I took my parents to breakfast at McDonalds this A.M. We were joined by 3 of my parent's friends, two of whom, besides my father, are military veterans of the WWII period. Collectively, their average age range was mid to late eighties.
I asked one of my father's friends what his father did for a living, and this triggered a series of memories from all of them about growing up during the Great Depression. The detail was priceless; you had to be there. But here's a crude summary:
B's father had owned a hardware store which he lost due to the Depression. After that, his father went to work digging ditches for the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
B2 grew up in Queens in NYC. His father never had steady work from 1931-1940. He had to hustle for day labor jobs for 10 years.
B told me that he saw a picture that someone published that showed what a typical child looked like during the Great Depression. He said the child was dirty, was wearing clothes that people would be ashamed to wear today and that the children had holes (plural!) in their shoes. B said that when he saw the photo, he said, that was me!
B, B2, and my father told about going to the movies during the Depression. A movie ticket was ten cents. One of the advantages of going to the movies was that the theater had air conditioning (residences did not have air conditioning back then). B2 said that after you bought your ticket, they handed you a coca cola as you went in! B said in his town at every showing, the theater had a lottery with the movie stubs and the winner got a new bicycle. He said that used to drool over the prospects of winning a bicycle.
B2 told of asking people at the supermarket to carry their groceries him. For that they would tip him fifteen cents. That covered a movie ticket AND a banana split. He said that in those days, when "you didn't know where your next meal was coming from" and to be able to buy a banana split was just about the greatest treat imaginable. He said the taste was Indescribably good and you made that banana split last as long as possible.
B said the same thing about simply getting an ice cream cone--it was like the greatest thing in the world and you tried to make it last as long as possible.
B and B2 said that during the Depression they grew vegetables for food out of necessity. My father's father's job was driving a truck delivering vegetable to markets in the Bronx, so they never lacked for vegetable. But with my father's family, there were long stretches where the only time they got to eat meat was when a neighbor in the building thought to invited them over for Sunday dinner.
Have you ever seen or eaten a McDonalds biscuit? I wouldn't give you 2 cents for one. For breakfast at McDonalds Mr. B bought himself one biscuit and a cup of coffee. I watched him. With enthusiasm, he cuts the biscuit in half horizontally. Then he methodically puts butter on, then he methodically spreads jelly on top of the butter. And I'm just looking askance at this worthless biscuit while he does this. And then Mr B eats it with all of the the relish of a kid who loves it. And he tells me how great it is.
B and B2 said that during the Great Depression they ate sugar sandwiches, mayonnaise sandwiches, and ketchup sandwiches, all on white bread of course. And they told em that you always bought 2 day old bread because it was a little cheaper.
Before and during the war: My mother had previously told me that if a young man's draft classification was 4F, you would look at them and wonder what was wrong with them. B2 said that none of the girls would have anything to do with a guy that was 4F. B2 had good friend who was classified as 4F who then left home and committed suicide. B2 said that the suicide rate among 4Fs was quite high.
B stressed to me that starting even before the war, once you hit your mid to late teens, the subject of your immediate future weighed on you. You knew you had to register for the draft. You didn't know what your classification would be. You didn't know what branch of the military you would end up in. You didn't where you would be sent. And then once the war started, you started to heard that 5,000 were killed here and 8,000 there, etc. And you were being sent to the same place.
You could enlist ahead of being drafted, which many people did. That gave you only a little more control over what branch you went into but not much.
Incidentally, my father was in the 8th grade and in a movie theater when word swept through the audience that the radio had reported that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He also said that when war officially declared on Japan, that when school was let out that day students were saying that Japanese planes were circling the Empire State Building.
Mr. B2 told me that when he was at Forrest Hills high school, that all of the gym classes were based on what you had to do in boot camp and basic training. So he said his boot camp was a easy. He went Navy. Most of the Navy guys from NYC were sent to Sampson NY for boot camp. My father was sent there too. I think it was near Utica but am not sure. My father was a multi-sport and all-NYC athlete, so for him boot camp and PT were nothing.
B2 told me that a few years ago he had been talking to an insurance company about some issue with a policy he had. The person serving him was a 26 year old girl. B2 politely asked the girl if he got any kind of discount for being a Veteran. This girl told him that they did not believe in discounts for Veterans. B2 politely told the girl that if it wasn't for people like him that she and everyone else would have been speaking German or Japanese today. B2 said that the girl did not know what he was talking about.
My father told me that one colleague who was a veteran but had not gone overseas told people that my father had not been on Guam in WWII. I assume it was meant as some sort of joke. But someone else, a third person, who heard it took extreme offense and told them that they better watch it. And even in telling it to me today, I could tell that my father was very offended by the slanderous statement from years ago.
B said that whenever anyone talks about "the good old days" the blood in his brain does a rapid boil. He says there was nothing good about the old days. I told B that I took exception to that. I said to him that it built character. He agreed with that.
All of my parents friends stressed that living through the Depression has made them very careful with money. But they all have a scrupulous work ethic which they take for granted.
B went on to say that if it wasn't for the war, and the GI Bill afterwards, none of the 3 veterans at the table would have been able to go to college. He pointed out I and my 6 brothers/sisters were all able to go to college because my father was able to.
The war changed America completely.