperature ever recorded in Indiana came during the summer of 1936, when Collegeville recorded 116 degrees.)
The Frankses didn't have electricity in 1936, and there were plenty of chores to keep a teenage boy busy.
"One thing they never taught me was how to milk a cow, and I didn't mind not knowing that," he said with a grin.
Franks has lived his entire life within a mile or so from the farm where he grew up. These days, at 91, his mind is as sharp as a tack. He's still active, having attended Wawaka High School's class reunion back in June.
"We had 21 in our class, and that was the biggest class ever, up to that time," he said. "I think there's just three of us who are still around."
Farming was much simpler back then, he recalled.
"We hadn't heard of hybrid corn yet. We just had open-pollinated corn. . You'd go out in the field and pick the best ears you could find for seed the next year. You didn't have any seed salesman coming around," he said.
"Dad had a Fortson tractor. It was a hard-starting thing. You had to crank the handle just right to get it to spark and get out the way when it kicked back. I remember he traded that in on a 1020 International, and later traded that one in for a Farmall F-20," he said. "They paved U.S. 6 back in '33 or '34. Our tractor had big lugs on it, and we'd have to cover them up if we were going to drive on the pavement very far.
"We also had a big team of horses, and I enjoyed working those horses. But I also enjoyed driving our tractors. Our red clover crop was planted back in February. We would make hay out of it, and the clover made it through the spring before the drought hit that summer.
"Mom had a yard garden and grew Navy beans and potatoes. We always had a basement full of potatoes in the fall. After we harvested the Navy beans, we would stomp on them to open them up and let the wind blow away the chaff.
"We had a well that was real shallow, probably only had to go down 15 feet or so to get water. I remember we had to pump the water out with a hand pump, but eventually we got a windmill that would run the pump for us," Franks said.
"Back then, we didn't realize how hard it was for my parents and what they were going through," he recalled. "We were just coming out of the Depression. I can still remember the day after the banks closed (in 1929). Dad came back from going to bank in town, and he told us there was no money. I still remember the look of panic on my mother's face. I will never forget that.
"Dad was one of the lucky ones; he had a job driving kids to school, and that brought us a little extra money," he said. "We didn't have too much money to spend, but we had parents who loved us, and that was enough for us."
Information from: The News-Sun, http://www.kpcnews.com