Sunday, October 22, 2017



Our numbers are shrinking but not our memories of being the children of those who survived the Great Depression.
Our children have muttered cheapskates behind our backs as we save string in a ball or soak uncancelled stamps off envelopes or without even thinking use all the other parsimonious tricks that those who were young in the 1940s and 1950s learned from the frugal adults who rode out the Depression. They invented new ways to use stale bread and squeezed nickels into quarters. Around our little house in Chesley, we grew all our vegetables, just like they did on front lawns in downtown Toronto.
 My grandfather hadn't worked for years in the furniture factories that dominated the town. To get a pound of butter for the home-baked bread, he had had to mow the grass in the town cemetery for a day. When he got work again, we lived as if the Depression could strike again next week. If a sealer jar of the preserves we put down in the fall turned just a bit, we still ate it. If it was really bad, we fed it to the Leghorns in the backyard pen and watched them stagger. No turkey on holidays, just whatever scrawny chicken was at the bottom of the pecking order.
I laugh with the other pensioners at this newfangled green movement about composting and recycling because we have done it all our lives, and not just at the cottage where jealous townies protect their dumps as if they were Fort Knoxes.
When I got an email from Dave McClure who I first met in Grade One, and he talked about Depression survivors, it brought back those days with bittersweet emotions. Dave's family ran a mill at the town edge. I spent most afternoons on a crude raft on their mill pond on the Rocky Saugeen and my cruises there produce more fond memories than ones on the Caribbean. I remember playing baseball in one of their fields using dry cow flaps for bases and running into a barbed electric fence.
Dave's theme was "economically I grew up in a blessed generation." But then his family produced the town mayor and school board chair and were successes, certainly to this runt who they teased endlessly.
Dave pointed out that in the 1950s, the low birth rate caused by the Depression, and the post-war rush of an expanding economy, plus the benefit of a low cost-of-living, produced a surplus of jobs. Why there were even, Dave points out as a retired high school teacher, two jobs for every teacher..... Here's his story:
I entered Western in 1954, registered in six courses...for my year's fees of $310, and entered Huron College residence where I paid my 30-week fee of $480 for complete room and meals.
To pay...I sold my five shares in Canadian Breweries and emptied my bank account which had been partially filled by my summer job at Canada Packers, a Chesley farm produce plant. To augment my university costs, I worked each year delivering the Christmas mail. The pay was 92 cents an hour.
Many of us were very blessed to be accepted into the University Naval Training Division which provided us with training, uniforms, accommodation and all our meals for the five-month summer recess. The pay was $185 a month. In the summer of 1955, I received a letter from Huron College that I would not be allowed to return. I was an immature 17-year-old and because of my behaviour I deserved that letter from the bursar.
Undaunted. my mother and I drove to London. I stopped at the Free Press and bought a paper for five cents, opened it and read this ad 'Free room and breakfast in exchange for babysitting.'
My mother and I drove to 70 Base Line Rd. and knocked on the door. It was answered by a little woman with a babe in her arms and four little children beside her. I protested that I didn't think that I could look after a little one-month-old baby but my mother and the baby's mother agreed that I could do the job just fine.
So I spent the next two years tending and babysitting those children and changing diapers on the infant. The mother was Joan Smith, later Ontario's Solicitor General, and the father was Donald Smith, then president of EllisDon, and that baby was Geoff Smith who is now EllisDon president.
A surprise ending right out of an O. Henry story. Turns out they really were the good old days for some of us aging wonders. Just days after being kicked out of his college residence, Dave was housed and fed by a woman who became a major politician, whose portfolio included all provincial first responders, and a self-made construction giant who among other buildings built Toronto's convention centre and SkyDome.
Obviously I should have learned how to change diapers instead of just trying to pass high school before I paid my $148 as my first year fees at Ryerson.

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