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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

History's Harsh Lessons*

*Pittsburgh, PA Post-Gazette
April 3, 2011
as "Lessons from the depression"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey


On March 8th, Pennsylvania’s newly-minted Governor stood in front of the State Assembly to present his proposal for a state budget.  Like many states, Pennsylvania has spent itself almost to the brink of insolvency.  And like so many of us in this recession, it became time for cuts and reductions.  The Governor said something that, as a Pennsylvanian, I found compelling:

“A nation that once produced wealth beyond calculation
has now produced debt beyond reckoning.
The day of reckoning has come.”

In listening to the rhetoric of the past few months, an interesting dichotomy has emerged.  It seems that while everyone realizes that sacrifices must be made, we all seem to think that someone else should bear that burden.

This is the myopia of hard times.  The boil on our own back is the largest one in existence; nobody’s pain is worse than our own.  There’s always someone else who can afford to do with less.

Many of us grew up during the wildly materialistic 1980s and 1990s.  Due to that cultural conditioning, we find it hard now to separate true need from want.  Cable/satellite TV, broadband Internet, Smart Phones, and other expensive electronics are just a few of those things that not too long ago would have been considered luxury items.  Now, we have a lot of trouble even imagining life without them.  We felt that even if we weren’t rich, we could at least acquire some of those trappings, thereby building insulating barriers between the life we wanted, and the one we actually had.  This act of reaching beyond our means has left many of us in serious credit trouble, a hole it may take years to climb from.

82 years ago, the country was plunged into the depths of what became known as The Great Depression.  Wall Street collapsed, in part because people were trading with credit instead of hard currency.  Businesses closed, banks failed and almost overnight a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. 

Concurrently with the crash of markets, a disaster was taking place in the farm belt.
Farmers had been plowing under the expansive grasslands of West Texas, Oklahoma, Eastern Colorado, Kansas, and the Dakotas and planting crops.  For a few years, it was a boom.  But farmers ignored warning signs that the whole area was subject to regular and cyclical drought.  When the rains stopped, the incessant winds blew the topsoil off the fields, helpfully plowed in long unbroken rows.  Dust storms of epic, even biblical proportions began to occur with regularity.  And over the next 10 years, the farm economy in the Midwest collapsed.  People went from hunger to starvation, dying by the hundreds from what was called “dust pneumonia.”

Either event would have been difficult alone.  Combined, the result was disastrous.

On the Internet one can locate testimonies of the survivors, accounts that seem barely believable to our 21st Century minds.  These accounts tell of 2.25 million children working in factories, canneries, and mines. Children worked not for their own indulgences, but to ensure the family’s basic survival.  Some children were given up for adoption because their parents could no longer feed them. 

Some adults were physically and emotionally broken.  Suicides were not uncommon.  And in acts of ultimate betrayal, it is estimated that 1.5 million men simply abandoned their families.

This was the era of the Okie, the pejorative term for those 2.5 million people who lived on the road.  If there wasn’t work in your town, you hitched rides, hiked, or rode the rails until you did find work.

But folks kept their pride.  Perhaps the most articulate message from that era was in a telegram sent from the people of Dalhart, Texas to President Roosevelt:

“We don’t want dole.  We want work.”

Things today, while serious, are not nearly as desperate.  But we can still learn some sound lessons from our grandparents who survived that.

And with a much deeper appreciation for what they had.

The lessons and hard choices that will help us survive today are embedded in the wisdom gained from the Depression.  Patterns of frugal living, commonplace for them, still can work well for us today.

The Great Depression was a time of desperation.  And yet, our grandparents survived.  And if they survived, so can we. 

They are our teachers.  And school is in session.
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