‘The greatest generation was formed first by the Great Depression. They shared everything – meals, jobs, clothing.” – Tom Brokaw
ROLLING FORK— My father, born in 1927 and hence destined to spend his adolescent years within that period in American history we now call the Great Depression, said that though but a boy, he could still remember the knocks on the back door, always on the back door of the farmhouse in which he was reared. Knocks, which he said were soft, polite, deferential, knocks which without fail were always answered by his mother.
The knocks were from hobos, Dad said, neither bums nor vagrants but men, mostly white, some older but most relatively young, who traveled from place to place via unauthorized passage on freight trains seeking work, odd-jobs, anything to earn a dollar when dollars were scarce, indeed.
“We had no work for them,” Dad said, “but not a one of them ever left that house hungry. By God, it might not have been much, but momma saw to it that not one of them, no matter how scruffy or dirty or smelly he might be, was going to leave our house with a still empty stomach. Not as long as we had anything in the kitchen.”
Every time they left, went on the next no place in particular they were going, Dad says his mother would hug him and his brother Charles and say aloud, “There but for the grace of God …”
Dad said it took him a while to understand that, because when you don’t have a whole lot, you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what you don’t have because you don’t know what you are missing.
One day, Dad said that when his father returned from his fields he noticed a chalk drawing of a cat had appeared beneath a window near the back door. Dad asked his father if he wanted him to remove it, but my grandfather shook his head and said, “no indeed, son, that is both high praise and a pretty clear warning. The hobos have their own way of communicating, some of it with signs, and that one means that a kind and caring lady lives in this house and woe be unto anyone who might bring her harm.”
I never met a man or a woman who lived through the Great Depression who was not indelibly marked, at least to some degree defined by that experience. Some folks tend to become almost miserly, but the men and women in my family were just the opposite – truly generous to a fault. And I do not have to rely upon recalled stories, but am myself a witness to the fact that my father, until his dying day, could not tolerate the thought, be he or she a good human being or not so, of anybody going to bed hungry. I watched him keep that from happening on literally more occasions than I could count.
And over the years whenever I took a notion to re-read my Steinbeck or see TV documentaries of the Great Depression with painfully grainy black-and-white photos of its soup lines and swirling clouds of dust or hobos jumping trains I would remember Dad’s tales of his long ago memories of that period for a little while at least, but they came forcefully roaring back last week with the news that some 22 million Americans, more than in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, were out of work and filing for the unemployment benefits that did not even exist 91 years ago and the footage of more than 10,000 cars lined up to claim the commodities at a San Antonio food bank.
People with cars nicer than mine lined up for hours to get cardboard boxes of cheese and rice and fruit. In the United States of America. In 2020.
And then came the knock on my office door. A soft, polite, deferential knock.
He was a tall, gaunt black man of middle age and his clothes, layered against the morning chill, could certainly have stood a cleaning but, yet were not ill-fitting. I did not recognize him, which is also to say that he was not one of the just out-and-out bums that work harder at not working than they would at a job, a group that with different names and faces are known to every small-town newspaper editor in America as we inevitably occupy prominent places within their mental books of easy marks.
“Yes sir, what can I do for you,” I asked, opening the door.
“Could you spot me a sammich, sir,” he said. Not $20 or $10 or the ubiquitous “a few dollars,” but rather, a “sammich.”
“What? What did you say?
“I asked if you might see your way to maybe give me a sammich,” he said, voice lowered and now staring at his feet.
I handed the man the not too killing much that I had in my wallet and told him maybe that would be enough to get a few sandwiches to which he replied “Yes sir, I sho thank you and mostly I thank you for not having to beg again today. I am not a bum, sir. I’m just mighty hungry.”
I believe it is Mark Twain who is generally credited with observing that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.