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Guest column | James Pettican

Depression stares up from dinner plate

I realize now that while I was growing up in the depths of the Great Depression, our Sunday dinners were our leading economic indicator.

If my father had a good week, we were likely to be dining on a fine English beef roast. But if the week had been dismal, it was a cut-up chicken or maybe even a bowl of hearty soup.

My father, a young engineer at the time, came to this country from his native England to take some advanced engineering courses in Pittsburgh. He met and married my mother and never went back to his native land.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933, and I turned 13 the following month. It was the start of what, for our country, turned out to be a long road to prosperity,

My father had been able to land a job as a sales engineer for a company in Dayton, Ohio, which sold and rebuilt industrial pneumatic drills and air hammers. The problem was, he had to work entirely on commission, with not even an expense account.

His British charm served him pretty well, though. Some weeks, he made as much as $200, a CEO-style paycheck in those days.

Other weeks, he would make his sales rounds and earn nothing. That was when Sunday dinner took a downward turn.

There were eight of us — five kids, our parents and our grandmother. Grandmother had been the owner and operator of the boardinghouse where my parents met. In her later years, she lived with us. My mother was glad to have her help with the five kids, one of whom, my late brother, had cerebral palsy.

Like many wives in today's recession, my mother pitched in to enlarge the family purse. She was a trained classical singer and pianist. As a singer, she landed a job as a paid Sunday soloist at the wealthiest Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, the home church of the super-rich Andrew Mellon family. Her soloist stipend was $30 a Sunday, so she was making more in a few hours than most wage earners brought home in a week. My younger sister, born in 1935, brought an end to the church job. Now and then, however, we could hear our mother sing on a local radio station.

As we moved toward and into World War II, the country was prosperous. I was drafted into the service after finishing one year of college. However, the GI Bill of Rights gave me the rest of my college years after the war ended.

Today, with unemployment pay, food stamps and soup kitchens, Sunday dinners are probably not the indicator they once were. However, I still remember the wonderful Sunday roasts, mostly cooked by my British father, who said it was his penance for not going to church. But that's another story.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

Depression stares up from dinner plate 01/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 5:49pm]
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