Prologue: An American Family

By Christopher Rush

(Note: I’ve recently decided to begin putting into writing many stories of family history told to me over the years. While this won’t have much interest beyond our immediate family, I thought it was important to preserve as many of these stories as possible as entire generations are passing on. I don’t want these important stories to die with them (or me). With this in mind, the following is a brief Prologue to set the table. I haven’t yet decided whether to release each succeeding chapter piecemeal or to publish once the entire work is finished. Anyway, here is a first taste of what is to come.)

It all happened suddenly on what would become known as “Black Monday.” The epic financial boom of the “Roaring Twenties” came to a screeching halt on that day, Oct. 28, 1929, when shares on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed in a cataclysmic bust. By mid-November of that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had lost almost half of its value thus precipitating what would become known as the “Great Depression” and the deepest economic collapse in U.S. history.

It was into this uncertain world that my parents, Robert Frank Rush and Geneva Ruth Hess, were born. Robert, or “Bob” as he was commonly known, was born Aug. 7, 1929 in the small hard-scrabble Oklahoma town of Henryetta. A few months later, his future wife and my mother, Geneva, was born on Dec. 22, a little over 100 miles away in the Ozark Mountain foothills near the tiny rural community of Watts along the Oklahoma-Arkansas state line.

Their childhoods would be marked by one of the most chaotic and challenging periods in American history but their paths would ultimately cross because of it.

As the Depression took hold in the early 1930s — tightening credit, forcing thousands of job layoffs, home mortgage and business defaults, bank foreclosures and a deepening economic crisis for millions of Americans — Bob and Geneva happily played and grew as many children of that era did, only mildly aware of the hardship they and their families were forced to endure. 

“We didn’t know we were poor. We were in the same boat as everybody else around us,” my mother would explain decades later.

Welch and Hess cousins gather in rural Adair County, Oklahoma for a rare photograph, circa 1935-36. Geneva Rush is third from the left, front row.

Geneva, the youngest of James Hugh and Maude Welch Hess’s 11 children, helped with family chores including milking the family cow, gathering eggs from the chicken house, and helping maintain the family vegetable garden. These meager resources produced on the small family farm were then bartered among neighbors or at the local mercantile for other essential items like flour, salt, fabric, tools and implements, etc.

“We didn’t know we were poor. We were in the same boat as everybody else around us.”

Geneva Rush

Meanwhile, “Bobbie,” as he was called by his mother, was the middle child of seven brothers and sisters raised by Cecil Elsworth and Elizabeth Francis Rush in a town known for cattle ranching and a history of coal mining. As a small child, Bob was closest to his sickly older brother Garland. The two were inseparable and often plotted mischief together. Bob, even though more than two years younger, would pull his frail older brother around town in a little red wagon. It was a crushing blow when in January of 1934 Garland died suddenly. Bob withdrew and became a quiet and melancholy child. He was five years old.

As their humble childhoods progressed, a new threat emerged. A profound ecological disaster was unfolding in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado — the “Dust Bowl.” Caused by a combination of prolonged severe drought and manmade factors involving land mismanagement, some regions of the Great Plains endured harsh conditions throughout the 1930s. The magnitude of the drought and the fearsome dust storms it produced, combined with the already harsh economic climate, drove many desperate Oklahomans (or “Okies” as they were frequently referred to in a pejorative context) to abandon their farms and seek meager work opportunities in the green fields and orchards of California.

From left to right are Bill, Ina, Wanda and Robert Rush, circa 1938-1939.

In spite of the hardships, however, neither the Hess nor Rush families were tempted to uproot what they had already worked so hard to build in Oklahoma. They stayed and persevered.

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. was thrust into World War II when the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — a “day that will live in infamy,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told an emergency gathering of Congress the next day. War was declared against Japan and Nazi Germany and the greatest conflagration in world history would eventually touch virtually every corner of the globe with some measure of death and destruction. Closer to home, it would mean even more shortages, more sacrifices, and countless other deprivations, big and small, to be endured by already struggling families in America’s heartland.

In rural Oklahoma, young Bob Rush and Geneva Hess were unwittingly being molded and shaped by three of the greatest calamities of the 20th century — the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and now World War II — and all before the tender age of 13.

What follows are their stories of faith, sacrifice and, ultimately, success in reaching for and achieving their hard-earned portion of the American dream.

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