Charlie Flagg was like many farmers in Southwest today

I HAVEN'T written a book report in a long time and I certainly don't make it a practice, to tell folks what they ought to read in their spare time, assuming they have any.

But, on the recommendation of a colleague, I bought a copy of Elmer Kelton's The Time it Never Rained, published originally in 1973 and put out in paperback just last year, and I'd encourage anyone who's ever watched a crop or pasture wither in the hot sun to read it.

Kelton's novel follows west Texas rancher Charlie Flagg through the drought of the 1950s. The book covers a lot of the socio-economic philosophy of the post-war years, including government's role in folks' lives, prejudice, and changes in agricultural policy that shaped much of what's in place today.

It also deals with what most novels take on, one man's fight to retain his independence in the face of overwhelming odds. It's a book about man versus the elements, man versus prejudice, man versus the forces of a government that tries to help but doesn't exactly know how.

It's a book about family, about trust and integrity.

It's a fine read.

In an introduction, Kelton writes that after first publication he received notes from all over asking if his hero Charlie Flagg was modeled after someone they knew. I felt the same way after I read it. I interviewed a number of farmers recently for a series we ran on the current drought. In each of those farmers, I can see a little bit of Charlie Flagg.

Some had gone through incredible ordeals, aside from the drought they were trying to survive. Some had carved out a good living in less than ideal conditions for farming or ranching. I can't recall a one who would have traded places with anyone else. Each man loved what he was doing and where he was doing it. I had a note from one recently who commented on a picture we ran of him and several of his neighbors. "The reason we're smiling in the pictures," he said, "is because we love what we do."

There also is a sense of responsibility that pervades Kelton's book that I've found in just about every farmer I've ever known.

One of Flagg's goals was to leave his ranch in better shape than he found it. I can't count the number of times farmers have expressed that same philosophy to me. They feel a duty to protect the soil that nourishes them and provides them a living. Most are proud to own a few acres, though many now depend on leases to make a living. But they also recognize that ownership is a fleeting entity that passes quickly to another generation and that to abuse the soil is to cheat the next occupant and perhaps the one after that of the land's full value.

Flagg was independent and persistent. Most Southwest farmers and ranchers I've met in the past year or so possess those same qualities. Many have struggled to survive successive droughts and continue to eke out a living with the most meager amount of moisture. They endure, somehow.

A comparison of the 1950s drought with the one currently gripping much of the Southwest is both uncanny and frightening. In Kelton's book, west Texas suffered for six years, and with each passing month without rain farmers and ranchers watched their crops or pastures decline a little more and their equity erode with the wind-blasted soil. Debts piled up. Banks foreclosed on landowners and the town began to die, one small store at a time.

Many rural communities in the Southwest face similar fates if agriculture doesn't turn around. The combination of low prices and the persistent and pernicious drought will kill the small towns, farm by farm and store by store.

It may take the combined wills of the many farmers and ranchers who embody the spirit of Charlie Flagg to hold these rural communities together.

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