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Father's Great Depression memories offer perspective on current economic crisis

The unemployment rate is in double-digits and government assistance to the private sector knows no ends — $26 million to try to lure T. Rowe Price to Pasco County and proposals in Hernando County to freeze impact fees for builders and to hand out gift cards to buyers of inventory homes.

The 401(k) statements go unopened. Requests for food stamps and free and reduced-priced lunches at schools are on the rise. The auto industry is teetering and people are growing immune to cuts in local government services.

In tough times, we can all use some reassurances. So, it is an appropriate time to check in with someone I've always found good at keeping things in perspective — my father. A U.S. Army veteran of World War II, with bachelor's and master's degrees earned after the war, he clearly outshined the offspring in terms of public service and educational achievement.

The excuse for the telephone conversation was his 84th birthday two days ago, but what we really talked about was the Great Depression. With senior citizens sharing their memories with school children, I asked him to do likewise and reach back 75 years for the circumstances surrounding his upbringing. Both he and my mother, 83, spent their childhoods amid the financial carnage of the 1930s, though both escaped the misery that affected so many others because their fathers remained employed.

My paternal grandfather was a civil servant, an employee of the U.S. Postal Service in New York City. He'd been a carrier, sorter and eventually an assistant superintendent. My mother's father worked for the company that later became Socony, Standard Oil Company of New York, a predecessor to Mobil. He was a gauger, the guy who climbed up and measured how much oil was in each tank. In 1938, he opened a family business, Geary Electric in the village of Allegany, N.Y., that sold lights, wiring and electrical supplies.

They are no memories of seeing soup lines, but each remembered how the decade-long economic fall came to their doors in other ways.

In their apartment within walking distance of Columbus Circle in Manhattan, my father, as a young child, watched his uncle cry, telling the family he was about to lose everything. He worked on Wall Street and had bought stocks on margins and didn't have the cash to cover the losses.

My great-grandmother, who had spent nearly her entire adult life as a housekeeper working in the resort hotels of the Adirondack Mountains, reached into her clothing where she had pinned some gold coins. She gave them to the crying uncle.

It's all I have, she said.

She died a few years later. The uncle apparently got used to relying on others. He never worked again, allowing his schoolteacher wife to be the family breadwinner.

My mother grew up in the western end of New York state and remembered her family helping neighbors. A woman who came to borrow salt left with other staples, courtesy of my grandmother's generosity.

People who today we would call homeless — unemployed men known in the vernacular of the day as hobos — periodically came to the house looking for a meal. They had ridden into town on freight trains and for a reason the family never figured out, often chose their door upon which to knock. My grandmother obliged, but required them to eat in the yard.

There were plenty of unemployed to ride the rails. The U.S. Department of Labor statistics show the jobless rate throughout much of the 1920s was 3.3 percent, but grew to nearly 9 percent in 1930. The unemployment rate peaked at almost 25 percent in 1938. It dropped below 10 percent in 1941 and shrunk in half to 4.7 percent in 1942, the first full year of American involvement in World War II.

It was the same year my parents graduated high school and began their work careers. My mother, at age 17 and already a graduate of business school, drove 70 miles north to Buffalo with a friend for promised jobs only to be rejected for an interview when they learned she was not 18. The ambition of finishing school early did not pay off, she said.

Until he turned 18 and was drafted, my father worked as a messenger and mail-delivery boy for a government agency, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, which counteracted Italian and German propaganda in Latin America. The agency's chief was Nelson Rockefeller, later governor of New York and then vice president of the United States under President Gerald Ford.

I asked my father how he felt about leaving behind the Great Depression to start his career under the authority of a member of one of America's richest and most influential families.

"Don't laugh,'' he said, "For a while, we used to get Christmas cards from Nelson Rockefeller, but then I suppose they sent them to everybody.''

That would be 1,500 cards to cover the employees for an agency with the sole job of doing propaganda work aimed at Latin America.

Just part of the economic stimulus of the day.

Father's Great Depression memories offer perspective on current economic crisis 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 11:01am]
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