Monday, February 18, 2008

Which Dust Bowl Were You Talking About?

Sometimes I read something that makes me wonder if I live on the same planet as the writer. This Dust Bowl reverie, hot on the heels of yesterday's dust storm analysis, continues to stick in my mind. Wasn't It Great? Absolutely Not. But Oddly Enough, It's Comforting to Think About by Hank Stuever, (Washington Post, February 10, 2008) begins with a fantasy about modern day families made homeless by bad mortgages and jobless by a recession. Stuever imagines what long-term, wide-spread homelessness would be like. I'm surprised a resident of Our Nation's Capitol doesn't have a realistic mental picture of homelessness based on first-hand observation of people panhandling outside the Washington Post's downtown offices. Of course, it's been a long time since I worked in that part of town; perhaps those people have been driven from view of reporters and lawyers by now. The romantic nomads Stuever imagines are

...loosely based on the somewhat disputed back story of Florence Owens Thompson, who, in 1936 at the age of 32, was stranded with her children at a muddy fieldworker's encampment near San Luis Obispo, Calif., waiting for her male companion and son to return with parts for their broken car. She was photographed by Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange....

Here's a secret about loving the past too much: A longing to know what it felt like gives way to a slight sense of envy. In any exploration of the Great Depression -- whether taught by the history or humanities department, or across campus at the biz school, or thoughtfully curated at a museum -- the take-away is that it can never happen again, that there are federal safeguards in place, however flawed, that keep things from getting that bad.

We don't envy the suffering. What we marvel at is the togetherness. The idea (propaganda or otherwise) that people cooperated, persevered and figured out a way to cope. The business news in the last month has been about the hesitation of the consumer. It's about an economic pause, holding still, listening for trouble. In this century, when people have bought houses for no money, where the answer to any economic stumble is to buy more retail merchandise to put into those houses, wouldn't a little bit of Great Depression be just the medicine we need?

Wasn't it always?

Isn't that the voice of your own grandfather, in Heaven now and with full access to your credit report, clucking in disapproval?

My parents were adults when the banks failed in 1929, and they held onto farms through the bitter drought of the early 1930's. Family reminiscences inevitably got around to the Dust Bowl sooner or later, but no one ever gave me the impression it was something that "can never happen again, that there are federal safeguards in place...that keep things from getting that bad." My parents themselves grew up listening to first-hand accounts of hard times in Europe. My dad's granny was a child of six in Sligo during the famine of "Black '47." "Pick up that little potato," he would echo her to me in the fall garden. "You might be hungry some day and wish you had it." My mom's grandparents had Highland Clearance and Hapsburg Empire stories to let little girls know how lucky they are.

I still pick up the potatoes, even the little ones. They taste just fine.


Reya Mellicker said...

People should be very careful what they ask for. Depressions are not romantic. My god, what was he thinking?

As for the homeless, they've been driven away from many areas of DC. You'll see one or two, but most of the homeless are kept away from fancier districts.

And the Emperor has no clothes!

Rebecca Clayton said...

Totally disconnected from the real world. I read articles from people like this all too often, and I worry about them. They have cars, they can vote, they can injure themselves and others. May his grandfather in Heaven watch over him carefully.

Lori Witzel said...

Almost like folks I've known who traipse about wilderness as if it were a zoo or Disneyland...having gone hiking in times past with some, one can imagine their guardian angels looking like something from Edvard Munch's The Scream.