Ancient Wisdom

My grandfather once said something to me around 1970 that I have never forgotten. He was born in my house in 1890 (or rather, I in his)—twenty years after his grandmother built the present home. He farmed continuously without a day lost to sickness from 1908, when he graduated from the local high school (the same one my children and I went to—but, of course, not the same school either [but that is an entirely different story]), until 48 hours before he died in 1976.

He had plenty of stories about the Depression. It started for farmers, he said, really in the early 1920s, when the boom prices and easy credit of the immediate post-Great War years led to rapid expansion in the planting of trees and vines, more debt, and—well, we all now know the familiar story. By 1933 he said sixteen relatives were living in the house, and another ten or so in various barns and sheds (the farm was only 120 acres).

They ate, he said, communal meals, worked a communal garden and met up in the evening after completing assigned “chores.” (I remember as a child a canned fruit storage room with concrete walls in the shed with old jars with tape on them labeled ‘freestone peaches—1933′, red plums 1936′).

Sometimes he would get a telegraph message delivered to go down to the local train station to pick up another jobless second cousin or sister-in-law. This was pretty much standard, he told, me until 1941 and the onset on the war when the bad times abruptly ended, and suddenly non-perishable items like raisins were needed overseas, labor was short, and nearly all his male relatives, from 18-40, disappeared into uniform and went off to Europe and the Pacific. (My uncle Beldon was injured on the Philippines, Holt died right after Normandy (I saw his grave at Hamm), another uncle went to Alaska, my father and his cousin to the Pacific, and so on).

My maternal grandfather was a rather eccentric farmer (in the 1940s he re-mortgaged his farm, right at the tail end of the Depression, in order to send his daughters to Stanford University). As I look back at some 55 years on his land, I confess I’m beginning to think that I haven’t met too many wiser souls, who combined abstract learning with knowledge of the stars, winds, smells in the air, flight of birds and geese, natural sense of barometric pressures to predict weather or compare climate with years past. In any case, back to the Depression.

He would drive me around in the late 1960s and early 1970s in his1946 international pick-up and point out the grand rural Victorian homes, built around 1918-19 that had bankrupt the farmer-owners, point out the farmers and packers who in reprehensible fashion sorta, kinda stole Japanese land during the war (and those fewer who had helped save the farms for their interned owners), and explained how some farmers on very poor soil had survived the Depression, while others on rich loam had gone under (yes, of course, character and industriousness and acceptance of tragedy with both resignation and determination were the keys, he said to survival).

In whispers, he also mentioned on our rural drives the names of local grandees (this was, again 1970) whose fathers in the late 1920s had burned down their majestic homes or barns (and even their wooden raisin trays) to garner pre-Depression insurance cash coverage. (I though of Balzac’s “Behind every fortune lies a great crime”.)