When Mother’s Day came recently I was thinking about mine, who I lost eight years ago. I’d love the chance to talk with her once more.
She was born on June 15, 1929, one of those watershed years in the U.S. As a boy, when my grandmother would tell me about 1929, I always visioned food lines, dirt blowing in the wind, and stockbrokers jumping from Manhattan windows. As I grew older the year became the face of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, or maybe gin joints.
But I wasn’t there, and had to rely on my grandmother’s memories, which were things like Popeye the Sailor Man, who came to life that year and did more for spinach sales in a few months than millions in advertising ever could.
Once she told me about an event that happened on Feb. 14, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago's North Side, when John May's German Shepherd, Highball, who was leashed to a truck, began howling and barking, attracting the attention of two women who operated boarding houses across the street. One of them, Mrs. Landesman, sensed that something was dreadfully wrong and sent one of her roomers to the garage to see what was upsetting the dog. The man ran out, sickened at the sight. What he had seen were seven men sprawled on the dirty floor and riddled with machine gun bullets. We know it today as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Frank Gusenburg was still alive when police first arrived on the scene, despite reportedly having fourteen bullets in his body. When questioned by the police about the shooting his only response was "nobody shot me.” He died three hours later.
In March of ’29, Herbert Hoover succeeded Calvin Coolidge as president. When the stock market crashes seven months after you take office, leading to something known forever as “The Great Depression,” your presidency probably never has much of a chance. Hoover’s was not the exception.
And it probably didn’t do much for his popularity when in May of that year he established the Wickersham Commission, which, to the disappointment of many, did not repeal the 18th Amendment.
Questionable wisdom: While it’s true that our citizens are starving to death and lack any hope, we feel it is in their best interest that they experience this despair with a clear mind, devoid of spirits.
Franklin P. Adams, a columnist for the New York World, summarized his opinion of the Commission's report with this poem:
“Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we're for it.”
Some escape came in the form of celluloid and in May the first Academy Awards took place. Tickets cost 5$ and 270 people attended the event that lasted 15 minutes.
In September, The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) peaked at 381.17. But then October came, and in just three trading days $30 billion was wiped out (ten times greater than the annual budget of the federal government). It would be 26 years before the Dow would reach 381.17 again.
Through it all we’ve managed to last from 1929 until today. Stocks are up, or maybe down, depending on where you got in. Tommy guns are gone but dead men on the wrong end of vengeance are still real. Drinking is legal, as is marijuana for the most part, yet somehow we always seem to want more of those things we can’t get.
So let us again toast the mothers, and grandmothers, who love us anyway, in spite of ourselves.
Jay Edwards is a freelance columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.