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Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Great Depression and Little Boys

See the spire above the little turret?
My best friend for twenty years was born in 1933. By the time he was in first grade, the Depression was ending. Every day he walked home from school with other little boys. They walked past this house on their way home. He laughed as he told me how they discussed what would happen if a man fell from an airplane and landed on the spire. Would it kill him? How long would it take for him to die? How badly would it hurt? Right in the stomach was how they pictured him landing. He said they discussed this every day. They had all sorts of scenarios of how the man might miss the spire and live. He chuckled as I was confused how this conversation could last several years. It turns out that there would be a new kid and one would drop out occasionally, with an ever changing bunch of little boys, but still with a core.

John would pick me up for something we were going to do and I would find myself in front of this house and driving slowly, sometimes circling the block. I knew him for twenty years and heard this story at least four times each year.

One day, he was bored as his mother was visiting a friend who was fixing her hair. So, he just wandered off to see his father. Since this was before TVA, the city produced their own electricity. He did not see his father as he entered the gate, so he just looked at different things as he walked around. Remember, he was only six.  He remembers seeing something like a handle, just above his reach. It appeared to him like it might turn. So, he struggled to reach it and pulled. John knew he was in trouble as he heard machinery quit working, then lots of yelling. .

The whole city lost electricity. He had single-handedly shut down EVERYTHING in the city. Men came running from offices and other places around the power plant. His father reached him and pulled him away, very angry but mostly embarrassed. He was forbidden to ever set foot in the plant again. It still is outside town. John would tell me about this at least twice a year, maybe more. More laughs ensued.

John liked that I laughed at his antics and questioned him each time like I had never heard the story. Actually, I did not remember all the details from one time to another at first. Then, I had it down pat.

The power plant did secure the switch so that could never happen again. Weren't we a trusting bunch of people 75 years ago?

No one had any money at the time. Oh, some could afford a few toys, but they could not. He bemoaned the fact that he and his friends could not afford fire crackers. Would your mother approve of you having firecrackers? "Oh, Hell NO!" He went on to relate how they had to settle for dynamite. It seems that some people who were using it for construction excavation or stump removal would give the boys some sticks of dynamite. What would your mother say if she knew you had dynamite? He assured me he would never be allowed outside the yard again.

He was so poor that he could not afford the little balsa wood airplane kits at the Five & Dime. So, he and this group of boys would search for broken wooden apple boxes that had very thin wood. Then, they had to use a knife to cut out their own planes. It seems the boys did this for many years. The store owners would have pity and help them by saving broken boxes. John went on the be a Wild Weasel in Vietnam.

When he was about seven-years-old, he and his mother went somewhere in the family car. I forget the details, but his mother managed to break the door off the car because he was getting into the car as she was backing out of the garage. Since they were afraid of what his father would say or do, they dragged the heavy door into the house and hid it behind the sofa. His father ate dinner and sat on the sofa, never seeing the car door and never noticing the car had no door.

I was a little horrified because his mother could have killed him. John said she was not worried about that, just that her husband would be furious. As it turns out, his father was told after dinner and after John went to bed. His father was not very mad. I think John said he laughed at her for years, telling his friends what she did. .

John's mother like to go fast in a car. She even got on her nephew's motorcycle as he drove, urging him to go faster. John's father took John for rides on his own motorcycle but would not take his wife. He disapproved. So, John grew up to fly in one of  the fastest planes of the time, flying for his life over Vietnam as the navigator and as a Wild Weasel.

Once, there was a party being held in the country and they all went. At some point, John's mother decided to take the beer truck sitting out front for a spin because she had never driven a big truck before. She managed to give about six little boys a ride, too. No one missed them at first, and she managed to get back in one piece before the guy driving the beer truck returned.

 I wrote about John here.

Kids found their own things to do back then. John and his friends certainly did. I believe their environment fostered imagination, self-directing activities, and a respect for the forces in the world and natural phenomenon. He had to learn as an adult how to stay alive in the jungle and in the desert. I think his childhood toughened him up, made him resilient in ways children today have not had a chance to develop.

Your turn
Did your parents or grandparents tell you of things they did for fun as kids during the Great Depression? Is anyone old enough to remember kids playing with dynamite or cutting their little airplanes from boxes?


  1. I only had one Grandparent, a Nan, whom I loved dearly, but she died when I was about 11 and truthfully I remember very little if anything she ever said to me, but I do remember her love.

    1. LL,
      Well said. Love is all that matters.

  2. My mother and father were both raised during the depression. No, no dynamite stories but Mom did teach me how to make a cloth doll and clothes that she and her sisters made, plus doll furniture out of cardboard & wood scraps that she, her sisters and brothers made. My Dad mainly talked about hiking in the woods behind the house, helping in the garden and general roughhousing with his brothers. They were both very lucky in that they were not poor - Dad's father was fully employed by the railroad, had a large garden and raised a cow for meat, and Mom's father had a small truck farm that fed his family and neighbor's, chickens for eggs and meat too and was employed at a factory making airplane/truck parts.
    Dad did make a lot of things for us - a board game that he sketched on brown paper bags & had us color plus 'race car' play pieces made from corks cut in half, gave us scrap wood from shipping crates, nails and hammer to make things - my first stool required balance to sit on, helped us make a play house from large shipping cartons. We and our friends always thought the things we made ourselves were much better than store bought. Too bad it's not the same now. We encouraged our kids to do the same but their kids only have store bought and won't even look at anything made by hand no matter how nice or how wonderful the memories will be.

    1. Bellen,
      That sounds like a good life during the Depression! Can you show them how to make things? I think that after puberty it is hard to interest grandchildren in the mundane. I make things and crochet for my grandchildren. Maybe just looking at things made them will inspire them. I can only hope.

      Daddy made sturdy things that still exist from wood. Brown paper bags is a good idea for teaching kids it does not have to require batteries, not that many toys of my youth did require a battery.

  3. I never met my grandparents. My mom and dad were in their 40's when I was born and all grandparents were dead by then. As an aside, for you civilian and peace marching pukes of the era, a Wild Weasel is a code name given to an aircraft, of any type, equipped with radar-seeking missiles and tasked with destroying the radars and Surface to Air Missal (SAM) installations the gooks set up. A hardy bunch of guys.

    1. Coffeypot,
      I never had a grandfather and sorely missed that. Thanks for the explanation. He was tough.

  4. Replies
    1. Snowbrush,
      Thanks. John was funny and a man's man. He wanted to be a woman's man. He was not tough looking at all, but a guy would not want to cross him.

  5. Shoot! I'm lucky to be here considering the things my dad did when he was young. LOL (He's now 85 :-)

  6. John sounded like he was a wonderful guy.
    My grandparents grew up in the depression. My mom's parents both lived on farms. My grandmother said that they all helped out on the farm. In their spare time they would ride horsed and play in the barns. She told me of travelers that would come by looking for work. She said my great grandfather would pay them in food. She said he tried to be generous, as many of the men that stopped by had kids and there was no food. She said my grandfather felt it was his duty to help out those that were trying to help themselves.
    I think it was great during that time, how kids used what they had to make toys.

  7. Michelle,
    If someone came looking for food today,and a person asked for that person to work, I am sure most people would be very angry, expecting to have food given to them.

    He was a very funny guy. A friend who was also funny said he was the funniest person he had ever known.

    Even during the 50s, we made toys. We had no tv.

  8. My parents were teens during the depression. My mom's father had a good job. My dad's parents farmed. My dad said they always had plenty to eat because they grew their food. I think they had a better experience than a lot of people because they didn't live in the dust bowl.


    1. Janie,
      My mother grew up on the Old Homeplace in Mississippi, so there was food grown. They did have a rough time because she and two siblings lived with her mother and grandmother, alone.

      My father grew up poor and hungry in Illinois, Alabama, and Tennessee.

      Unfortunately, you did not have to live in the Dust Bowl to be poor and hungry. Your parents were very fortunate.


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