Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Speaking of my father


I was a Depression baby, born in 1936. My parents started their adult lives at the worst possible time, economically speaking, although their circumstances were better than many of their contemporaries. Their honeymoon photograph shows a handsome smiling couple. They went off from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Schenectady, New York, where my father, a mechanical engineer fresh from the University of Tennessee, took a job as an X-ray technician with General Electric. He was most proud, he later told me, of inventing a new kind of versatile mechanical mount for the X-ray machine. Their stay in New York did not last long. Was it the cold weather or homesickness that send the newlyweds scurrying south? I suspect it was the latter, on my mother's part.

The best record I have of this part of their lives is a little account book kept by Dad's mother. On the inside cover is written: "Chester, As you know, our rule was, one family fund for all income and all expenses, until each child reached his or her 21st birthday. Here you will find a strict account of all loans made to you, and all credits due you, from your 21st birthday to date. I have kept a similar account for Arthur, Roger and Charlotte. Love, Mum." Most of the early entries are outgoing expenses to my father, mostly "Cash for school" and small regular amounts for life insurance. There's $25 for Tau Beta Phi, the engineering honor society at UT, and other advances for suits, shirts and shoe repair. In December 1932 his mother writes, "Finished school, Thank God!" Still, there follow four months of advances while my father was out of work due to the Great Depression. In June, 1933, he starts working again for American Lava Corporation in Chattanooga and regular monthly payments of $5 or $10 start flowing back into the family account.

Then, more advances as the wedding approaches in September of 1935, including $25 to Father Sullivan of Saint Peter's and Paul's Catholic Church for performing the ceremony. The ledger is blank for the next three years, as the young married couple struggles to survive on their own, but in 1938, two years after I was born, Dad's "Mum" is still paying her son's laundry bills and advancing 50 cents for a blue shirt and $1.53 for a lost library book. Fifty cents for a shirt, borrowed from Mum! And a baby to clothe and feed. And another on the way.

The Second World War and the industrial needs of the military at last conferred financial independence on my engineer father. No more loans from Mum after Pearl Harbor. The account book records that he was advanced $960.19 more than he paid back.