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Lessons lost

Our Depression-era forbears knew the danger of living on credit

We’d hear it all the time. We’d hear it when the grown-ups were playing pinochle on a Friday night, three or four couples beneath a cloud of smoke at the kitchen table, men and women who’d look up from their cards to share bursts of spontaneous conversation.

Often they would speak to events across the nation, which would lead to a routine observation from my mother. “We’re going to have another crash,” she’d say, voice full of warning, and heads would go up and down around the table.

If we heard that in our house, you probably heard it in yours. But we were children, and we shrugged it off. That was storybook material. How many times had we been told Great Depression tales? At Christmas, above our gifts, we’d be reminded of what our parents used to find in their childhood stockings – “You’d get an orange, and you were glad for getting that” – but it was no more real to us than a dinosaur, or a horse and buggy.

Yet to the couples at the table, the Depression was a wound that never stopped burning. My father spent much of his childhood in the orphanage, a living witness to an era in which parents lost their very children if the debts became too much. As for my mom, her mother died young and her father walked out, and she was raised by a neighborhood enclave of Scottish aunts and uncles.

What you came to realize is how these tales of the Depression were hardly unique, how the America of the 1930s was full of working families torn apart by the vast collapse.

Remembering that, our folks routinely said: “It could happen again.”

That fear was evident in the way they handled their money. They were ferocious about living within their means. In the same way as just about everyone we knew, we had only one car; often, if my father had to drive to work, my mother took long walks to shop at the grocery store, a journey that was not much fun on the long way home in an Upstate New York winter.

They did not buy their first new automobile until long after they retired. Instead, they always went after used cars, paying with cash that would exhaust their savings. A victory was not owning the shiniest car on the street: A victory was a car you could coax and prod into running smoothly for years, before you finally had to trade it in.

They rented their house. They had one television, a black and white that seemed to last forever. Fast food was considered a waste of money, and a trip to McDonald’s was a treat that happened a few times a year, at most. Vacations were day trips to Watkins Glen or Fort Niagara. And my folks were not embarrassed about going to the Salvation Army store.

The only thing that embarrassed them was debt. They did not want to owe anything to anyone. To them, it was better to live a relatively Spartan life than to live with someone’s hands around their throats. They were part of a generation that learned early to see things in that way, a generation caught on the bottom of the crash. They’d speak of it with their friends in that smoky kitchen, worrying out loud about how their grown children were embracing a new lifestyle.

Built upon debt.

My parents cringed at the way our generation cheerfully accepted car payments as an eternal part of family budgets, how we routinely ran our credit cards out to the very edge, how we took out loans to cover vacations or routine household projects, how we so rarely stayed happy in the latest house we owned but instead always wanted something bigger, better, more.

That became the American ethos of the last 30 years, an America in which the mailbox was regularly filled with offers for the latest credit card. At the Yuletide, national leaders would happily encourage us to take our cash and go out and spend big. It was as if frugality had somehow become unpatriotic, as if staying out of debt was an act that would sabotage the economy.

Until the end of their lives, my parents spoke to what they saw as the growing madness of a financial system built upon blind faith, rather than common sense. They were unnerved by this great wheel of debt that was always rolling forward. They worried it might someday slip back and crush those pushing it uphill.

Which it has.

As Wall Street trembles, we lose more witnesses to the Great Depression. By the thousands, their voices vanish, day by day. Even the last wave of Americans with living memory of that era, those who were children at the time of the bread lines, are nearing their 80s.

Now, more than ever, we ought to heed their wisdom.

Our rattled Congress will undoubtedly come up with some maneuver to postpone the crisis at our door. The deeper question is whether we sober up as a nation, whether we stop to wonder why a baby boom generation proud of owning so much stuff remains so wistful about a collective childhood in which we had so little.

What we had were the qualities our parents valued most: community, economy, humility.

Those gifts came with a warning: Discard them, and you crash.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for the Post- Standard, of Syracuse, N.Y. His e-mail is


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