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“Those Were the Days…”

Tonight, I talked with my grandma for about an hour. She’s 90, and she and grandfather are living alone in their ranchhouse with surprisingly little outside help. I could fill the Internet with her escapades. She grew up in San Antonio in the 20’s and 30’s and the movers and shakers of the day were family friends, and she often tells me stories of her interactions with them—the parties, the balls, the afternoon teas, the dirty politics (yes, even then!), and the effects of the depression, including the diaspora that resulted to this group of people due to their reversals in fortune.

I’m not quite naïve enough to think that those ‘good old days’ were as idyllic as she made them sound, because she just as often tells stories about how hard times got—how there wasn’t money to buy new clothes or the range of food she might have been used to, or how ice cream was a rare treat. And this was for a well-positioned family. Most folks had it a lot harder.

Think about this:  few had electricity, because it wasn’t available, not just because they could not afford it. Therefore, few had refrigerators and no one had air conditioning. Many still did not have indoor plumbing or running water. Cars? Out of the question. TV, cell phone? Not invented yet. Most didn’t even have a landline, and most of those that did had ‘party lines,’ shared by the entire neighborhood—you not only had to wait for someone in your house to get off the phone, you had to wait until all of the neighbors were off of the phone.

So basically, most folks had rent ($50/month was HIGH rent), (generally VERY low) taxes, food (very cheap) and clothing (a few dollars could buy a dress or a suit) as expenses—that’s it. And they still went hungry. There was no welfare (at least at the beginning). People did whatever they could find. There was no such thing as a “job no American would be willing to do.” Neighbors knew and helped each other. Most people made their own clothes and prepared their own food…from scratch.

They didn’t have a lot of stuff, so they didn’t need to spend money on locks or alarm systems (had they existed)—they had nothing, so there was nothing to steal, so people didn’t need to worry about securing their place. In those days, poverty kept people honest because there wasn’t much to cause temptation.

What do we get for our high lifestyle? Credit card debt, locks, gasoline bills, taxes to fund all of the police and other protective services, synthetic prepared foods, isolation in our cubicles/offices, closed houses and so on. Even should we want to, it is difficult to find time to make food or clothing.

The pace is frenetic, at least partially due to the fact that we are independent and have few folks if anyone on which to fall back. We are pressured to be in competition rather than cooperation. I have many friends in the semiconductor industry where their productivity each month is measured and compared to everyone else, and the bottom 10% are fired. The company is ‘in it’ for itself, and the employees are ‘in it’ for themselves, and loyalty is non-existent.

One of the things I struggle with in teaching my upper division students is how to prepare them for the cutthroat world ‘out there,’ and still inspiring them to the higher principles. The world has a lot of momentum behind it to keep on its current path, but is there a way to train students in how to begin shifting it to a healthier path?

I find myself asking in which era did folks “have it better,” and hard-pressed to come up with an answer. Maybe I should ask Grandma.


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