Depression & War
Promises and Soup Lines with Franklin D. Roosevelt
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP. I tapped my pencil against my leather notebook.
I was bouncing ideas and a cat toy off Kayto. Kayto is my Himalayan kitten whom has had the chance to time-travel with my Band of Patriots. John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison really took to the little fur ball, but I wasn’t quite sure how Franklin Delano Roosevelt would react.
I needed ways to bring our FDR unit to life. I’ve been racking my brain for over an hour now, trying to come up with some kind of unit project, but it has evaded me.
Out of nowhere, a foam cat toy struck me across the face. It hit me! Not just the toy, but also a great idea. “Thank you, Kayto!”
The next morning, I briefed my Band of Patriots before we set off on our time-travel adventure.
“Now kids, I want to talk to you about something. Normally, when we’re travelling back in time, we tell the people we are visiting who we are and where we are from. I thought long and hard about it last night, and I have come to the conclusion that in this case, and in others when we are not going to meet FDR himself, we should keep that information under wraps. The reason being the more people who know about us and what we’re able to do the more of a chance we have to affect the past. Under no circumstances do we want to change history! Whether it is a negative or a positive impact we have, the most important thing is for us not to have an impact at all; even the smallest change could have drastic consequences on the future. Do you guys understand?”
“It’s kinda like Back to the Future when the people started disappearing from the picture because the changed history,” Moe observed. “I’m cool with that. I don’t want to disappear. My parents would freak out!”
I chuckled. “Yes, Moe, kind of like in Back to the Future. The thing is, we simply don’t know what effect the knowledge of who we are might have, so in this case, I think it is better to be safe than go missing.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Franklin,” responded Amelia.
Raven and Jax nodded their heads in approval.
“Good,” I continued. “Now that we have that out of the way, today we are going back to Columbus, Ohio, on August 20, 1932, to listen to one of Mr. Roosevelt’s campaign speeches. The state of Ohio was hit extremely hard by the depression, and by 1932 the unemployment rate had reached 37.3%; to give you a comparison, in July of 2014 the unemployment rate in Detroit was 17.7%.” I adjusted the hands on the pocket watch.
“My mom says that like no one in Detroit has a job,” Raven added.
“Well, apparently even fewer people had jobs in Columbus back then,” said Jax.
Amelia rolled her eyes. “Okay, guys, can we go already.”
“Yes, we must be on our way before we run out of time.” My thumb reached for the engraving on the back of my watch.
They all gathered at the front of the class and we found ourselves back in time before we knew it. The watch must have known that the campaign rally was going to be crowded because it didn’t even bother to drop us off in some isolated place like most other times. Nope, it plopped us right in the middle of the crowd of people that had come to hear FDR speak. The people around us seemed to simply think that we had tripped and fallen because several reached out to help us onto our feet.
A large man in a nice suit stood over me. “Hey there, my name is Daniel.” He reached out his hand and helped me to my feet. “This is my wife Bonnie and our children, Mary and John,” he told me, stepping back.
“Hello, I’m Waldo,” I replied, “and this is Jax, Raven, Amelia, and Moe.”
Daniel’s grin stretched ear to ear as he took in the large crowd. “Can you believe that Mr. Roosevelt didn’t even have 2/3 of the majority vote going into the Democratic Convention less than two months ago? Many people thought that John Garner was going to get it or even Alfred Smith because he was Catholic and said he would end Prohibition,” said Daniel.
“But they picked Mr. Roosevelt?” asked Moe.
“A lot of it had to do with him picking Mr. Garner to be his running mate, young man,” Daniel responded. “I’m sure it also had to with all he did to help New York during the first two years of the Depression. He’s a great man.”
Bonnie put her arm around Daniel. “I have to say, I was worried at first he wouldn’t be able to handle the presidency with his polio and all. But he even flew to Chicago to accept the nomination in person, so he must not be too weak. He’s a strong man whom we all can learn from.”
We all watched and listed to Mr. Roosevelt. He spoke about the lack of leadership and where he felt Washington had failed during the past three years. The more he spoke, the more hyped and animated the crowd got, and by the time he was finished everyone was cheering.
“He’s just fabulous!” clapped Bonnie, her and Daniel’s eyes both locked on Mr. Roosevelt.
I gathered around my Band of Patriots. “All right guys, there’s one more stop we need to make.”
I said a silent prayer that the Lord would help me during this visit and use this as a good learning experience for the kids while I took out my pocket watch and set the minute and hour to reflect January 25, a date that didn’t necessarily mean anything specific to history, but I thought it would show the kids a picture of the struggles they were about to see. I let out a sigh and rubbed the engraving on the back of my watch, whispering “1938.”
With a louder than normal crash, we landed in a damp and dirty back alley in downtown Cleveland, the same city we had just visited only a few years before in time. Back then the city had been filled with the excited cheers of a crowd ready for change; unfortunately, I did not think we would see the same reaction today.
“These clothes are a little…how do I say it? Scraggly?” Amelia said. Her face was drawn and expressionless as she looked over the garments we had on.
“I was going to go with ragged,” said Moe.
“Yeah, ragged,” Raven added, rubbing her hands together and hoping the friction would create some warmth.
“Well, at least you didn’t land in a trash can,” Jax moaned, brushing off his clothes. “I think I sat on something wet. Why do I always have to fall into weird things?”
“Where are we going, a homeless shelter?” asked Moe.
“Not quite, but you’re close. When you think of the Great Depression, what picture comes to your mind?” I asked.
“Soup and bread lines?” Amelia replied, a little unsure of herself.
“Exactly. The pictures of the soup and bread lines are some of the most unforgettable pictures we have of the Great Depression for our generation to look back on. Today they won’t be just pictures though; it will be actual living, breathing people standing in those lines.”
We made our way out of the alley and a crowd of people came into view. I pointed and continued, “It looks like this is the way, kids; let’s go.”
“I don’t know what’s in it, but it actually smells really good,” commented Moe, rubbing his stomach.
“That’s the smell of homemade bread. My granny makes it every weekend,” Amelia said.
We finally reached the crowd of people and we noticed that the soup kitchen was actually being held at a local church. We had to walk down the entire block and around the corner before we found the end of the line. On the way, we passed scores of people, some alone, some couples, some families. It was the families that made the biggest impact on the kids.
“There are so many children,” Amelia commented in shock, “and they all look so hungry.”
“Soup kitchens often only serve food once a day, so this might very well be the only meal they get today—they probably are really hungry,” I explained.
“How awful,” expressed Raven, a look of grief coming across her face when we passed one little girl crying in her mother’s arms.
When we finally found the end of the line, we were greeted by none other than Daniel and Bonnie, the couple we had met at Mr. Roosevelt’s campaign speech in 1932.
“Hello,” I said as we took our spots in the back of the line.
“You look so familiar. Have we met before?” asked Daniel.
“Yes, we have; I think you helped me up when I fell at President Roosevelt’s campaign speech back in ’32,” I told him.
“Ah yes, Waldo, isn’t it? Waldo Franklin . . . Say, you’re not any relation to Benjamin Franklin, are ya? I’m sure you get asked that a lot, but I meant to ask you before.” He chuckled, his face frail compared with the last time I saw him. The man still had his good spirits about him.
“It’s not a problem; yes, as a matter of fact, I am a relation to him—although distantly.”
He smiled wide like that’s the best news he’s heard in years. “Well, I’ll be . . . Well, it’s good to see you again, although it doesn’t look like it’s under the best of conditions for either of us.”
Bonnie stroked Daniel’s arm, nudging herself closer to him. “Daniel lost his job last fall when Mr. Roosevelt decided to cut government spending. Cutting government spending meant cutting the WPA program, so out Daniel went. The program was the only reason we were getting by at all really.” Bonnie shook her head. “I’m not blaming Roosevelt, but he can do more.”
Daniel patted Bonnie and hugged her. “We’re thankful that our Johnny is still with the Corps and that he is sending his monthly stipend home to help out. Still, it will only last for a few more months, and then he will come home.”
“I don’t know what the government was thinking,” whispered Bonnie, “cutting jobs like that. How could they think that would help? So many people have lost their jobs already, and the unemployment rates keep rising, according the papers. They say they have gone up almost 5% already.”
Daniel moved out from the line and gazed up toward the front. He then came beside me and patted me on the shoulder. “They’re calling this a double-dip recession in the papers,” he whispered, “but I like to call it what I heard someone say the other day—Roosevelt’s Recession, that’s what it is. But enough about us, we’re getting by; we’re sorry to throw our troubles at you. How are you, Waldo? The kids?”
“We’re good, considering.” I shrugged, trying to fit in with the terrible situation.
“Aren’t we all?” smiled Daniel. “I guess we all need to count our blessings a little more; maybe it will help keep our spirits up. We’re lucky to have a fine charity like this offering us one hot and hearty meal a day to fill our bellies with.”
“I hear that Al Capone has a soup kitchen in the Chicago area that serves three meals a day,” mentioned Bonnie.
“But I thought Al Capone was a gangster?” asked Raven.
Bonnie laughed hard and hugged Raven. “Oh, he is, sweetie. I think he is just trying to clean up his image some,” explained Bonnie.
We inched our way closer to the front of the line, and after what seemed like hours, we finally had a view of the door.
“There’s that little girl I saw earlier,” said Raven, her face falling as the girl got closer to us. “She still looks hungry and sad.”
“The Depression is a hard time, Raven,” I explained as Amelia pulled her into a comforting embrace, “and it’s harder on some than it is on others unfortunately.”
After a short time, we finally made our way through the doors of the church. We were each handed a bowl, spoon, and cup as we waited for the line to take us to the servers. Once we were there, the thin soup was ladled into our bowls, and a piece of bread was handed to us while our cups were filled up with water.
“It looks like water and salt,” frowned Moe. “It smells–”
“That’s because it is water, Moe,” I whsipered as we took our seats. “Soup kitchens, also sometimes called soup and bread lines for the long lines like the one we just went through, were run by private charities that didn’t always have a lot of money. They made soup because it was cheap, and if more people showed up than what they were expecting, all they had to do was add water to the soup to make it go further.”
“Wow. I guess that makes sense,” said Moe. “It really makes me appreciate how well we have it.”
“I’m sure it makes sense to all those hungry people we saw outside,” frowned Ameila.
It only took us a few minutes to finish our meals. I don’t know if it was just that the kids were growing or the fact that they knew the people around them were truly grateful for the meal they got, but every kid cleared their plate without even a crumb left.
“I think it’s time for us to make our way back, kids,” I said after we had turned in our dishes and started towards the door. We said our goodbyes to Bonnie and Daniel–such welcoming Americans!
“Can we take the long way, Mr. Franklin? So we can see the line once more?” asked Raven.
I’ll admit I was a little shocked by her request, and I was worried the faces of the tired and hungry would upset the kids even more, but I obliged her wishes. Within a few minutes, her motives were made known. It was then that we passed the family with the little girl that had touched Raven’s heart earlier when we were in line. Raven ran up to the mother and said something I couldn’t understand. The mother looked like she was going to cry, sincere surprise filling her eyes.
Raven pulled something out of her coat pocket, and as Jax, Amelia, Moe, and I came closer. It was a piece of bread. Raven must have saved it from her lunch. She handed it to the little girl, who in turn gave her a big hug and a smile. The mother mouthed thank you, tears running down her cheeks.
“That was very, very sweet of you,” I told Raven, smiling from ear to ear.
“It was the least I could do.” She shrugged.
It was time and we made our way back through time to our classroom.
Back in the classroom, I decided to use first period as a time to discuss what we had learned on our visit. The kids had seen a lot that morning, and I wanted to make sure that they not only understood it but that they were able to come to terms with it.
“How could the president just stand by and allow that to happen?” Jax asked.
“I don’t think he was being malicious, Jax,” I tried to explain. “You see, the problem with the double dip recession really and truly lies with some of the policies that FDR put in place with his New Deal. Things like the WPA did give jobs to many Americans, but they were paid for with government money. But the government was spending money they didn’t have, so each year our deficit, or the money the government had over budgeted, kept growing and growing. FDR and his Cabinet saw this problem and tried to fix it in 1938 by cutting government spending. But by then it was too late; the people and our nation’s whole economy relied too heavily on many of those programs, and the cuts to them were catastrophic; this created the Double Dip Recession scenario that Daniel was talking about today.”
“How bad was it?” asked Moe.
“Unfortunately, it was really bad. An estimated 4 million people lost their jobs, and one in five workers ended up unemployed.”
“Wow,” said Amelia.
“Well, did he do anything to make it better?” asked Raven.
“Yes and no. He put a band-aid on the situation and asked Congress to approve an increase in government spending in April of 1938. That did help the immediate situation, but unfortunately, it left a lasting legacy with our nation. The idea that we don’t need a balanced budget and can spend more than we have seems to have lived on throughout the generations and is even used by our government today.”
“Do people not learn from their history?” asked Amelia, her eyes wide open in dismay.
“Not always, Amelia. That’s one of the reasons I am trying to get you all to truly learn it; that way you don’t repeat the mistakes our ancestors made and that we are making now."
“Well, I know one thing,” started Raven. “Seeing those people lit a fire under me…Moe, meet me in the cafeteria during lunch; we have a campaign to work on. I am going to have Adalia meet with us too; it’s time we let our spokesperson in on our plans.”
Moe looked toward me pleadingly as he packed his bag to go when the bell rang signaling an end to first period. I patted his back when he went through the door. “Remember, Moe, there are two people in on your campaign. You can tell Raven if you’re not comfortable with her ideas.”
“But she is so excited about them; I don’t want to let her down. I don’t know what to do,” he said.
“Can I offer you a word of advice, Moe?” I asked.
“Sure, Mr. Franklin, I’ll take anything.”
“Yes, Moe, pray. If you’re feeling uneasy about a situation, pray about it. God will either give you peace or He will give you an idea; that’s my experience at least.”
“Thanks, Mr. Franklin, I just might try that.”
“Surprisingly, today was a pretty good success,” I told my cat Kayto that night while I got ready for bed. Kayto looked at me in disbelief. “Yes, what they saw seemed to pull at the kids’ heartstrings, especially Amelia and Raven, but I think I would have been more worried if it didn’t. They got to see the reality and the hardships that their ancestors struggled with; I don’t think it is a lesson they will forget anytime soon.”
Kayto meowed and snuggled next to me when I turned off my lamp and laid down in bed. “Good night, Kayto,” I whispered to my young friend. “I’m so grateful for you and the life we have.”