Note from the editor: Click here to read Part 1 of “The Way It Was”
There was a fringe benefit for me from the depression in that I received my first indoctrination into the ways of the world which included comprehensive discussions of politics, economics, world affairs, and morality but with a special focus on means of survival in difficult times. My education occurred while lying on our living room floor listening to Dad and friends (not to be confused with Fox and Friends) debate all kinds of issues while they focused on possible work sites. The men were regular visitors to our house where they met and planned strategy to find work. It is likely that they were attracted to our house as a meeting place by Dad’s famed home brew. Although he was not a bootlegger per se, he was known to have occasionally traded a bottle or two for some needed commodity. I was an accomplice in the enterprise as I took great delight in placing a cap on each bottle and watching Dad press it in place.
There must have been a robust feeling of camaraderie amongst those guys who were all in the same sinking boat. There was laughter in spite of their dire circumstances, and there were frequently told colorful stories which without benefit of Dad’s home brew would not likely have reached my tender ears. The coarse language was not lost on me, and was quickly incorporated into my vocabulary, the use of which would often get me in trouble. One particularly memorable event occurred when Dad took the guys down to our cellar to show them his success of the day. He had received a feisty old rooster in return for a day’s work, and the rooster was confined to the cellar, a small space with a dirt floor cool enough to render the beer palatable. Someone stumbled over the pan of water left for the rooster and Dad filled it with beer. Surprisingly, the old guy imbibed with gusto and was soon stumbling, flapping his wings, and attempting to crow in a falsetto voice. If he was hung over in the morning it was short-lived as a few hours later he would be on a platter sharing space with some drop dumplings.
In spite of the bravado most of the conversations had to do with work or rather the lack of it. The meetings were unscheduled and men would drop in at various times during the evening with comments like “I thought I would drop in to shoot the shit.” There were always rumors of things to come both good and bad… this place was laying off, another was going to be hiring, another business was in trouble and about to go under, etc. In 1933 the unemployment rate is said to have been 25%, but that number does not tell the whole story. Many who were said to be employed were actually able to work only part time. For example, Barb recalls her Father listed as an employee at a local steel mill, but usually actually working only one day a week and sometimes sent home early even for those days. He avoided eviction by painting houses owned by his landlord.
One conversation in particular stands out in which one of the men who was employed at a local glass container factory said he had just come from his workplace and had been turned away. He reported that at every shift change there were huge crowds of employees at the entrance hoping to be chosen to work that day, but few would be chosen. He loudly and profanely complained that the foremen “suck asses” and relatives were always the first chosen to work. Some jobs or professions previously considered ordinary were highly prized. Postal workers, school teachers, and local government jobs were highly prized for their stability. The lack of available cash led to a great deal of bartering, especially with farmers who had no one to whom to sell their crops. Conversely, professionals such as doctors and lawyers along with day laborers were often paid with food (e.g. the story of the inebriated rooster).
Civics (Yesterday’s Term for Politics)
No education is complete without lessons in civics and the down-but-not-outers were not shy about expressing their opinions in such matters which was probably enhanced by the tongue loosening effects of Dad’s beer. There was considerable disagreement amongst the group with almost everything. In our home Dad was registered as a Republican and Mom was a lifelong Democrat. I have the opinion that in those days one usually belonged to the party with which they had grown up much as with they do with religion. Dad in spite of his upbringing had experienced an epiphany: he blamed Hoover for the depression and lauded FDR’s efforts to restore the economy.
Those on the negative side of the debate were equally vociferous in their ridicule of FDR’s “make work programs” and “socialist stuff.” There were all kinds of jokes referring to the WPA and their workers having a penchant to be seen leaning on their shovels. With the establishment of social security in the mid- thirties the idea of government taking money out of his check (if he had one) and giving it to someone just because he got to be 65 years old did not sit well with the naysayers. A typical analysis might go something like this: “What ever happened to the idea of saving for old age” or “If they can’t take care of themselves, they should go to the poor house” (large forbidding appearing buildings euphemistically referred to as county homes). Families were expected to care for their elderly or infirm parents consequently; they shared in the disgrace, and were denigrated for forcing their parents to “suck on the public tit.”
The most often discussed and vilified make work program was the WPA (Works Progress Administration). The average wage was $52 per month yet one of my uncles worked in the program until it was disbanded in the early 1940s. During that time, he managed to raise two children with the help of his wife who was able to find work cleaning the house of an affluent neighbor. Although largely removed from most employment opportunities, wives did find ways to contribute. For example, Barb’s Mother did laundry in her home in spite of a childhood injury that left her crippled. The WPA worked on infrastructure projects while the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) focused on environmental projects. It was an organization for young men who were housed in barracks throughout the nation and paid even less. They were best known for planting millions of trees, often in areas where logging had left a desolate landscape. Roosevelt in announcing its formation said; “forests are the lungs of our nation.” They also fought forest fires, worked in national parks and landmarks building roads, trails and camping facilities. Many such projects remain in use to this day.
While listening in on those conversations from my vantage point on the living room floor I was also privy to discussions of moral issues some of which have bedeviled philosophers for eons. For example, one evening one of the guys reported that he knew of a place where it was possible to steal casing head gas. Although gasoline was 18 cents a gallon, he did not have 18 cents, his car was out of gas, and he couldn’t look for work. (For the unenlightened of my readership: casing head gas is formed by compression of natural gas by functioning oil wells. It is a very low quality fuel and can cause significant damage to automobile engines.) Since he was without the means to get there, he was attempting to recruit an accomplice. This provoked a heated debate. Not only was his proposal illegal there was that “thou shalt not steal” thing in the Bible for which some thought there were no exceptions. This brought up oft delivered hypotheticals one of which was very relevant to their situation which was “would you steal food if your children were starving?”
Keep Walking or Go to Jail
Vagrancy laws made homelessness even a greater problem than it is today for one could go to jail for “having no physical means of support.” When I looked up the origin of such laws, I was surprised to find they were written after the Civil War as as a means to get freed slaves off the street and into the chain gangs which could be rented out, a process some called a new form of slavery. These laws were found to be useful during The Depression as a means to rid the parks and other public facilities of the homeless. I had always wondered where all those men I used to see walking along the highways were going. Later it became obvious that they must stay on the move or go to jail.
These were the same guys who would sometimes appear at my Grandmother’s back door offering to do work for food. Of course, there was no expectation that work would be done. Grandma would bring a plate out for them and after a brief repast they were on their way. Since farmers were those who were most likely to have food to spare and cops were scarce these backroads were fertile territory. I heard stories of farmers who discovered “bums” asleep in their haymows especially during inclement weather. Depending on the compassion of the farmer they might be awakened by the business end of a pitchfork or sent to the house for something to eat then on their way.
Many of these hoboes or bums as they were called in those days would become so enured to that lifestyle that they would spend the rest of their lives on the move never staying more that a few days in one place. They became expert at hopping freight trains, knowing their schedules and where they slowed enough to get on them. They often migrated with the birds following the seasons. They eventually developed places where they could hide for a few days at a time usually close to a rail depot but far enough away to avoid the railroad police. It is said they verbally catalogued places that were soft touches for hand-outs. Thus, a nomadic subculture came into being demonstrating the remarkable change which can be brought about in an industrial society by an economic crisis.
An Early Exit Prevented
At some undetermined time during those preschool years I experienced life threatening incidents one of which would label my Father as an unlikely hero. In what was probably an effort to provide food and recreation simultaneously, he had decided to take me, my brother and mother fishing probably with the hope of making a meal of our catch. The site, called Pleasant Valley was a favorite of mine and was next to a small conclave of houses reached via a covered bridge over the Licking river. Its only reason for existence was a Post Office situated next to a major rail line. It was a mail distribution facility for a large part of the county, and its fascination for me was to be able to watch the train rush past at what seemed to me to be at least 100 mph, while a metal arm reached out from the mail car, dropping a bag of mail, while snatching a similar bag, and pulling it back into the car without even slowing.
Most likely, on that day I was preoccupied with the hope that the mail train would come by. The river was high, and I recall staring at the water as it rushed by, then everything was suddenly brown. Probably that memory remains so vivid due to fact that I would have a recurring dream of that incident for years although; such dreams were not frightening but consisted of the sensation of floating in that brown water. I am told that Dad saw me fall into the swollen river and immediately jumped in although he could not swim. I was told that my life was saved by a single button for I was wearing a light jacket with one button fastened and Dad reached out with one hand and was able to grasp the jacket with one hand. He threw me upon the bank and as he was floating by, managed to grab a root growing out of the river bank and save himself. Thanks be to God that the button held for had it not you would have been denied the joy of reading these blogs!
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for Part 3 of The Way It Was!