A Message From The Greatest Generation

William Kelly | Former SeaBee

I am an 88-year old remnant of the Greatest Generation, and a survivor of the Great Depression. I served in World War II from 1943-46, including one deployment of 19 continuous months, April 1944 through December 1945, in the Western Pacific Theater. Afterwards, I graduated college thanks to the G.I. Bill and had a rewarding and successful career in engineering for 63 years.

This brief autobiography describes where and how my basic beliefs, values and character were rooted. A huge portion of the Greatest Generation shares my story. It explains my elevated interest in the welfare of the middle and lower classes; my unshakable trust in women as the backbone of any society and why I care only for common sense, tangible, quantifiable solutions to problems. I detest dirty politics and am a truly independent citizen in philosophy, thought and action.

From ages fourteen to seventeen I worked summers on a North Dakota farm — five to nine for a dollar a day, plus bed and board, 7 days a week. I slept in a bunkhouse on a straw mattress and pillow, bathed in the horse trough out front and relieved myself in a two-holer out back. We used Monkey Ward’s catalogues for toilet paper. They took lots of crumpling.

I was born in August 1925 to join two sisters 10 and 7. Mom worked two jobs at ten cents an hour, and Dad was a traveling salesman who sold farm supplies. Together they were making a good life. However, following the stock market crash of 1929, my dad was fired the next year. The jobless number rose to 15 million by 1935.

Depressions are not monolithic events. The portion of people who kept jobs, farms, and businesses lived better than ever due to the collapse in prices for goods and services. Unemployment ranged from 10 to 22 percent between 1930 and 1936. Families whose providers were fired were plunged into immediate poverty through no fault of their own. That was us.

America was a patriarchal society carried over from the old country. A man headed the household, earned the living, and administered justice — “Just wait until your father gets home!” He had full responsibility for his family’s welfare.

Out of the 10 million unemployed men dad chose to join 1.4 million who left families to become nomads seeking non-existent work. They failed and could not or would not return to family and face clan and neighbors’ scorn as failures. Dad never returned. My total inheritance from him was a cowboy belt buckle.

Mom reared my two sisters and me with her Norwegian stoicism. I know she must have cried herself to sleep a hundred times but I never saw it. Each morning I was greeted with a smiling face and cheerful, something-will-turn-up reassurance. We moved to East Grand Forks, MN when I was 5 because living was less costly.

We entered poverty instantly, moved 18 times in 12 years looking for cheaper
digs. We lived mostly in flats, with access by stairs in the alley and narrow boardwalks among the roofs. I started first grade at 5, to keep out of my mother’s hair. As we went through the great depression I never had a penny in my pocket. I never dated girls, let alone went steady.

My youngest sister had an Irish temper and huge chip on her shoulder because of our circumstances. She would sit in an open window looking down on the street busy with people and cry. At 5 I asked her what was wrong and she would say, “You cannot understand.” I did as I grew up.

Snotty remarks from the “in” set of wealthier girls got them a taste of her Irish fists. Her frustration with poverty and its anger carried over to me, a much more handy punching bag. When I was 6 she took it on herself to teach me manners. She would slap me on top the head before each pronouncement: Whack! Walk on the outside of the sidewalk so girls don’t get splashed on! Whack. Hold the door open for ladies. Whack. Pull out chairs for women. Whack. Just answer, “Yes ma’am” and “no ma’am.” I would have been 3 inches taller but for her whacks.

If we wanted something we had to make it. The city dump was our Wal-Mart or some scrap yard or back alley abutting hardware stores. The dump harbored metals, copper, brass, lead, etc. to mine and sell to a scrap dealer at a quarter cent per pound. We were muscled out by grown-up hobos — who needed the money to survive. We slugged rats for entertainment, joining radio’s Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen’s fictitious friend, Skinny Dougan.

The find of one roller skate made two sets of wheels. One 2″ X 4” board four foot long was the footrest; one orange crate the body; two small boards the handle bars and two tin cans the headlights. We customized them to outdo “store bought” styles. We played run sheep run, kick the can, anti-eye over until mother’s one-mile-radius screech announced bedtime.

When your feel bored Google up the history of East Grand Forks, Minnesota-my home town from 5 through 17 years of age. North Dakota went “dry” years before prohibition and all the sin in the state including Grand Forks, its largest city moved across the Red River to the East side.

Every cat house, saloon, gambling hall and two-bit crook migrated to EGF from North Dakota. My street smart learning curve was vertical. When one crossed the main bridge from G.F. to the East Side they were greeted by Karns and Walski’s joint on their right side. Part of the front rolled up and one saw slot machines, roulette tables, poker and crap tables, huge bar and other enticements.

Whitey’s Wonder bar was art deco with 21 rare woods from around the world blended with scads of chrome made a dazzling place. Usually the joint owner’s were warned before the Feds left St. Paul. If the Feds got a successful raid, Whitey had a phony club owner who would be sent to jail for a year so the place kept running.

I was ten years old in 1935 and saw this on a daily basis in and around both Grand Forks, N.D. and East Grand Forks, MN. The hobo jungle on the East side started from under the bridge to about a quarter-mile upstream along the Red Lake River. Bums kept low profiles but would walk neighborhood streets looking for work, a coin dropped accidentally, a “snipe” — cigarette butt — or something of value. Sterno made lots of them blind and killed a few.

They were beaten men. The damage from unemployment is horrific. That formed my passion for today’s 14 million jobless — especially fellow veterans. I saw vets from the Spanish-American and WWI, cripples and hollow sleeves. Their care was poor, as today.

Mom and I stood by the railroad tracks in Grand Forks, N.D., to listen to FDR from the back of his special train. I had no clue who he was but mom talked of him like God.

A kind family took me to the Barnum and Bailey Circus. It was like Star Wars. Part of the sideshow included a king sized barrel about 80-feet in diameter inside which motorcyclists rode the walls using speed to overcome gravity. The hawkers were flamboyant, but the Big Top was a new world. High wire, trapeze, wild animals, clowns.

The movie house temporarily shut down any film so people wouldn’t miss hearing Amos and Andy’s 15 minute radio broadcast or nobody would come. Yo-yo’s were big. Pea shooters also. Milk and ice wagons plus fire engines were all horse-drawn. Hooky bobbing behind cars on icy or snow packed streets was thrilling — if you knew where the melted sewer covers were ahead of you.

We chewed tar from the edge of empty barrels left over from road construction and played with mercury from broken thermometers, sliding it on metal to produce a super shiny result. We survived just fine

I entered the service in 1943 after graduating from high school. I served until 1946 in the Pacific Theater, and later took advantage of the G.I. Bill to complete college. I worked for the Corps of Engineers for 31 years, during which I had 3 heart attacks, one at 40 and the last 15 years later at 55. The last heart attack convinced me bureaucracy and a Type A personality are a lousy mix and I needed another career on my own.

I retired in 1982 and started my consulting business, Value Engineering Services Transworld (VEST). I worked around the globe through 2010 in Japan, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Czech Republic, Germany, etc. I love working. I put in 10-hour days, at least 30 percent for 12. And the president condescends those who have fought from poverty to become very successful.

The Greatest Generation from the unemployed class were starved for work and self worth. We dedicated ourselves to become super achievers. We learned to invent. Our “primitive education” of reading, writing, and arithmetic gave America a second industrial revolution with invention and innovation galore.

I still have that ability and spirit.

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