The Way It Was| Part 5

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

The fifth installment of The Way It Was picks up after Eshrink illustrated how the technology we have today has made life so easy by describing how they did things and what they didn’t have in the 1930s in his previous post: Part 4. 

The Way It Was: Part 5

We humans are very adept at making stuff, but not so good at predicting their consequences.  When I was a kid we spent most of our free time outdoors only because we had no play stations, cellphones, or TV.  There were no traveling sports teams, other than in high school, and kids were expected to be creative enough to find ways to occupy themselves.   We were free to fight, make up, make friends and enemies, in other words learn how to socialize.  In the January issue of Scientific American is an article titled: “Evolved to Exercise,” which posits that humans must be active to remain healthy, which made me think of the recent statistics regarding what some refer to as an epidemic of childhood obesity.  An even more frightening stat is that Type 2 diabetes, formerly a strictly adult disease linked to obesity, is now being seen in children.

In my own case I lost my super stardom in the 4th grade when we left the little farm and moved to town.  As a matter of fact, I did not feel accepted and became shy.  I was bullied and in response became something of a wimp.  I was saved from the bullies who were routinely taking my lunch from me by a kindred soul who had some intellectual deficits and a speech impediment that left him a few grades behind.  Fortunately for me, he was large in stature and came to my rescue.  This story will be quite familiar to my gang as they have heard it many times and it was featured in the “Papa Stories” which I wrote long ago for the Grandkids.

News of the Day

There are only snippets of memories of those days in the late 30s, but since I had no friends after we moved, I must have spent more time listening to the news on the radio and even reading the newspaper.  I do recall hearing stories about Father Coughlin who was a Catholic priest, one of the first to use the radio as a platform for preaching.  Now 800px-CharlesCouglinCraineDetroitPortrait dads blogsince looking up his history, I realize Dad had disliked Coughlin not because he was Catholic, but because his preachings had become anti-semitic and pro fascist.  Coughlin heaped praise on Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, and felt Hitler was correct in blaming Jews for his country’s problems.  His programs had taken this turn apparently due to his antipathy toward Roosevelt whom he had initially supported.  He is said to have had 30 million listeners to his weekly program, many of whom had joined his “National Union for Social Justice.”  He was forced off the air when the war started.

In like fashion, I used Wikipedia to fill in the blanks of my foggy memories of the German American Bund, which was a pro-Nazi organization formed at the behest of Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s right-hand man.  It’s goal was to form a Nazi party in the United States.  Membership was limited to those of German descent and even some American citizens were members.  Until now I didn’t realize what a formidable organization they had become with uniforms, Nazi salutes and even the establishment of military style training camps.  I was amazed to learn that this organization was allowed free reign until 1942, well after war had been declared on Germany.

During those prewar days of the late 1930s, there was a lot going on with much concern over Germany’s rearmament.  The news reels showed footage of massive displays of armaments along with thousands of “goose stepping” troops giving the Nazi salute as they marched past Hitler.   Roosevelt’s fireside chats warned of our lack of preparedness, but his entreaties were ignored by the isolationists who had barely recovered from World War I with its millions of deaths.  The veterans of the war who continued to suffer from wounds, disease, or the sequelae of exposure to poison gas were daily reminders of the horrors of war.

Working Conditions & Unions

It must have been sometime in the late 30s when Dad became involved in attempts to unionize his workplace.  His complaint was regarding working conditions. He worked in the “press room” of the tile factory which was said to be the most dust ridden area of the plant.  Indeed, he arrived home from work every day covered in white dust so thick that one could barely distinguish the color of his clothes.  Our town had at one time been world famous for the production of ceramic products of all kinds, and also a place where there had always been a lot of “lung trouble” which was often fatal.  There had recently been studies in which there was shown to be a link between such dust and pulmonary disease and an increased susceptibility to tuberculosis.  This disease was also found to be prevalent in those working in foundries (they used a lot of sand in molds), and recently has been found to be the major culprit in the black lung disease which afflicts coal miners.  It was called silicosis after the silica which was shown to cause it.

The late thirties was the hey-day of union activity following passage of the Labor Relations Act, another of FDR’s New Deal legislations in 1935.  I have rather vivid memories of several evening visits to our house by a union organizer.  There were intense discussions and he left a lot of literature including scientific publications about silicosis.  I thought that stuff was cool.  There were pictures of X-rays, and lungs that had been cut out of people.  I presume that my Father was chosen to head up the campaign to organize the plant because of his reputation of being outspoken.  I recall one discussion about exhaust systems which could remove nearly all the dust in the plant.  Dad was particularly angry to find there were solutions to this problem which the company had ignored.  After all, he knew several people who were disabled or dead as a result of that dust.

The first step was to try to be the first to punch his time card out in order for him to station himself outside the gate in position to pass out literature and talk to any one who would listen.  It was strictly forbidden to do any campaigning on company time and even discussions were grounds for immediate dismissal.  In spite of his best efforts, the vote to join the union was turned down.  I remember Dad saying they were all a bunch of “chickenshit suck asses.” He suffered no immediate retribution, as I think the law protected him from being punished for union activities, although I am sure there was no effort to make things easy for him.  He did have a great deal of respect for his foreman, they had become friends and I suspect he may have attempted to shield Dad.  The company remained in operation for many more years and of course never did anything to ameliorate the dust problem.

As for me, I have always felt a kinship to the union movement.  In spite of the excesses they perpetrated in later years, they did much to not only create a blue-collar middle class but also help improve working conditions.  There is a family myth (might even be true) that my Mother’s great uncle, who was a charter member of the United Mine Workers, once escaped from a group of strikebreakers with noose in hand by climbing out the rear window of his house as they broke down the front door.  Now the UMW is a toothless tiger and once again mine safety regulations are being ignored.

Values

Before proceeding to the war years, I feel it important to elaborate on some of the values and behaviors held important then.  There was great emphasis on manners which extended to the deferential behavior towards women.  We boys were trained that the female was a delicate flower which could be easily destroyed either physically or emotionally, and to strike a woman was not only unmannerly but unmanly. It did seem strange that our Mothers, though obviously female, were tough as nails, and to disrespect her could well unleash not only her wrath but also Father’s wrath.  Discussions in mixed company of anything remotely connected to sex, even the word sex, were strictly for bidden.

All these and other conventions were supposed to be a mark of respect, yet respect in the workplace was lacking.  Women were barred from positions of leadership, and mostly limited to jobs that involved positions in which they were subservient to men, which was also mirrored in their marital relationships.  In general, they were felt to be too emotional to make decisions and to handle responsibility.  We thought we were being respectful, but now I am told the opposite was true.  The war soon to come would shatter many or those stereotypes as women were given the opportunity to demonstrate they were capable of more than nurture.

The Elderly

There was a great deal of respect shown for one’s elders (I was born too late for that).  The rule was that they should always be addressed with the proper prefix (Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc).  The proper suffix should be used in in responding, such as: yes sir, no sir, yes Mam, and they should never be addressed by their first name unless permission was granted.   In private however; they would often be referred to as old geezers or worse.

Table Manners

Table manners were high on the agenda and dinner was always punctuated with instructions as to how one should use the tools, pass the serving dish before spooning out a serving for oneself, and keep elbows off the table.  Eating with fingers was a definite no-no, and to not eat every speck on one’s plate was to insult the cook, not to mention all those starving children in India.

Seen and Not Heard

In the presence of adults, children were to “be seen and not heard” which always left me wondering why we were there in the first place.  One particularly difficult place for me was my dad’s brother’s house, whose wife always impressed me a being “stiff as a board.”  They were childless, their house was immaculate and extensively populated with breakable items.  Upon arrival, I was always directed to a plain chair near the corner of their living room.  I don’t believe she ever talked to me but did occasionally talk about me.  At the same time, I was petrified and scared to move a muscle.  I bode my time by reciting numbers in my head (“a thousand one, a thousand two, and so on until I hit 100, then started all over again.  I remember asking my Dad why they had no children and he answered, “He is a dry bag.”  I only had an inkling what he meant, but didn’t pursue the subject.  In his honor of my Uncle, I named our most recent adopted dog, Floyd.

In marked contrast to Aunt Florence was Aunt Toad, (I never knew her real name, nor how she came to that nickname). She was also childless, but she couldn’t get enough of my talking.  She always greeted me as if I were the most important person on earth and after stuffing me with cookies, cake, and her home squeezed grape juice, she would ask me all kinds of questions, and I would talk non-stop, confessing to all my dreams of being a private detective or airplane pilot, or whatever grandiose scheme came to mind on a given day. She would listen attentively.  She never appeared to doubt my capabilities to do any of those things, and I felt comfortable telling her anything that came to mind.  I think she would have made an excellent psychotherapist even without the cookies and cake.

What We Wore

You may have noticed there are few walk in closets in houses of this vintage or older.  Usually all the space needed was room for a Sunday suit a couple of shirts and maybe a pair of “good pants”.  The suit was for church and funerals.  The pants for family reunions and eating in fancy places. Of course, there was no air conditioning and the suit was mandatory on Sunday no matter the temperature.  A pair of good shoes was also necessary.  Although May 1st was the magic date at which we kids could shed our shoes for the summer, we were forced to stick our swollen feet back into shoes we had probably already outgrown in order to go to church or even a movie.

Men wore hats no matter the occasion, almost always felt, but there was an occasional flat top straw seen in the summer.  No hats of any kind were ever to be worn in doors, and anyone who crossed that line was in trouble.  Hair was worn slicked back, and brilliantine was the most popular way to accomplish that.  It also smelled good which was nice since weekly or less frequent shampoos were the norm.

Editor’s Note: Stay Tuned for “The Way It Was: Part 6” where Eshrink chronicles the pre-war years (WWII) from his perspective as a child. Not only will he discuss “the mood of the country” as he remembers it regarding the war in Europe, but shares personal stories, such as the first funeral he attended when his grandfather died and remembrances of the people who shaped his life.

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Way It Was| Part 5

  1. Yes, Smitty, I remember a lot of what you wrote.  What you said about manners at the dinner table struck a chord with me.  With 12 kids, we each had a specific place (with each new baby we moved one place).  We had to ASK to be excused from the table.  We could talk, but of course, but NO arguing. If we misbehaved,we were threatened to be sent away from the table and eat in the basement.  At lunch time, we’d come home,put on an apron, fix lunch, clean up and go back. I remember one embarrassing time I forgot to take off my apron.  (I don’t think other families wore aprons at lunch time.)

    It IS  a good exercise to write about THE WAY IT WAS–good for the mind and good if young ones read it to understand a different way of life. Pauly  ‘hello’Barb

    Like

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