In his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography “Growing Up,’’ former New York Times columnist Russell Baker writes poignantly of what it was like to be a child during the Great Depression.
Baker’s story, published in 1982, chronicles the struggle of his widowed mother and her efforts to raise two children at the height of the Depression.
Taken in by relatives, the young widow’s best prospects for securing “a home of our own’’ appeared to be a marriage and Baker writes tenderly of a doomed romance between his mother, Elizabeth, and Oluf, a Danish immigrant who was a baker by trade.
The story is told first through Baker’s own memories of Oluf’s very proper parlor visits with his mom and later, when Oluf left to scour the country looking for work, through the letters exchanged between the two adults.
Oluf’s story resonates powerfully today. Before the Depression, Oluf had owned his own bakery. But the Depression forced him out of business. Initially, he found work at other bakeries in town, but as the economic disaster deepened, he was forced to hit the road in a wild and desperate effort to find work in his trade.
His letters to Elizabeth detail the story of his decline. At first, they are filled with hope and good humor, even though the job prospects remained unpromising. “Well it will all come out OK, I hope so,’’ he wrote.
But as time passed, Oluf began to lose hope and his letters began to betray his sense of despair. Finally, he wrote Elizabeth a last letter telling her not to write to him any more.
“I am lost and going and not interested in anything anymore,’’ he wrote. And with that, he simply disappeared into the Depression.
In March, the sale of the East Valley Tribune was approved and 19 of the remaining 33 newsroom employees were terminated. As a former Tribune editor and columnist, I found the news heart-breaking, if not unexpected.
I learned the fate of many of those former colleagues through their Facebook posts. As you might suspect, many of their friends and former co-workers left comments saying how sorry they were to hear the news and trying to offer some encouragement.
“I am so sorry to hear the news, but you are talented so you’ll find something,’’ was one of the general themes.
“This just means something better is coming your way!’’ was the tenor of the more hopeful responses.
But there were other comments that seemed to betray a sense of uncertainty.
“Good luck in your search.’’
“Hope you find something soon.’’
“Hang in there.’’
They say history is written by the winners and the survivors.
It is true there was a V.E. Day. It is also true a lot of fine soldiers never lived to see it. It is true that the country survived the Great Depression. But lost in the history are those who did not.
There is no way of knowing how many Olufs were crushed, maimed and destroyed by the Depression of the 1930s.
Similarly, we have no way of knowing how many of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs will become the Olufs of this generation.
It’s been almost three years since I was fired from the Tribune. As an ex-convict, I realize I go to the back on the line when new journalists enter the job market. In that sense, I am farther way from my goal than ever, which is why it is increasingly difficult for me to say, with any real conviction, “Well, it will all come out OK, I hope so.’’
To be honest, the notion that “tomorrow is another day’’ has become more of a necessary lie than a rallying point. More and more, I begin to fear that, like Oluf, I am “lost and going and not interested in anything anymore.’’
So when I encountered those former co-workers on Facebook, I did not encourage them to look to the future, because I have lost all confidence in it.
I simply wrote, “I am so sorry.’’
It is the only honest thing I can say.
Slim Smith is a free-lance writer living in Tempe. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.