AMERICA, THEN AND NOW
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The headline on The Houston Chronicle screamed in bold black letters, BANKS FAIL! It was 1929. I was eight years old, but it is clear as a bell in my memory. It was the warning shot announcing the beginning of the Great Depression. My dad was employed at Hughes Tool Company as a heat-treater, not much money but we got by with a small garden, a few chickens on the yard and a $15 a month rented house. My mom made my dresses from brightly-colored feed and flour sacks. It wasn't painful though; everybody did it. Then Hughes Tool began laying off workers by the hundreds. My dad was one of them. He walked the city streets everyday looking for work, any kind of work. Finally found a job loading blocks of ice from platforms onto trucks for delivery to home ice boxes. Ten dollars a week, and he walked the two miles to and from to save the streetcar fare. Soon there wasn't enough money to pay rent or buy meager groceries. We charged them for a full nine months because the owner of the house and the corner grocer were friends. When we reached rock bottom: no food, no money, little hope, the day came when dad stood in a long line for hours where sacks of flour, rice and pinto beans were being handed out. When he came back with them, he put his head down on his arms at the kitchen table and cried like a baby. He was a proud man; he didn't like handouts. I remember Christmas that first year: one of our wooden rocking chairs with a small string of lights across the top and an apple, orange and handful of nuts in the seat. But about 9 AM my uncle came by. When we opened the door, there he stood with a pretty doll on his arm, a smile on his face, and saying, "Look what Santa left for you at our house!" I can still see it and feel the childish joy. Things didn't get better very soon, though, and we finally had to move onto another uncle's screened-in back porch for the duration. (Incidentally, my dad paid back every dime he owed for charged groceries and rent when he was called back to Hughes Tool fourteen months later.)
The reason for sharing all of this is to establish credibility. I was there; it speaks to personal history. The mantra of the Depression Era was: Use it up; wear it out; make it do, or do without. More than words, it was our philosophy of life. But there was something more important, even, than stoically enduring hardships during these times. I witnessed common caring for one another, and it flourished and nourished our souls. People counted way more than their social status. Hunger knows no class. They shared a strong determination to help each other make it through. No matter how little you had, when a hungry man knocked on the gate, you shared. That particular ethos made us feel loved and cared for which in turn gave us strength to face any hardship with hope--and laughter even. I remember when my dad and his brothers played dominoes around the kitchen table, you could hear their laughter all over the house. And my cousins and I had a ball! It was not all sad and dreary. One more thing about being a child during that time. My best friend's father was the grocer who let folks have food on credit. He carried all sorts of sundry items: sewing materials, hardware, etc., and so had lots of scraps and empty boxes. Lois and I decided we could make doll furniture from these. So we did, and made paper dolls by cutting pictures of ladies out of the big Sears catalog. We made doll houses complete with furniture, stretching our creative abilities to the limit. And an adjoining vacant lot with sunflowers taller than we were became safari lands through darkest Africa or anything else we could dream up. Then across the street there was a big oak tree with limbs low enough for the neighborhood boys to attach a wire and anchor it in the ground. They found a small section of pipe, slipped it over the wire, nailed wood on the trunk of the tree to make steps, and all the kids stood in line to climb the tree and slide down the wire for hours on end. Great fun! I'm inclined to think ingenuity and imagination might have been better stimulated there than playing video games. In my immediate vicinity, adults and children loved God and each other, and by His grace, we made it through, stronger, more grateful and wiser human beings.
During those years America WAS her middle class: strong, self-reliant, the good kind of proud, generally disposed to help one another. Although life was no bed of roses, there was a sense of unity and common purpose that seemingly has gradually disappeared through the ensuing years.
The Great Depression descended on a whole different kind of America from what she is now. Our culture of prosperity has, I'm afraid, softened our bodies, deadened our souls and killed our sense of community to a great extent. America is a different place now, class-conscious, money-conscious, over-entertained, superficial and feeling a bit entitled. We are very different people. And should there be another depression, the national reaction to it will necessarily be very different from the other one. There may not be time to learn lessons of hard work, deprivation, patience, sharing, still maintaining toughness and determination and hope through it all, if we should be thrown headfirst into another one. We may be jerked up short to remember who we are, Whose we are and the need to care for one another in order to survive.
There are no guarantees (at least not in this life), and our survival may indeed hang in the balance. It could be our final exam. Let's pray God we can pass it.
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Your reflections give me the hope that it is just these types of circumstances that will bring out the best in a people once again as it did then. Thank you for the insight of what to hope for. The Lord's Blessings.
Aline, I also enjoy hearing the tales from the past of those who were there. Your recitation of the events of decades ago is inspiring and thought provoking. America has changed, but I wonder if people have? I hope we don't find out under these circumstances. One thing is constant however. The depression of 1929 was caused by greed. So is our present crisis. Nowhere is this more apparent than the actions of the men and women who sit on the boards of major institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. While destroying the corporations that are the bedrock of our financial community, they voted their CEO's bonuses of hundreds of millions of dollars and took care of themselves in the process. This is common in our business community because as Carl Ichan noted, "These boards of directors do not answer to the stockholders. They are an incestuous 'Old Boys Club' of interlocking directorites." Enron, the N.Y. Stock Exchange, Comex and Telcom are just a few examples to parallel the woes of the banking system. John McCain warned us about this current situation 2 and 1/2 years ago and attempted to introduce legislation that would have prevented it. That legislative effort was blocked by Congressmen and Senators who received huge "campaign contributions" from the directors of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. One major cause of the current crisis is "mark to market" accounting. This technique holds that if an item or property cannot be sold in today's market, it has no value. It is worth nothing. That idea is patently ridiculous. It is incorporated in the Sorbane-Oxley Act and is a reflection of the knee jerk reaction to the Enron scandal. The speculators in mortgage loans forgot the old axiom of Isaac Newton which applies to all marketplaces as well as to physical objects. "What goes up must come down!" The housing crisis, propelled by enormous increases in property taxes among other things is a perfect example. When property values declined, the collateral that underscored those mortgages became deficient. Oops! Our immediate bind is merely a symptom of the true underlying problems in our economic and political life. Greed and political corruption are the real culprits. Thanks for the trip back in time. As you can see from this example and the many in the Bible, people really haven't changed. Austin
Aline, This is story-telling at it's best. I used to love to hear my grandparents tell the stories of those days. The people who lived through the great depression are humble people, usually with a great love for God and our country. Thank you for sharing this. I loved it. Please write some more - there are wonderful lessons that us "younger folks" need to hear. In Christ's Love, Julia