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Nostalgia February 2014

Snow Storms Bring Back Depression-era Memories

By Denton Harris

But I am thankful for it was that era that grew 'the greatest generation' and built the backbone of America. From this group came the soldiers, marines and sailors who won World War II. So many who were in the Battle of the Bulge in Germany and survived those terrible freezing conditions say they were able to survive because of the way they grew up back in the pre-war days.

During a recent spate of snow storms across America, the teenage grandson wanted his grandfather to tell him how it was when he was a boy in winter time during the Depression.

But here goes.

"Well, to describe how we lived in the l930s and ‘40s is not as easy as talking about the weather today. We didn't have television –  or even a radio in our case. We relied on the old-timers’ predictions of what was coming. And believe it or not, those old timers would sometimes get it better than the weather forecasters today. They relied on nature, and their experience to predict what was coming.

The grandson interrupted, "Tell me about going to school."

The grandfather replied, "School was not quite like today. We walked to school...in my case, only about two miles.

"We had school cancelled, of course, when the snow was big and heavy.

"My day started each morning with Mama waking me up. She or my dad had already put wood in the fireplace and the kitchen stove. I got out of bed in a freezing room with no heat. Mama had breakfast ready, including big, beautiful biscuits with homemade butter, molasses, jelly, preserves and honey, along with bacon and sausage. We had plenty to eat.

"After breakfast, I had to get a bucket and go with my dad to milk the cows. I milked two. Sometime their teats were caked in mud or other things. So Mama half filled another bucket with warm water and a cloth so I could wipe the cow's bag before milking. The water had been heated in a kettle on the wood burning stove.

The cow obeyed me while I was milking because I milked on the right side and put my left knee next to her hind leg to keep her from kicking. When I had almost finished, I let her calf come to the mother for a few minutes. Then I pulled the calf away and continued milking because the mother cow would let her richest milk come down for her calf.

"After milking my two cows, I went to the outhouse. We had no indoor toilets or running water. Believe you me, that outhouse was a refrigerator. From there I came back into the warm house, did what we called a "spit bath" – which meant a quick wiping off. For deodorant we used baking soda. I also brushed my teeth with baking soda.

"By the time I put on my heavy clothes and shoes, it was time to head to school. By the way, we put tallow (grease from hog meat) along the soles of our shoes to help waterproof them. I walked to school, arriving no later than 8 a.m. Unlike school today, we had a wood burning furnace to heat the steam radiators that made all kinds of noises throughout the day.

"We, didn't have a cafeteria. Many students lived near enough to walk home during the lunch hour. Yes, we had a full hour for lunch. The rest of us had brought lunches in paper bags. I must tell you my mama put two of her delicious biscuits with either ham or sausages in my lunch. During good weather we ate outside –  the boys in one group, the girls in another. During winter days we ate together in the school library. To fill out the hour-long lunch period, we read whatever we could find on the shelves. Or even better, some of us were brave enough to engage the girls in conversation.

"The school bell rang at 3:30 p.m. to end the day. I walked the two miles back home. But that was not the end of my day. My daddy had chores we had to do – everything from cleaning out the barn stables, spreading hay for the cattle, and before supper, milking the cows again. If he didn't slop the hogs, that became my job, too.

"Mama always had a big supper, with at least two meats, vegetables, more hot biscuits and cornbread with either milk or buttermilk to drink. The meal was capped with dessert, usually pie (I was a pie lover!), but sometimes cake.

"Following supper, I went into the living room where the fire was and began to study under the light of a coal oil lamp. That was not good light, of course, but in my senior year we were able to afford what was called an Aladdin lamp that was as bright as a regular electric light. This was like the difference between day and night. I believe that made my senior year in high school much more enjoyable.

"Listen, my boy, life was not easy back then, but we made it because we didn't know any other way of life. Living here in the city with central heat and air, and indoor plumbing, life back then seems almost like a dream. But I am thankful for it was that era that grew 'the greatest generation' and built the backbone of America. From this group came the soldiers, marines and sailors who won World War II. So many who were in the Battle of the Bulge in Germany and survived those terrible freezing conditions say they were able to survive because of the way they grew up back in the pre-war days.

"My prayer, grandson, is you will never have to go to war. I am terribly concerned over the future of our nation. But I have complete confidence that the lessons learned from those years of my youth, along with millions of other American boys, will preserve what America means to all of us.

"Now, let's go enjoy the snow and be glad we don't have to milk cows, slop hogs or use the outhouse!"

 

Denton Harris served in the 86th Infantry in World War II.

 

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