The Way It Was | Part 2

Note from the editor: Click here to read Part 1 of “The Way It Was”

Conversations Overheard

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.

Work

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.

Philosophy 101

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! 

HOW MUCH ARE KIDS WORTH?

Tragedies involving children always get a lot of press, and the most recent example concerned a school bus accident in Tennessee in which six children were killed. In such cases, there is usually a search to determine who was at fault, and this was no exception. If an act of human negligence is found to be the cause, we can add outrage to our feelings of sadness and horror. The headlines become larger, and blaming reassures us that there is someone out their more careless and uncaring than ourselves.

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NOT MY FAULT
In such cases as this, we only need to look as far as the nearest mirror to see who is responsible. It is true that there were warnings about this driver, which should have been enough to prompt his removal from such an important job; however, no action was taken. In such cases, should responsibility not be shared by those who have the ability to prevent such a horrendous tragedy? We profess that these bus drivers carry our most precious cargo, so should they not receive the highest level of scrutiny? Qualifications for school bus drivers vary widely from state to state. Pennsylvania requires considerable classroom and on-the-road training, physical and mental evaluations, and extensive background checks, while my state (Ohio) requires only a commercial license with passenger designation. I suspect that Brink’s truck drivers may be more highly trained and investigated. After all, they are carrying money.

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WHY?
There was a school bus accident in my county six years ago, and 7-year-old Kacey was killed. Video from the inboard surveillance seemed to show that the driver had lost consciousness. I was surprised to learn that in our state, school buses were not required to be equipped with seat belts. This made no sense to me then, nor does it now. Since 1968, I have been required by law to fasten my seat belt, yet our children are left to fend for themselves in a large, top-heavy, tin can mounted on a truck chassis. Following the accident, there was talk by our state legislators of requiring seat belts, but, as is often the case with politicians, they were long on talk but short on action. After reading that the bus in Tennessee did not have belts, I inquired at my local school board office to find out about the status of the seat belt issue and was told that our buses still do not have any physical restraints. When I asked why, I was told that the state had not mandated them yet (not an adequate answer in my opinion).

ARE YOU SERIOUS?
The latest information I could find on the subject was that only six states mandated seat belts on all school buses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not require or recommend seat belts on all buses weighing more than 10,000 pounds. They concluded that “the crash forces experienced by occupants of (heavier) buses are much less than that experienced by occupants of cars, light trucks, or vans.” Could this mean that my 10th grade physics teacher was “full of it” when he gave us that force formula f=ma?

The NHTSA has initiated a concept they call “compartmentalization,” which they insist offers superior protection in crashes. Protection is offered by the use of high seatbacks which are highly padded, and designed to absorb the shock of a frontal crash. Crash tests confirm their effectiveness in head on crashes. NHTSA in 2002 testified in Congress that seat belts were unnecessary, pointing out that school bus travel was the safest form of ground transportation available. Indeed, their statistics are impressive when one considers 440,000 school buses travel 4.4 billion miles each year carrying 24 million kids with only six fatalities.

FOLLOW THE MONEY
Studies by the University of Alabama in collaboration with NHTSA concluded that “the cost of installing seat belts on every bus is prohibitive.” They estimated that it would cost $8,000 to $15,000 per bus. The studies also concluded that schools would need to increase their bus fleets by approximately 15% due to space requirements for belts with a total cost of $117 million per state. Their final opinion was “costs far exceed benefits.” That and similar statements undoubtedly lead a group like The National Coalition for School Bus Safety to say the issue is influenced by “an economically driven industry.” These statements also lead us to the question: how much are we willing to pay for a few kids’ lives?

DAD DESERVES A MEDAL
In December 2010, Today.com reported an accident in Texas similar to both the recent one in Chattanooga and the one that happened in my town. In 2006, a Texas school bus carried a high school girls’ soccer team when it was forced off the road into a ditch and rolled over. One girl was thrown through the window, and her arm was pinned under the bus, resulting in serious injury. Two other girls were killed, and there were other less serious injuries.

One of the fathers was convinced that a seat belt would have saved his daughter’s life, and he vowed to do all he could to see that all school buses would be equipped with seat belts by law. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute reached the same conclusions as had the University of Alabama, but, in spite of those objections, the law passed largely due to four years of continuous lobbying by the victim’s father. There must have been some buyer’s remorse, for the funds designated for the project were immediately cut by two thirds. I have no recent information about the status of the law’s implementation.

THEY ARE TOP HEAVY
The thing these nine children have in common is that they all died in a school bus that flipped. The design engineers who invented the “compartmentalization” strategy to prevent injury must realize that Ike Newton was right about that gravity thing; therefore, if a “compartment” does not have a lid on it, the contents are likely to fall out and scatter every which way when it is turned upside down.

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We will never know if seat belts would have saved Kasey or any of those other kids, but we do know that compartmentalization did not work for them. There are instances recorded that imply lives would be saved with seat belts. School administrators in districts where seat belts are used also report fewer problems with driver distraction, bullying and disciplinary problems.

Another unanswered question is to what effect the addition of seatbelts could have on reducing non-fatal injuries. The Ohio Department of public safety reported 1,590 school bus accidents last year, resulting in 282 injuries. I could find no information as to the seriousness of those injuries.

SIX DEATHS TO SEE A PROBLEM?
The only good news resulting from the Tennessee tragedy is that it has reawakened the debate about school bus seat belts. The NHTSA has reversed their position and now favor seat belts for school busses. Administrator Mark Rosekind is quoted in an Associated Press release that, even though school busses are the safest means of transport to and from school, “they could be safer.” The good news is that he has strongly recommended a national initiative to require lap and shoulder seat belts since November 2015; the bad news is that no action has been taken in that regard.

The last directive by the NHTSA regarding seat belts was in 2013, when a policy was implemented requiring new buses be equipped with seat belts with two exceptions: namely, transit busses and, you guessed it, school buses. I, for one, was incensed to read that the powers that be prioritize the safety of passenger buses above that of children, but, in spite of the good words by Mr. Rosekind, that policy appears to still be in place.

MORE TALK
Just a few days ago Mr. Rosekind once again voiced his unequivocal support for seat belts. He was convinced that school bus seat belts had saved lives and that others could have been saved if protected by belts. He went on to estimate that 70% of school bus deaths could have been prevented by seat belts. Nevertheless, despite the mountains of data that have been collected, he declined to issue a directive and planned more study of the subject. A major concern was how to finance such a program, and he even suggested that some school districts might need to be exempted from the requirement for financial reasons. Once again, money appears to factor in to a life-or-death decision.

According to a report in the November 28 issue of People/Crime, five days before the Chattanooga accident, one of the elementary student survivors wrote the following: “the driver was doing sharp turns and he made me fly over the next seat. We need seat belts.”

Out of the mouths of babes!


Note from the editor:

I found this topic particularly interesting, so Eshrink and I compiled a list of some articles for further reading.

Data and Statistics of School Bus Fatalities Over Ten Years

USA Today Article