By 1936, the Great Depression had savaged the nation and the world, and Asheville and Buncombe County were left in dire financial circumstances.
Schoolteachers were being paid in scrip (IOUs from the county that some local merchants reluctantly accepted, at deep discounts, so that teachers could buy the bare necessities of life). Land was still being "sold to music," as my grandfather used to say. (Public foreclosure auctions literally "drummed up" a crowd for the sale.) Unemployment was in the high double digits, and soup kitchens were still common.
Of course, as a 5-year-old boy trudging off to my first day of class at Claxton School, I was completely oblivious to all of these circumstances.
Still, the Depression did dictate a way of life, and we children received constant reminders of "waste not, want not" — and how much worse off others were.
About every six months, we got a new pair of shoes at the Thom McCan store on Pack Square. Children's shoes were about $3 and adult shoes about $6, and the price didn't change for years.
The new shoes were, of course, saved for special occasions, and heaven forbid you scuffed them before you outgrew or wore out your "regular shoes."
The worn and outgrown shoes were sent with you to school for the many children who had no shoes at all. It wasn't uncommon to put cardboard in worn shoes till a determination could be made as to whether it was worth having them half-soled. A darning egg was standard equipment in most homes to prolong the life of worn socks.
It was always a treat when my parents let me eat in the school lunchroom, where lunches cost about 25 cents, but I usually carried my lunch from home.
I don't know if there was a free school-lunch program, but there were always children waiting around in case you didn't want some part of your lunch. They seemed as if they never got enough to eat, and I understand that to this day, the best and sometimes only meal many children get is the one they eat at school.
I, meanwhile, was constantly admonished to bring home my stained paper bag, neatly folded, so it could be reused.
In those days, people saved everything — string, pins, rubber bands — and almost any house you visited had balls of "tinfoil" sitting around. It was as if some huge silver duck had laid silver eggs and was expected to come back and hatch them.
Actually, this foil (which was a common food wrap) contained lead, but then this was pre-Environmental Protection Agency. It also had scrap value, and we bought tons of it at the scrap yard.
I was probably more aware than most youngsters of how desperate people were during those times, because I hung around my daddy's scrap-metal business at the depot.
I remember seeing children, some no older than I was, walking the railroad tracks with a burlap bag and picking up chunks of coal that had fallen off one of the endless stream of coal trains that came through Asheville.
Many young people dropped out of high school, not by choice but because they had to work to help feed their family. This was especially true in the rural community, where farmers depended on the vagaries of produce, tobacco prices and fickle weather, which together dictated crop production aimed at saving their land and homes from foreclosure.
Many farms failed anyway. The Grapes of Wrath was not a fairy tale.
I may have mentioned in an earlier column a vision that still resonates with me — of a constant stream of men coming to my daddy's office looking for work. Many were dressed in coats and ties, and my daddy told me that some had been bankers, clerks, bookkeepers and government workers, but they were now willing to take any job to feed their family.
My dad would explain that the only work he could offer included loading heavy barrels and working in the nasty hide basement and that they wouldn't last two days. Others came seeking financial help, and I know my dad, a kind and generous man, made many loans that he knew would never be repaid.
I guess the whole point of this column and my last one ("Depression-era Memories," May 20 Xpress) is to give the young people of this community some perspective on what it was like during the last big Depression and what might be coming amid the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions we now face.
I know that the last thing this better-educated, high-tech, up-and-coming generation wants to hear is free advice from an old curmudgeon, and of course it's worth exactly what they're paying for it.
Well, I have 50 words left, so I am going to give it anyway.
You've been told all your life that someone will take care of you. Don't believe it: Many of those people who told you that are now in financial trouble themselves.
Prepare for the worst scenario you can imagine. If you have a job, even if you don't like it, respect it for now, and do your best to keep it.
Save every dollar you can.
If you don't have to have something, don't buy it. Forget about new; try to extend the life of what you have.
You are in a real-life reality show, and it ain't going to be fun.
Finally, I want to quote my daddy one more time: "It is a lot easier to live up than it is to live down."
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at email@example.com.]