BALTIMORE MEMOIR:

The Thirties...

by E. L. Maugans
       It was a time when flagpole sitters endured the vagaries of the weather while hoping that charitable donors would reward their wacky vigil with two or more bits. Elsewhere, needy couples engaged in marathon dances, clutching each other, dragging their feet in slow foxtrots until they collapsed or survived as winners. Well-heeled couples shed the depression willies by jitterbugging, jiving and shimmying in classier dance halls. Panhandlers hit them at the exits for the change in their pockets...
       As I blew fluffy seed heads of dandelions apart, I listened to idle bench-warmers exchange remarks near the gazebo in Patterson Park. They were sharing misfortunes with each other, caught up in the crosswinds of the depression, chartless, with no goals, no viable options. To a man, they agreed to tread water until the brain trusts in Washington invented government- sponsored work.
       Meanwhile? “Life goes on. Trust God and the corner grocer.”
       I did the thirties. I was a 12-year- old stripling when they began, a candidate for the draft when they ended.
       Recalling the panic of 1893-94, some observers felt that the great depression, with its attendant stock market crash, bank failures and unemployment, was a necessary cyclic adjustment in a nation that had transformed into a manufacturing giant though it was dominantly agricultural at its birth--as Jefferson dreamed it should remain.
       Immobilized by sudden furloughs and terminations, many a displaced breadwinner in my old Sheep Hill enclave tightened his belt and sought day labor jobs, the soul in his stomach hungering for permanent employment. For whatever reason, my father left home before dawn and returned after nightfall--much like an individual with an odious contagious disease.
       As a compensation for the privations of a lean decade, a number of parents permitted their sons to keep homing pigeons in backyard coops. Others, such as myself, found escape in watching local barbers use leeches to suck purple blood from under the black eyes of customers who had been worked over by toughs-- a “lost art” that is probably still extant.

How Mencken’s vinegar became my honey

       Family economies had me wearing golfing knickers through high school and when I made daily deliveries of the News American papers, now defunct. My subscriptions swelled perceptibly when H.L. Mencken was indexed for unloosing his invective on St. Ignatius Loyola--a foolhardy venture in a city with an immense Catholic following. Mencken’s vinegar became my honey.
       I was fully aware that the darlings of many a family went to school in threadbare clothes, that women were apt to stop runs in their stockings with a dab of clear fingernail polish. It too was a time when self-reliant hausfraus took in laundry to tide over the shallows of a lagging economy. My mother did. I helped.
       On the four corners of Lexington and Park Ave. I watched grim-faced, joyless men peddle polished red apples to passersby--learning that one individual had a civil engineer’s degree. Of course, none were licensed.
       Elsewhere, impecunious men hawked razor blades and cheap household gadgets...
       Something had to happen. It did. A hands-on president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took over the nation’s helm. F.D.R., as he was called by friends and foes, was admired by the working class,,, despised by rockribbed Republicans, by the economically secure and the “old money” club--who considered him to be a traitor to his own caste.
       Without delay, the new president and his advisers invented a host of alphabetical agencies to get the wheels of the nation’s industries turning again. The NRA, the National Recovery Administration, was one of the first pet projects. It was visibly symbolized by a paste-on Blue Eagle. Businessmen were encouraged to display it everywhere; detractors sneered and called it a Blue Goose.
       Ignoring his critics, Roosevelt assembled a cabinet of intellectual theorists and hard-nosed pragmatists. He broke ranks with the past by appointing a woman, Frances Perkins, as head of the labor department--to the consternation of the misogynists guarding the ramparts of tradition. A shadow cabinet with connections on both sides of bargaining tables was epitomized by back-door Sidney Hillman: “Clear it with Sidney.”

The Brilliance of Ending Prohibition

       From what I could hear and see, the New Deal had little success with some of the “forgotten men.” In particular, many of them still frequented flop houses where a bed for the night cost less than two bits. However, F.D.R. did use his political clout to end the privation of the average boozer by repealing prohibition, thereby endearing himself to generations of thirsty imbibers after a long legalized personal drought. This stroke of political genius lightened the hardships of the noisome depression.
       With a schooner of beer as a centerpiece.of our evening meal, my father smiled benignly as he filled three tumblers, one each for my mother, brother and himself. With an exaggerated flourish,he passed a half-filled tumbler to me. Imitating my elders as best I could, I swallowed a mouthful and grimaced---it tasted like medicine. However, I finished my portion but declined a refill. Years later, as a young adult, I acquired a fondness for the sudsy brew.
       In those days there were virtually no violent crimes, no crimes which were so frequent that the law-abiding public became inured to them--as seems to be the case today. No gunning down of mere school children. No random drive-by murders. No shootouts between police officers and armed thugs. No wholesale bombing of public buildings. No slaying of children by children.
       About the most alarming episode that I personally witnessed was an altercation on the southwest corner of Patterson Park Ave. and Biddle St., across from Rennick’s Pharmacy. The antagonists were Woody Welch, a graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and a billy-wielding patrolman whom we boys called Big Nose, because he sported an immense red one. Both he and Woody had a crush on the same young lady--the clerk of the Arundel Ice Cream parlor on the corner. Big Nose threatened Woody once too often with his nightstick. Woody seized it and hurled it on the building’s roof as we boys applauded.
       Deeming the act to be a chargeable offense, we all dispersed like racing greyhounds. Woody was arrested, stood trial before a magistrate, was lectured and dismissed. The young lady in question seemed to be thrilled by the circus she had created. So much for “crime” in Northeast Baltimore in the thirties.
       Relationships: In the thirties, they were called affairs and usually led to engagements and marriages. Homosexuality was a private matter that families swept under the carpet. Romance was not a lost art, often alluded to as puppy love.
       Not everyone was touched by the depression, stock market crash or the attendant drought--nor by pandemic unemployment. Many, but not all.

Entertaining a Mesmerized Electorate

       Other than the fireside chats that President Roosevelt used to reach a mesmerized electorate, the radio was used by uncommon clerics to. captivate skeptics who had been scored by the dual whiplash of depression and unemployment.
       One of the most expressive was a Catholic priest, Father Coughlin. The principal targets of his rolling invective was the “international bankers.” After a long tour of duty on the airwaves, the good clergyman was closed down--possibly because he had strayed from religious pastures into political and financial strongholds, thereby incurring his removal by orders from on high.
       Another clerical spellbinder used the radio to admonish the ungodly with hell and damnation sermons. He called himself Father Divine. He too enjoyed a lengthy period on the airwaves, ministering to both black and white audiences. It was rumored that misuse of funds and self serving activities toppled him...
       Depression, drought and dust bowls in the west, along with unemployment, exposed the imprudent investments made by untrustworthy bankers. To halt a run on those banks which were trying to do business as usual, Roosevelt declared a “bank holiday.” Some years after the emergency, when the banks divied up what was left of their assets, my parents closed out a “safe” savings account. . They got ten cents on the dollar.
       As employment made a slow comeback in some areas, the press, radio and Pathé News reported on the plight of Oklahoma farm workers, the Okies, who fled by the thousands from the debacle of the dust bowls to the west coast--while lean white faced Hereford heifers were shipped to green pastures in the east to fatten before they were slaughtered. I witnessed the doomed creatures cropping the grass close on a farm near my maternal grandparents’ ten acres in Western Maryland, where I vacationed each summer until death wiped out three members of the family in one year. I grew up fast thereafter--and God grew merciless.

Sweet Recovery

       With all three of the male members of the family employed, our lifestyle moved up a notch or two. We moved into a larger house on Preston Street, where the ice box was replaced by a refrigerator, a Frigidaire; and the crystal radio with earphones, by a table-top Atwater Kent.
       This latter transformation permitted the family to widen its interests. We could listen to the big bands that were becoming a nation-wide rage: Guy Lombardo with melodic dancing tunes, Rudy Valle and his Pennsylvanians. Valle doubled as a crooner with a nasal twang. Morton Downey, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, each with singular styles, captivated the nation. Kate Smith, with visceral volume, belted out “America,” thereby endearing thousands.
       The motion picture industry produced never-to-be-forgotten masterpieces in color, with sound tracks that put an end to the careers of actors whose voices crackled. Inspired by a bold little mouse beneath his drawing board, Walt Disney invented Mickey and Minnie Mouse before enrapturing the world with a super cartoon-- “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.” Charles Laughton, as Captain, and Clark Gable, as Mr. Christian, gave life to a best seller book, Mutiny on the Bounty. Subsequent portrayals paled in comparison..
       All of the foregoing were no more than stage props for what was a nascent reality--scenery that was being moved by three clowns miles and miles away. Their names were Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Tojo--the Axis. My pals at the press club, better informed than I, felt that they were heavies bent on murder and mayhem--in other words, on war. Comedian Red Skelton, in town for a gig at the Hippodrome, was of the same mind.
       I grew up fast in the thirties. faster than I wanted to. When we disbanded on that last night together, I recalled a bit of wisdom dropped on me by an old timer: “Life itself is lethal. If you have it, you’re going to die of it--ultimately. It is accelerated by pestilence--and war.”
       
E.L. Maugans, 82, lives in Charles Village. During his long career in the U.S. and South America, he has worked in real estate and the food commodities business.

 


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This story was published on June 28, 2000.