Some experiences are best avoided
I wonder what the Great Depression was really like.
All we really know about it comes from old news reports and what our older family members told us.
My father’s parents must have had a great time dating during the “Roaring ‘20s.” They married in 1929 — one month before the stock market collapsed.
My grandfather was lucky, though. He had a good job, working directly for the Mellon family as an accountant.
He helped feed and clothe his sisters’ children during the hardest times, though he would die in 1937 from strep throat (penicillin was not yet available).
He had seven sisters — five survived into adulthood — and they had some 15 children among them.
Those children, my father’s cousins, played in their grandmother’s basement most Saturday evenings, as their parents played cards and drank homemade hooch above them.
More than one family was living at Grandma Purcell’s then. The adults surely worried about paying their bills, but the children had no idea the Great Depression was on.
Some 20 years ago, long after Grandma Purcell had passed on and her house had been sold, I joined some of her grandchildren to tour the old place (it still sits on Orchlee Street in Brighton Heights).
They were in their 60s and 70s then — only a few are still with us — and they showed me around the basement where they whiled away so many wonderful Saturdays.
I’ve been lucky to talk to many older folks over the years who’ve related their memories of the Depression years. Many told me that as kids, they had no idea they were poor.
Many lived in tight city neighborhoods — the suburbs wouldn’t blossom until after World War II — where everybody knew everybody.
One fellow told me how it took him forever to walk a city block on summer evenings, because folks sat out on their stoops and wanted to know how he and his family were doing.
There was no home air conditioning then, and the hot, sweltering air forced people outside.
I wonder what the heat wave of 1937 was like, when it got so hot at night, whole families slept on blankets by riverbanks, where the air was cooler.
The children surely saw it as a grand adventure, giggling and unable to sleep.
The adults probably were unable to sleep, too. There were no “safety nets” then — no 99 weeks of unemployment checks, no food stamps or other government programs.
If adults didn’t find work, how would they feed their kids?
What’s most striking to me is that the Great Depression wasn’t that long ago.
I’m 49. The stock market collapse of ‘29 occurred 33 years before I was born. The Depression on didn’t end until 20 years before I was born.
That great economic collapse was the result of unsustainable debt and borrowing — just as the collapse of 2008 was brought on by unsustainable debt and borrowing.
Some argue that we have not recovered from the collapse of 2008 — that, at best, we still are in the middle of it, and if we don’t get our debt and borrowing in order, worse times are ahead.
Polls say that’s what many Americans fear most — that things will get worse.
And so we sit on our wallets, or bury what money we have in our backyards, as the economy stumbles.
Yeah, I wonder what the Great Depression was really like, but have zero desire to experience one firsthand.
The Great Recession has been unsettling enough.
Tom Purcell is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.