It ended as a miserable, choking, eye-burning disaster of a day, but it was a golden morning. Not like a golden sunrise, but rather a golden-bronze tinge. And there was no wind. I don’t even remember a breeze.
Little did we know that the glowing sky was caused by half the topsoil of Arvin suspended in the air, waiting for the wind to catch up.
Forty years ago, I was a young reporter for The Californian. And some things were different. The Californian was an afternoon paper so people started coming into the office at 7 a.m. There were no cell phones, but the paper was an up-to-date operation with two-way radios in the photographers’ cars to communicate with the newsroom. Otherwise it was a pay phone (remember those?).
Now here is where my harrowing tale of the Great Dust Storm begins.
I was in the newsroom working away as usual and as reporters and editors filtered in, there would be comments about the strange sky. And then the wind started picking up in downtown Bakersfield, The golden glow of morning was turning into a recognizable dust storm. But, safely cocooned inside, we didn’t yet know its extent.
It wasn’t too long before editor Joe Stevenson heard a report over the scanner that a fire alarm had been triggered at the oil refinery in Oildale.
He looked around the newsroom and said, “Tim, go with Felix and check it out.” (Or words to that effect.) "Felix" is Felix Adamo, now The Californian’s chief photographer. Forty years ago, he was the new guy and had been on the staff less than a month.
Felix and I jumped in his car and raced (as best you can in a budding dust storm) to the refinery. All was quiet. No fire trucks. No hubbub.
Felix reported back by radio that the fire was a bust. From the newsroom Joe told us that the alarms had automatically set off when the refinery lost electrical power, but there had been a report of the roof being blown of a market in Arvin, and would we go “check it out.”
So, Felix at the wheel, we headed south down Union Avenue into the building wind and dust. And it was bad. As we drove into the more rural area the car was buffeted, tree limbs were on the road and the dust became more like flying dirt.
No sensible person would be on the road if they didn’t have to be or weren’t on a mission. Did I mention that we were young, had a sense of mission and were probably foolish?
Now here is the harrowing part.
Felix and I made it down Union Avenue to Bear Mountain Boulevard, about 15 miles south of town where you turn east to head for Arvin. We were in the middle of a roaring dust storm. And as I recall, we kind of looked at each other and said, “It’s not THAT bad.” Or words to that effect. How little we knew. We turned east and pressed on.
This is where it got really harrowing.
As we drove east it kept getting darker and darker and blacker and blacker as the dust became thicker and thicker. And the wind became stronger and stronger as it sandblasted the car. It was like a howling black fog our headlights barely penetrated.
We could not see from one strip of the dotted white line to the next.
As Felix drove from white line segment to white line segment, I was looking out the passenger window at the solid line along the edge of the asphalt and calling out course corrections when he drifted to the left or right.
As we approached Arvin, the wind seemed to abate somewhat, And there, as we were about to enter the city's business district, was a lone police officer with his car blocking the road.
Beyond him the boulevard was a disaster. Power lines were down. Storefront windows were blown out or broken out by flying debris.
We got out of the car into the howling wind and asked the officer if he knew the location of the roofless market. He did. He pointed across the street. But through the all-encompassing dust, I could only see the vague outlines of the building, roof or no roof. There was no one to talk to, no one to question, no one to interview.
So, what was the outcome of our trip to Arvin? The storm was so violent and such a disaster, only a couple of paragraphs from our great dust storm adventure were included in a much larger general wrap-up story.
Felix did get some great shots of the dust.