Introduction: Although three generations apart, my high school English Literature teacher and my editor are of like minds for Maggie and Miss Higgins have both encouraged me to write about things of which I have first-hand knowledge. I have found that advice to be limiting since although I know a little bit about several things, I don’t consider myself an expert in anything, or as Orrie (a co-worker from my pre-college days working in a glass factory) said of me, I just knew enough to be dangerous. Since I am now a bona fide member of the old geezer’s club, it follows that I should have some knowledge as to what things were like in times past. Consequently, Maggie has suggested I write about what things were like in the “good old days.”
Likewise, son Peter, the historian extraordinaire, recently commented that he would like to know what it was like during my earlier days as he felt first-hand accounts were more informative than were typical historical descriptions. With all that in mind, I have decided to forego my usual rants about things of which I know little to launch a series of stories about what it was like to live in earlier times. Unfortunately, to do so will result also in subjecting you to boring autobiographical stuff.
In psychoanalytic lingo, the term repression is used to indicate an unconscious mechanism in which painful memories or feelings are hidden from us. This accounts for the fact that uncomfortable memories are often clouded or forgotten. The term is to be distinguished from suppression which is a conscious act. Repression is helpful as it allows us to put aside or distort uncomfortable memories, and multiple studies provide confirmatory evidence that memories are unreliable. Of course, this process is overwhelmed in the case of extremely painful experiences which can result in what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a malady that under different names has always bedeviled soldiers. Thus, the reader should be forewarned we old folks usually view our childhoods through our own personal brand of rose-colored glasses, and this paper is the result of an old man’s reminiscences rather than a carefully researched historical document.
My parents were married in 1925, and my big brother was born a year later. He was only 3 years old when the stock market crashed ushering in the world’s worse recorded depression. My first glimpse of this world and of the wonders that awaited me occurred on a warm September day less than a year after that fateful day. Although some people insist they remember being born, psychologists who study such things, tell us that we don’t remember anything before three (3) years of age. Though I don’t remember the blessed event, I have heard a lot about it.
The Early Days: Little Spinney Enters the World
I was birthed in the latest of high-tech facilities by Dr. Wells in his hospital, which was actually the back room of his office where he had a hospital bed. His “hospital” was located in the village of Nashport, so named as it had been a port on the Ohio canal, where years later I would spear carp in its remains. In those days, there was a physician in most all midwestern villages, and apparently Dr. wells was progressive in his eschewing of home deliveries. He even enlisted the aid of my father in administering an ether anesthetic, in spite of which both Mother and I survived. The whole thing apparently was without complication and as I arrived Dr. Wells commented: “Look at those ears, he is a little Spinney” (the nickname for my maternal grandfather who was well known for large protruding ears at odds with his serious hearing deficit). In spite of being long and skinny, I weighed in at a whopping 13 pounds. I would endure that description of my body type and those ears through most of my life. As a matter of fact, later when in the sixth grade we read Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I strongly identified with Ichabod Crane. Ninety years later, I still have the ears, but am no longer skinny.
Psychiatrists often ask a new patient to relate their earliest memory with the idea that such memories may be indicative of their lifestyle, values, or how they view the world. I believe my earliest memory occurred around the age of 3 or 4 which would have put it in the midst of the depression. That time was confirmed by my mother who happened to recall the miniature sailor suit which I remember wearing then. It certainly was a momentous happening in my life for while sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game I was treated with my first box of cracker jacks. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what the surprise gift was, but I assume it must have been a dandy for me to have remembered the incident for 86 years. Although I have no idea what a box of Cracker Jacks cost in the early 30s, it must have been a luxury for a father who would mow your lawn with a hand powered mower for pennies. With bread at 8 cents per loaf even a dime would make a big difference in our diet. You are probably wondering how I would interpret such an earliest memory. You may rest assured that I would take the 5th amendment.
Speaking of lawn mowers reminds me of another episode of my toddler days. Any young whipper snapper who happens to be reading this will probably not be aware that when a vintage push mower is turned upside down the blades do not rotate. This particular memory is of me riding on such a positioned mower with my Dad’s jacket laying on top of it. I assume he was going house to house attempting to get a lawn to mow, and suspect that he was not above using a cute little guy like me to elicit sympathy from potential customers.
Although we moved a lot, we never went very far. Except for a brief stint in Akron, (more about that later) we were always living in Zanesville, Ohio, or surrounding areas within 12 miles. Zanesville was a town of 30,000 people located on the fringes of Appalachia, and known for its manufacture of art pottery. It was located at the junction of 2 rivers which had provided passage for river boats from the Ohio river. During my childhood it was traversed by route 40, then a heavily traveled transcontinental highway which went directly through the center of town thus gaining Zanesville fame for its traffic jams.
Race Relations in the 1930s & 40s
Even though Zanesville had been a station on the underground railroad, it was split on the slavery issue with those on the south side of the river known as prominent abolitionists. They included pastor William Beecher whose sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Frederick Douglas had spoken at Rev. Beecher’s church and there was a great deal of animus from north of the river, which was largely pro-slavery. During my childhood, Lincoln was widely hailed for ending slavery which everyone in my orbit condemned, but the “separate but equal’ philosophy was still alive and well. For example, although or schools were not segregated officially, I can only recall one or two black kids in my classes until the eighth grade. Sadly, I don’t recall making any effort to befriend them.
When the city fathers decided to build a municipal swimming pool, they found it necessary to build a second one for black folks. The local skating rink only allowed black kids in on Monday night, which just happened to coincide with the nearby ice cream parlor’s decision to be closed on Monday. I assumed that black kids liked to sit in the balcony because they wanted to be together. Little did I know that the ushers who were present in higher end theaters were tasked with deciding where people should sit.
Oxymorons such as “I don’t have anything against niggers, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one” or “I wouldn’t want one to live next door” were common in the rare conversations about race. As I recalled in a previous writing, my first awareness of the degradation suffered by African Americans occurred in my teenage years while working at my father’s filling station. A black family with an out of state license plate pulled in and after gassing up, the father walked across the street to the back door of a neighboring restaurant to get food for his family. I was left with a feeling of sadness as I tried to imagine what he must have felt. That memory has remained etched in my mind for75 years.
It is a tribute to the powers of rationalization that we were aghast to hear of lynchings in the south and to see pictures of their “white only” signs as we continued to discriminate against our non-white brethren in less obvious ways, while simultaneously denying our own bigotry. During my childhood I recall no discussions concerning racial issues, which is understandable when one considers that segregation activates the “out of sight, out of mind” mantra. I was reared as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). My tribe was a majority, and obviously wanted to keep it that way. Segregation was accomplished without formal declaration. Other than in the area of race relations, high ideals such as honesty, truth, and honor were highly praised, and unresolved racial disparities were the only stain I recall on what came to be called the Greatest Generation however; our sons and daughters would awaken to the problem, and progress has been made in at least accepting that there is a problem. The fact that the subject is now openly discussed is encouraging. Moreover, were I to have predicted 60 years ago that I would now be sitting here celebrating a national holiday based on the life of an African American civil rights leader, my sanity would have been questioned.
Nevertheless, hate-speech is now common in political discourse, we have witnessed an upsurge in violence against minorities, there are assaults on our seats of government, and we are told that domestic terrorism is now the greatest threat to our country. All of this seems to be fueled by a propaganda so ridiculous as to be laughable were its results not so serious. The most frightening of all is what we are learning as to how the January 6 assault nearly succeeded in reversing the results of an election or worse. Even though in the years leading up to WWII, the economy was improving, the Depression had provided an opportunity for anarchists of all stripes to get into the act, and of course hatred was their favorite recruitment tool. I was too young to understand its implications, but from my spot under the coffee table I recall hearing Dad’s friends vilify the “damned New York Jews” whom they blamed for the depression. Radio newscasts made frequent reference to the German American Bund, an organization of German American citizens promoting fascism. There was also the unlikely supporter of anti-semitism who had reached a large radio audience in the person of a Catholic priest (Father Coughlin). Capitalism was under siege and strongmen like Hitler, Mussolini, Tito and Stalin were all purging the ranks of adversaries whom of course they accused of causing all the world’s problems.
Getting a Front Seat to the Acceleration of Innovation
The midst of the most severe depression the world had ever known was certainly not a convenient time to usher in a new member of the Smith family, but for me there was not a more propitious time to have been born. Although a massive worldwide depression had impeded the industrial revolution, it had largely recovered by the time I reached adolescence, fed by an explosive expansion of the manufacturing section of the economy during World War ll. That war would also be the impetus to an unraveling of more mysteries as to how things work than has occurred since people first inhabited this planet, and I would marvel at how it all fit together. Thus, science would gain respect, and previously undreamed-of technologies would become routine. During my lifetime I would witness the invention of amazing things both great and small which would make life more comfortable and work less arduous. It was a time when such discoveries would give us an appreciation for the complexities of life and the environment which sustain it, though we were largely oblivious to the untoward side effects such massive progress would cause to our planet. It would also set a pigeon toed long skinny kid with big ears on a journey which would lead him to the most satisfying career one could imagine.
However, that war would exact a horrible price. It was the bloodiest in history. Although it is impossible to glean an accurate account, some estimate that 85 million people may have been killed not to mention untold numbers who suffered permanently disabling physical or psychological problems. Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by vast oceans which protected me from those horrors, but my family would not totally escape its reach.