Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Positive indicators

On Friday, after weeks of calling and leaving messages, I finally reached my friend Ken on the phone. Ken is 92 and I was relieved to hear him come to the phone after his son answered.

Ken left the CIA long ago, but seems to be re-immersing himself in spycraft. He told me that from now on, I should call, ring twice, hang up, then call again — and only then would he pick up.

“Too many robocalls,” he explained.

It seemed to me that one would need to know the code in advance, but at least I do now.

Ken was born in 1928, so after ensuring that he’s doing fine, I was eager to hear his thoughts about growing up in the Great Depression, and of course his economic forecast:  Are we heading into Great Depression 2? Forewarned is forearmed. But first, I had to hear about ice hockey, of course (Ken was part of a championship ice-hockey team in high school), and how skating on ice for eight or ten hours a day in his teens has kept him so rugged in his 90s, and also about baseball this time.

“My father taught me to be a left-handed batter,” he said.

This came as a surprise.  “Are you left-handed?” I asked. I’ve known Ken for almost 15 years and hadn’t noticed.

“No. But when you’re a left-handed batter you can see better when the ball comes toward you. So my father taught me to bat left-handed. A lot of redheads are left-handed.”

I didn’t know this, and haven’t Googled it.

He went on. “My father was red-haired and left-handed.”

That sounded like the beginning of a Mark Twain story I hadn’t read.  I wasn’t sure where any of this was going, so I asked him what it was like growing up in the Great Depression.

“I didn’t realize it was the Great Depression. My father was never out of work. He was a printing pressman, and his company took the hard printing jobs:  textbooks. So he had a job all through the Depression.”

One thing he did notice was that his parochial school would serve meals for kids who didn’t get a meal at home. When there’s a depression, he said, “You realize more of the process of eating. Where food comes from, how it got there. [In normal times] when you go downtown to a restaurant, you don’t think about where that came from.”

I shared with him the story of when my father came to visit in 1991 and he and I took a walk around my neighborhood. My father, another child of the Depression, spotted a roll of brand-new screening, the sort for a screen door or a window screen, still sealed in its plastic sleeve. He picked it up and offered it to me as we walked back to my house. But I didn’t want it. “Dad, what am I going to do with that?” I asked. “Fix a screen door! Fix a window!” But I didn’t own a screen door or a window screen — those belonged to my landlord, who’d have to fix them if something happened. “Well, maybe you’ll move some day!” (He generally spoke in exclamation marks.) “And I’ll have to carry this around with me from place to place every time I move?” When we got to my house — my rented house — he disgustedly threw the screening into a trash bin outside my house. “There!” he said. “Now you don’t have to worry about it.”

Ken’s response was placid:  “He needed it. And if he couldn’t use it, his neighbor could use it.” During the Depression, that is. Increasingly, my generation doesn’t want to own anything it doesn’t have to have — we are the people filling Goodwill to the rim with our cleaned-out clutter; the generation of my siblings wanted to own and dispose and own and dispose; the Depression generation never got rid of anything. In the kitchen cabinet of my mother, there are spices that date back to the 1950s. “Still good!” she’d say. She is 94-and-a-half and has finally retired from cooking to just being served, but if she were still cooking I have no doubt she’d dig out that rusty can of allspice.

Ken has seen a lot in 92 years:  the Great Depression, World War II, the atomic bomb, Watergate, the fall of the Soviet Union, the dotcom bust of 2000, 9/11, the mortgage meltdown, and now this. Through all of that, he’s held onto his optimism.

“I don’t think we’ll get to the point of depression,” my old friend told me. “We’ll be all right. I’ve always lived with a large quantity of hope that things will get better. It doesn’t always work that way — but it works that way once in a while.”

I asked him if I could put this on my blog, because there’s a lot of anxiety in the world right now and people might want to hear from someone who’s seen so much history and come out of it with hope intact. He agreed.

By the way, five years after that walk with my father, which was four years after his death, my wife and I bought a house that needed a lot of work. We had to go out and buy screening.

3 Responses to “Positive indicators”

  1. Dan Says:

    It’s a….. I almost said it s a fine line between prudent keeping and compulsive hoarding, but now I think on it, the line seems wide and blurry. I keep old landscape timbers in my barn because they are useful for the DIY projects that have become increasingly rare. A Guy I know saves 2′ lengths of 2X4 and old phone books because “I may have to prop up something someday.”

    Where is the line? I don’t know, but keeping a roll of screen for 9 years without an apparent use for it would have crossed it I think.

  2. Joe Stafford Says:

    Every generation has an obligation to teach the next, even if it’s anecdotal, occasional.
    My mom, survived the 1918 flu epidemic at age 8, when lots of kids died; a liver infection in the 1920s that would have been treated today with antibiotics (still being studied in the ’20s); the great depression too shaped much of her success. She always said of investing not to put all your eggs in one basket. In the 1930s, the funeral business that she would later inherit was booming because those who died during that period were still protected by life insurance still had life savings to spend on funerals. However, during WW2 and into the booming early 1950s, funerals were not quite as affordable to that generation in the region, because they had sold off their life policies back during the depression to put food on the table. During the depression, were the boom years for her early years, later on not so much. She was resourceful through all of the lean-times in business, and remained successful enough to provide me a livelihood that I enjoyed for over 32 years.

    Both my parents did well through their lives, though they both came from very different backgrounds. My dad, never went to college, was career Army from the end of the 1920s until the very beginning of World War 2. He was raised in a family of 10 siblings on a farm outside Moorestown NJ and his parents grew tomatoes for the Campbell Soup Co. in Camden. After he got out of the Army he went to a Rutgers training program for tree surgery and landscape design. Through the ’50s and ’60s in Atlantic City he tended all the interior plants in the big hotels, mowed lawns downbeach
    in Ventnor, Margate and Longport and hired workers out of every bar in Atlantic City on summer mornings.

    For my mom and my dad, running the house and keeping 4 kids fed was run like a business. Mom paid the mortgage on the house, dad paid for repairs, utilities and groceries.

    When the IRA-401k era began in the mid-1970s, mom immediately recognized the need for someone my age (20) to have an incentive and mechanism for deferring income into an investment/savings plan. Hats off to my mom, I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket even in a career choice. By the early 1990s, my oldest brother’s kids were coming out of college, I told them get $5500. into an IRA before you’re age 25 and buy stocks! Following my advice they’ve never stopped thanking me for that advice ever since. I managed successfully enough that I was able to go get another college degree at age 51, and go into yet another very successful career. The AC funeral business tanked in the mid-’00s and real estate soared through the stratosphere. Goodbye, land, goodbye funeral home, take the money and run, if you get lemons, go out and make lemonade.

    I’ve always had hope too, and admire Ken very much for adding that word into the mix when it comes to the times we’re living in. Not every man from that generation operates on that feeling level. I do very much have hope in the future, I’ve gotten away from my negative feelings early on back in March. Ken and his experiences are a great reminder of the confidence my own parents instilled in their kids. Both of my parents experienced huge changes in their lives, and they thrived and had a little something to give their kids. The changes coming are not an end, but a beginning.

  3. Janet Reynolds Says:

    Love reading this about Ken and our elders. Ken is a true treasure – miss him and you. My parents were in their early and mid 20’s when the depression happened. When I cleaned out my mother’s home years ago, I was stunned at what she kept because she might be have a use for it sometime. I learned last year that my dad went into the Army in January 1930 because he lost his job from the depression. He figured he’d have a roof over his head, 3 meals a day, and clothes to wear. He retired 25 years later. He entered as a private and retired as a Chief Warrant Officer.

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