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Could we survive hard times as during the Great Depression?

Is it really that bad? Is it going to get worse? My personal crystal ball is rather cloudy these days, but my roiling gut is usually pretty accurate and it's demanding anything from Tums to Maalox.

Full disclosure: I wasn't born until 20 days after Pearl Harbor, and I'm eternally grateful for those 20 days. They might have named me Pearl, which wouldn't suit me at all. However, my parents certainly were greatly affected by the Great Depression.

Some of their stories surprised me a little. I asked my mother if she had been a flapper in the '20s. She told me she wasn't but I've seen pictures of her wearing a hat, a cloche with the hint of a spit curl on her cheek and lipstick done in the Cupid's Bow manner, so I'm a little suspicious.

She also told me that when she was in high school all the girls wore long skirts and, often, hats. Of course I thought that was weird. But she explained that no one wanted to look as poor as they really were so the longer hemlines were meant to show that the family could afford more cloth for skirts and dresses than they really could. Ditto the hats.

Neither of my parents could go to college, though my father put both of his sisters through college and supported his mother and sisters throughout the Depression. He worked in a factory and studied metallurgy in night school.

My mother went to work for a newspaper after high school (and got herself fired for panning a Shirley Temple movie). Until the day she died, she always insisted on having cold butter, even though cold butter tears up bread. Her reason was that she spent the entire Depression putting up with warm butter because when it was warm it went further, buttered more slices of bread. According to her, no one wanted to admit how tough things really were.

When the war and I came along, butter wasn't an option, cold or warm. There was rationing and I remember vividly my mother sitting in a chair near the big console radio with the oscillating green eye, listening to war news and shaking a mason jar full of white stuff and a packet of red dye, turning it into something that became butterlike.

Things weren't so good during the war either. The factory where my father worked did stuff for the war. He couldn't go to war because he was 6 feet 6 and mostly legs; the military was unwilling to custom-make uniforms for him and he would have had a hard time keeping his head down in a jeep, a tank, an airplane or a fox hole. But my uncles were at war in the Pacific and Europe, and two of my aunts, both unmarried and without children, were deployed with the troops in Europe. Thankfully they all came home.

I've seen pictures of the bread lines and guys riding the rails, and I've read the stories about how bad the Depression really was, but the Depression legacy I remember most are the movies made during that period. I guess everyone wanted to believe in a dream that was only accessible in a movie theater. Those wonderful Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, the musicals with beautiful people Puttin' on the Ritz gave me the impression that things must have been peachy in the decade before I was born. I not only loved those Shirley Temple movies, I wished mightily that I had curly, blond hair and could tap dance with Bill Robinson.

We're all pretty spoiled now. Most of us didn't endure those hard times. Fashion dictates that kids pay big bucks for jeans that are already tattered before they are ever worn. (My mother would cringe. Me too. I took some pride in destroying perfectly good, new jeans all by myself.) Will they all suffer psychological damage if they are disconnected from their ear buds and iPhones? I've even heard that Starbucks is closing stores, laying off "baristas" and striking fear in the hearts of sleep-deprived workers all over the world. Coping with hard times may not be among the skill sets mastered by today's young people. But it's possible that adjustments will have to be made.

I hope history will not be repeated, but experience and my gut tell me that whatever can be screwed up will be. All those institutions and practices that were supposed to prevent that repeat seem to have succumbed to the fantasy that anything goes.

Now we may have to watch it go, mason jars clutched in our hands, singing Happy Days Are Here Again and We're In The Money.

Buddy, can you spare a cup of Milano Caffe Frappe avec Creme de Hazelnut?

Write to Sheila Stoll in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Could we survive hard times as during the Great Depression? 01/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 9:56am]
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