For the last few years I have missed celebrating Father’s Day with my dad since he passed away. But I think of him constantly and often remember the many stories he told us of his childhood growing up in New York City.
My dad lived during the Great Depression. It had quite an impact on him and his family, as it did on others living during that time.
Here he describes, in his own words, a little of what it was like for a teenager back then.
It was the summer of 1932. I was 15 years old. I had just finished my first year in high school. My father and many others could not find work because the economy was in a depressed condition. I learned that a grocery store on 10th Street was looking for help. I talked with the owner – a big man with a Greek accent. He offered me a job at $1 a week for the duration of the summer. The duties consisted of watching the fruit and vegetable stand in the front of the store so that nobody would steal the fruits and vegetables. Also, I had to deliver customer’s groceries. I made deliveries on my bicycle. That usually resulted in tips of 15 or 20 cents.
When fall came, the grocery owner asked me to stay and work after school from 3 p.m. until the store closed at 11 p.m. The new duties involved putting cans and boxes on the shelves, cleaning up and helping customers.
After several months on the job, the owner confided in me that he sold whiskey. Of course this was during prohibition and it was illegal to do so. He told me he kept his contraband in his apartment. He was single and had a small apartment on the same street as his grocery. Since he had confided in me, he also felt I would be responsible enough to deliver his whiskey to his special customers. He even allowed me to use his store truck. At times I had to deliver bottles of whisky, which usually involved much larger tips – 50 cents or more! And I was never caught. Just a few close calls!
I actually did not like the grocery business. I had always dreamed of being an engineer. Since my family didn’t have much money, finding a way to go to college seemed impossible at that time. There were few jobs and men who had a family to support took them.
In 1936 I got a break and found a job in the maintenance department of a hotel at a salary of $18 per week. This was steady work and the hours were such that I could go to evening classes at the local university. I enrolled in the evening engineering College of New York University. I was able to continue working and save enough money to pay for my tuition.”
My dad worked hard to make his dream come true. He graduated with a degree in engineering from New York University in 1943; just in time to join the Navy during World War II.
I learned from my dad just how hard it was during the Great Depression. He not only had to work hard, but he had to take risks in order to keep his job. He taught me that if you want something, you have to work for it. There were no handouts when he was a young man.
But I think the most important thing my dad said to me was, “You can be anything you want to be.”
And that’s what I did.