They lived through the Great Depression, so they knew poverty firsthand: what it was like to sleep four to a bed, make your own noodles for supper or hang your used tea bag on the clothesline to dry so it could be steeped for another day's cup. They remember the long lines to the soup kitchens and how people finagled, bartered, took odd jobs or sold stuff on street corners: an apple for a nickel, a pencil for a penny. • Of course a penny was worth something back then. • And so, it turns out, are their memories.
As today's economic crisis stirs discussion about the Depression, what better way to teach a younger generation about those dire times than to tap into those firsthand accounts?
That's the thought behind the educational partnership evolving between residents of Atria Baypoint Village in Hudson and students in Eric Johnson's history classes at Hudson High.
"These wonderful residents have so much to share with young people," said Lynne Schroeder, the Engage Life director at Atria Baypoint Village. "My experience is that there aren't grandparents living close to their grandchildren, and my thought was that we could highlight these seniors and we could bring out the wonderful experiences from the residents that live here."
Recently, residents from Atria Baypoint set their alarm clocks for 5 a.m. to get to school on time, just so they could talk to Johnson's students about the Great Depression. On Thursday, they'll come out again to talk about World War II.
The visits, said Johnson, provide a real boost to the curriculum.
"It's one thing to have the kids read about it in a book, but for them to hear these stories gives a whole new perspective," he said. "Let me just tell you — these kids were silent for a whole hour."
All while hearing stories from residents such as Harold Mancini, 97. He was about 17 years old, working as a clerk on Wall Street on Oct. 29, 1929 — the day the stock market crashed.
"There were people jumping out of buildings," he said, shaking his head. "I must have seen about 20 bodies on the street. You had to watch where you walked."
More desperate times followed.
"I never saw so much poverty in my life — people in rags on the street lined up at the Salvation Army waiting for food," said Erma Gibson, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. "The young people can't even imagine anything like that."
The crash came four months after Eleanor Brecht got married.
"We lived in Queens. My husband was a jeweler and designer for Tiffany and Winston. I was working as a secretary for a builder making $20 a week," said Brecht, now 101. "My husband lost his job, so he took on odd jobs and learned how to do carpentry work."
Back then Larry Holden, 85, was just a kid living in a tenement and sharing a bathroom with six other families.
"If you lived next to a family with six to eight kids, you had to practically make an appointment to use the bathroom," Holden said. "Sometimes you'd pay the 15 cents to go down to the public baths.
"My mother was in the house, working, always working, scrubbing floors in exchange for rent. We were out in the streets playing kick the can, ring-a-levio and stick ball," he said. "As long as you had a bat and a ball you could play. If one kid had a glove, you were lucky."
But the kids found ways to make some money, too.
"When the coal trucks came to make deliveries, we'd wait till we saw the trucks coming out with a load," Holden said. "Then one of the kids would run out and put a cobblestone under the rear tire so some would spill out. The rest of us would have baskets and go collect the coal for heat or trade it for an apple."
"Everything was in short supply," Holden said. "My parents didn't talk to us about what we could or couldn't afford because there was no money. But you didn't really feel deprived because everyone was in the same boat."
"There's no comparison," he said, "to what's going on now with the economy."
Fifteen-year-old Chelsea Allen, who heard Holden and the others speak at Hudson High, agrees with that. "My dad's not getting as much work as he was, so we're cutting back on things. There wasn't as much stuff this Christmas as we had last Christmas," she said. "But it's nothing like the Great Depression."