Monday, November 23, 2009

Hard Times

On my last post I made the statement that this is the worst economic downturn I could remember since the Great Depression.  That prompted a comment requesting me to write about the Great Depression and how it impacted my life.  

The economists keep telling us that we are in a Recession and that the stimulus package kept us from sliding into a Depression.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I am sure it feels like a Depression to the millions who have lost their jobs and homes.  The Washington Post just reported that the number of mortgages that are delinquent has risen to 14%.  The jobless rate is over 10%.  Try telling those unfortunate people that this isn't the same as a Depression.  

For the wealthy, things couldn't be better.  Some will take advantage of the misfortune of the losers and buy up those mortgages at pennies on the dollar.  CEO's that caused this disaster walk away with billions.  Is it no wonder that people are angry?

Since I have 'been there and done that' I will try to recreate what life was like during the Great Depression.  Because there was no Workman's Compensation the unfortunate jobless  had to scrounge any way they could to feed their families.  I don't think a day went by without several salesmen ringing our front doorbell selling can openers, home made furniture, Bibles, or anything else they could peddle for a small commission.  Other men knocked on the back door begging for any kind of work in exchange for a meal.  Bread lines were long and pathetic.  Still other men without travel money rode the rails to another part of the country where they hoped to find work.  

My husband's brother-in-law was one of those men.  He was a trucker by profession and he was out of a job.  He boarded a box car in California in the winter and nearly froze to death.  When the train stopped in Utah he was treated to a hot meal and warm clothing by the Salvation Army and he blessed them the rest of his life for saving him.  His story was not unique.   

The lucky ones who still had a job helped the less fortunate in any way they could.  My grandmother gave a party each Saturday night for the entire neighborhood.  Because nearly everyone was in the same boat, there was no shame in being hard up.  But people needed an escape from the worry and cares of every day life.  Few had money for an evening out, so the parties were well attended.  The meal was always a pot luck and people brought what they could.  My grandmother would play the piano for dancing and would be joined by anyone who could play an instrument.  The whole family was invited so the children had some fun too.

I was more fortunate than some children.  My grandmother was able to support my mother and  me; my Uncle and his wife and son; as well as helping strangers.  Nonetheless, I was not privileged.  My birthday presents were predictable.  Hair ribbons and panties.  I had two pair of shoes.  When school started I would get new school shoes.  When I outgrew them my Sunday shoes became school shoes and I would get new Sunday shoes.  I got two new dresses when school started.  Some children wore hand-me-downs from a charity or a friend.  

I was not spoiled materially because my family would have felt guilty if I had more than other children.  I never knew what it was like to go hungry, but it was drilled into me from day one that I was never to waste food.  I was only to take as much on my plate as I could eat and, believe me, I had better eat every scrap I took.

I will tell of two examples of how difficult times were for some families.  A little girl who attended my elementary school wore glasses provided to her by welfare.  One day her glasses got broken on the play ground and she burst into tears because she had been told to take good care of them; she would not be given another pair.

One Halloween some of us were going trick or treating and we knocked at the door of a very humble house.  The man opened the door and there must have been 6 or 8 children in that family.  They had a big barrel of apples that had been donated to them.  Some of the apples were rotten, but he offered an apple to each of us.  I remember not wanting to take it because I knew that might be the most food they had.  (It will probably shock some people to know that this kind of hunger still exists in our country.)

John Steinbeck's award winning novel, 'The Grapes Of Wrath' is not only a good read, but it will tell you more about what the Depression was like than I could.  The Dust Bowl caused Kansas and Oklahoma farmer's to migrate to California and Steinbeck has captured that era perfectly. 

What was life like then for the middle class?  We learned to value things, we learned to entertain ourselves, and we learned thrift.  That meant that we took care of our possessions.  It meant that we did things as a family.  If there was enough money for gas, we took a Sunday drive.  We played checkers, dominoes and card games for entertainment.  We saved our money for a future indulgence.  In the summer a big evening for us was driving to Manitou Springs to fill up jugs with mineral water.  If we felt 'flush' we stopped for a root beer float.  To today's kids, that would be a dull outing, but to me it was an exciting event.

Most people helped each other and were compassionate.  Sadly the other side of the coin were the greedy unprincipled men that had money and used the dire circumstances of others to further their wealth.  We had a neighbor who had been gassed during WW I and he had a pension.  When the value of the dollar plummeted, his pension remained the same allowing him more money than he needed to survive.  I suppose you could call him an entrepreneur, but that would not be my name for him.  He haunted the Court House and searched the records for delinquent taxes.  Those were usually owed by widows.  He then paid the taxes, took over the property and evicted the unfortunate owner.   I wish I could say that he was an isolated example, but it is not so.  All over the country such men got wealthy on the misfortune of others.

Itinerant preachers were numerous.  Many of them became wealthy because the gullible would give them money they could not afford.  Evangelical preachers were followed because people were looking for something to hang on to.  Aimee Semple McPherson was one such preacher.  She was involved in an scandal involving an extramarital affair, but before that happened she became extremely wealthy. 

I hope the 'powers that be' can avoid another Depression.  For some it is already happening.  We need men of wisdom to guide this country so it doesn't fall into the abyss again.  We need strong leaders who will put restrictions on the lending institutions so we don't fall down this rabbit hole once more.  We need patience and guidance.


Granny Annie said...


Paula said...

My cousin told me this story recently, shortly after our moms died. The family lived in Wichita, Kansas. When they married in 1915 or so, my grandfather was an OK cowboy and my grandmother, an older woman from the hills of West Virginia. She had moved to OK to care for an ailing uncle at Fort Supply. Eventually, my grandfather gave up herding cattle and worked on road construction crews. They moved from OK to KS. He was gone a lot, but in 1929, he left my grandmother and their three girls to fend for themselves, completely. The girls were about 14,13, and 8. There were no jobs, especially for women. My grandmother never went to high school, but she was strong and not afraid to work hard. Unfortunately, all of her family was back in WV, so she had no one to help her out. My cousin says our grandmother moved all three girls into one room, set up a cot for herself in the kitchen, then rented out most of the other rooms in the house and took in boarders. She also started a washing and ironing business in her home. My mother never talked about it, but my aunt did, otherwise I would never have known how hard their lives must have been.

kenju said...

Excellent post, Darlene. My mom told me much of what you say here and I've read The Grapes of Wrath. You may want to read "The Last Hard Time" (I think that's the name) about the Dust Bowl. It was very eye-opening.

Rummuser said...

This is a poignant and beautiful story very well told. I have read The Grapes Of Wrath as part of my English language course and remember it very well. Coming from India as I do, many of the things that you write about are true for us even now. The sad new thing is however the phenomenon of living beyond one's means via the credit card and easy loans for purchase of all things which is putting a lot of young people in dire straits. The novelty of a consumer society, which did not exist for their parents has made for very rash living and I am counseling some young people on how to get their finances on rail again.

Darlene said...

*Granny Annie - Thanks for the push to write this.

*Paula - How terrible for your grandmother. She was obviously a woman with great courage and ingenuity.

*Kenju - I will try to find that book. Thank you for the info.
Some of that dust blew all the way from Kansas to our back door.

*Rummuser - History does repeat itself. From the Roaring Twenties (a time similar to the recent years) to the Great Depression. My generation learned how to save and my grandchildren's generation will too.

One Woman's Journey said...

So much of what you shared was a part of my life. My parents were teenagers, I was born, no work in Tennessee and they moved to Michigan to work in auto factories.
I was raised in Detroit. My worst memories. Enough said. I am living my dream. I am back in the state where my grandparents and aunts lived. They were so good to this skinny little girl. So many stories I could share.

Friko said...

Thank you for this post, Darlene; I knew nothing of the great depression but the stories you tell remind me of the stories of hunger and deprivation that I was told as a child by members of my own family in Europe.
You say that such conditions apply even now to some unfortunates in the US; I can confirm that these scenes still occur in European countries too.

thank you for commenting on my blog. The thought of a drought is inconceivable to me here in the UK; we are being deluged with water day after day after day and the rivers are dangerously high and many have flooded whole towns and villages already, causing untold misery in the process.

It's lovely to know you and although I cannot always comment on your posts, mainly because your subjects are often as American as mine are European, I love reading them.

Looking to the Stars said...

Good Post! I started to cry when I came to the little girl who broke her glasses. My heart hurts knowing that there are people out there right now going thru the same thing.

Your grandmother's kindness is what makes America a good country. Thinking and doing for others is what gets us thru the hard times.

Xtreme English said...

what you describe is so much like my life as a kid, yet i was born at the end of the depression. still, the habit of frugality lingered--and then came WWII and rationing. my aunt told the story of finding a broken floorboard toward the back of their grainary one year. she and one of the boys crawled through it and shoveled all the grain that had fallen into sacks, then they drove it to the elevator, sold it, and everyone in the family got something--new overalls for the boys, something else for the girls. how wonderful of your grandmother to throw a weekly party for all!! there's a great idea if there ever was one. thanks for this wonderful post.

Joy Des Jardins said...

Wonderful post Darlene. I've heard many stories about that time, but didn't really know anything about the Great Depression. It always seemed so distant to me, and very scary. Your grandmother was quite a strong and beautiful woman Darlene....and so very kind. She helped make some very difficult times better for a lot of people...what a nice legacy to pass down to you. ~Joy

Darlene said...

*One Woman's Journey - I'm glad you were able to return to the state you love.

*Friko - Thank you for your kind words. The Great Depression was not limited to the U. S. Many other countries were sucked up in it, just as the current recession is spilling over. It's a small world, after all.

I wish you could send some of that rain here. Flooding it terrible. I guess the worst flooding is in that beautiful Lake District, isn't it?

*Looking to the Stars - That little girl's name was Harriet and I have never forgotten her. She left school shortly after that and I still wonder what happened to her.

*Xtreme English - I am still frugal. It's a life long habit once learned. I have loosened up in my later years, though.

*Joy Des Jardins - My grandmother is my idol. She was a renaisance woman if ever there was one.

Rain said...

My family told a lot of stories like yours; so though I was born during WWII, it seems like the Great Depression was part of my upbringing because the lessons stayed with people. Because we lived on a farm (that didn't make money), my dad was in a union where sometimes there were strikes or layoffs, I grew up a lot like you describe. To me getting hand-me down dresses were great as they meant something new to me. I think there are advantages to growing up without too much as you have the potential to learn what has real value and know tools to survive if you should end up back there.

Darlene said...

*Rain - You are so right. We learned to value the right things; friendship, sharing, and gratitude. And you are correct that we will have an easier time of it if things get worse because we know how to survive.

Lorna Lilo said...

What a beautifully told story and very real as well. It is sad to think of the promotion of consumerism today that sweeps over the individual ability to survive on what was handmade, hand sewn and grown, and there was less required of it then and it was better quality. People that are affected by this recession should not feel guilty for being angry. I may be getting older and finding myself complaining more and more but it's only because I am becomming wiser. If we don't rattle some cages every now and again it seems that they are happy to repeat history time and time again.

Darlene said...

*Lorna Lilo - Thank you so much for stopping by. I do hope you will return.

Yes, we have become a consumer society, but I think that is changing out of necessity. History does repet itself and if we don't learn from the past it will continue to do so.

joared said...

Glad you wrote this, Darlene. My mother often described the depression years to me though our family escaped the worst of it she said. I know she was quite busy for a lot of years with her church group helping those who needed help. Little did she know the day would come when she would need that same help.

I was born after the "crash" but before WWII. Much of what you describe was my own experience, making an indelible impression and insuring I would move heaven and earth to try always to be in a position I could cope with the least expected calamity. I wasn't always, materially, but fortunately nothing major occurred those times.

This current situation is scary 'cause the financial markets are again riding unrealistically high, the dollar's value shrinking. I'm not convinced the necessary checks and balances to protect individuals have been instituted while the greedy are busily gobblin' more.

ebdoug said...

FourSquare Church. We have a FourSquare Church in town. My next door neighbors moved here about 10 years ago to build a house in the woods. Dug the hole. Felled the trees, left them to season. Meanwhile living in a tiny trailer. He quit his carpentry job to build the house Wife got a settlement of 18K for her back that she ruied smoking. She donated it to the church. They still live in the tiny trailer. I read all I could about Aimee and her avarice. These people buy it. "A fool and her money is soon parted."

Baino said...

Hi Darls. Interesting story. We all think of the Depression as everybody being on the bread line when that wasn't the case. One of my commenters is a mortgage lender in California and she's seen a huge increase in people buying out defaulted mortgages. They'll hang on to the properties and flog them off when things recover. Again, taking advantage of peoples misfortune. Here the banks have agreed to a 12 month moratorium on SOME loans so that people struggling to pay their mortgages get a bit of a break, then in the same breath the major banks have doubled the recent Reserve Bank interest rate charge. Where's the fairness in that. And their shareholders are still reaping a healthy dividend. Your words about 'thrift' are very wise indeed. I was suckered into borrowing more than I can afford and most of my salary now goes into insurance and repaying silly debt. I was so stupid. I don't know what goes on over there, but the only thing that saved us from going into depression were strict restrictions on international borrowing and capital retention by Aussie banks. Sometimes you need a nanny government to prevent you from slipping down that rabbit hole!