JIM DODSON: The Applesauce Gang's Wisdom
There were six of them seated around the table: George, Mal, Bob, Bill, Jack and Dave.
They meet almost every evening in the bar out at Belle Meade to have a glass of wine or a cocktail and shoot the breeze about anything on their minds. Sometimes they talk sports and needle each other. Sometimes they reminisce about their wives and children. Sometimes they argue about politics. But they laugh a lot, too.
They used to call themselves the "Applesauce Gang," but recently having lost a couple of the regulars, they've taken to simply referring to themselves as "The Bachelors." The Bachelors are in their 80s, a couple pushing 90. Most live alone. Their children are grown, their working days behind them. They are what I call true geezer philosophers.
I went to have a drink with them, looking for a little straight talk on America's current economic troubles -- which, to judge by the relentless drumbeat of the broadcast media, is either hurling us into the abyss of a Second Great Depression or something just shy of it.
What prompted this mini-quest for the counsel of wise tribal elders was probably twofold:
First: Lately, as the economic crisis that grips America and much of the world deepens, corresponding to what appears to be the colossal ineptitude and shocking self-interests of our largest banking institutions and elected leaders, I have had a strong hankering to have what my dad used to call a "friendly fireside chat" with my dad and grandfather, both of whom were armchair philosophers, bourbon drinkers, and true geezers. Both, unfortunately, have passed on.
Second: This urge came over me after I felt my blood boil when I heard a cable network morning show co-host -- cute young thing, maybe in her late 20s, a former beauty queen, I believe, long of leg, short on brain -- blather on mindlessly: "Hey, everybody. With America on the edge of a Second Great Depression, golly, what will you cut back on buying this Christmas shopping season? Stay tuned and we'll give you some great ideas. "
She made me wonder if we aren't letting the pretty pinheads of the Infotainment industry scare us to death with casual talk of our impending demise. Such panicky lip noise, like shouting fire in a theater, strikes me as dangerously self-fulfilling.
So that same morning at work, I found a recording of Franklin Roosevelt's first Inaugural address on the Internet and was reminded of why the patrician fellow who reminded ordinary terrified Americans that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" was nothing less than a hero to my grandfather and millions of his countrymen in those darkest of days.
My Own Old Granddad
My granddad, who drank Old Grandad, Walter Dodson, was a smalltime farmer and cabinetmaker and electrician from Orange County who helped raise towers that brought rural electrification to the South in the late 1920s. He helped wire the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro, which claimed to be the state's first "skyscraper," built at the peak of Jazz Age prosperity.
He loved cheap King Edward cigars, dime Western novels, good bonded bourbon, big Sunday lunches, pretty women and bass fishing (not necessarily in that order) -- a working man of few words but generous actions. During the Great Depression, as my dad once explained to me as we tramped through the woods near Carrboro at Christmastime searching for his father's long-abandoned home place, his dad never turned a stranger down on his luck away from their door.
Furthermore, the day after Franklin Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Ga., Walter showed up by the tracks in Greensboro and stood for hours waiting for the funeral train bearing the dead president's body to pass. When it appeared, he removed his hat and held it over his heart. I'm guessing he probably even took the cigar out of his mouth, as a simple gesture of respect, and maybe later knocked back a couple of neat knuckles of Old Grandad to his fallen hero.
In any case, 30 years further on, during my college years, I loved my own "fireside chats" over Old Forester with my dad, which usually took place at a moment of national crisis on the golf course or at his cozy office in Greensboro.
The focus of my American Studies major, not surprisingly, was the Great Depression -- a period, ironically, during which the artistic creativity of America and its scientific innovation actually flourished. Television was born, radar invented, the first computer built, the process of miniaturization perfected. The dark decade also produced many of our most admired artists and writers. Hollywood boomed. Industry innovated. We tooled up for a World War in less than a year and then won it.
In many ways, I long ago concluded, the devastating years of the Great Depression created the Greatest Generation -- a time when Americans stripped away the phony operators and self-indulgent hucksters and got back to the basic values of hard work and faith in our own ingenuity.
"This country works best," my old man used to tell me in our fireside chats, "when our backs are to the wall."
'Things Will Come Back'
The bar didn't have Old Grandad. So George James, 83, bought me a Maker's Mark on the rocks.
For two decades George, a Ph.D. in economics, was the chief economist for the airline industry, the Airline Transports Association, guiding it through the rocky years of deregulation and at least four significant economic downturns.
"It's irresponsible for someone to say this country is in a depression," he said, sipping his white wine thoughtfully. "Not that by a long shot. The numbers just don't justify that kind of language. Our unemployment rate is perhaps 6.5, whereas during the Depression it soared to almost a quarter of the population.
"Furthermore, we have various economic tools we didn't have back then to deal with a severe economic crisis like we're in -- federal deposit insurance, for example, other stimulus options, and a much more diversified economy that can absorb shocks of various nature.
"On average, we have a recession about every four or five years in this country, but we haven't had a major one really in decades. People choose to forget a difficult time -- or simply don't remember. Given the dynamics of this particular downtown, this is probably the worst recession we've had in 30 or 40 years, which makes it seem scarier than it is to someone who doesn't know history."
Still, George said, we have 10 million people out of work, and that should concern the people trying to engineer a solution to this one.
"This recession is different," he said, "because so many Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure and older Americans have seen their retirement funds sharply shrink or even vanish. That will take some time to sort out. But things will come back eventually."
'You Just Adjusted'
"This is no depression," spoke up Mal Owings across the table. "You don't see people on street corners selling apples or have men knock on your back door asking if they can mow your lawn for a sandwich."
Mal, 83, is a son of Cincinnati and a former Moore County commissioner. He remembers how his mother always fed strangers who came to their door, and how eventually several relatives moved into their home.
"My brother and I gave up our bedrooms and slept in the dining room," he said. "That's what you did -- you tightened up and just adjusted to the situation."
Walter "Bud" McManus clearly remembers the day his father lost everything in the big Wall Street crash of October 1929. His family was well-to-do in New Jersey.
"He played the stock market and lost it all," Bud said. "We had a prosperous life up till then. But overnight everything changed. We hocked the family silver. We moved constantly. I was 13 when it started. I went to four different high schools because we kept moving. I had one pair of pants that I ironed all the time, hoping they wouldn't give out."
After graduation, he worked at the Simmons mattress factory, midnight to morning shift, then heard there was a job out in Sun Valley, Idaho, at a new ski resort that was about to open.
"This was like the first ski resort in America, so I went out and got the job," he said. "That was the fall of 1936 and there wasn't a snowflake until Christmas Eve that year! I soon learned how to ski, though, while I worked as a steward for the resort. We had the first chair lift. I even gave skiing lessons to Hollywood movie people, like Robert Montgomery."
"So how'd you get that great job?" one of the other Bachelors fired across the table.
Bud McManus sipped his drink. "It was absolutely my wonderful personality that got me that great job," he replied. "Also, my uncle was the manager of the joint."
Everybody laughed, and a very young waitress appeared to take orders for supper. George James told me I was now staying for supper, so I ordered the house BLT and asked well-known Realtor Bill Saunders, who just cracked 80, what he remembered about the Great Depression.
"I grew up on a farm outside Lexington, Ky.," he said. "We had 30 or 40 milk cows, which had to be milked by hand seven days a week, and by most standards, I suppose, we were fairly poor -- though it never felt that way. We always had lots of fresh food and meat, and I remember how my mother fed a lot of people at our table -- anyone who happened to be around. Neighbors shared everything."
"I tend to be an optimist," chipped in Jack White, who is pushing 86, a son of Pittsburgh. "That may be because my dad worked for a utility and never lost his job. I went to work for the phone company as an engineer straight out of school and worked my whole career with AT&T. How you feel about a depression or recession depends, I suppose, on whether you keep your job. But I don't think we're anywhere near a depression yet."
Dave Weigel spoke up. Dave, a former "advanced systems engineer" from Washington, D.C., is just 78, the youngster of the group. The others sometimes call Dave "the geek."
"It'll probably be late next year before we begin to emerge from this crisis," Dave said, "and in my view it'll be because we use our scientific knowledge to transform America's energy problem into something that leads the world. Frankly, we need a Manhattan-style project for new energy sources and the environment. We should put scientists in charge and tell the politicians to get out of the way."
'Count Our Blessings'
Not one of the Bachelors thought Washington should bail out Detroit.
"A little bankruptcy might be good for them," rumbled Bud.
"Bankruptcy isn't the end of the world," added Mal, "though the media these days make it sound like it is. Lots of people from our generation came back from much worse than that. That's what we do in America -- find our way back to prosperity after big lessons like the current downturn."
With that, a lively little argument ensued over what new kind of energy might jump-start the American economy. Eventually the conversation shifted to college bowl games, then to grandchildren, and finally to the weather report. A large rainstorm was rolling in.
"Aren't you glad you came out to get an earful?" asked my host, George James, walking me back to the main bar area.
"I wouldn't have missed this friendly fireside chat for anything," I assured him. Maybe it was the Maker's Mark, I added, but I felt a whole lot better.
"Come back any time," George said. "And Merry Christmas."
On my way back through the bar, I passed Jean Downer and Joan Dash. They were sitting with Bob Johnston at the bar, enjoying a toddy before going into the main dining room. Bob is one of the Bachelors, but this night he had " a double dinner date," as he put it with a sly wink.
"I heard what you were talking about with the fellows," Jean Downer cheerfully volunteered. "My dad was an artist who lost his job in the Depression and wound up working for the WPA, using his beautiful hands to dig ditches. It was a tough time for everybody. But if you were lucky enough to have family, you were generally happy."
She thought a moment, sipped her drink, and added, "If you had a hole in your shoe, why, you just plugged it with newspaper and you were fine -- unless it rained."
"In other words," a rosy-faced Joan Dash added, "we should always count our blessings. Just remember that someone always has it worse than you."
This was something my own mother used to say. People who survived the Great Depression -- and flourished afterward -- often say the same things.
Outside, it was suddenly pouring rain. But luckily, my shoes didn't yet have holes in them. So I counted my blessings and decided that in this Christmas shopping season, fear itself is still the only thing to fear.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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