The Great Depression Revisited

During the Great Depression, I have been told by those who lived and survived it, if you had a nickel you could stave off starvation by buying an apple. Only problem is, neither you nor your neighbor had a nickel. This was a time in the 1930s when times were tough and you had to make do with the meager resources you had. There were no jobs. No Social Security. No welfare, no national healthcare, no real means of keeping body and soul together. We have all heard the stories about the tough times then, and Jimmy Rogers (the Blue Yodeler) made hard times seem more bearable with his hobo songs of boxcars and brakemen. 

These times were before credit cards and other forms of plastic that could command a meal. What you had in your pocket was the only thing between you and your next meal. I can imagine such times in one way, however, even though I did not live during the Great Depression. In 1961 I had a summer job as a plumber’s helper in Kansas City. I planned poorly one week and spent all my money. I needed some more for food before the end of the following week, but my funds were next to nothing. What would I do? I had about $5.00 in cash and that was it. It would have to suffice for all the food and all the gas I needed to drive to work for a whole week. So I stopped driving to needless places and bought a loaf of bread and some slices of bologna. It would have to last for almost a whole week. It was a tough experience, and hunger visited me more than once. It was the closest brush I ever had with what was everyday life during the Great Depression.

Looking for work, my Dad rode the boxcars all over South Texas. He found only a little hired hand work from time to time, but only enough to provide a little food each day between sunup and sundown. He met many interesting characters on his journey seeking greener pastures. Everyone was hungry most all the time. Hobos had a way of foraging for food that some might call organized. Some in a group would find the fare such as potatoes growing in a farmer’s field and would be in charge of digging them. The potatoes were then taken to a source of water, a pond or even a rain ditch still full of water, to be washed. Other hoboes would look for a metal container to fill with water (from a ditch if necessary) so that the potatoes could be boiled. Last then were the cooks who boiled the potatoes. Sometimes there was salt and sometimes not. My Dad observed that potatoes, boiled in a tin can with water from a ditch are not very tasty, but would do wonders for a collapsed stomach.

There was a leader in one of Dad’s hobo groups named Carney. He carried some salt and after the first potato was eaten, Carney would distribute some pinches of salt to the hobos for their second potato. He figured it would be better appreciated that way. One of the hobos asked Carney if he had any pepper, too, and Carney told him, “Pepper is a spice and, unlike salt, pepper is not a life’s necessity. Go and live your lives in a manner to where you will be called the salt of the earth. Be a salt man, not a pepper man.”

Such was the mundane existence of those without resources, jobs, and food back then. Sometimes the roving masses could find watermelons, sweet corn growing tall, and my Dad commented that many times the farmers saw them taking some food from their fields. But no one ever objected.

My grandfather, David Milton Pace, had 15 children, a wife and a farm with a bank mortgage during the Depression. He was a sharecropper. Once a month Dave Pace would hitch his mule to the wagon and go to Bartlett, Texas for provisions. To get the provisions, basics like flour, bacon, and salt, he had to submit a list of his requirements to the banker assigned to his account. The banker would study the list and render a judgment as to whether Dave Pace’s list was acceptable or not. Prince Albert smoking tobacco in the red tin can was unacceptable to the banker. He crossed it off Dave’s list. “You can make do with Bull Durham tobacco at half the price.” the banker said. And so the session went, with the banker arbitrarily crossing off those things that he found to be unnecessary in his opinion. When the banker had you by the short hairs a poor man had little or no choice. And during the Depression, luxuries like personal dignity often got trampled into the dirt by the heels of those with money and power.

By accident, my mother met her father, Dave Pace, in the town square at Bartlett one day. He was going to get his provisions at the general store and she was going to high school there in town. Most all her brothers and sisters were small children and still lived at home on the farm. Mother had come to Bartlett because it was the closest town with a high school, and she stayed with a family and worked for her room and board.

Mom told me how on that day, her dad pulled a dollar bill out of his bib overalls and gave it to her to help with her expenses. “I knew it was the only dollar he had, and I objected and told him to spend it on the children, but he insisted.”

Such an impression a dollar made on my mother, I thought. It was truly amazing how one dollar could conjure such a memory some 50 years later. The Great Depression was a phenomenon indeed that gripped the human spirit.

In her early years, Mom picked cotton with her brothers and sisters. 

Mom told me: “I would see these fine motorcars going down the country roads, and I told my brother, Dave, how someday I hoped to have a nice shiny one, too. I remember then that I thought those people were rich, that they probably had as much as $100!”

One day my mother was picking cotton next to her older brother, Buck. His shirt had come apart and fell off his back right there in the cotton row. So Buck went to the house and told his mother he needed another shirt. Mom said that the best her mother could do was to cut the top off one of her dresses, and when Buck returned wearing the dress top with puffy shoulders my mother sat down in the row and cried. The poverty of her family overwhelmed her at that moment in time, she said.

In 1935 Dave Pace died of pneumonia from plowing the cold wet fields in January. Mom persevered and graduated from college at Southwest Teachers College in San Marcos, Texas. It was there that she married my Dad, and they both signed contracts to teach school at Meeks, Texas, a rural school with all the grades up to high school. The school provided a house for them to live in, and their neighbors of Czech and German descent, were generous with their food that came from their farms. Some of this food, my Mom and Dad took to her mother and the small kids in the country. Without Dave Pace, the farm had fallen into ruin. They had no relief or welfare or Social Security to help them. Mom and Dad stood between that remaining family and starvation. And many years later the kids remembered those times with fond feelings when Big Sister and her husband would bring them food.

Nowadays there is much talk of another crash, another Great Depression in the making for the whole world this time. I suppose if it must be we could survive. Humans are resilient as a species. We are resourceful. I have often wondered what the world would be like without plastic credit cards to pay our bills. Or if all the social programs now funded by government were to disappear or die on the cost-cutting operating table in Congress. Could we save ourselves?

If the US dollar loses its status as the world currency, how will that affect our lives? Some say that the rise in gold prices recently is the result of the dollars’ fall against other world currencies. I hope not. Will we Americans be able to buy gasoline to get to work if it tops say $8 a gallon? Will we be able to buy food with what resources we will have in the future? Will we ever go green with solar panels and electric cars? Or will Big Oil and Big Coal continue to rule while foreign wars and occupation remain the way of the world as the gap between Haves and Have-Nots widens?