Those who lived through the Great Depression tell their stories
A state agency in Ohio asked older residents for their reminiscences, which range from tart to touching. Many include lessons for today.
Joy Thomas remembers a lot about the Great Depression -- about the day people came to repossess everything in the house: her old crib, the table, the drapes on the wall; about the old wash lady and her family -- 12 kids -- who lived shirtless and hollow-eyed in a tent pitched in secret out in the woods; about swimming in a pool she dug out back, giggling as she splashed in the lake of mud.Skip to next paragraph
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So when Ms. Thomas, now 80, answered a call to write about what it was like to live through those times, and offer some advice to Ohioans hammered by the current recession, she thought people who read her essay could use some lyricism: “I sing of the Great Depression: ‘You made me what I am today...’ and, I [laugh] while the tear drops fall.”
“I wanted to give people a laugh,” she says, eyes bright. “I felt I had to have a more humorous look at adversity, because it can be so crushing.”
At the beginning of March, the Ohio Department of Aging, a state agency that facilitates programs for older residents, sent out a call for stories from Depression survivors. The idea was to glean advice on weathering tough economic times from a group that had survived far worse, says John Ratliff, the department’s manager of public information. He says they didn’t know what to expect when they sent the press release to local media.
More than 250 people responded with 500-word recollections by the mid-April deadline.
“We wanted to try to tap into this shrinking older generation and their memories ... and tap into their knowledge and experiences to see if there are lessons we can use today, or coping mechanisms,” he says.
The teaching took on different forms.
Some reported as though by ticker tape: “We canned our vegetables, fruit and meat. Slaughtered our chickens, hogs and goats. Made our own sausage primarily in the winter. We had no money and we had kerosene lamps. Our clothing was used hand-me-downs. My brother had no pants. He had to quit high school an honors student,” writes Helen DeGifis of Warren.
Others lectured. “One evening when we went down to check on the bank, there were hundreds of people out front yelling and crying and fighting and beating on the locked doors and windows. They had fires built in the street to keep warm and there were people milling around all over the downtown. Anybody that thinks what we are going through now is a depression don’t have a clue of what a real depression is,” notes Vane Scott of Newcomerstown.
In some cases, the children of Depression-era parents wrote in with filtered memories of stories used to put them in their place: “My dad, Thomas J. Comes, died last year at the age of 80, and he always used to tell me that during the Depression, his family raised pigeons in their backyard to supplement the food they did have. And when the time came, he would say he would go out and break the pigeons’ necks, so they could eat them. He said they tasted pretty good,” writes Marty Comes.
For Louis Mamula, a slim, former steelworker, those years bring memories of the Marines, which he joined as a path out of poverty.
“People were complaining. Holy smokes, I was having a ball. I got clothes, I got shoes, people were cooking for me ... except that people were trying to kill me, but I understand that.” It was, after all, World War II. To him, surviving economic meltdown meant breaking down life into moments. Focusing on the smaller picture, he says, was the only way to step away from heartbreak.
He’s a man who stopped for a hamburger at McDonald’s on the way to his fifth heart surgery, whose prized possession is a collage of pictures that showcase the costumes he’s worn over his years of post-steel-mill work as a volunteer crossing guard -- Abraham Lincoln, a leprechaun, the Easter Bunny.