Paul Kusuda’s column
December is the month to reminisce
By Paul H.Kusuda
Last month’s column was my Jeremiad of our state’s social/economic/political situation—
sad, difficult to understand or accept. Later, I thought about some of my personal
experiences during the Great Depression when I was in my formative years. I was born in
1922 (so, now I’m 89 years old) and the 1930s were the years I was made aware of myself,
my family, and the life around us.
When I was seven or eight years old, my sister (two years younger) and I were home with my
maternal grandmother on a Saturday afternoon, and it was lunchtime. My brother (four years
older than I) had a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk, then he went out to play. My
sister and I decided to eat whatever my grandmother fixed for lunch because we knew she
wouldn’t be satisfied with a peanut butter sandwich. There was nothing in the ice-box (we
didn’t own a refrigerator) to fix for lunch; my grandmother decided to fry dried onions and
scallions in butter and serve the dish with toast. My sister and I ate with gusto; it was
delicious—simple but tasty. I don’t remember ever having that kind of a lunch since, but I do remember we knew our
grandmother would always find something to eat even though she had to scrounge about.
Our family didn’t have much. In fact, from today’s standards, we were really poor. But, we didn’t know it. Almost everyone
else we knew was in the same economic condition. We didn’t feel different; we had to be careful about what we bought
because personal dollars were scarce. Fortunately, the climate in Southern California was basically mild; however,
whenever the temperature got into the 40s and 50s, we really felt cold.
Our rented house did not have any heat during the winter; we had gas outlets like miniature fireplaces in selected walls of
the house. When the rooms got cold, our parents used wooden matches to light the gas. Then, when the rooms warmed
up a bit, they turned off the gas; after all, gas wasn’t free. During the cold months, the floors were really cold. The house,
like most in Southern California, had a crawl space but no basement. Of course, during summer months, the heat
permeated the house. Like others we had no air conditioner. We were lucky to have electric fans to use.
When our trousers or overalls had worn-out knees, my mother sewed patches on them. (It wasn’t until the last few years
that holey jeans became fashionable, and people bought what looked like worn-out jeans at ridiculously high prices.) When
the soles of our shoes became worn out, we cut cardboard insoles for them. The insoles didn’t last long, so we had to cut
out lots of them from cigarette cartons. Our parents had a small grocery store. Among the items were cartons of cigarettes
(a dollar a carton at the time) that my father opened to sell single packs at the price of 15 cents or two for 25 cents. We
recycled at a very young age. Also, about 1938-39 when metal became scarce, we children used to go around looking for
thrown-away cigarette packs to peel away the tinfoil that we rolled into balls and sold. I don’t remember who bought them,
but someone came around to my father’s grocery store to buy the metal.
Fortunate ones had jobs, but some did not. I remember we had soup kitchens run by the Salvation Army and other groups
like Father Devine and Amy Temple McPhearson. In all cases, meals were served once a day at most, and they were
preceded by prayers, some longer than others. For some reason, it seems as though most of those who ate the free meals
were men although some were women and children. A couple of friends and I went to a meal site set up under the
auspices of Amy Temple McPhearson; the prayer was more like a sermon, but the food was substantial. By the way, we
went only one time, and just for the heck of it. Our parents were totally unaware of what Frank, Jim, and I had done—and we
never told them. We were dumb but not stupid.
Being poor was no disgrace, and beginning in about 1939, federal programs promoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
slowly but surely resulted in work for the many who had suffered unemployment and underemployment for so long. Men
and youth found jobs under the many PWA, WPA, NRA, NYA, CCC and other initialed public programs based on expenditure
of public funds.
During widespread emergency conditions, quick use of federal and state dollars reduced considerably the economic
burdens carried by persons who wanted to work but were unable to get employment. As work became available and as
people were employed, they were able once again to earn money, pay taxes, and buy food, clothes, etc. The private sector
benefited, and factories started to hum again.
There were the usual grumblers who decried the use
of tax dollars to bail out the jobless, the homeless, the
“lazy bums who won’t get off their butts to find work.”
However, I saw men who were so happy to find work
and to come home with dirtied work clothes and
blisters on their hands. I saw their wives and children
who were glad to see the paychecks that allowed
them to get food and clothes and repay loans. I saw
how public funds could be used to make families
whole again and how they could be used to generate
tax funds to be returned to the federal treasury. The
outlay of public dollars was not only necessary, it was
the right thing to do.
Looking back decades made me realize that the “good
old days” weren’t really that good but they obviously
were livable. Now, I wonder if our current years will
sometime become seen as the “good old days.” If so,
what a crock!