Jack Simpson - 07/10/09

During the Great Depression, I was growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. Times were tough after the stock market plunge. Unemployment was rampant and jobless people could be seen in bread lines everywhere. It was very difficult to earn a dollar and keep it long enough for it to burn a hole in your pocket.

Youngsters went door-to-door looking for any kind of work. Cutting grass with a push mower might net 25 cents. Collecting discarded wooden orange crates behind the local grocery store had possibilities. The crates could be cut up with a Boy Scout ax and small bundles of kindling prepared for sale to the lady of the house. She used the firewood to start her coal-burning cook stove.

Older women often hired youngsters to spade their gardens. This work also helped with movie money. Oh, we knew the family budget was tight and there was little money available for small pleasures. Children had to be resourceful. Some of us made compost piles and raised earthworms to be sold to local fishermen. We picked apples off family trees and sold them on street corners. Short on money for a Saturday matinee, I've taken my wagon through a local alley to collect scrap. Once the wagon was loaded with unwanted metal, I sold it to the nearest salvage yard for a few pennies per pound.

The Great Depression was a worldwide event extending from 1929 into the 1940s. There was a decline in production, business and bank failures, loss of jobs, homes and savings. Food lines became common and members of my own family stood in them.

Confidence in the economy faded and the government had to play a larger role in the lives of citizens. Our country's president at that time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, felt it a social duty to help people unable to help themselves. Some years later, President Kennedy echoed a similar thought. He said if a free society can't help the many poor, it cannot save the few rich.

We knew that any New Deal involved everyone pitching in to make necessary changes. Unable to get all the money needed, we adapted. The Philco radio became a major source of entertainment. We listened to the big bands, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, The Shadow and The Lone Ranger. We read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," and heard the folk songs of Woodie Guthrie.

Among our heroes were Arctic explorer Richard Byrd, aviator Amelia Earhart, and folksy philosopher Will Rogers. Our unsung heroes included some family members who were teachers working for $40 a month. They helped to hold the family together.

Sometimes we had to barter with the family doctor. He swapped healthcare for eggs, milk, venison or trout. Hungry men on the move looking for work often stopped by the house. My grandmother made sure they did not leave hungry. She would feed them tomatoes from the garden along with her homemade bread.

The government programs of the 1930s are probably shaping some of today's stimulus ideas. Lessons learned from my grandfather might have application now. He told our family to stretch our hard-earned dollars. If we had to buy something, we were to have the money in pocket before the purchase. Grandfather insisted if something was not really needed, then it was not to be purchased. We could live without it. He often reminded us that poverty was not a disgrace just an inconvenience. An abundance of personal possessions is not what really makes for a good life, he often said. He also said a movie cost a dime, but so did a loaf of bread!

What is your choice? Whatever the present changes being made by our leaders, we hope they are successful for all Americans and that we have learned from the past.

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Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author, and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.