Economic depressions greatly affect a society’s mental and social life. Day to day survival was the major goal in most households of my childhood. The Great Depression of the 1920s, 1930s and beyond meant poverty, misery and — worst of all — no hope of relief in the foreseeable future. For all, it was a day-to-day hell.
My early years were lived in Gary, Indiana, home of (at that time) the world’s largest steel mills. Gary was occupied mostly by immigrants who had come from Europe to find a better life. Most had previously worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh and transferred to the new mill in Gary.
When The Depression occurred, Gary — being a one occupation city — was hit hard. The entire population was more than willing to work, but jobs at the mill were scarce. Jobs for two or three days a week were the norm — hardly enough to maintain a household. I think the greatest frustration was that no one had any idea of just how long this depressing situation would last.
My two cousins, Margie and Barbara, and I were raised by our immigrant grandparents. We, of course, were raised as their children and as such were expected to follow certain rules. Each of us, as we grew older, was given responsibilities that had to be carried out each day.
Margie and Barbara tended to household duties, such as dish washing, house cleaning, helping Grandma with the laundry, and the cooking. I kept the coal and the coke buckets, plus the kindling wood, filled for the kitchen and dining room stoves, plus some of the yard work. During the summer months the whole family tended our garden, which was located about a mile away near the Calumet River.
The government — under the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt — tried to stimulate the economy with various projects such as the CCC and the WPA. Relief, more limited than today’s welfare, was enacted but wasn’t too effective. The country struggled until Dec. 7, 1941, when our world changed as all of us, both male and female, went to war.
I now reflect upon those early days of poverty, not only in our household but in those of all our friends. Everyone was poor, but the kids never knew it since all of our friends were in the same situation. Our parents and grandparents who raised us did a magnificent job of keeping everyone together. No use to elaborate on the lack of food, clothing, or living conditions in each household — today’s generation would never believe it — you had to live through it.
Of course, I am not the only one to survive the Great Depression. Later in life when I married my wife and had children, we did without many things so that our children would not relive our experiences. Perhaps we may have given too much. Were we our own worst enemy?
The Great Depression was a terrible experience for everyone, but one learns from experience. I would have to believe that my generation has learned its lesson well. Were we “The Greatest Generation?” Only time will tell.
Arthur J. “Art” Elchek, 89, lives in Tyler. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked and served aboard PT boats in the Pacific. In recent years, he has lectured on World War II at area high schools.
My Story by Art Elchek for My Generation, July 16
Mugshot of Art Elchek and additional photo of Art in 1927 with his cousins Margie and Barbara”B” are in X/!Photo/Wednesday 071614/My Generation
The Great Depression
By Art Elchek