Life In Depression America Wasn’T As Bad As It Sounds, Part Ii

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Last week we left off at the end of the 1931 monster movie “Frankenstein.” The monster, having wreaked havoc on a small village and its people, stood raging above the angry mob that had driven him into the country and atop a spinning windmill. As the monster roared hatred at the people below and cringed at the flames atop their torches, the only thing he feared, the people tossed them into the mill, setting it alight.

Fire rose into the pitch-black night, filling it with hot crackling. And then ...! And then ...! Justice prevailed over evil. The burning mill caved in upon itself, taking the monster with it, THE END filled the screen, and I finally took a breath.

I tell you, Johnny, going for 1 hour and 40 minutes without breathing is hard on a kid!

I can’t tell you how Eleanor was faring through it all. From the moment the monster rose up on that operating table to the moment that mill crashed down in a shower of sparks she might as well not have been there. As the movie faded off the screen we pried our sweating hands apart, eyed each other wide-eyed in the darkened theater, and then put our hands back together, but not a word passed between us. There was no time for talk. Not even one word. The screen lit up. Eerie music filled the air again.

A thought flashed through my head as I remembered I had not bought the honey-licorice cough drops I had intended to share with Eleanor. But there was no time for thoughts, no time for anything except the impossible scene taking place up on the screen.

The monster was back! Back atop the burning windmill. Just as before, the mob yelled and jeered. The monster roared its hatred and hurled its maker off the top. And then, just as before, the mill crashed down upon itself. Whew! Gone! At last! Thank heaven.

You don’t know Hollywood.

A fade out and fade in. The smoldering ruins of the mill stand stark and black against the sky as the villagers trudge back home. All except poor Hans and his wife. Their daughter was killed by the monster in the first film and Hans swears that he will not rest until he sees the scorched bones of the monster.

Entering the ruined mill he falls into a flooded pit beneath it. Unhurt, he begins searching for the remains of the monster. A tiny click shatters the silence of the tomblike pit. Hans turns. You cannot see what he is seeing. You can only see his eyes, swollen great with horror. A hand reaches out and clutches his throat.

Above waits a nervous wife. She calls to Hans. You squeeze Eleanor’s hand as she peers downward. “Not there!” some kid yells. “Behind you!” A moment later she pitches to her death.

Still in shock as the murdering monster lurches off, you hear violin music. The camera switches to an old man playing right out in the open. His staring eyes tell you that he is blind. Oh, no!

The monster lumbers closer. Closer. Closer. But the blind guy hears him and just plays his music. And what? The monster likes music. Pretty soon they’re living together in an old cabin. He claps his hands to the music. All is well.

It won’t last, kid. It doesn’t.

The monster is caught. They sew up a “bride” for him. But she’s got eyes too, so she can see the monster. Uh-oh! In no time at all the new doctor, the monster, the bride, the doctor’s bride, and half the countryside explode sky high as the monster pulls the self-destruct switch on a great stone tower.

Outside the theater in the bright sun and fresh air, you and Eleanor hold hands as you cross the street to the candy store. There’s a whole dime in your pocket. In the candy store the guy crams a small, white paper bag full of penny candies.

The two of you stroll home, taking your time. Eleanor sighs. “So sad. The poor monster. All he wanted was a friend.”

Coming from anyone else that comment would have earned a horse laugh, but for once you stop and think before you speak. “Yeah. I guess he wasn’t so bad after all.” And you really feel that way.

The two of you talk about it until you reach Eleanor’s front porch. You tell her to keep the still full bag of candy, but she tells you to save it for tomorrow. Tomorrow is Sunday. You ask her if she’d like to go up on Ward Hill and help you fly a kite. She says yes. You wish you could kiss her, but the two of you are out there on the street and you can feel all those eyes on your back. 

On the other hand. Tomorrow? Up on top of Ward Hill ...? Tomorrow is going to be another great day.

And so it went during the Depression. 

Did we suffer? Maybe, but it depends on what you mean. We were never hungry, though some people were, some of the time. We were never really cold, though the only thing heating our house in winter was a kerosene-fired kitchen range and a small kerosene heater in the living room.

We didn’t exactly “do without.” At least not the kids. How can you “do without” something you never had? OK, so a sole flapped loose off my shoes once in a while. They put it back on, didn’t they? OK, so never in my childhood did I own a pair of pants, a shirt, or a coat that wasn’t a hand-me-down. So what? They fit me; were clean; they kept me warm. In fact, the neatest piece of clothing I ever owned was an ancient lamb’s wool vest, with the leather out and the lamb’s wool in. If I put it on under my jacket in the winter there was no way to get me cold. I kept that old vest until I went overseas at age 20. I’d still have it now, but it wasn’t there when I got home because we had moved and the old woolen vest hadn’t made the cut.

And there were all my friends. And, one perfect day, Lolly! People. You see?

You can’t be poor when you have people around you, Johnny.

Riches aren’t measured in dollars. They’re measured in love.

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