The Way It Was | Part 1

Introduction: Although three generations apart, my high school English Literature teacher and my editor are of like minds for Maggie and Miss Higgins have both encouraged me to write about things of which I have first-hand knowledge.  I have found that advice to be limiting since although I know a little bit about several things, I don’t consider myself an expert in anything, or as Orrie (a co-worker from my pre-college days working in a glass factory) said of me, I just knew enough to be dangerous.  Since I am now a bona fide member of the old geezer’s club, it follows that I should have some knowledge as to what things were like in times past.  Consequently, Maggie has suggested I write about what things were like in the “good old days.”

 Likewise, son Peter, the historian extraordinaire, recently commented that he would like to know what it was like during my earlier days as he felt first-hand accounts were more informative than were typical historical descriptions.  With all that in mind, I have decided to forego my usual rants about things of which I know little to launch a series of stories about what it was like to live in earlier times.  Unfortunately, to do so will result also in subjecting you to boring autobiographical stuff. 

In psychoanalytic lingo, the term repression is used to indicate an unconscious mechanism in which painful memories or feelings are hidden from us.  This accounts for the fact that uncomfortable memories are often clouded or forgotten.  The term is to be distinguished from suppression which is a conscious act.  Repression is helpful as it allows us to put aside or distort uncomfortable memories, and multiple studies provide confirmatory evidence that memories are unreliable.  Of course, this process is overwhelmed in the case of extremely painful experiences which can result in what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a malady that under different names has always bedeviled soldiers. Thus, the reader should be forewarned we old folks usually view our childhoods through our own personal brand of rose-colored glasses, and this paper is the result of an old man’s reminiscences rather than a carefully researched historical document.

My parents were married in 1925, and my big brother was born a year later.  He was only 3 years old when the stock market crashed ushering in the world’s worse recorded depression.  My first glimpse of this world and of the wonders that awaited me occurred on a warm September day less than a year after that fateful day.  Although some people insist they remember being born, psychologists who study such things, tell us that we don’t remember anything before three (3) years of age.  Though I don’t remember the blessed event, I have heard a lot about it. 

Front page of the Times Recorder the day after the infamous “Stock Market Crash” on October 29, 1929.

The Early Days: Little Spinney Enters the World

I was birthed in the latest of high-tech facilities by Dr. Wells in his hospital, which was actually the back room of his office where he had a hospital bed.  His “hospital” was located in the village of Nashport, so named as it had been a port on the Ohio canal, where years later I would spear carp in its remains.  In those days, there was a physician in most all midwestern villages, and apparently Dr. wells was progressive in his eschewing of home deliveries.  He even enlisted the aid of my father in administering an ether anesthetic, in spite of which both Mother and I survived.  The whole thing apparently was without complication and as I arrived Dr. Wells commented: “Look at those ears, he is a little Spinney” (the nickname for my maternal grandfather who was well known for large protruding ears at odds with his serious hearing deficit).  In spite of being long and skinny, I weighed in at a whopping 13 pounds.  I would endure that description of my body type and those ears through most of my life.  As a matter of fact, later when in the sixth grade we read Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I strongly identified with Ichabod Crane.  Ninety years later, I still have the ears, but am no longer skinny.

Psychiatrists often ask a new patient to relate their earliest memory with the idea that such memories may be indicative of their lifestyle, values, or how they view the world. I believe my earliest memory occurred around the age of 3 or 4 which would have put it in the midst of the depression.  That time was confirmed by my mother who happened to recall the miniature sailor suit which I remember wearing then.  It certainly was a momentous happening in my life for while sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game I was treated with my first box of cracker jacks.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember what the surprise gift was, but I assume it must have been a dandy for me to have remembered the incident for 86 years. Although I have no idea what a box of Cracker Jacks cost in the early 30s, it must have been a luxury for a father who would mow your lawn with a hand powered mower for pennies.  With bread at 8 cents per loaf even a dime would make a big difference in our diet.  You are probably wondering how I would interpret such an earliest memory.  You may rest assured that I would take the 5th amendment.

Speaking of lawn mowers reminds me of another episode of my toddler days.  Any young whipper snapper who happens to be reading this will probably not be aware that when a vintage push mower is turned upside down the blades do not rotate.  This particular memory is of me riding on such a positioned mower with my Dad’s jacket laying on top of it.  I assume he was going house to house attempting to get a lawn to mow, and suspect that he was not above using a cute little guy like me to elicit sympathy from potential customers.

Map that shows Eshrink was born (Nashport) and the areas surrounding Zanesville, Ohio, where he grew up.

Although we moved a lot, we never went very far.   Except for a brief stint in Akron, (more about that later) we were always living in Zanesville, Ohio, or surrounding areas within 12 miles.  Zanesville was a town of 30,000 people located on the fringes of Appalachia, and known for its manufacture of art pottery.  It was located at the junction of 2 rivers which had provided passage for river boats from the Ohio river.  During my childhood it was traversed by route 40, then a heavily traveled transcontinental highway which went directly through the center of town thus gaining Zanesville fame for its traffic jams. 

Race Relations in the 1930s & 40s

Even though Zanesville had been a station on the underground railroad, it was split on the slavery issue with those on the south side of the river known as prominent abolitionists.  They included pastor William Beecher whose sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Frederick Douglas had spoken at Rev. Beecher’s church and there was a great deal of animus from north of the river, which was largely pro-slavery.  During my childhood, Lincoln was widely hailed for ending slavery which everyone in my orbit condemned, but the “separate but equal’ philosophy was still alive and well.   For example, although or schools were not segregated officially, I can only recall one or two black kids in my classes until the eighth grade. Sadly, I don’t recall making any effort to befriend them. 

This a sign from 1931, but this is a picture from an Ohio pool in 2011. The Cincinnati woman who hung the sign on her pool didn’t think there was anything wrong with it and described it as a historical piece. This is the link to the article.

When the city fathers decided to build a municipal swimming pool, they found it necessary to build a second one for black folks.  The local skating rink only allowed black kids in on Monday night, which just happened to coincide with the nearby ice cream parlor’s decision to be closed on Monday.  I assumed that black kids liked to sit in the balcony because they wanted to be together.  Little did I know that the ushers who were present in higher end theaters were tasked with deciding where people should sit. 

Oxymorons such as “I don’t have anything against niggers, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one” or “I wouldn’t want one to live next door” were common in the rare conversations about race.  As I recalled in a previous writing, my first awareness of the degradation suffered by African Americans occurred in my teenage years while working at my father’s filling station.  A black family with an out of state license plate pulled in and after gassing up, the father walked across the street to the back door of a neighboring restaurant to get food for his family.  I was left with a feeling of sadness as I tried to imagine what he must have felt.  That memory has remained etched in my mind for75 years.

This is a picture of a restaurant in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1938 from the Library of Congress. “We Cater to White Trade Only” sign. Ohio, like most of the North and West did not have de jure statutory enforced segregation (Jim Crow laws), but many places still had (de facto) social segregation in the early 20th century.

It is a tribute to the powers of rationalization that we were aghast to hear of lynchings in the south and to see pictures of their “white only” signs as we continued to discriminate against our non-white brethren in less obvious ways, while simultaneously denying our own bigotry.  During my childhood I recall no discussions concerning racial issues, which is understandable when one considers that segregation activates the “out of sight, out of mind” mantra.  I was reared as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).  My tribe was a majority, and obviously wanted to keep it that way.  Segregation was accomplished without formal declaration.  Other than in the area of race relations, high ideals such as honesty, truth, and honor were highly praised, and unresolved racial disparities were the only stain I recall on what came to be called the Greatest Generation however; our sons and daughters would awaken to the problem, and progress has been made in at least accepting that there is a problem.  The fact that the subject is now openly discussed is encouraging.  Moreover, were I to have predicted 60 years ago that I would now be sitting here celebrating a national holiday based on the life of an African American civil rights leader, my sanity would have been questioned. 

Sign for “colored” waiting room at a Greyhound bus terminal in Rome, Georgia, 1943. Throughout the South there were Jim Crow laws creating “de jure” legally required segregation

Nevertheless, hate-speech is now common in political discourse, we have witnessed an upsurge in violence against minorities, there are assaults on our seats of government, and we are told that domestic terrorism is now the greatest threat to our country.  All of this seems to be fueled by a propaganda so ridiculous as to be laughable were its results not so serious.  The most frightening of all is what we are learning as to how the January 6 assault nearly succeeded in reversing the results of an election or worse.  Even though in the years leading up to WWII, the economy was improving, the Depression had provided an opportunity for anarchists of all stripes to get into the act, and of course hatred was their favorite recruitment tool. I was too young to understand its implications, but from my spot under the coffee table I recall hearing Dad’s friends vilify the “damned New York Jews” whom they blamed for the depression.  Radio newscasts made frequent reference to the German American Bund, an organization of German American citizens promoting fascism.  There was also the unlikely supporter of anti-semitism who had reached a large radio audience in the person of a Catholic priest (Father Coughlin).  Capitalism was under siege and strongmen like Hitler, Mussolini, Tito and Stalin were all purging the ranks of adversaries whom of course they accused of causing all the world’s problems. 

Getting a Front Seat to the Acceleration of Innovation

The midst of the most severe depression the world had ever known was certainly not a convenient time to usher in a new member of the Smith family, but for me there was not a more propitious time to have been born.   Although a massive worldwide depression had impeded the industrial revolution, it had largely recovered by the time I reached adolescence, fed by an explosive expansion of the manufacturing section of the economy during World War ll.  That war would also be the impetus to an unraveling of more mysteries as to how things work than has occurred since people first inhabited this planet, and I would marvel at how it all fit together.  Thus, science would gain respect, and previously undreamed-of technologies would become routine.  During my lifetime I would witness the invention of amazing things both great and small which would make life more comfortable and work less arduous.  It was a time when such discoveries would give us an appreciation for the complexities of life and the environment which sustain it, though we were largely oblivious to the untoward side effects such massive progress would cause to our planet. It would also set a pigeon toed long skinny kid with big ears on a journey which would lead him to the most satisfying career one could imagine.  

 However, that war would exact a horrible price.  It was the bloodiest in history.  Although it is impossible to glean an accurate account, some estimate that 85 million people may have been killed not to mention untold numbers who suffered permanently disabling physical or psychological problems. Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by vast oceans which protected me from those horrors, but my family would not totally escape its reach.

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.


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!