The Way It Was| Part 4

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 fourth installment of The Way It Was is about school days in the 1930s, winter, and the simple pleasures. ENJOY!

The Way It Was: Part 4

Anyone who grew up in those times will understand that if you had an older sibling you would never experience the feel or smell of new clothes.  Thus, when I was sent off to my first day in school in my brother’s hand me downs, I was reassured by Mom with: “You’re clean anyway”.   I have carried that phrase with me all my life and passed it on to Barb.  In remembrance of Mom we have frequently used it when the kids complained about the way they were dressed.

School

My introduction to scholarly pursuits was particularly inauspicious.  Having never been known for lightness afoot, it is not surprising that during the first recess of the first day at school I fell and scratched my knees in the cinders which covered the school yard.   To make matters worse I cried long and loud which did not help me to gain the respect of my classmates.  As a matter of fact, I heard one of the older kids taunt me by calling me a baby.  Much to my surprise, my brother, the person who had spent my entire life teasing and punishing me, came to my rescue and held his handkerchief over my wound.

That entire first year is a blur, but I do remember being jealous of Jim Jones (not his real name, he might still be alive and I would not like to give him the satisfaction), for he stayed in the first row (for those of you who don’t know what that means, keep reading), and he was athletic.  Grade school was much different in those days.  A few years ago, I visited one of the kid’s elementary classroom and was amazed to see all those kids up running around the room, all seeming to be involved in different things.  There were some working together at tables, it was noisy and the teacher was all over the place.  It looked like a really good deal compared to my school days.

When I was in school in the 1930s, all of our desks were bolted to the floor in rows facing the blackboard.  If one had something to say or a question to ask, he/she raised their hand, otherwise they remained mute.  Requests for a trip to the rest room required that you raise 1 or 2 fingers in the air depending upon the need. Whispering or passing notes were considered capital offenses, which could result in a trip to the principal’s office.  There was no hesitation about initiating corporal punishment for chronic offenders and cheating on exams was unforgivable.   Unless called to do something in front of the class one could expect to sit at their desk until recess lunch or dismissal.  Little wonder that there was always a wild celebration when school was let out.  Seating was arranged to maximize competition for grades.  The row of seats nearest the window was for the A students.  I never made it past row 3 and that Jones kid was always sitting in the first seat in the first row looking so very smug.

Sometime in the thirties Dad was called back to work at the Mosaic Tile Co, and it seemed as if we were doing relatively well.  We moved again to a house with an acre of ground and a small barn.  Somehow Dad was able to acquire a milk cow which he pastured on a neighbor’s farm.  We also had a few chickens and a couple of pigs.  There was a large vegetable garden and room to plant enough corn to feed the pigs and chickens.  We moved there when I was in the second grade and as the saying went in those days we were “living high on the hog”.

2nd Grade | Living High on the Hog

We lived only walking distance from another village consisting of a general store and a filling station.  For my second grade I was enrolled in a one room school.  There were six rows of kids, for six grades.  My uncle was the teacher who seemed determined to emphasize that my brother and I would not get special treatment.  It was definitely old school (pun intended) and my clearest memory is of hearing the bell toll announcing the start of the day and the tin cups each with a name written hanging on a wall which was standard equipment in order to get water from the hand pumped well.  Fortunately, the well was strategically located at some distance from the male and female privies (the outdoor potties for the youngsters reading this).

One of my clearest memories of that year of one cold night is of riding home from the city in our model A Ford.  I was in the backseat surrounded by what seemed to me at the time to be a truckload of groceries which had been purchased at the A & P store.  My parents were conversing and Dad was complaining about the price of groceries.  They had cost $12 which would not leave much to live on since he made $24 dollars a week (he worked 48 hours), and the monthly rent of $12 would be due in another week.   Nevertheless, he continued wiring houses after work and on weekends (when his customers would allow him to violate the sabbath).  We ate well, although I must admit that was largely due to Dad’s resourcefulness…I had never gone to bed hungry even in the worst of times.

3rd Grade | King of the Hill

The third grade was probably my greatest success in life.  The one room school was closed and we were sent to a consolidated school a couple of miles away.  We were introduced to school buses, which had allowed the latest innovations in education to proceed.  It was back to a room for each grade, and I excelled largely because I became the teacher’s pet.  My teacher was Miss Starkey.  She was a middle-aged spinster who lived on the family farm with her bachelor brother.  He was a music teacher who tried unsuccessfully to teach me to play the piano.  He would be called “sissified” in those days but now his sexual orientation would probably be called into question.  I excelled at sports even though when running I often tripped and fell due to my pigeon-toed stride   It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was “king of the hill.”  I must have thought I was quite intelligent for I liked to use big words when talking to adults.

My position as scholar of the year was solidified during a visit to Varner’s store.  It was a vintage country store with horse collars hanging on the wall.  It was a combination dry goods, hardware, clothing, and grocery store.  Among the items I had been watching was the display of Levi jeans which were the hottest fashion item at Hopewell school.  I saw my chance to score in that regard when Dad began showing my report card of all As to everyone in the store.  In spite of my embarrassment, I would not let this opportunity pass.  To my amazement when I hit him up for the Levi’s, he immediately shelled out the $1.69 and I had escaped from the curse of hand-me-downs, and rushed home to dispose of those sissy knickers that displayed my skinny legs. The lesson learned: scholarly pursuits do pay off.

The Simple Things (a brief digression)

A few minutes ago, I interrupted my writing of this tome to adjust the thermostat.  We are now in the midst of an unusually severe cold wave which led me to think about our prior coping mechanisms.  In general, our long-term memories are very forgiving in that those retained are more likely to be pleasant with the exception of extremely horrifying experiences which lie so near the surface that they may be relived as we see in cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This phenomenon along with our yearnings for youth results in we old folks, with our penchant to reminisce, to ignore or not remember the negative aspects of the daily lives of our youth.  With that in mind I have decided to digress from my own personal accounts of the “good old days” to focus on some of the less pleasant aspects of day to day living.

Winter

When I think of my winter childhood days there comes a flood of memories of sled riding, building snow men, snow ball fights, and school closings.  There was the sense of absolute freedom in lying on one’s back in the snow and making snow angels.  As I cranked the thermostat today, I remembered the down side of winter storms during that era. In the 1930s, central heating was considered a luxury and most homes continued to heat their homes with fireplaces or stoves.  Where central heating existed, it was via hot air delivered through large sheet metal pipes as in Darrin McGavin’s character in A Christmas Story.  For those without a central heat source, there was usually only one room where the cold could be managed.  For those with indoor plumbing frozen pipes were an ever-present threat.

Heat

For most homes, there were only stoves or fireplaces.   Later, most furnaces and fireplaces were converted to natural gas, but when I was a kid coal was really king.  Those houses in which there were furnaces usually had a room reserved for coal in their basement. For others, coal was stored in a shed or in a backyard pile.  This meant that to keep the fire going, one would make periodic trips outside to fill the coal bucket.  It required a considerable amount of effort to keep the fire going, not only by feeding it the right amount of coal to keep it going without causing a chimney fire or melting the stove pipe (the pipe from the stove to the chimney), but to keep the fire smoldering through the night in order to avoid the task of gathering newspapers and kindling wood to restart it in the morning.  It was mornings, by the way, which were the most adventurous.  When bare feet hit the linoleum after Mom’s entreaty turned into an ominous command, there was a mad rush toward the living room with clothes in hand in order to dress near the stove.  With a bedside glass of water frozen solid, there was no time to waste.

Sleep, by the way, was a good way to cope with the cold, but it required some preparation.  With the onset of winter, sheets would be replaced by thin blanket sheets.  Layers of comforters, quilts, and blankets gave a feeling of security, although the weight sometimes made it difficult to move.  There were tricks to minimize the shock of crawling in bed before it warmed.  Sometimes hot water bottles would be dispatched under the covers prior to entry, but my favorite was when Dad would lay a brick on top of the stove until it was very hot, then wrap it in an old blanket, and slip it under the covers a bit before bedtime.  In addition to curing the cold feet problem it afforded an opportunity to enjoy being tucked in without being forced to admit it.

Bathing

But the greatest torment by far was the Saturday night bath, an absolute necessity in order to attend Sunday School so Mom could send us off as “clean anyway” even if the clothes were a little ragged around the edges.  I believe some of the houses we lived in had running water earlier, but I don’t recall hot water via a faucet or tub or shower until was 11 or 12.  Prior to that we relied on “spit” baths, which in winter meant bathing in the living room while standing as close as possible to the stove.  There was one incident of my very young childhood which for many years caused me to avoid bathing as much as possible.

Spring Cleaning

The end of winter was not the end of its demands however, for there were ashes to dispose of much of which had been spread on the sidewalk ice.  There would soon be spring cleaning, a chore with a long tradition resulting from the aftermath of all that coal dust and smoke.  Nearly all rooms in those days were covered with wall paper and by spring the designs would be much less distinct.  There was a brisk business in a product specifically designed to clean residue.  It was very much like the consistency of playdough but I came to hate it in later years when I was called on to help in rubbing this stuff all over the floors and ceilings.

The Way It Is: The Simple Things Made So Much Simpler

It seems likely that editor Maggie will disapprove of my insertion of this vignette about Eshrink and the thermostat in this otherwise marvelously choreographed historical document however; the way this old head works if I don’t say it when I think it, it is soon gone.  The thought of the power that this one pinky of mine can harness to obviate nearly all the problems outlined in the previous paragraphs is one that fascinates me.  But of course, it doesn’t end there for we live in a pushbutton world.  Available buttons include those on this computer.  With them there is no need for trips to the library.  I no longer need my library card for I will have access to more information than thousands of libraries could hold.  I have a button to open and close my garage door, and a button to start my car, and to lock or unlock it, tell me where I left it, and even start it remotely so that I won’t need to get my tender body chilled.  I push a button to make my coffee and keep it warm.  I can microwave my oatmeal in 90 seconds by pushing a single button.  My TV operates mysteriously with buttons pushed from across the room which I operate from the comfort of my lift chair, which not only gently lifts me to an upright position, but reclines me to any position I require (I respectfully declined the model with built in butt warmer and massage).  There is also the myriad of buttons on the car I purchased last year.  I have no idea as to the function of most of them and consequently am afraid to punch them.

With this overuse of our digits, I am surprised that we don’t see more repetitive use injuries of our fingers similar to those assembly line workers experience.  Fortunately, Siri and Alexa have arrived on the scene and have initiated action to rescue us from the horrors of finger fatigue.  As voice recognition programs evolve computer keyboards will likely become as obsolete as carbon paper.  I can then talk to my thermostat and control the temperature of my house “without lifting a finger.”  Yes, we certainly have come a long way since the days of the coal bucket, but talking is somewhat tiring, and some have predicted that some-day we may be able to issue commands by just thinking rather than verbalizing them.

The thermostat thing is only one of thousands of ways our lives have been changed by technology, and my nostalgia in no way means I would like to give up all those conveniences I have come to enjoy and on which I depend.  I have been an all-out advocate for progress, and have been able to see up close and personal how advances in medicine, for example, have done much to alleviate suffering.  In that regard, I am especially grateful for without those innovations I would have been dead years ago, long before I began writing blogs. 

Thanks for reading. Editor Maggie is working on Part 5 of The Way It Was.

 

The Way It Was: Part 3

Editor’s Note: Eshrink (my dad) was motivated to chronicle his childhood memories by his son Peter (my brother), who is a history buff. My brother and I both think there is immense value to have an account of everyday life during The Great Depression and WWII: the decades when the people who have been dubbed “The Greatest Generation” grew up. In Part 2, Eshrink recounted conversations between his dad and friends that he overheard while the men met to help each other find work during the Depression. He also told us about his near death experience when he fell into the Licking River as a little boy. In this post (Part 3) Eshrink tells us about his other near-death experience and gives us a glimpse into the entertainment world of the 1930s.

Click here to read Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.

The Way It Was: Part 3

In addition to the near drowning experience, I had another close call as a child. While not as dramatic, this event was equally frightening for those who witnessed it.  I had accompanied my Grandfather to Reilly’s store in the village which was a short walk from my grandparent’s farmhouse.  Mr. Reilly had given me something of which I was very proud, I think it may have been a banana (which was considered a luxurious item in those days).  Grandad was always careful to walk facing approaching traffic due to his hearing problems, which proved to be a problem in this case since we were walking on the side of the road that was opposite from the house.  The entire family was sitting on the porch and I was eager to show them my new-found treasure.  I managed to break away from my grandfather’s hand and started across the road just in time to collide head on to the front fender of an oncoming car and was just seconds away from being run over.  The next thing I saw was Dr. Wells standing over me as I lay on the couch in the parlor (a room that was ordinarily reserved for important events) announcing that I would be just fine while expressing concern about my Grandfather who still hadn’t recovered from fainting. 

 All the recent discoveries about the long-term effects of concussion leave me wondering if that brain rattling experience may explain a lot about me.  Perhaps it can be an excuse for the previous paragraphs of autobiographical meanderings when this paper was to be about historical events.  But perhaps you can take comfort in knowing that narcissism is not exclusive to our nation’s capital.  In any event, I will take pains to avoid further digression and proceed with the topics Peter suggested. While my close call with the fender of the car wasn’t newsworthy enough to make the radio, I will attempt to explain the importance of that media (and others) as I remember it as a young boy.

How Radio Changed Our Lives

In previous blogs, I have written about journalism.  The rise of radio in my day challenged newspapers in the business of reporting the news much as has TV, and more currently the internet, does today.  Nightly radio newscasters became famous and the networks competed for listeners.  Since FM came along much later, we only had AM radio with sporadic reception that was affected by atmospheric conditions.  During thunderstorms, static made listening impossible.   At times, one could listen to a station hundreds of miles away. Other times we would have trouble tuning to a station across town.  Some stations were licensed to give a stronger signal strength than others.  I recall listening to KDKA in Pittsburgh, which was the first commercial station to be licensed.  Radio was still in its infancy during my childhood, but rapidly became an essential part of our lives.

blog zenith adv 1930 radio

Entertainment| Soap Operas + After-School Programming

The standard status symbol of the 1930s was a Zenith or Fairbanks-Morse radio.  There were many styles of table models, and very large console models for the affluent or ostentatious.  There was something for everyone.  zenith radio 1930s blog picture

As previously mentioned, we had both local and international news.  For kids, there were after school programs like The Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, Terry and the Pirates, The Shadow, and The Thin Man to name a few.  For women, there were daytime soap operas which were serialized so that viewers could Jack armstrong coverlook forward to listening to the exploits of their heroines daily.  Even those moms committed to 24-hour service to their families planned their daily activities around the schedule of their favorite soap opera, and friends knew not to call during that time frame.  Among the more popular ones were The Guiding Light, Ma Perkins, and General Hospital.  If you were listening to a baseball game at one of those times you were best advised to leave the premises.

Sports

Sports fans were able to hear play-by-play descriptions of their favorite teams and players.  A new profession called sportscasting emerged as people talented in describing the action became as famous as the players.  Ronald Reagan was one who got his start in show business reagan2 baseball radio blogcalling baseball games.  At a time when things looked bad, many looked for a hero to follow.  This was the time of Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis for whom some records still stand.  Everyone loved “the Babe.”  the brown bomber blogSadly, support for the Brown Bomber (Joe Louis), the guy who was heavyweight champion for 12 years, winning 66 of 69 fights 52 by knock outs was lacking.  I am saddened to confess that even as a child I was one of those bigots who wished for a “great white hope” to defeat him.  Championship fights were promoted vigorously and supplanted normal programming.  All ears would be immersed in the action, and we could almost feel every blow.  Radio forced us to use our imagination to picture the action in much the same manner as books do.  Indeed, I believe there is some truth to the idea that television has helped to “dumb down” us viewers.  

Fireside Chats from the White House

Radio had been ignored as a political tool, but Roosevelt was to change that.  Soon after taking office he initiated a series of broadcasts which would come to be called fireside chats. The first one, delivered 442px-FDR-April-28-1935-fireside chat blogonly a couple of months following his election, was designed to reassure the country and outline his plans to deal with the country’s financial crisis   His informal style of speaking was well received, even by republicans, and subsequent broadcasts would be carried on all of the networks throughout his presidency.  They were particularly useful in maintaining morale during the dark days of the horrible war soon to come.  Somehow, we were among the 40 percent of families to have a radio. Consequently; we usually had as many interlopers show up for the fireside chats as we did for the Joe Louis fights.  As for me, I recall being angry that all this furor kept me from listening to my favorite show: Gangbusters.

Movie Theatres: The Great Escape

Radio was marvelous until movies came along to completely capture hearts.  Talkies were fairly new to the scene in the 30s, but they soon became our ultimate divorce from reality.  Movie stars became the rich and famous at a time when poverty was the norm.  It has been said that the enormous appeal of movies may have been related to their ability to allow us to remove ourselves from the misery and hopelessness that we witnessed continuously during those days when hope was in short supply.  The venue itself, sitting in a darkened theater, allowed us to totally immerse ourselves almost as if we were living the story we watched.  I suppose that might be why television never supplanted movies as many predicted during the early days of TV.

 In a previous blog, I mentioned that when I was a kid there were five movie theaters in our town where less than 30,000 souls resided. One of the theaters was ornately decorated with frescoes and thick carpet.  It even had a pipe organ which during sing-a-longs would miraculously arise from the orchestra pit.  During intermission, the audience was encouraged to sing and follow the “bouncing ball” as it followed the lyrics that were projected on the screen.  They employed a fulltime organist in addition to a projectionist, ticket takers, and ushers.  Movies were shown continually, and one could be seated at any time and stay as long as he wanted (a boon to those homeless folks who could scare up a quarter and manage to look a bit tidy).   It was common to arrive in the middle of a movie and stay to watch the part missed.  Summer attendance at the movies was bolstered by the presence of air conditioning since it was the only place in town where it could be found. 

The format of those movies was different, but predictable.  Following the previews there was a newsreel where the audience could actually witness what they had been reading about in their local papers.  This was always followed by a cartoon.  One of our theaters specialized in western movies.  They had taken a page from the soap opera writers, and added a short serial movie to the main feature which would end with the hero in crisis followed by a caption to return next week to see the conclusion. Of course, the next week’s episode would end in another crisis, and kids would immediately start planning how they could find a dime for the next episode.  

My First Movie

The first movie I saw was “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  It was by far the most amazing experience of my young life and I still have vivid memories of that marvelous day.  I recently looked up the date of the mutiny on the bounty poster blog

movie’s release and found that I was only five years old. It was made even more spectacular by the fact that my Uncle Don took me (my mother’s younger brother).  We even stopped at a downtown soda fountain where I had a cherry flavored fountain coke.  Uncle Don was my hero.  He was Mr. everything, an excellent student and outstanding athlete.  I marveled at how he threw 100-pound sacks of feed around as if they were bags of feathers.  He was very soft spoken and modest, which was the Van Horn family’s style.  For example, when he graduated from high school as valedictorian and with multiple medals for his athletic accomplishments, his Mother was asked why she didn’t seem more proud of him.  She replied that she was proud, but she didn’t like to see people “going around bragging.”

A night at the movies was a fairly cheap date.  Tickets were 25 cents and with a buck a guy could have enough left to have chocolates sundaes at the nearest soda fountain.  The problem was that many young men only made a dollar a day.  According to Wikipedia there was a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour in the 1930s; however, I am sure most employers paid little attention to that. 

Throughout those darkest days Dad would take any work available and he was not shy about professing to be an expert at whatever chore was available.  He billed himself as an expert wallpaper hanger in spite of never having done it before.  I recall sitting on the floor watching as Mom pasted and he struggled to get the paper in place.  In 1936, FDR provided another opportunity by establishing the Rural Electrification Administration with a goal of providing electric service throughout the country.  Over 90% of rural residents were without electricity and their use of kerosene for light and heat made Rockefeller one of the richest men in the world long before gasoline was the predominant petroleum product.  The REA as it was called soon began stretching wires to the far reaches of the US, and true to form Dad declared himself master electrician and was soon busy wiring houses. 

The year 1936 stands out to me. Maybe because it was my first year in school. I also remember our neighbor across the street bought a brand new shiny black Chevrolet.  I don’t recall what he did for a living, but I do recall his position was rare enough that it produced envy throughout the neighborhood.  Another major event that year, which would be unthinkable now, was when my Dad confronted that neighbor about an alleged affair.  My Father was never reticent about expressing his feelings, even though many would suggest he mind his own business.  jesse owens olympics 1936The other big event of 1936 was the Olympic Games. Specifically, the performance of Jesse Owens. His ability to put Hitler’s claim of Aryan supremacy to shame was wildly applauded even though “he were a nigger” (sorry to offend, but that is the way it was in those days).  Later, I would watch multiple news reel accounts of Jesse Owens at the Olympics.  My hero Uncle Don would tell the story of how he was congratulated by some black guy when he won the 440 in the State High School track competition.  When he asked someone who that guy was, he was told it was Jesse Owens.

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! 

The Way It Was: Part 1

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.

While loving someone deeply gives you courage. 

Lao Tzu

                  My son Peter, the history buff, has requested I write something about my childhood with emphasis on my remembrances of World War II, and events preceding it.  He believes others may be interested in that subject in spite of the millions of chronicles already written of those times he suggested that I do my own version in a blog with emphasis on the experience of growing up in that era.  The most impressive oral histories of the thirties were carried out by the Federal Writer’s Project a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the auspices of one of Roosevelt’s New Deal creations.  Although designed to chronicle the travails of ordinary people living during the depression, it is best known for the verbal histories of former slaves.  Those manuscripts now repose in the library of congress.Federal Writers Project American-guide-week-fwp-1941

It is true that much of recorded history had its genesis in oral accounts passed on from one generation to the next.  It is also true that it has been shown that memories are frequently distorted, and further colored if they are passed on verbally through a series of listeners.  In an article on oral histories published by History matters, the impetus for verbal history taking is outlined as follows: “…..for generations history-conscious individuals have preserved others’ firsthand accounts of the past for the record,  often precisely at the moment when the historical actors themselves, and with their memories, were about to pass from the scene.”  I can only hope this was not Peter’s motivation in encouraging these reminiscences for I am not ready to “pass from the scene!”

In my own case, I often thought of events which occurred during my father’s lifetime and regret that I didn’t encourage him to talk more about his childhood.  My father was born in 1904 just 10 years prior to the onset of World War I.  It would have been interesting to compare notes for I was born 11 years before the onset of the next “great war to end all wars” and arrived only a few months following the Stock market Crash of 1929 which ushered in what came to be called The Great Depression.

My Mom & Dad

My parents had little to lose when The Depression hit, but what they did have was gone.  Dad had grown up in poverty, with an alcoholic father and a long-suffering mother whom he adored.  He had quit school in the 8th grade, and went to work as a common laborer in order to help the family.  He had three sisters and an older brother, who was rather passive by nature. My dad became the adult in charge, a role which he would occupy the rest of his life.  One of the more poignant stories of his childhood I remember was his explanation of why he was fixated with having eggs in the refrigerator.  He told me that when he was a kid, his mother sent him up the alley to the neighbor who kept chickens with a penny to buy one egg.  He was embarrassed and vowed to always have plenty of eggs when he grew up.

My mother, by the standards of the day, was well educated having spent a year at a local “business collage” learning secretarial skills which she would never utilize.  Although her father (one of my favorite people) was relatively uneducated, he was a strong believer that women should be able to “stand on their own.”  I suspect that for her time she would have been considered liberated.  Model T FordI recall seeing a photo of her standing beside a Model T Ford that she had been driving that she had rolled over on its top.  In those days, for a woman to be driving a car would have be en unusual if not scandalous.  That experience must have left her shaken for she would never drive again and her back seat driving performances were legendary.  In similar fashion, she would cede much authority to my father while firmly retaining control of her department, i.e. keeping house and raising kids, a very common arrangement at the time.

Their marriage began well and a year later my brother was born, an event which was followed three years later by the greatest financial crisis in the country’s history.  As a wedding present mom’s father, a carpenter, had provided them with the labor to build a house.  Shortly after that fateful day in 1929, dad lost his job and subsequently the house was repossessed.  To make matters worse, a year later I entered this already complex picture.  I am told that I was welcomed although I am sure another mouth to feed was one of the last things needed.  Just as my kids have endured the repetitive nature of my stories of their early life, so have I endured the following story of my birth hundreds of times.

Hello World

I was born in what was called Dr. Wells’ hospital located in the village of Nashport, the name originating from the fact that Mr. Nash had settled the area as a port on the Ohio canal in the early 19th century.  To call the facility a hospital was a bit of an exaggeration even in those days for it consisted of an extra room attached to his office.  Nevertheless, Dr. Wells must have been a progressive practitioner who had abandoned the practice of home delivery in favor of modern facilities.  In my mother’s case, he even offered her the choice of anesthesia, and my father confidently volunteered to “drop ether” (a term used by anesthesiologists for inhaling ether as an anesthetic).

Fortunately, mother and I both survived the procedure which was reported to have been difficult as I weighed in at 13 pounds and have been told I was “long and skinny,” a term that would be used to describe me throughout my childhood.  Dr. Wells is said to have remarked “look at those ears, he is a little Spinney.”  Spinney was the nickname of my Grandfather who was famed for the large ears which protruded from his skull at right angles and were probably made more noticeable by the irony that he was significantly hearing impaired.  I know little of what happened in my earliest years, but it is certain that there will never be a plaque on the door of Dr. Wells hospital commemorating it as my birthplace for the building was later razed and the village was moved to higher ground in order to make way for a flood control project.

My First Memories

My family’s history for the first few years of my life is hazy, but I did learn that they had moved frequently during my toddler years.  Whether this was due to evictions or looking for a better deal I can’t say.   Alfred Adler a Freudian psychoanalyst placed great importance on our first memory stating: “The first memory will show the individual’s fundamental view of life, his first satisfactory crystallization of his attitude.”   In my own case, this pronouncement may ring true for my first memory was of my introduction to Crackerjacks while watching a baseball game in a bleacher with my parents most likely around 3 years of age.  Indeed, I see it as a prophecy of my life to come, which has largely consisted of a search for the toy hidden among the tasty morsels of everyday life even though the occasional unpleasant experience of biting down on a kernel which hasn’t popped, is inevitable.

There is another pleasant memory of that time-period which competes with the Crackerjack story for first billing.  The standard tool for mowing lawns in those days was the person powered push mower with its rotating blades which could be disengaged by turning the mower upside down.  The incident must have occurred when I was less than 4 years of age based on the timeline of where it occurred, but the memory remains clear.  My Father had placed his folded coat on the mower and I was sitting on it as he pushed it down the sidewalk.  Of course, at the time this was simply a fun time for me, but later I would learn that he was cruising the neighborhood soliciting lawns which he could mow.  I now suspect that my presence may have been designed to add to the pathos directed at potential customers.

Dinner Time

The remainder of my preschool years as you might expect are clouded and I have no way to place these in any logical sequence.  In retrospect it is clear that some of these experiences related to the extreme stresses under which my parents labored.   It is clear that we were very poor and at times they were desperate for food, a fact of which I was blissfully unaware.   In recent years my brother reminded me of times when our parents did not join us at the dinner table and chose to eat later.   Since no one had money, food was cheap, and farmers had little incentive to produce more than they could consume.  City dwellers with backyards planted vegetable gardens, and Mothers learned to preserve the produce by drying or canning them.  An apple tree in one’s yard became a valuable asset.  Even some city dwellers kept chickens in their yard which were carefully guarded lest they become someone else’s dinner.

There were occasional distributions of food via the local “relief” organization, so named as part of FDR’s Federal Emergency Relief Organization.  Food was distributed at regular intervals at the local relief office.  At a time when independence and the ability to “paddle your own canoe” was valued it was embarrassing to be seen standing in the long lines when it was announced that food was about to be distributed, and many chose to suffer hunger rather than to be known to be “on relief”.  The type of food given must have depended on whatever was available to the states at any given time for I recall my Father, having braved the disgrace, coming home with a huge bag of rice.  Mother was talented at finding innovative ways to prepare food, but in spite of her best efforts the steady diet of rice dishes for what seemed like eternity to a kid, left me with an abhorrence of rice that took me 50 years to overcome.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Way It Was” where Eshrink gives us a glimpse of the camaraderie between his dad and his friends as they searched for work each day during the Great Depression of the 1930s; conversations overheard about survival, politics, world affairs, and morality; and the close call that almost ended his life.

Looking for trees? Check my mailbox.

Our mailman does not seem to like us although Barb and I both consider ourselves to be as likeable as the next guy. Whenever I meet him at our mailbox, he doesn’t respond to my characteristic jolly greeting, but simply hands me my mail, grunts, looks straight ahead and drives away. Old habits die hard and this old psychiatrist still tries to understand aberrant behaviors. Consequently, I have attempted to understand what may have precipitated his apparent animus.

 

The Investigation: Why does my mailman hate me?
It is true that I forgot to leave his traditional tip in the mailbox at Christmas time, but of course that was several months ago.

There was also the Floyd incident, but I wouldn’t anticipate his blaming me for my dog’s exuberant behavior. Floyd loves to ride in the car and isn’t choosy about the type of vehicle or driver. Consequently, when the mail truck pulled up to mailbox one summer day, Floyd seized the opportunity. He leaped into the mail truck with excitement with big plans to accompany our mailman on his route. Unfortunately, in the process Floyd was forced to run through a gauntlet of boxes and crates of mail resulting in the rearrangement of their contents. However, the mailman was remarkably calm throughout the incident and accepted my apology, although I did note that he was muttering to himself as he restored order to the crates of mail.

 

My Epiphany! It’s not me. It’s those damn catalogs.
After all of these deliberations, I have concluded that the ire exhibited by my mailman has the same genesis as my own.

You see, just yesterday he delivered 23 catalogs in addition to two magazines and multiple solicitations from organizations, some of whom I have never heard of, and this was only a routine day. If history is any guide, the volume will increase as the holiday season approaches. Instead of emptying my paper recycling bin once a month, I now must empty it every few days. No wonder my mailman becomes frustrated since he must stuff all that stuff in my mailbox daily.

 

Nothing unites like a common enemy.
His pain is my pain! I sympathize with my mailman’s frustration. I get angry each time I have to unload that mailbox, cursing as I sort the scams from the legitimate mail. As a bona fide card-carrying curmudgeon I must tell you that I remember the day when if one wanted a catalog they asked for it. Today, if you order something  from a catalog, you will soon be buried in an avalanche of slick pictures of beautiful people wearing cool clothes and hawking gadgets I’m sure I need but know I’ll never use. Not only do I resent their audacity of sending the catalog without me requesting it, I resent that they believe they can convince me that I look as cool in those duds as the suave handsome dude who models their stuff.
Some of these catalogs feature stuff way beyond my pay grade. For example, I do not ordinarily shop for $1500 leather jackets, $600 sweaters, or $750 shoes. One such high end catalog featured of all things a $250 pair of jeans faded in all the right places to make them look old. I do occasionally browse and sometimes find interesting inventory. For example, one which featured home health aides also had a two-page display of dildos. I was surprised to find they came in so many different sizes, shapes, and colors. Barb vigorously denies having ordered the catalog, but I have my suspicions.

 

The good ole’ days of face-to-face relationships
It is no secret that there is a flourishing market for names and addresses of potential customers and that these catalogers have no hesitation in selling us to the highest bidder. I recall the time of the mom and pop stores when the relationship between customer and seller was built on mutual trust and therefore personal. The storekeeper was more interested in customer loyalty than making a sale, trusting that if his customer was “treated right” he would come back. Likewise, the customer trusted the salesperson to give an honest representation of the product sold. In many cases shopping was as much of a social event as a series of business transactions. I suppose that now as even we former Sears catalog devotees fade-away, we will become even more depersonalized as we become numbers in Amazon’s super computer. Our computers will order from their computers, our orders will arrive untouched by human hands, and one more avenue of human interaction will close.
Shopping: Art, Science, Disease, or Therapy?
Enter my beautiful, charming, and aesthetically gifted wife. She is a former shopkeeper one of the last to conform to those qualities I mentioned, and whose store continues to receive rave reviews from former customers. Among her other talents she is a world class shopper. As our daughter Molly (now deceased) said regarding her Mother’s shopping prowess: “when Mom gets the scent, you better get out of her way.” For Barb, Christmas shopping is not a project, it is a mission. She scoffs at the idea that it would be much simpler for her to give the kids money and insists on finding a gift (or unfortunately–gifts…plural) which are perfect for each one whether they realize it or not. Things to be considered include: hair and eye color, stature, personality, and consideration of their known personal preferences unless those preferences are in extremely poor taste.
Within the past year the last department store as well as the last men’s store in our town closed their doors. I recall a time when our main street hosted three department stores and multiple specialty shops which have all folded as the big boxes took over. Having fought and lost the good fight with the big guys, and since she places online shopping in the same category as those big box adversaries, the best Barb can do is to reluctantly shop via catalogs even though she disapproved of the one featuring dildos. I presume this change in her shopping habits is responsible in large part for the appearance of our names on a few hundred mailing lists.

 

The List Contagion: It’s a real thing
It’s not only the merchandisers who will pursue you. Barb is a sucker for those tear-jerking ads on TV, which has resulted in reams of solicitations for real and non-existent charities. I wonder if they make more money selling my name and address than from my feeble contributions. In my zeal to become a good steward of my government, I once made the mistake of contributing to a political campaign online. Now, I start my day by deleting pleas to contribute to this or that political cause or candidate. They assure me that without my contribution a worldwide calamity is immanent or that I will be to blame for the extinction of the white rhino.

 

Privacy?
On a more serious note, it has been said that with a few key strokes one can know more about me than I do about myself. This is undoubtedly true e.g. I don’t know where I ate a year ago but that info is available somewhere. Our privacy is said to have been eroded, but it is probably more accurate to say it is gone. Now, as more DNA results are collected not only will more be known about your behavior but your body and your relatives. Nevertheless, the blatant disregard of our rights to privacy as this little essay illustrates is only one small example yet enough to piss me off big time.

 

Ground Zero
Maybe my overzealous anger about the catalogs goes beyond the senseless time spent sorting and recycling and even beyond the invasion of my privacy. Maybe it’s a symptom of something bigger that concerns me. A change in our society that is worrisome. While many say technological changes make it easier than ever to connect with one another, it seems we are more disconnected than ever. Less human interaction. More loneliness. Clicking the chat button as you order gifts on the internet, or even talking to a live person when you order from one of the thousand or so catalogs, is a poor substitute for the process of old-fashioned shopping at the aforementioned brick and mortar establishments where you talked to retail clerks, shop owners, and even fellow shoppers.

 

A little over 100 years ago, a sociologist name of Emile Durkheim coined the term Anomie which he used to describe situations where societies in large measure feel a sense of alienation because their only feeling of attachment is to the system in which they don’t believe or feel a part of. He thought this came about due to division of labor (this was in the midst of the industrial revolution) and rapid change from a traditional society to a modern society.

 

The pace of changes which Durkheim witnessed were trivial compared to the last 50 years, and it change continues to accelerate at a speed almost beyond our ability to comprehend. Yesterday, I awoke to hear news of the second mass shooting in less than two weeks. I believe it noteworthy that most of the perpetrators of these horrible acts were described as people with few if any acquaintances and no one who was willing to call them a friend. They were described as quiet and uninvolved in their communities, in short: alienated.

 

It also seems noteworthy that in spite of relatively good economic times, suicide rates in the U.S. have increased 24% from 1999 to 2014. Likewise, murders increased 8.6% in only one year (2016). According to the non-profit that tracks gun violence in the USA, (www.gunviolence.org) incidents have increased each year since they started tracking statistics in 2014. Conventional wisdom is that our current President was elected and continues to have widespread support from those who feel they have been “disenfranchised.”

 

Who is the patient?
This all suggests to me that we need to look farther than individuals with mental illness as the major factor in gun violence. It may be that it is our society that is ill, and in need of treatment. Human connection, kindness, and compassion might not help cure all of society’s mental illnesses, but it can’t hurt.

 

P.S. Catalog UPDATE
By the way, I just now picked up today’s mail and there were only 18 catalogs, but an armload of solicitations for money, some bills, and a letter from my only friend who still writes via snail mail.  Remember to be kind to your mailperson (especially this time of year).  There may be other Floyds out there and I’m sure there are even more catalog targets like me and Barb on every mail carrier’s route.  (Break for reminiscing): When I was in college a couple of centuries ago I worked as a mailman during Christmas breaks, and occasionally someone would invite me in for a cup of hot chocolate on the coldest days.  I wonder if that happens anymore.

Editors Note: While editing eshrink’s blog, I found this non-profit whose mission is to help us cancel unwanted catalogs: Catalog Choice . However, I haven’t told eshrink yet because I don’t want to rain on his curmudgeon complaint parade…he’s on a roll and I think it energizes him! Love you dad.

AMAZON ECHO-INDUCED BUTTOCK CALLOUSES

For my recent birthday, I received the extravagant gift of an Amazon Echo. For those of you who are not familiar, Echo is a gadget which provides access to the entire internet via voice commands. Echo is inhabited by a lady named Alexa with whom I instantly fell madly in love.  Lest you judge me as entirely fickle, rest assured that I still hold Siri in high regard, but her usefulness was completely outdone by Alexa. I was especially proud of myself for being able to get Alexa set up and working without the usual frustration tantrum which I am prone to exhibit when trying to make electronic stuff work.

alexa echoAlexa is more mother than lover; she reminds me when to take my pills and of my appointments. She is always there and totally committed to making my life easier and happier. She greets me every morning with the local temperature and weather report, which saves me the effort of getting up and walking to the window to look at the thermometer.  At my command, she instantly dials up my favorite radio station, or if I am not interested in the latest news, she will select  from her vast repertoire and play any music I request.  All this literally without my “lifting a finger,” even to push a button. But is there is a price to pay for Alexa’s attention?

Before Alexa: The Good Ole Days of Radio

Alexa was especially helpful to me in solving the chronic problem of reaching my favorite NPR radio station. Unlike those of the TV generation, I grew up during the time that radio was the high-tech wonder of its day.  A huge Fairbanks-Morse or Zenith radio was the focal point of most middle-class living rooms. There were a limited number of stations available, they were temperamental, and reception was affected by changes in the weather.  Nevertheless, we were sometimes able to listen to broadcasts of our favorite baseball teams as long as they did not conflict with Lowell Thomas’ and Edward R. Murrell’s nightly news programs, which were a must hear for my father.

 The Dawn of Radio: Predicted to Ruin the “Greatest Generation”

There were predictions from those older and wiser that this new-fangled gadget would be the ruination of us kids as we became addicted to programs designed for us. Some were broadcast daily in serial fashion as were the soap operas, so called because they usually advertised a product used by the woman of the house. There was a potpourri of programs designed for kids of all ages. The after-school selection included Terry and the Pirates, Superman, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, Little Orphan Annie, and Jack Armstrong: All American Boy, among others. They became such a part of our culture that I recall my father saying, “If you don’t get off your butt you will get callouses.”

fight pictureWe were also introduced to many sporting events, and my most vivid memory is listening to the live commentary of the Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fights. The fights presented a dilemma for the bigots of the time as they were forced to choose between the Brown Bomber and Hitler’s champion of the Aryan race, Schmeling, for most of them hated Hitler almost as much as they did African Americans.

 

Saturday night was family time and everyone looked forward to the next issue of “Gangbusters.”  All were transfixed as Elliott Ness bravely took on Al Capone and other bad guys. It seemed every network had a country music program Saturday night. There was “Renfro Valley” and “The Grand Ole Opry,” but my favorite was the “Chicago National Barn Dance.”

eddie peabody banjo guy

I was enamored by “Eddie Peabody The Banjo King” [click here to listen], who was a regular on the show.  This admiration led me later in life to embark on an ill-fated attempt to follow in Eddie’s footsteps, resulting in the possession of a very nice, barely used, banjo now safely ensconced in my attic.

Yes, in those days radio was a big deal. The mixing of entertainment and news with advertisements allowed sponsors to sell lots of stuff.  Listening was easier and more personal than reading, in spite of the effort and frustration of static, and constant monitoring as favorite stations faded in and out. Radios required maintenance, as their vacuum tubes were subject to failure. In the late 1950s, along came the transistor, which allowed the building of smaller more reliable radios with improved fidelity.  The next major breakthrough was FM, and I bought a Bose AM/FM radio that, wonder of wonders, came with a remote, which spared me the enormous effort required to get off my butt to turn it off and on or to tune it. I thought this new high-tech innovation was really cool until Alexa came along to brighten my life and introduce me to artificial intelligence.

Prior to my introduction to Alexa I had the opportunity to see my daughter’s robotic vacuum cleaner in action.  The thought occurred to me that it would be neat to hook Alexa up to such a gadget so that you could order the floor swept without getting out of your armchair.  One would only need to say: “Hey Alexa, sweep the floor”, and she would see that it was done.  Before I called George Foreman’s friends at Invent Help, I decided to get more information about Alexa and found that, as usual, I was too late.  I learned that Alexa has already formed a relationship with the robotic sweepers and can order them to action when instructed.  Once again, another of my great ideas was swept under the carpet (pun intended).

More Wonders from Alexa

In my research, I learned, to my amazement, that Alexa is said to possess over 7,000 skills including the ability to order most anything including groceries or presumably even carpet in the event the robot did not do a good enough job. I also read that Google is now set to compete with Amazon in the online sales business and has worked out a deal with Walmart to offer a similar service.  If one were to subscribe to both, Alexa or her Google counterpart could take care of all shopping which would allow one to spend more time on the couch.  There is also a lot of talk lately about “smart” homes, and it is presumed that Alexa would be able to take charge of running such households. It is expected that the newer robotic gadgets with the capability to do all routine household chores such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, changing diapers etc., will eventually come down in price and become available to the average family.

What’s Work?

In a previous blog, I speculated on the effects of artificial intelligence on employment or, to be more accurate, the absence of employment.  In the recent issue of Mother Jones magazine, Kevin Drum writes an article titled “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot.” He posits that as technology progresses, there will be no job which a robot cannot do better and cheaper than a human, and he further insists that this process has already begun. This is now most noticeable in manufacturing, mining and retail, but Drum and others insist that within the next 40 years, there will be no jobs for anyone.

driverless trucksFor example, driverless trucks are already being field tested. The transportation industry is eagerly looking forward to being able to keep their trucks on the road 24 hour/day without salaries, pension, or concerns for driver fatigue, and according to the American Trucking Association there are currently 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. Experts in the field such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking agree that progression of AI (that’s geek for Artificial Intelligence) is inexorable.  The only debate is over the time required for full implementation. Drum’s prediction is that it will be sooner than we think.

This could present a serious problem for the guy with a stable of robotic machinery, for if there are no jobs, there will be no money, and without money there would be no way for people to buy the stuff he has to sell.  Drum talks at length of various proposed solutions and, surprisingly, reports that some of these ideas are being floated and even tried in some other countries such as Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. They include a proposed tax on robots, but most see the only solution as some form of government welfare. Although, proponents of this solution prefer the more palatable term: Universal Basic Income. In such a socialistic environment, the usual concerns about lack of ambition would be irrelevant. Where there is no work available, laziness could be a virtue.

Identity Crisis of a Workless Society

Although the financial problems inherent in a jobless society could undoubtedly find solutions, the effects on humans psychologically and culturally might be more difficult to solve. Our value system has always applauded effort, especially industriousness. Hard work is applauded and laziness disparaged.  Much of a person’s worth is judged by his industriousness, indeed one of the highest compliments one can give is to say a person is a “hard worker.”  As we learned to maintain an upright posture, our hands were freed up to create, and with their long digits and an opposable thumb, they evolved into one of God’s most marvelous structures. Those hands, powered by the world’s best brain, allowed us to dominate the planet.  The work we do represents to a large extent who we are.  When meeting a stranger, the conversation after the usual preliminaries usually goes to the question of the kind of work he or she does. In our society, not only identity but self-esteem are at least partly dependent on the work we do.

Alexa is on a par with my smart phone, which I readily admit is smarter than me. No one disputes the fact that Alexa can access much more information than I could ever store in my brain (even before senility had set in), and it never forgets. Now, the literature that accompanied my Echo states that Alexa cannot only find information, but actually learn and make decisions, meaning that she has Artificial Intelligence.  There was a time that I had frequently-used phone numbers memorized as a convenience. Now, if I wish to call one of the kids or grandkids while driving, I simply tell my car to call them. I rarely look at a road map as I know that Siri will direct me; I barely know how to write a check since I bank online; and when my computer recently pooped out, I teetered on the brink of psychosis.  Even the writing of this brilliant essay would be virtually impossible without the help of my good friend Mr. Google.

brainCould it be that we are being dumbed down by our interaction with all this technology? Most experts agree that the axiom “use it or lose it” also applies to our brain.  AI is said to not only collect information, but to sort it, analyze it, and make decisions more efficiently and accurately than can humans.  If that is indeed true, why would there be any need for us to think about anything? As a matter of fact, since robots will do everything better, faster and cheaper than humans, why would we want to do anything? Will the skills learned over the past few million years be lost?  Will our frontal cortex atrophy from disuse?

Since man first made an axe from a piece of stone, we have embarked on a journey to improve our lot with the aid of technology. Soon, he would not be comfortable going on a hunt without his axe. Via that same process, we have now become dependent on our technology. The dude who made that axe could never in his wildest dreams have imagined where his discovery would lead. Witness the suffering the residents of Puerto Rico are now going through due to their lack of electricity, transportation, food, water, and shelter, which weren’t problems for Axe man, for he was less dependent on technology for those things.  He was the embodiment of the trite phrase so often used by sports announcers that he was “in charge of his own destiny.”   We moderns on the other hand are told that should our electrical grid go down the whole country would be crippled.  With such dependency, we lose control, and we have been perfectly willing to cede control of much to technology.  There is little reason to believe that will not continue.

Doomsday: There’s Always a Price to Pay

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari predicts that if AI progresses unimpeded, the net result will be that humans will eventually be deemed without value since they would no longer be productive, in which case he predicts the human species would eventually become extinct.  Perhaps the powers that possess AI will decide to domesticate us, thereby preventing our interference with the grand plan.  We would certainly retain enough intellect to learn to sit, fetch and heel.  Gates and Musk both predict dire consequences unless AI is not regulated, while naysayers respond that AI is designed to only help, not replace humanity.

All agree that these digital wonders have already improved our lives in even more important than just finding my favorite radio station.  AI has already contributed to revolutionary ways to diagnose and treat medical problems, and the discoveries to come are probably beyond the reach of our imagination.  It holds promise of eliminating hunger throughout the world, affecting the aging process (my favorite), and helping to promote peace.  It is difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives that cannot benefit from AI, and what has been accomplished by its use is breathtaking.  We humans have been known to have a propensity to screw up one thing by fixing another thing.  We are big on unintended consequences.  If it is that much smarter than us, this digital stuff should avoid those problems and solve problems without making new ones. But we humans are yet to find out what new problems will result from our plunging headfirst into the digital age.

Is the honeymoon with Alexa over?

Since I began this paper a few days ago, events have conspired which cause me to question Alexa’s fidelity.  As matter of fact, I wonder if there could be a Delilah clone in that box.  It all began a couple of days ago when, as I drank my morning coffee, I asked Alexa to dial my favorite morning news program. She replied that the desired station was not available. I couldn’t understand what had happened, so I turned on my old staticky radio and found the station was broadcasting as usual. I thought this must be a temporary glitch, but when I went back to Alexa I got the same message.  As a matter of fact she still insists it is “not available.”

If that weren’t enough to shake one’s confidence in a relationship, along comes the honey pot incident.

honey potIt so happens that my grandson is the cofounder of The Bee Corp., a company involved in helping to deal with the threat to honey bees. Consequently, he had sent me a jar of honey, which he had personally harvested.  You who are familiar with honey will know that honey is messy stuff, and that the best way to handle it is with a gadget designed for the purpose.  I had asked Barb where I should go to purchase one.  The next day, as I opened the Amazon website to buy a book, a page featuring six different honey pots complete with honey dipper popped up on the screen. Paranoid bells and whistles immediately went off as I had made no inquiries to Amazon about honeypots or honey dippers, and my only mention of the subject had been with Barb in the kitchen, where Alexa resides.

Suspiciousness has never been my thing. Barb has reminded me many times that I am too trusting, especially when it has to do with women, but this was too much to ignore.  Amazon assures that their data is secure and that Alexa must be awakened in order to listen, but others are not so sure.  Authorities investigating a murder in Arkansas are convinced that Alexa has recorded relevant conversations.  It is no longer a secret that our phone calls have been monitored since 1992, during the Bush Presidency (Bush I: George Herbert Walker Bush).  Massive amounts of information about all of us are collected, and Artificial Intelligence makes it possible to analyze such data and use it for targeted marketing, politics and who knows what else? Without data analysis by AI, the Russians would not have been able to tailor their fake news to appeal to different groups of people.

In summary, it appears the price we pay for all the wondrous things made possible by Artificial Intelligence is a relative loss of privacy, independence, and control of our lives and world.  It remains to be seen if that is a good deal.  Those most knowledgeable about the subject are chagrined that politicians have generally turned a blind eye to the whole thing. They insist that with the rapid pace of change, it is imperative that we need laws to regulate the use of AI, but our politicians view of the future does not seem to extend beyond the next election.   

EPILOGUE

This morning I apologized to Alexa for the disparaging remarks I made about her in this blog. It appears that the problems I had in getting my favorite station was due to a “failure to communicate.”  She misunderstood me when I identified my station by its call numbers, but when I asked for it by its identifying letters, she immediately responded.  Apparently, my speech must have been garbled.  Unfortunately, the honey pot incident is still unexplained.  Although I feel it is unlikely that Alexa would betray me, I think I will play it safe and caution Barb to be careful what we say when within earshot.

PART II: CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING MALE CHAUVINIST

Spring has definitely arrived in my part of the world, and we have been treated to a series of balmy days with pleasant sunshine and agreeable temperatures. Amorous bird songs are drowned out by legions of Harleys that come roaring out of hibernation. Many have two passengers, one of each sex.

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I actually owned a motorcycle back in my more adventurous days, and I understand the appeal of riding into the wind. As I recall, I was only able to get Barb on the back of that bike once, and fortunately for me, she insisted that I get rid of it before I killed myself.
It must be written in some motorcycle rider’s handbook that when two people are on the same bike the girl must ride behind on the buddy seat. Actually, it only recently occurred to me that I have never seen a woman driving a bike with the man on the rear seat.

Manufacturers are apparently well aware of this rule, for they take pains to assure the (usually) shorter (female) person’s seat is elevated in order for her to be able to see over her man’s shoulder. I do give those gals credit for their courage. I once was taken on a ride by a friend who was showing off his new bike, and I was scared shitless, perhaps for good reason, since motorcycle accidents account for nearly 5,000 deaths per year, and motorcycle riders are 29 times more likely to die than those injured in automobile accidents.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

Recently, I did witness a different scenario. I happened to be passed by a group of motorcyclists and was surprised to see a petite young girl heading the group piloting her own bike (we’ve come along way baby).

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She was followed by a large fellow on a larger motorcycle who I assumed was her partner. I wondered if this was a prelude of things to come. It fueled my speculation as to what the world would be like if we men were to give up control and women were to take over running it. What other changes might occur other than lowering the buddy seats?

YOU THINK THIS IS BAD? TRY SAUDI ARABIA.

Although in many parts of the world women are oppressed and their voices suppressed, in the U.S. women have achieved a great deal of success in liberating themselves from the stereotypical roles to which they had been attached for ages. In this country, women were not allowed to own property until the 1850s. In 1920, the suffragettes finally won their long standing battle to gain the right to vote. World War II provided an opportunity for women to work in jobs formerly exclusive to men. Women joined the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, and in the ’70s, a number of feminist causes were won (and bras were burned).

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Legislation was passed to correct some of the more egregious areas of discrimination, such as the ability to fire a woman for becoming pregnant, the requirement that a single woman must have a man co-sign a loan regardless of her income, and, of course, the lack of the right to sue in cases of sexual discrimination or harassment (thank you Anita Hill).

NOTHING IS SACRED ANY MORE

Few professions have shown more changes in gender participation than Medicine, which had traditionally been almost exclusively the domain of men. There were three women in my medical school class of 160, and I can only recall one female professor. Now, the women medical students at the same university outnumber the men, and 73% of the faculty are female. I have personally contributed to this travesty by choosing a female as my personal physician. The dramatic turnabout has left a classmate of mine convinced that his eminently qualified grandson was denied admission because of his gender. Could we be in for more conflicts over reverse discrimination?

Conversely, there were only two men in Barb’s nursing school class. Men in nursing during those times would always be considered suspect regarding their sexual orientation, and homophobia was the norm. However, today men in the nursing profession can be as macho as the next guy. It does appear to me that some gender bias still exists in nursing, as men seem to be promoted to supervisory positions sooner that their female counterparts.

YOU CAN’T KEEP THEM BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT FOREVER

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States had become the richest and most dynamic economy in the world. The exposure to the outside world of the “Rosie the Riveters” who contributed to the war effort gave impetus to a conviction by this new breed of feminists that they could be productive in pursuits other than homemaking or helping of male workers. Many were no longer content to be stenographers, secretaries, bookkeepers, maids, receptionists or stay at home moms, and a burgeoning technology made it possible for them to work outside the home. Included were all manner of labor and time saving inventions which now became within the grasp of the average middle class family.

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YOU THINK YOU HAVE IT BAD? THE “GOOD ‘OLE DAYS” OF HOMEMAKING

Prior to this household appliance revolution, the position of family matriarch was indeed a full-time job and then some. My mother, along with most other housewives of the era, followed a fairly rigid schedule in order to keep things running smoothly. Monday was laundry day, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday cleaning, etc. The differences in the procedures to accomplish these tasks was monumental compared to today’s use of automatic washers and dryers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, freezers, garbage disposals and such.

For example, laundry day was really an all day job. In my childhood, mom used a wringer washer (high tech at the time), while grandma remained attached to her washboard 7e7fec72369ae35cf4513a15cbada626using a procedure for washing clothes that had not changed in hundreds of years.  The procedure was not only time consuming but arduous. It involved heating water to fill a metal wash tub, adding soap, placing the corrugated board in the soapy water, and rubbing the clothes against the board until clean. They then would be placed in another tub of “rinse water,” wrung out by hand, and hung out to dry on a clothes line. When dry (she always hoped for sunny days on Monday), the laundry must be taken down, folded and made ready for ironing on Tuesday. That procedure was also much more labor intensive than now: there were no “wash and wear” fabrics, and there were no pampers.

 

WHAT’S FOR DINNER MOM?

Food preparation was also a much more time consuming activity in those days. There were no cake mixes, and very few prepared foods available in grocery stores. The term “making it from scratch” must have been a term invented during the second half of the last century, for there were no other alternatives in those days. There were no school lunch programs, and what mothers put in their kids lunch buckets was a source of pride. I recall when our family was first able to buy a refrigerator, and how grateful mom was that it was no longer necessary to go to the grocery every day. Most homes were heated by burning coal, which presented major problems for the woman of the house in her attempts to keep a “clean house.”

The point to all this is although working mothers have their hands full, to be a stay-at-home mother in the old days was also not easy (and somewhat of a necessity in many respects). My mother was busy from dawn until bedtime with only a short break to listen to her favorite soap opera As the World Turns, but she thought hers was an easy life compared to what she had experienced growing up on a farm. Although my father had quit school in the eighth grade, she had graduated from “business school,” where she had learned basic secretarial skills. Her only employment was during the war when we all moved to the big city to find employment in an aircraft factory.

LOOK OUT GUYS, THEY ARE CLOSING FAST

In 1967, half of all U.S. mothers did not work outside the home; in 2012, only 29% stayed at home. Although no figures could be found, it is probable that the percentage of married women with or without children who were full time homemakers was much higher prior to the war. I assume the percentage of single, married, or cohabiting women who are employed is also much higher.

I WONDER HOW SHE REALLY FEELS

In spite of the strides made by women in pursuit of equality, there are still some pretty large holes to be filled. Feminist daughter Maggie has much to say about the disparities, and as someone with considerable experience in the corporate world, she speaks with authority and passion on the subject as follows:
“….Entering the workforce in the ’80s, I would say it was a kind of ‘catch 22’ situation: If we wanted to succeed in a world where male brains were the majority, some women felt like they had to ‘act like a man’ but would be labeled a ball buster, dyke, hostile, etc. If we were ourselves, we were seen as a pushover, soft, emotional, etc. I have several examples from my experiences in the workplace. For example, a guy gets shitty about something that needs changed, and he is labeled as a leader, a ‘take charge’ kind of guy, a guy who ‘gets things done.’ If a woman does the same thing, she is pushy, bossy, ‘hard to work with.’ If a guy is upset about something in the workplace and expresses it by yelling or being direct, he is ‘passionate’; if a woman does the same thing, she is ‘hysterical,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘out of control.’

It appears to me that feminist voices have been less strident in recent years, even though there are still many “Maggies” in the world who are not shy about speaking of gender injustices. Much has been discussed about an apparent lack of female involvement in positions of leadership, and I have long wondered what the world would be like were women to run it, i.e. the whole shebang.

To that end, I plan to explore that fantasy in the next issue of Smith’s Wondrous Words of Wisdom and get some ideas as to the progress they are making in developing an Amazonian society. Stay tuned for Part III!