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THOMPSON: These are tough economic times but not compared to Great Depression

May 18, 2020 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


“These are tough times,” a friend lamented the other day. Hard to argue that point. After all, the current pandemic threatens our public health, our economy and our wellbeing.

My friend’s observation made me recollect conversations with my father more than 20 years ago. Born in Georgia in 1914, dad was just hitting his stride when the Great Depression sidetracked his - along with millions of others - dreams of a better life. Most economists say the Great Depression lasted 43 months…from August 1929 to March 1933.

But those who lived through it - like my dad - scoffed at any such official timing. For most people hard times lasted a decade…ten long years.

Dad died of lung cancer in 1999, and during the last few months of his life we spent hours sitting on the front porch of the house he built in Florida…the home where I grew up…talking.

I asked him questions - I’m ashamed to admit - whose answers a wiser more compassionate man might have already known.

Simple questions…with simple, honest answers. Did he remember a specific happy day? What was the prettiest thing he ever saw? Did he have any regrets? We talked of things serious and whimsical. It was time well spent…time that I will always remember.

Dad was innately clever…something he would deny…and sometimes answered my questions with a question. He would always smile ever so slightly…so as not to give way any deliberate quickness on his part. He liked to appear less clever to those around him…but I saw through him.

He thought for just a moment before answering about his memory of a happy day. Not surprisingly…almost predictably, he said, “The day each of you kids were born.” I smiled and nodded in agreement.

About 30 seconds later, he admitted there was another memory of happiness.

“It was 1933, mama and I were married but Ruth wasn’t born yet,” he started.  He always called my mom, mama…and Ruth is the eldest of my two siblings.

“The president started something called the Civilian Conservation Corps that Spring…and it finally hit South Georgia that Fall,” he explained. “I hitched a ride to Reidsville (about an hour west of Savannah)…we planted trees, made turpentine, built some bridges. It was hard work and I got paid $30 a month…plus a place to sleep and three meals a day.”

“That was a happy day?” I asked somewhat incredulously. “Why were you happy?”

He smiled slyly and explained, “The months before I had no pay.”

Dad told me that $25 of his $30 pay was sent by the government to mama, who was living about half an hour away. She was a prolific saver, dad said, so a little over three years later, they could afford to start a family…and Ruth was born in 1937.

Like most of us, there were a few days in high school during history class that we studied and talked about the Great Depression. Otherwise you were left to read books like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” or Studs Terkel’s, “Hard Times.”

Talking to dad made the hard times seem more real than any book I had read…a first-person insight into just how bleak it was. Yet, he readily admitted it was a time of great anxiety and greater hope.

That $30-a-month pay back in 1933 kept dad and mom going. Gas for the car they would eventually buy in the late 30s was just 15 cents a gallon. Bread was nine cents a loaf. A man’s dress shirt cost about $1.50.

So, when I think about my friend’s lament, “These are tough times,” I know what he means…and I agree…they are tougher than just a few months ago. But what we’re going through right now isn’t close to what our parents and grandparents suffered during the 1930s — not for months, for a decade.

And yet, they came through it. Some businesses went under…some people died…literally starving to death. Some businesses today are suffering…and perhaps will go under, as well. Some people are dying and that’s a tragedy…for all of us.

But we will come through this. Perhaps in years to come those who are now young will sit with their children or grandchildren and talk about the Great Pandemic of 2020. Perhaps those children and grandchildren will see and feel and better understand the steely resolve we shared  during the pandemic…and admire how we came through it. I hope so.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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