Monday, August 3, 2009

Talking Great Depression Blues

I saw the Dell'Arte original show about the Great Depression, called The Body Remembers, shortly after returning from a visit back home to western Pennsylvania. While I was there, my sisters and I sorted through several boxes of photos and documents, some unopened since each of my parents died (my mother in 1974, my father in 1990.) There were some photos from the 1940s and 30s, and also three letters my father received at his CCC Camp in 1940--one from a hometown buddy who was in another CCC camp, and two from his mother--my paternal grandmother, who died several years before I was born.

My father rarely talked about his past, but whenever there was an economic recession or other economic problem in the news, I could pretty much count on him saying that what they ought to do is revive the CCCs. I've since read about the CCC and other New Deal programs, but those letters provided something more specific: the role they played in my father's life, part of which led to me.

The Civil Conservation Corps was a program that employed young men (starting at 17 or 18) in conservation projects all over America. The projects were developed by the Interior Department, but the Corps was run by the Army. Young men lived in Army-style camps, were provided with food, clothing and shelter, and paid a small wage, most of which was automatically sent back to their families. Between 1934 and 1943, some 3 million men cumulatively worked in more than 4,000 camps.

From the letters we learned that my father was in a camp in Blain, Pennsylvania, a few hundred miles from his home in United, PA. Some guys got sent thousands of miles away, often to the West, but that may have mostly been earlier in the program. His friend was in a camp even closer to home, in the Laurel Highlands, not far from where one of my sisters now lives. There were apparently about 150 guys at my father's camp (though 300 was the norm), and they were building Big Spring state park. The camp was very isolated, probably as far into the woods as he'd ever been (or ever would be again). But besides a military schedule and discipline, they had activities--sports teams that competed with other camps, for example. His friend was closer to a town (Somerset) and so seemed to have a lively social life.

My father's hometown was built by the United Coal and Coke Company, and his father and grandfathers were (or had been) coal miners. Mines were closing in the 30s, and there were big and violent strikes in the 20s and 30s, that got the miners essentially nothing. There were few jobs, no money and no future there.

The plight of the miners in the area was so severe that the FDR administration built one of a few experimental communities there. They built new houses (with a novelty in the area: indoor plumping) and started cooperative farms and eventually a small garment factory. It came to be called "Norvelt," the last syllables of Eleanor Roosevelt's name, after she came to visit it. Locals apparently just called it the homestead.

The homestead is mentioned in my grandmother's letters, though they didn't get to live there. They were still in United. By 1940 Norvelt was changing, and people who lived there were being asked to buy their houses rather than rent them. But I also learned about Norvelt on this trip because there was an article in the local newspaper while I was there: this summer was Norvelt's 75th anniversary. And as it happens, one of my sisters now works for a small business that's housed in the very building that used to be the Norvelt coop garment factory.

At issue in the letters in 1940 was what my father was going to do next. Apparently his hitch was up, and there was anxiety about losing the money he was bringing in. The family was saving to buy their house. The letters left the matter unresolved, but they fit with something else I saw many years before. It was a mimeographed, stapled newspaper, and inside it was my father's name, as editor-in-chief. Probably my mother dug it out and gave it to me, when I started my string of editors jobs in junior high. My father never mentioned it. I've examined it since, though at the moment I've lost track of it again.

It was the publication of the "self-governing community" called Armor City, a National Youth Administration work experience project in South Charleston, West Virginia. It was another federal project under the umbrella of the Works Project Administration. It seemed to be very much like the CCCs, except this was for slightly older young men, and it's purpose was to train them for jobs in industry, not the woods. Eventually it was training them for jobs in national defense, and judging from other information about South Charleston at the time, that's what my father was probably doing. There was a big naval munitions plant in South Charleston. My father was there in 1941 and apparently still there in 1943, when he was called home for his mother's last illness. Soon after, he got a good paying job in industry, in a plant in Youngwood, PA that made military instruments. That's also where he met the young woman who would become his wife and my mother.

I grew up with some tales from the Depression, on both sides of the family, as well as from the lives of parents and grandparents of school friends, and total strangers. I got more interested in it all in the 60s, thanks in part to Bob Dylan being so interested in Woody Guthrie. And of course, Arlo. I've heard stories since--Steve Allen told me a few--and read many more. It's important in terms of what individuals and families went through, though I would stop short of calling those who lived through it and are still alive "Depression survivors," as some of the Dell'Arte publicity did. It sounds too much like "Holocaust survivors," which is a different order of experience. It also tends to distance us from it.

That era is also important in other ways. Another of the WPA programs was the Federal Theatre Project, which not enough theatre people know enough about. I hope to write a little about that on this blog soon. For now, I'll add what I wrote about the Dell'Arte production in the NC Journal, which ends with a statement that suggests what I've just gone on about:

For their Dell’Arte School thesis project, Brian Moore and Liza Bielby explored the 1930s Great Depression experiences of Timber Ridge Assisted Living Center residents, partly inspired by Stud Terkel’s oral history, Hard Times. The result is The Body Remembers, presented most recently as part of the Mad River Festival.

Moore was the appealing onstage host, but the stars were five women from Timber Ridge: Arline Hubbard, Helen Buck, Antoinette Cusumano (a spry 96 years old), Theo Feeney and Dawn Lucchesi. Their stories were supplemented by audio and some often effective but disappointingly projected photos and video.

True to their training, the Dell’Arteans used a variety of physical techniques to unlock and express memories, and to incorporate movement on the stage. The depth of their research and the honing and editing they did were evident and admirable. Together with the enthusiasm of the stars, it all resulted in some lovely moments, and memories that were surprisingly moving because they were otherwise so mundane. The remembered reality could be riveting as well, as in the ordinary photo of happy young adults at the beach. All the men in the photo died within a few years, in World War II.

If the pitfall for Cornerstone is seeming presumptuous, for this production it was being condescending to these elders, but that didn’t happen. Several Dell’Arte students assisted onstage, and the respectful, affectionate intergenerational flow characterized the evening.

The Depression experiences of these women spanned the country, though few were specific to the North Coast. Even though the show was shaped to these particular women, I would have liked a larger historical context (as Terkel provides) for the Great Depression, and more about male experiences. For example, there was audio of a man’s voice mentioning, “hobo—ing…We went any place just to be going some place.” How many people know now that at the height of the Depression, hopping freight trains to look for illusory jobs became this hopeless constant motion, and more than a million (mostly) men were perpetually riding the rails? Terkel is a good guide to the 1930s, but so is Woody Guthrie.

Those days are alive in my own family history, and some final lines in this show sounded similar to something my maternal grandmother used to say: “You just do the best you can, and that’s what we did.”

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