I found this story in a box of old pieces I’d written. It was written in 1994. George Bush senior was President, the Northridge Earthquake had just happened, and I had just read Russel Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Growing Up. The similarities between his time and what we were experiencing in 1994 struck me then and I wrote about them. As I read what I wrote in 1994, I once again see similarities to our current times.
I sat at the foot of my father’s big leather chair while he told tales of his childhood. Daddy was (and still is) a great story teller. Pulling me into his childhood adventures sprinkled with the flavor of the times.
It was 1972 and my eleven year old mind marveled at the thought of growing up without television, of wringer washers, ice boxes and the big blocks of ice that were delivered to keep food cold. I was more than a little skeptical about outhouses (especially in the cold Ohio winters) and it would be many years before I realized my father had grown up poor.
I grew up in the same small town as my father, but it could have been a different world. We lived in a brand new split-level house with a lush lawn and swing set outside, wall to wall carpeting, two bathrooms and a laundry room inside, and of course television and a side by side refrigerator from Montgomery Ward. I know my parents had rough times, but there were always piles of gifts at Christmas and birthdays, and plenty of food in the pantry.
I guess back then I thought ‘The Wonder Years’ would continue forever.
Three years ago my husband a I bought our first home, a nice little house in the Los Angeles high desert, with three bedrooms, a family room, and a yard for our children (I was pregnant with number three). The house had little extra’s like a three car garage for my husband and a walk-in closet for me, but the feature that captured both of our hearts was the double fire place that faced both the living room and family room. We spent endless hours planning how we would landscape, decorate and customize our new home to make it perfect.
Within months of moving into our new home our dreams were shattered. My husband along with several thousand other McDonnell Douglas employees received his pink slip.
Paul was more concerned for his colleagues than himself. As a heating and air conditioning technician he’d never been out of work before and was sure he wouldn’t go a week without a job. Many of his friends however, were aero-space workers, and were trained only to build airplanes. With the industry in such bad shape, it would be tough for them to find another job with adequate pay and benefits.
Paul found work, but the pay was not enough to cover our bills, and the work didn’t last long. Even his trade had been hit hard by the recession, and over the next two years he would be laid off four more times because of slow work.
During this time we came frighteningly close to losing our home. There have been many sleeplessness nights as we worried about bills, keeping clothing on our three growing sons, and even putting food on the table. On one of those nights after flipping television channels and pacing the floor, I made my nightly pilgrimage to check on my sleeping children. First I tucked the blanket around my two year old and kissed his cheek, then I checked the four year old and eleven year old. They lay sleeping peacefully, content and secure in their warm beds.
On my oldest son’s desk was a stack of old books. An older man at a rummage sale had given one to him. I picked it up. GROWING UP, by Russell Baker. Maybe it would help me sleep.
But I didn’t sleep, I started to read the book and got caught up in the story Baker told. I was fascinated by the timeliness of his tale. I knew the stories, different locations, change minor details, but the plots and the feelings were familiar.
“…..January, 1931. The stock market had collapsed fifteen months earlier, but though business was bad, Washington people who understood these things did not seem alarmed. President Hoover refused to use the scare word ‘recession’ when speaking about the slump. It was merely ‘a depression’, he said. Nothing to panic about. Good times were just around the corner.” And then…..”By the summer of 1932 President Hoover’s mere ‘depression’ had become ‘The Depression’ with a capital D.”
Recession was the scare word? We had been in a recession for years. President Bush (note, this was Bush Sr.) wouldn’t use the scare word DEPRESSION.
“It was a season of bread lines, soup kitchens, hobo jungles, bandits riding the highways,” Baker tells.
Ours is a season of massive lay offs, ‘tent cities’ in parks where the homeless exist, and car jackers the bandits of the nineties.
My husband works hard at providing for his family. He works long hours when they are available but when they are not? I’ve seen his heart ripped from his chest when one of his sons was sick and there was no medical insurance or money to take him to a doctor. We’ve gone weeks when he could give me no money or just ten or twenty-fove dollars with which to feed a family of five for a week. He calls it my magic trick to be able to put a meal on the table with next to nothing, but I know, that I can only do that for so long.
The ‘recession’ has hit so many people that I know. Middle class people with education’s, who work hard and expected to be able to provide at least as well for their families as their parents had. One of my neighbors lost a business, another friend is on the brink of losing one. Four of my neighbors have been through lay offs in the three years we’ve lived here, Two houses on the street behind us, and two on the next street over have been repossessed. One couple we know had to deed their home back to the bank because they couldn’t sell it, but had to relocate in order to keep a job. Another couple abandoned their home and moved out of state hoping to find work after he was laid off, a year later he’s still looking. Many of the friends my husband worked with at Douglas have had to change professions, and take major pay cuts in order to work. Not all of the families have survived in tact.
I read the paper and watch the news and inevitably a financial advisor or economist will tell you, “Plan now for your retirement, open a college fund for your children before the start elementary school. I would love to start three little college funds, and a retirement plan? With what? I’m worried about how I’ll pay for a broken arm if one my sons were to fall off of his bike. I worry about whether I’ll be able to put balanced meals on the table next week.
Right now, my husband is working, the Northridge Earthquake has meant that he won’t be on unemployment…..at least for awhile. But, how many more people did it put out of work? Ho many people already hit hard by the ‘recession’ lost homes or businesses?
Russell Baker’s story ended well. In addition to a successful career with The New York Times he received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for his biography GROWING UP.
I hope my sons will be able to say the same. That someday my oldest will put his arm around me on a wintry Christmas Eve and say “Mom, do you remember the Christmas when I came into your room and you were crying because all you could give me was a used bike that Dad had scraped up $20 for? Well when I think of that Christmas, I think of the love in our home, and the safe feeling I had, and of course the wonderful cookies we baked. Oh, and Mom, all of your grandchildren have shiny new bicycles for Christmas.”