When I think of the Great Depression, I think of scrimping, saving, and never having enough. Hope does not line the edges of the photographs of the homeless and hungry, and giving is a luxury the dead eyes have long forgotten. At least, that’s the way it looks to those of us on this side of the photographs. For my great-grandfather, however, generosity was a means of survival.
My great-grandfather was a teenager when the Great Depression hit, and like many teens, he wasn’t paying attention to the economy and politics. He’d learned hard work on a farm when his father became ill and Grand Dad had to “grab a team of horses and go to work in the field,” with neighbors to help him “lay by—clean out and plow the fields for the last time that season.” He was left to cut the cotton himself, bearing the man’s load of the farm work in the heat of a Texas August. He was ten years old that year, and he was 94 the last time he mowed the lawn. The lessons of hard work never left him.
When his dad got well, Grand Dad’s family sold the farm and moved to town, where he had a paper route, a shoe-shine stand, worked as a soda-jerk, and sold cheap haircuts to brave boys who would let him scalp them with a pair of scissors for a nickel under the price of a professional haircut. He went down to the bank and asked the manager if he could take out a loan, “to buy old Mickey’s shoe shine stand off of him.” The bank manager kept a straight face and wrote out the papers to loan Grand Dad fifteen dollars. Grand Dad paid his “loan” off early and eventually earned himself a chair inside the barber shop where his father worked as well as the honor of being the youngest person in the state of Texas ever licensed to cut hair. Now he was giving full-priced haircuts and sold his shoe-shine business for a profit.
Sometimes, he said, he’d line the other kids in town up at the counter of the drugstore where he skeeted sodas and buy drinks for them. His parents thought it was terrible to waste a whole quarter like that, he grins, but he knew none of those kids could afford a Coke. He had more money than any of them, but he was always quick to point out that he was working harder than any of them, too. I’ve wondered if that wasn’t because he had every job in town.
He was sitting at another drugstore, nearly ten years later, buying a Coke for someone once again, watching women and children across the street at the New London School, when the building exploded in front of them. He and the school janitor had just come from the building after talking in the busy halls about the life insurance Grand Dad was selling. They spent the long night working shoulder-to-shoulder with many other people, trying to find lives to save. Over the next few weeks, Grand Dad helped people file claims on their children and wives, a few of whom he’d loaned the quarter to start the policies. He was only 25.
Grand Dad spent his youth in the Depression years like a thief, one step ahead of disaster, always on the run from a poverty that haunts our memories in gray and yellow photographs of starvation. He got by with hard work, luck, and reckless generosity. In the midst of national panic, Grand Dad was foolhardy, leaving his hometown to cut hair across from the State Fair for twice the money, never stopping to consider the sure thing he was risking. Later, he quit what he knew, what his father had done, the certainty of 50 cents a head, for commission-only life insurance sales. And after working through the night and nightmares of the New London school explosion, Grand Dad walked away again and started over.
He worked in California, delivering cheap used cars from Texas, and earning extra money by working with a travel agency, offering rides in the empty seats of the cars he delivered. He moved from job to job in California, seeing better opportunities and jumping on them. When he found that carpenters made more money than drivers, he got O’Dell’s Carpenter Book and studied it with Grandmother at night. Getting into the carpenter’s union required a test that he passed “because it was all I knew. Men who had hands that showed they’d been carpenters all their lives showed up for the test and failed because that was all they didn’t know.” He bought himself a new set of tools and went out and traded them, one by one, for used ones. The men he traded with were glad for the new tools, and Grand Dad instantly gained the years of experience his hand-me-down tools carried.
When he was drafted for WWII a few years later, Grand Dad was trained as a tanker but then sent to the Philippines where they were not using tanks but where the fighting at the end of the war was particularly fierce. As his commanding officers searched for a place to put him, the sights and sounds of the long New London night were once again becoming his daytime reality, and he knew that he could not watch more people die. He scrambled to find ways to make himself useful: he built walls around the showers and latrines, built a clubhouse, cut the officers’ hair, and did anything else he could think of to avoid the death that seemed to follow him.
There is a phrase that repeats itself throughout Grand Dad’s story. He leaves one place as he leaves another, “with less than a dollar in [his] pocket.” Grand Dad lived his life with audacity, walking away from the comfort and security of what he knew, time and again, to try and find something better, and not in the 90s finding-myself-while-I-sip-coffee kind of way, but in the crazy-insane spirit of our pioneer forebears kind of way. The way that believes in hard work and courage and a hint of blind-faith-stupidity.
The year after he wooed my grandmother with his Model-T Ford and clever charm, for example, Grandmother & Grand Dad sold the car for new spring clothes. I never got an explanation for that one, and the best I can figure, youth is the same then and now. It’s reckless and foolhardy and somehow survives. At the end of so many days wracked with fear and the stench of death and hunger, though, it was his hard work and foolish generosity that saved his life and the lives of those around him.