For years I have been receiving, via e-mails, dire warnings of the imminent collapse of the US Dollar and thus the world economy. These are quite believable when I see so many examples of man’s inhumanity to man, inequalities, reluctance of people in power to sacrifice to save our environment from the calamities of climate change, and to allow greed to kill the empathy so necessary to alleviate the sufferings of the less fortunate of our only world.
As I am now on my 100th tour around the Sun, still seeking a meaning to Life, perhaps I should review my experiences with the Great Depression with a blog that may morph into one exploring viewpoints developed over my lifetime.
From 1928 to 1932 I happened to be living on a middle-class street that had pushed one block north of the Dufferin Street area of St. Clair Avenue. the northern end of Toronto, a city that had a population of about 600,000, yet vehicular traffic was light enough to permit us to play softball on our street, retreating when the odd car appeared. Most traffic was by horse-drawn delivery carts that I often trailed to collect manure for our backyard gardens with their fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Scenic hikes into rural areas were numerous for my brother, sister, me, and our friends.
For my family, schools and church were just a block south. Streets of family-owned stores were within easy walking distance. Excellent newspapers, with world coverage, were sold on street corners from unmanned stands that had tin cups for the two cents each newspaper cost. Even during the Depression I know of no thefts from these open cups.
We, mainly school boys who had taken great pride in Canada’s amazing contributions to victory in WWI, especially the air war where Canada had 4 of the world’s top 10 air aces, knew of the lingering depression in Germany and Austria which we blamed on the greed of US Republicans. Only 4 nations, Britain, the USA, Canada, and Argentina, emerged from WWI as creditor nations. Britain had prospered by forgiving debts owed her in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, then selling goods to a recovering Europe, so sought similar forgiveness in 1919. Canada agreed, but US Republicans defeated Woodrow Wilson’s constant attempts to have the US join the League of Nations and bring Germany back into the family of nations. Insisting on repayment of all debts, yet refusing to settle for offered coal as it would hurt the coal industry in Pennsylvania and Colorado, the US caused Britain and France to strip German factories of machines to send to the USA as payment, thus causing enormous inflation and deep depression - and paving the way for Hitler.
When the Austrian-German Depression reached us in 1929, I was 10, my brother 8, and my sister 6. At first we welcomed the falling prices. My Dad, a pioneer with the Bell Telephone Company, had kept his job but at a reduced salary so our Christmas still saw numerous presents. After opening, and playing with, mine, I went for a walk, meeting a friend whose Dad had lost his job. To my question asking what he got for Christmas I got my first painful shock of the Depression when he replied; “Nothing. Santa forgot me this year.”
“Oh, no, he did not!” I replied. “He must have got confused because there is a present with your name on it that he left in my house. Wait here and I will get it for you.”
Quickly running home, I grabbed one of my best gifts, re-wrapped it, put his name on it, and ran back to him with it. His joy at not being forgotten was a never-to-be-forgotten gift to me.
Soon, hardships and sufferings were much more than I, my family, my church, my city could cure. By 1933 30% of the labour force was unemployed, a rate that would remain over 12% until 1939 and WWII. Our prairie provinces were hardest hit as wheat demand lessened and drought arrived to turn farmlands into dust bowls. Many were the care parcels I helped organizations fill to mail to drought areas in both Canada and the USA.
As I walked along the street to school I passed an increasing number of families whose savings were depleted and could no longer afford reduced rents, so they were evicted with their furniture sitting on the lawn with no place to go. Our government provided some financial help but mainly Welfare was the domain of neighbours, friends, grandparents, and churches, not governments.
My mother seemed to be forever cooking meals for destitute families. The only time I was to see my father cry was when he had to layoff several of his valued employees. He drove all over Toronto, searching for other jobs for them. Then, in 1932, his own department was downsized and he was transferred 70 miles east to manage the Port Hope branch.
In Toronto a favourite pastime was the Saturday 10-cent show at theatres that featured a full-length film, a travelogue, and a serial in which the hero and heroine were always left in a life-threatening situation only to escape at the start of next week’s episode. To save money my brother, sister, and I took turns attending with the responsibility of returning home to tell the other two complete details. It was good training in accurate recall.
Prior to leaving Toronto, I had applied for a free art course being offered on weekends to promising students who applied with copies of their work to be assessed. Also applying was the daughter of a family we knew and liked. She was rejected, I was accepted, much to the surprise of all because she was a much more talented artist than I would ever be. Realizing that a future for me in art was highly questionable and that women suffered unfair prejudice in the job training world, my mother sought out the art school executives to give my slot to her.
In Port Hope, we first rented, for $20 a month, a 3-storey brick house, but soon updated it, for $40 a month, to a modern bungalow with a full covered front veranda. Here we had almost daily callers for food handouts and for handyman jobs at 20 cents an hour. These men were mainly hopefuls riding, for free, empty box cars from the prairies. In the treed area by one of our two railway stations they built a “Tramp Jungle” that my brother and I often visited. One Christmas day one of these tramps knocked on our door. I still have strong memories of my parents inviting him in to share a sumptuous meal complete with a cigar. He was a very pleasant, intelligent, man whose business had gone bust so he was seeking better fortune in Ontario. After a most pleasant stay we were pained in having to let him return to his cold jungle temporary home.
My Mother often walked several long blocks to shop along the store-lined main street. After school I would get to fetch items that were too many for her to carry. I preferred to patronize family stores and there was one a the far ends of 3 streets leading off in different directions. We had to shop at a counter where we asked the owner for each item. He or she would bring the item from a shelf to the counter, record it on a sales pad, then repeat the process for each additional item - a slow process but full of good conversations.
In Port Hope I completed 7 years of schooling, staying on for commercial courses after Grade 13 as jobs were scarce even in this farming and light-industry town of 5,000 people.
I took an early interest in world affairs, finding pen pals in Britain, France, Germany, Malaya, Gold Coast (Ghana), South Africa, Australia, and British Guyana. This was also the start of a fabulous stamp collection that I now should sell. It was alarmingly foreboding to see my German pen-pal, Hugo, change from a normal, likeable school boy into one filling with hatreds. As I told him about my joys as a troop leader in the Boy Scouts, he told me of his training in the Hitler Jugend. I tried to find him after the war but we had bombed his street to rubble and there was no trace of him. My French, Malayan, and South African pen pals did survive.
I grew up among veterans of the South African Boer War and WWI, many, including 2 uncles, suffering from physical and mental war wounds. Some of my school friends spent hours each day caring for their war-wounded fathers, prompting my father to write many letters to government officials for financial help for them to survive the depression. It also led to anti-war essays I wrote for school. My physics teacher was a major in the Militia so I joined his local artillery regiment for training in fear of the dictators emerging in Europe, having read Mein Kampf and Hugo's new views. With the depression coupled with the need to rearm that increased Dad’s taxes, Canada could not afford to give us a real gun, using 25-pound shells, which were reserved for summer camps, so we practiced on mock-ups.
In 1938 I joined the Royal Bank of Canada at a salary of $400 a year which was increased to $500 when they transferred me 70 miles east to Napanee as I would have to pay $7 a week for room and board. Bank salaries were increased $100 per year and you had to be earning $1400 to get bank permission to marry.
I was also transferred to the Napanee Militia artillery regiment where, in our spare time, we posted guard around the local armouries with WWI rifles and bayonets but no ammunition, a fact we kept concealed.
Depression economics persisted until we were well into the massive buildup for WWII. Three of Canada’s major banks had branches in town so competition was friendly but keen. We had to be well dressed at all times and eager to participate in charitable functions in spite of our low incomes. Often we helped, for free, business customers with accounting problems. Each bank had a staff of 8 males and one female secretary. When we asked a girl out we walked to her home, to the entertainment, and back to her home. Occasionally an older member of the staff who owned a car would collect 5 cents from each of 5 of us to buy a 25-cent gallon of gas (no sales tax then) to drive us to scenic places or distant dance halls. On weekends these car owners, for a small fee, would pack their cars with bankers whose homes were between Napanee and Toronto.
Yet, I remember these Depression years as happy years. Healthy youths with good homes do not need much money to be happy.
And, it was an era of no gun violence. Weekly I would stroll to the post office with a pocket bulging with thousands of dollars in torn, worn, and soiled dollars of various denominations, parcelled to be mailed to headquarters for replacement. This was just a safe routine job given to unarmed bank juniors.
Ye Olde Scribe