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Hard times. Good lessons

Today's dire economy has pundits and everyday people making comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Things are bad, everyone says. Really bad. And 2009 will be worse than 2008. As a result, more Americans are trying to save money by cooking at home, driving less and thinking twice about new clothes and splurges. After reading through dozens of your remembrances of the Depression, today's plight doesn't seem to have the same widespread devastation. After all, many of us are still enjoying relative luxury. (LifeTimes news editor Jan Brackett shares some of the cost-saving choices she and her family have made and how they find value in simple things; read her column on Page 2.) Still, we find lessons in your stories — and not just about penny-pinching. There is fierce pride about what families were able to provide for each other and those less fortunate. Sacrifice and survival worked in tandem. "There are many lessons that will forever remain with me," writes Margaret Rudsinski, 85, of Lutz. "I learned to cope under many different situations: how to be frugal, to appreciate the simple things in life, the value of family and friends and most important, to trust in the Lord for all things." You tell us of lives not wholly of desperation but of shared bonds and a hope for the future. Some folks wrote of a few powerful influences that made a difference: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mom. "God blessed us then with a great leader in President Roosevelt . . . He put men and women to work," writes Katherine Allison Diffenderfer, 83, who grew up in St. Petersburg. "I believe another great leader, Barack Obama, is here, so I pray God protects him, his family and guides him . . ." World War II, with all the grief it brought to families around the world, proved a turning point for Depression kids and their families. "It was, as events turned, scars and all, our life raft," said James J. Hurley, 79, of Valrico. The war provided jobs. And for many of you, Mom was the secret weapon. Ralph K. Laughlin, 88, of New Port Richey remembers her well. "A strict disciplinarian . . . but always fair and with love. Chores came first . . . Mom was the boss, secretary and financial manager." And moms were darn good cooks, too. Sunday dinner might not have had much in the pot but imagination, but it sure was good. Even if the protein was woodchuck. For more on that tasty dinner, and other lessons of survival, read on. We think you'll find something to incorporate in your own life. And thank you so much for sharing your stories.

Mimi Andelman, LifeTimes editor;

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“I looked for work but I had no skills at age 16 in Cleveland; none of us in the neighborhood did. It was 1937, and the most attainable job seemed to be selling shoes but when I sought a position, nobody would hire me because I knew nothing about selling shoes. Finally I arranged with a local store: I would work every day after school for two hours and learn the shoe business — for no pay! And for three months every day after school I went to work at this neighborhood shoe store for nothing. Did I learn the business? Yes. I got a job at a different neighborhood shoe store working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for $2. And I got to work at May Co. on Christmas. I got to work at Thom McAn during college on Saturdays and holidays. But perhaps best of all I learned the one thing I would never do with my life — be a shoe salesman."

David Bass, St. Petersburg

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“Paper dolls were the craze for me in the '30s. Cheap as they were then they were too pricey for a working man's family. My family had an advantage: the yearly Sears catalog. We were allowed to pull out the pages of underwear and clothing models. These became our paper dolls. For backing, we exchanged wire hangers collected in the neighborhood, and returned them to the cleaners for the thin cardboard used in folding shirts. We used flour paste to laminate the backings. Some of us sold our finished dollies to less fortunate children for pennies, which we gave to Mother for the flour paste. The pillaged catalog was placed on a hook to become toilet paper."

Jeanne Taylor, St. Petersburg

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“It was around 1930. It was my job to go the several blocks to Main Street and bring home fresh bread for mother's noontime luncheon where she served courthouse employees and other folks. Every day I walked by a store window that displayed a sewing machine. I was a child of few wants, but how I wanted that shiny machine. Mother's work was never done, and days and nights of preparation for the noon meals left no time to share an 8-year-old's dream. Finally I convinced her to accompany me to town to at least see the dream machine. We were the only ones on the street, about 10 at night. Mother stood with me admiring it for a very long time. Finally she said, "Honey, it's only a toy. I don't think it will do what you really hope it will. We can't afford to use our money this way." A light snow had been falling. Arm in arm we skipped together going home. As I looked back seeing our sliding steps and hearing our merry laughter, I was so happy. No, I didn't get my prize. I got so very much more."

Ellyn T. Barcus, Tarpon Springs

“One night when my dad was walking home he passed a barber shop and saw the barber sitting idle in his chair. Dad poked his head in the door and asked 'How much for a haircut?' The barber said 50 cents. Dad said, 'Sorry, I can't afford that' and left. A moment later the barber came running out of the shop and called out, 'Mister, I'll cut it for a quarter,' so Dad went back and got his haircut. This story always made Dad feel embarrassed and sad."

Gwen Tuthill, St. Petersburg

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“Our family qualified to receive food parcels and clothing in a government handout called 'home relief.' The clothing we received was almost as unfamiliar to us as were the foods. Boys and men got dress shirts that were a bright yellow. I remember glancing around my classroom and seeing three or four of my classmates wearing the same bright yellow shirts I was wearing. Each of us knew that the others' families were on home relief too."

Albert C. Jensen, Inglis

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“I was born in 1917. In the '20s my father and grandfather owned a neighborhood grocery store and life was good. A great number of our customers began to lose their jobs and as most of them bought groceries on credit, their past due bills began to accumulate and our family grocery store was forced out of business. My father thought he would try his hand at becoming what was called a 'huckster' at the time. With his two horses and wagon he would load up fresh fruit and vegetables bought at the farmers market at 3 a.m., and drive through the streets, ringing a bell and shouting, 'fresh corn, fresh tomatoes.'

After a few months my father obtained a job as a 'ward foreman,' another term for street cleaner. It was an embarrassment for him, but he was the envy of neighbors who had no job at all."

Herb Borst, Port Richey

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“Things were tough on our family, but I don't remember ever being hungry. We were a family of seven — five children and mom and dad. During the week, Mom saved all the leftovers from our meals and put them in a large container. On Saturday she'd put it all in large pot and make 'refrigerator soup.' Yum! We never knew what we'd find in it, but it sure was tasty."

Mary L. Ferra, Tarpon Springs

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“In the early '30s there were always relatives of friends from the city who came visiting, hunting or berry-picking. We had very few chickens, and these people always stayed for meals. Before they arrived my mother would have me and my dog find a young woodchuck or two, which were then cleaned and cooked with onions, diced and added to her chicken pie. Nobody knew!"

Eugene L. Baker, Hudson

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“I well remember the bums who used to come around begging for food. Other men would walk the streets trying to find families who needed their umbrellas fixed or knives sharpened. Still others wanted to repair your pots and pans. I vividly recall one man with one arm who would sing as he went from house to house hoping to do chores in return for something to eat. Mama always gave the men something, even it was just a piece of bread. We had so little ourselves."

Jacki Yanacek, Sun City Center

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Don Van Haren of Apollo Beach shares an excerpt from a letter that his grandfather, Martin Cadruvi, then 80, wrote to his family in 1982:

“(In our dairy business in California) the price of milk got so low that the stores would sell a quart of milk and a loaf of bread, together for 10 cents. Cows that we had paid $150 to $200 each had to be sold to the butcher for only $20 each. We were losing more money every month. When we had surplus milk, we just gave it away. The Salvation Army came and picked it up. In 1934 or 1935, there was a piece in the Los Angeles newspaper that 250 dairymen went broke in one month in Los Angeles County alone. Many people that could not make their payment on their homes lost them, but they could rent nice homes for as low as $15 per month.

. . . After your mother died, I went in debt faster yet, as I had to pay the housekeeper $40 per month. This was the worst time of all my life. I had four very good friends, all married, who had no children. They all wanted to take one of you kids, but I could not give you away. . . . Sometimes, I wished I could die, too."

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“I was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1924. In 1929 my brother, three years older, sold the daily paper. I didn't know how to read yet, so my brother would tell me what the headline was so I would know what to yell. In those days there were all kinds of things happening and almost every day there would be an "extra" with the latest events, from the Lindbergh kidnapping to Capone, Hitler and the Hindenberg disaster. Weekday papers were 2 cents each. We kept 1 cent and turned the rest into the station."

Joseph Welch, St. Petersburg

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“My buddy Ricky and I received an invitation to a neighbor girl's birthday party. But what about a gift? Money was only a word in 1937 to a 13-year-old boy. Exhaustive scrounging netted us only 50 cents. But teenage genius would not be denied. The day of the party off we went, each with a gift in hand. The birthday girl could not suppress a slightly puzzled expression upon opening the first of our gifts. But she picked up a quick cue when one of us nodded toward the other, and she obligingly opened the second package — to reveal the other half of a pair of stockings. A roar of laughter applauded our efforts, and the particular treat of ice cream and cake was never more delicious."

Al O'Mara, Hudson

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“It was Christmas 1934. Each member in the family got one gift. Mittens or socks, maybe a sweater. All things were needed anyway. My dad was a carpenter and he made wood doll furniture for my sisters. He made a wood toy gun for me that I still have . . . Once, an uncle gave me a silver dollar from the year I was born as a Christmas present. I still have it."

Allen E. Merrill, Clearwater

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“Christmas did not mean a lot of presents, probably one toy, PJs and socks. However, we always got a new dress and shoes, and hard candy and an orange at Sunday school. And I still have my best doll, Margaret, I got when I was 6."

Joy Stafford Chaszar, St. Petersburg

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“Times were tough but we made it through. I remember the A&P sold a 24-pound sack of flour for 89 cents. With that, my mama used to make 48 biscuits every morning on a wood stove for the 10 of us kids, to eat with breakfast and lunch. Want to know how many pieces of chicken you can get out of a whole chicken? As many as you need: four people eating, four pieces. Ten people, 10 pieces. Love goes a long way too in living. My daddy used to say, 'We're not poor, we just don't have any money.' Anything you could buy with love, I had it."

Mordecai Walker, St. Petersburg

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“My grandmother migrated north to Harlem as did many unemployed Negroes from the South. In spite of the then truism, 'blacks are the last hired and the first fired,' she landed a job as a purveyor of fine imported linens and silk. When co-workers would invite her to join them for lunch, she would beg off saying that she had an errand to run. Her errand was eating an apple alone in the park. The impact of the Depression was less dramatic, yet more damaging to blacks because they were already 'born in depression' — slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws. But I see this was not a time of self-blame, self-doubt, humiliation and personal failure for my grandmother. These were years of sacrifice, survival, humility and grace. One Negro woman far away from home lived the words of tycoon John D. Rockefeller: 'Depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again.' "

Suzanne S. Austin-Hill, Ruskin


Hard times. Good lessons 01/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 9:06am]
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