What’s So Great About A Depression?

A Note To My Readers: The times we live in always seem so unique to us…a bit of egocentric thinking that we indulge in when we feel sorry for ourselves.  Recently I listened to pundits carry on about whether this had been an economic depression versus a recession…weighing it in academic terms as if finding the right word for it would somehow make it easier to deal with or solve.   While they tortured the subject and fought about how we found our way into it and how we get out of it in the shortest period of time,  I began to wonder how my parents managed the Great Depression which lasted from 1929 to 1939.

The Great Depression

Well, what IS so GREAT about a Depression?   America had just celebrated the “Roaring Twenties”.  Bath Tub Gin, Jazz and Flappers.  And the lure of the stock market.  World War I was over…the boys were coming home and we were eager to forget the horrors of war.  In the 1920’s enthusiasm and confidence infected the mood of the country. New fangled inventions sparked the imagination.  Radio was becoming the great facilitator and held a place of honor in every parlor.  Penicillin was saving lives that would have been lost a decade before.  The combustion engine made it possible for everyone to own an affordable car.  America was invincible.

People took their savings from their banks and from under their mattresses and invested in the stock market.  Wall Street was going to make every one…bakers, butchers, chauffeurs…rich.  Banks and institutions joined the party.  The stock market became the topic of the day in barber shops and boardrooms, church picnics and in Speak Easys over a glass or two of boot leg whiskey.

And then the bubble burst….Black Tuesday – October 29, 1929 – and rich man and poor man alike found their fortunes lost.  In fact speculators who bought their stocks on margin found themselves so far in debt that it would have taken several lifetimes to work their way out.  Men left their families and rode boxcars looking for work.  Lines formed in the streets for free food.  Bread lines.  Wall street tycoons jumped from windows.  The fact is…most everyone was suffering except for the most wealthy individuals.  And those that kept their money in their mattress.

These were the days of my parents’ youthful courtship and early marriage.

My mother was a vivacious girl with marseilled blonde hair often topped with a sassy cloche hat.  Silk stockings shone on her shapely legs and short skirts whirled about her lovely knees.  She danced at Cornell University’s Delta Tau Delta house with Adolph Menjou and rode about the campus with her sometime beau, Sid Kingsley in his Stutz Bearcat.   A relentless romantic, she loved movie stars and pretty stories. And all things pink.

Dad and Mom in their courtship days in the late 1920’s (right)

My father was a serious and bright young man who had been raised on a farm.  He wore blindingly white shirts starched to within an inch of their life and elegant tailored suits.  I never saw him without newly polished spectator shoes.  Always black and white in summer and sober black in winter.  Dad reviled what he called “ready made” suits.  He read at least two books a week and could take a car apart and put it together again all by himself…with maybe a curse word or two.  Nothing worse than dammit or hell, but in those days that was enough to raise an eyebrow in mixed company and to elicit a “tsk tsk” from my mother.

My parents met in the late 1920’s while they both worked at the Morse Chain and married on July 30, 1932.  The Depression was at its worst.  That year Republican President Hoover would lose his bid for a second term and in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt would begin his Presidency under the New Deal.  During the remaining seven years of the Great Depression, Roosevelt struggled with economic issues and Eleanor began to find her voice for social change.  And my parents began their married lives.

The Little White House on York Street

During that time my brothers were born all within four years…1934 and 36 and 38.  Mom and Dad bought their little white house at 111 York Street.  Dad’s career at the Morse Chain had taken him from shipping clerk to traffic manager by the time he was in his early thirties.   Mom washed diapers on a rub board and hung them on the line in the neat little backyard with the big walnut tree.  She made baby food from the little vegetable garden that she grew and learned to make lemon meringue pies which she sold to neighbors.

Dad sanded and finished the golden oak floors.  It was their little joke that one night …after the boys had been put to bed and were surely sound asleep, he had finished the last of the first floor at the base of the stairs and scurried up to bed…to sleep and to let the new finish dry before the three tow headed cherubs woke and undid their father’s crafty labor.   Dad’s head had barely hit the pillow when the fire alarm began its incessant call.  My mother leaped out of the bed to quiet her little men in case the alarm roused them and Dad…a volunteer fireman …grabbed his pants, socks and shoes and made for the stairs.

At the last step my father realized that he was about to tread upon the tacky varnish.   Carefully withdrawing his still bare foot, he made his way back upstairs.  The siren continued and my father stood in the middle of their bedroom completely flummoxed.  How to get out…how?  Not one to tarry he yanked the sheets off their bed, tied them together and along with his socks and shoes, he dropped the hastily made rope out of the window.  He shinnied down the outside of their house and was off to the nearby firehouse to fulfill his volunteer duty.  Except it was a false alarm.  He walked home in the pitch dark night wondering how he could make his way back into the house…get a good night’s rest…and make it to work in the morning fresh as a daisy.  And with his lovely golden oak floors untarnished.

I never did hear how Daddy fared that night or whether the floor had a telltale size 8 1/2 footprint or two in the hallway.  But my parents kept that little story alive during their troubled marriage and the inevitable sentimental chuckles seemed to bring them closer…at least for a short while.

A Pontiac and a Garage.  Ration Cards and a Mistress

By 1939 the Depression was officially over and a new house was under construction on 710 South Plain Street.  My mother had staked out her garden and Dad had the builder make a garage for the new Pontiac. Poplars and lilacs were planted along the driveway and a little pen and doghouse sat in the dappled corner of the backyard…awaiting the springer spaniels that would be part of our household until the 1950’s.  Mom would have a maid in the 1940’s and Dad would leave the Morse Chain and strike out on his own…owning a big garage and gas station and an auto parts store on State Street.

During the war years, my mother went to work as a bookkeeper at Rothchild’s  Department store in Ithaca.  Dad obtained his pilot’s license and bought an airplane.  A Victory Garden replaced the pretty flower garden.  Papa bought ready made suits.  Mom learned to sew.  Like everyone else they had to ration things like coffee..sugar…gasoline.  My mother kept an old ration card for years…for sugar and I asked her why.  She had missed making lemon meringue pies during the war and I think somehow it was a talisman of a sort for her.

And Dad had a mistress for more than ten years…Hattie Daniels.  Oh, we ALL knew about Hattie.  Despite Hattie’s ghostly presence in our lives, Dad came home to his family…hunted and fished…went to Masonic meetings and complimented my mother’s pies…drove us to church and fell asleep during the sermons.  It was complicated.

Those two polar opposites…the dreamy romantic and the troubled genius…bumped their way through the years of their marriage…through the Great Depression and World War II…both a far cry from the mean financial times they had known as children.

Ironically, during the post war years everything was lost..when everyone else was thriving…building houses…buying a car…living the American Dream.  Dad took to drink and our family rode a nasty roller coaster.

I am not sure why success undid my parents…though they remained married until my father’s untimely death in 1958 at the age of 52.    I do know that I learned to appreciate nice things without needing to own them and that money comes and goes despite the most diligent of efforts.

And that sometimes you have to walk on a varnished floor.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved


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