Years ago I interviewed elderly people who survived the Great Depression. They were old and frail. Their skin was lined like Rand McNally road maps. And most of them, I believe, were wearing diapers.
I showed up for the interview with a yellow legal pad and automatic pencil, like a Grade A dweeb from the Daily Planet.
My first question was clarifying when the Great Depression officially ended for these people. Yeah, I know history books say it ended in ‘39, but something about this seems too cut-and-dried. I mean, it’s not like there was a ceremony.
I’ll never forget how they looked at each other and laughed at my question.
One lady said, “Ended? Is is over?”
Another man said, “We were poor for a long time afterward.”
The rest of them said the same thing, more or less. Until I started to get a sense that the Hard Times never did truly end. Not for these people.
Furthermore, the Great Depression wasn’t just a financial thing. It was collective mental crisis, too. It made people do some pretty bizarre things just to cope.
Things like chain letters. Do you remember those? Chain letters were the rage during the Depression. The idea was easy. Get a list of names and addresses, then send letters out for good luck.
Everyone was in dire need of luck. Maybe with enough good fortune they could afford to feed their kids something besides ketchup soup.
Then there were then all-night dance marathons. These were inhumane endurance contests that lasted for a few days, sometimes longer. They occurred in every state, each major city, and in backwater towns.
Doctors and nurses were on hand while scores of kids passed out from exertion and sleep deprivation. The guy or gal who danced the longest would win prize money. It was a big deal.
But these were not happy-go-lucky parties like they they sound. These were perverse forms of entertainment. In fact, the contests were outlawed by some states as forms of unusual abuse.
Hundreds of spectators would show up by the busloads to watch rural teenagers dance 20-some hours until they collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration.
One girl in Seattle danced for 19 hours straight only to place fifth. She was so delrious she tried to commit suicide after having a nervous breakdown.
If you’re wondering what would make people dance until near-death during the Great Depression, it’s simple. Dancers were guaranteed a free meal.
Makeshift Hoovervilles cropped up overnight. On the muddy outskirts of big cities, spontaneous neighborhoods were erected from pine crates, scrap metal, and canvas tarps. There were 5,000 living in the Saint Louis Hooverville. In Washington D.C. there were 15,000.
You don’t just snap out of Hard Times. You carry them like a lunch pail. They tint your vision. They reorganize your DNA.
So you can imagine my surprise when one elderly man said, “The Depression was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
All his friends agreed. Without exception. Everyone said the Great Depression was a gift. They said it made them better people.
This kind of thing makes me wonder about the pandemic. What did the Great COVID Endemic of 2020 do for my generation? Well, I can only tell you what it did for me.
It made the outside world more vivid. More precious than it was before. It made sadness harsher, loneliness scarier. But it also made joy richer.
The worse the pandemic got, the more American flags were raised in my neighborhood. Old Glory flew from every surface, flapping from every porch, gas station, and supermarket.
A lady in my neighborhood started doing grocery deliveries for the elderly and infirm.
Another guy in Massachusetts delivered toilet paper during the toilet paper shortage. He called himself Angel of The John.
Workaholism died a temporary death. Suddenly the world quit spinning so dang fast, and it was okay to take weekends off. Yes, people lost jobs. And yes, depression skyrocketed. Yes, mortality rates soared. But so did love. So did prayer. So did creativity.
A man in Michigan stood at a gas pump and paid for random customer’s gasoline until his savings account was drained.
A young nurse in Tennessee began sitting with lonely shut-ins dressed in a hazmat suit.
A contractor in Houston did free fix-it work on people’s houses because he was bored.
In Pensacola, guitar players, trombonists, and keyboard players played different songs from their porches in the evenings so that when you wandered down the tree-lined streets at sunset it sounded like the karaoke night from hell.
Everyone was riding bikes. It was the biggest worldwide bike shortage since the invention of the wheel. Ironically, before the pandemic, bike ownership was at an all-time low. Some kids didn’t even own one. Then, boom, it was 1954 again.
A 14-year-old girl in Iowa taught herself to knit shawls. An 11-year-old boy in Louisiana learned how to carve Catholic saints from basswood. A 9-year-old boy in Nevada quit playing video games and began sewing facemasks with his grandma.
One day, this pandemic will formally end. They will put us in history textbooks. Children will read about our hard times, but they won’t have any scope of what we went through, or how it felt. And it’s just as well because they will have their own problems to face.
But when some kid shows up on my doorstep to ask about it, carrying his legal pad and automatic pencil, I know exactly what I’m going to tell him:
“It was the best thing to ever happen to us.”
And hopefully, on that day, by the grace of God, I won’t be wearing diapers.