Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shadows of The Great Depression

They say it can’t happen again, but they are the same people who tried to make us believe in the strength of our economy when all the while it was a wind-swept house of cards. There probably wouldn’t have been a run on the banks in 1929 if people hadn’t believed the lies of the Federal Government, Wall Street and Big Business; if they had paid attention to what was going on around them, they could have taken steps earlier to keep their money safe. And maybe, just maybe, they would have also planned at least a little for what was coming.

Instead, like today, people continued living life like times would always be good. The socialites wined and dined and ignored what was happening around them…………, until it hit their doorstep. Here in Iowa, the farmers saw it coming and they, along with others in agricultural states, may well have been the first to feel the sharpness of its teeth. Iowa didn’t have The Worst Hard Time, as that was experienced by those states who suffered through The Great American Dust Bowl. A book by that name, The Worst Hard Time, authored by Timothy Egan, details the extreme conditions families endured during that time, in parts of Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas, with Kansas and Texas receiving the largest amount of tragedy.

A family walking 30 miles to Santa Fe to visit relatives, during depression years

Over the last few years, I’ve read and studied The Great Depression and The Great American Dust Bowl with expectant interest. In referring to the dust bowl years, the weather can be controlled by no one but God. But when it comes to finances, we’re at the mercy of greedy big government and greedy big business. Add that to our own greed and desire to ‘keep up with the Jones’, and we’re reaping exactly what we’ve sown. Conspicuous consumerism has run rampant, and anyone with two active brain cells had to know this artificial economic bubble had to burst someday. The ridiculous rate of inflation that we’ve experienced simply couldn’t sustain itself forever.

“MORE, MORE, MORE,” has been the cry of the two generations that came along after the generation who fought through The Great Depression, The Great American Dust Bowl and World War II. The mantra has become, “I’ll get mine while the getting’s good and to hell with future generations.” We want ‘instant on’ everything, including wealth or at least the appearance of having wealth. I have watched children and grandchildren marry and expect to immediately have what it took years for my generation to earn. They do not know how to be poor; they do not know how to make water gravy; they do not know how to NOT want MORE.

It’s apparently more comfortable to keep one’s head buried deeply in the sand and ignore the coming fury. I guess the thinking is that if we pretend all is well, all will, indeed, be well. There have been those I’ve tried to discuss this with who actually didn’t want to face or acknowledge the possibilities. A Christian told me that their family wasn’t going to worry about it because no matter what happens, God will take care of them. I tried to remind that person that God also gave them a brain and expects them to use it. Guess they haven’t read the parts of the Bible where God allowed His children to suffer great devastation for years on end.

Another person actually told me that her psyche simply couldn’t handle thinking about it and she found it too traumatizing to discuss. This same person wouldn’t allow the TV to be on much right after 9/11 because she didn’t want her children to see all the media coverage and "get scared". Yet, this same woman discretely told me last week that she’s now talking to her husband about their need to “stock pile food.”

Food line during depression

My parents were children of The Great Depression; my mother was barely seven years old and my father was almost eleven. He was the fourth of six children, two others having died earlier in their lives. His two older brothers were in and out of the house as they tried to make their own way and, for the most part, failed. He’d had both a mother and father in the home until the depression hit, but when he was about twelve, his father decided he couldn’t support all of them anymore; and since his mother wouldn’t agree to place the three remaining minor children in an orphanage, his father left the home, taking the two older, adult boys with him. (His older sister had married and moved to Illinois.)

Placing one’s children in an orphanage was actually an act of kindness compared to some who either kicked their small children out, some as young as seven-years-old, to fend for themselves; or worse, tried to do away with them. In the book, Riding The Rails by Errol Lincoln Uys, there is a true tale of a little girl in Nebraska who………, well let me quote for you, from the book:

"When the New York Stock Exchange crashed in 1929, Donald Newhouser was a thirteen-year-old Nebraska farmboy. ‘I saw children coming to school in zero weather with holes in their shoes, thin coats and no gloves. We would have a bucket of snow ready to put their frozen hands in, as they came screaming into the schoolhouse after walking two miles to get there. One little girl came in, her eyes swollen from crying. She said her father had tried to kill her because there was nothing in the house to eat. Her father held her over the cistern by her fingers, ready to drop her in; only her mother’s praying and begging saved her.’”

So, yes, I think putting a child in an orphanage is much kinder then killing them! My father held it against his dad for the rest of his life because he had left the family. Because of his grudge, I never got to meet my grandfather. To be sure, there is no proof that Dad’s family would have been better off if Grandpa had stayed or gone, but I do know my grandmother had to do menial labor and seamstress work to feed her three children. There were family tales of how she sometimes entertained men in her bedroom during that time, and how she kept a stopwatch in her room expressly for that purpose. Dad remembered some of it in great detail, and that’s another thing he never forgave.

Of course, the kettle of cold oatmeal that was made every morning and was their food for the day is something else he remembered; that, and the fact that they usually didn’t have enough sugar or milk for the lumpy cereal, so had to use water to thin it down. He delivered newspapers and at fifteen-years-old, he rode the rails for awhile. Since he attended North High School in Des Moines, I have to assume his rail adventures were short-lived.

Unemployeed people standing in line for free food for their families.
Notice the tragically hypocritical sign behind them.

Mom’s family had both parents and five children, one born during the depression. Grandpa had been laid off from his job on the railroad, and did whatever he could to keep his family together and fed. He grew all their vegetables, canned, and also had a root cellar in which he kept carrots, onions and potatoes for the winter months. They raised chickens and he hunted squirrel, rabbit and coons, and he fished when the weather allowed; he brought home catfish in a big pail of water. Of course, certain commodities were rationed, so things like butter, sugar and eggs were harder for some to come by. While Mom’s family had the eggs from their chickens, sugar, butter and some other commodities weren’t as readily available.

Grandma’s sister lived right next door. Her husband worked for the telephone company, which kept him working through the depression, and they had only one child; they also had a garden and raised chickens. For some reason, both families received the same amount of ration stamps, no matter that one household had three people and the other had seven. My aunt did NOT share her ration stamps with her sister’s family, which was a sore point between my Grandmother and her sister for the rest of their lives.

My mother, (far left) and her siblings, in 1933

Momma dropped out of school during Junior High, when her parents couldn’t afford to buy material for her Home Economics sewing class. Her teacher offered to bring material and have Mom sew clothes for her, but the humiliation was too great for my mother; that, and not having decent clothes and shoes to wear to school. As soon as Grandpa was able to work again he saw to it that his kids had things a little better, including dance lessons for his daughters. But my grandparents never splurged, at least not that I know of. They were frugal and Grandpa kept raising his garden and chickens for many years. The chickens were the first to go, when I was a young teen, but that garden kept them and the extended family in vegetables until Gramps died.

Credit cards were something my parents and grandparents just didn’t do. Dad and Mom had a couple department store accounts at different times, and later in life Dad carried one card for when he traveled, but he paid it off in full whenever he received a statement. How different that is from my generation! Most of us carry at least a couple cards ‘just in case,’ but some of our kids and grandkids use credit cards to live on. Frankly, I’m scared for them. But they don’t seem to be concerned. As long as they can make those monthly payments, (and there are always those ‘Payday Loan/Cash Advance’ places), they think they’re okay. Borrowing on tomorrow may work as long as one has a job and tomorrow actually comes, but what about that time when there simply is NO MORE??? What happens when there are NO MORE jobs? NO MORE credit? NO MORE tomorrow? Well, therein lies the problem; tomorrows WILL come, but MORE of anything else may not.

In my next few posts, I will share with you some true stories from real people that somehow lived through The Great Depression and The Great American Dust Bowl. Meanwhile, please plan ahead; plan for a time when there will be NO MORE.