The Frisbie family over at Frisbie Family Fun Forever wrote a post the other day about how their family has been thinking a lot about the Depression lately. Not the one now, mind you. Things aren’t that far gone. Not yet, anyway. No, they were talking about the one in the 1930s. Quite possibly the toughest times in our country’s history. They were marveling at the sense of determination and self-reliance that people had to display back then. Not just to get ahead, but to stay alive.
Which got me thinking about a guy down at the gas station named Earl. Not that the gas station is his place of employment, mind you. As Earl’s pushing ninety-six and can’t get around as well as once upon a time, the gas station is just his hangout. It’s the one place in town where he can sit in a booth all day and watch most everyone pass by sooner or later.
Part down historian and part town gossip, he is the self-imposed high mayor and town council, and his booth is his throne. Like Sinatra’s table at Jilly’s, you don’t sit at Earl’s table. Not if you want to stay alive. Earl might be pushing the century mark, but he’s still a pretty tough guy. I’m not sure what he’d do if he caught some unassuming stranger occupying his seat. It’s never happened.
Earl has seen a lot in his ninety-six years: two world wars, four American ones, cars and computers and televisions and telephones. He’s endured the losses of his wife and all five of their children, countless recessions, and one big, nasty Depression.
You might think that all of this would make Earl a little long for this world. That he’d be worn out from all of his years. You’d be wrong, though. There’s no one in this world happier than him. No one.
With all that living, Earl has the advantage of perspective when it comes to the events of these days. He’s seen it all. And since he’s seen it all, there really isn’t much that catches him off guard. Take this current financial mess, for instance.
Me: “How bad’s it going to get, Earl?”
Earl: “Not bad enough that you’ll have to worry.”
Me: “I’m worrying about it now.”
Earl: “Well, you shouldn’t.”
His answer was not framed in financial statistics or a keep-your-chin-up inspirational speech. It was instead four one-syllable words:
“’Cause of the beans.”
The beans, you ask? Yes. Allow me to explain.
Earl was twenty years old in 1932 when he married his wife, Anna. Their first child followed shortly, and their second was born not long afterward. Trying to raise a family in the middle of the Depression was about as easy as it sounds. Work was sparse, pay was sporadic, and hope was nonexistent.
But God always provided what Earl’s family needed. They were poor, yes, but they were not destitute. They all had clothes to wear, a roof over their heads, and beans in the cupboard.
Lots of beans. Beans were cheap back then, Earl says. And since they were so affordable, that’s what was incorporated into every meal. Earl’s family lived off beans for years. According to him, everybody’s family did.
Which maybe wasn’t so bad. I like beans. And Earls says he liked them fine, too. But after eating beans for two meals a day for ten years or so, you start to get a little sick of them. You start to hate them. Earl swore that one day his family wouldn’t have to eat beans anymore, and that would be a fine day indeed.
That day did come. World War II brought work again for our country, and the prosperity afterwards ensured that the tough times were over.
People think the Depression was bad, Earl says. That’s true. But they also think there wasn’t any good in it. That’s not true. Families were strengthened. Faith was strengthened. People were strengthened.
According to Earl, tough times make tough people. And those times made maybe the toughest people we’ve ever had. People who saved the world from the Nazis and the Communists, who landed on the Moon and fought for civil rights.
Hurting might be bad for the body, but it’s good for the soul.
And losing what means much can reveal what means more.
Maybe he’s right.
I’ve read where people are predicting riots in this country. Bloody revolutions. Mass crime. The breakdown of society and the extinction of Christianity. Not me. Not Earl, either. We both think that the sort of people made seventy years ago are the same sort that can be made now. People who won’t be broken by life, but made tougher by it.