Memories of growing up

Claire Masters

Great Depression — paying with barter

Reflecting on today's rocky economy, I'm reminded of my father in the 1930s. A Baylor law grad and a brilliant attorney, he struggled day after day to establish his own law firm in Dallas. In the summertime, he always wore an ice cream suit (white linen) with a snappy Panama straw hat.

Sometimes, Mother would drive downtown to pick up Dad after work. In downtown Dallas, my baby sister and I always looked for the flying red horse as it shone from atop one of the tall buildings. Mother had told us the Greek myth of Pegasus and I liked to think that I might ride the Dallas red horse off into the sky. Today, this handsome landmark, made of hand-blown glass, is now hidden from view by so many of the skyscrapers around it. You'd think the city fathers would move it to a higher spot for all the world to see.

Many's the time when my father would come home with finery that his clients used as barter to pay his law fees. Stuff such as a silver fox boa and expensive luggage, all from the previous decade when the economy was flush and folks lived lavishly. How was my mother to run a household with payments such as these?

I was born during the Great Depression, so I really have little memory of those times. But if you didn't live through those days, you can't even begin to comprehend the stark despair and hopelessness that pervaded this entire country. I knew a woman whose father never had a job for something like fifteen years. He searched and searched, willing to turn his hand at anything. But there were too many men out of work and far too few jobs. An entire generation of Americans was so traumatized that they always lived with the fear that hard times might return. My parents' relationship certainly was damaged by all the uncertainty. The marriage ended in divorce, thus traumatizing the next generation.

My father's younger brother here in Waco also had struggled during those times. A brilliant, though untutored boy, he somehow succeeded in the oil business. In later years, even though he had become wealthy at the end of his life, he still smoked generic cigarettes. You just never know.

Some years ago I was chatting with an elderly shopkeeper in a Valley Mills antique store. Somehow, the conversation turned to the Great Depression. To give me an example of the harsh economic climate of those times, he told a story about his family. "We lived out on a farm near town. One day, my mother announced that there was no soap to do the family laundry. We were out of lye, an important ingredient of homemade soap. Now you can make your own lye, but that is a tedious, dirty process. If one of us had walked into town to purchase a bucket of commercial lye, it would have cost a nickle. We decided that we would conserve shoe leather, make our own lye, and save the nickle."

1942 — A memorable train ride

Sometime during 1942 my mother decided to take my sister and me to Southern Califonria to visit her sisters. We caught the train in Dallas, I believe. Since WW II had begun a year earlier with Pearl Harbor, the train was crowded with families and lots of servicemen. I remember seeing a sleeping sailor curled up in a spacious luggage shelf and some were even lying in the aisles. It was a two- or three- day trip and my baby sister and I always liked to wave to passengers on trains that were headed in the opposite direction.

One day our western-bound train slowed down to a crawl as we passed a train headed east. A Texas child, I had never seen an Oriental face in my life. We waved, but there was no response, just stony cold faces.

I was only 10, but somehow I sensed that I had just witnessed something shameful. It wasn't until I was an adult that I fully understood what had happened. Those Japanese-American families were headed for the desert where they would be imprisoned for the duration of the war.

Memories bitter and sweet

A friend of my Aunt Lillian's, who must have been in her nineties, once told me about living on Bell's Hill over in South Waco. Her father had been a fireman and she remembered that he was part of the crew which fought the fire that consumed the newly built Clifton house at Austin Avenue and 25th Street. The building you see today, owned by the Junior League of Waco, is a reconstructed version of the original.

Gladys had begun work at the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company when quite young. She said her particular daily task was to put in long-distance phone calls to the parents of soldier boys who had died in the Spanish influenza epidemic at Camp McArthur during WW I.

She vividly remembered the tall stacks of death notices that she had to process every day. It was a grim task for one so young and inexperienced.

One evening when she had visited us for dinner, I drove Gladys home. I asked if she would like to drive by the old house on Bell's Hill. We found the small frame house all boarded up and abandoned. With tears in her eyes, Gladys pointed out the place alongside the house where she and her father planted okra every spring.

A toe in the gutter

My Uncle Blake and Aunt Lillian had no children, so they spoiled my sister and me. One day, when I was just a little squirt, so young that I really can't remember this happening, we were standing next to the curb at their house on North 32nd Street.

"Now, Clara Lillian, don't you put a foot in that street!" he admonished me. Later, he would laughingly relate the story of my walking to the curb, glaring up at him, and putting a toe in the gutter. "I hated having to do it, but I felt I just had to spank you."

It was Uncle Blake who taught me to drive when I was 5 years old. Those were the days when there was little traffic in that neighborhood, so he would put me on his lap and let me steer up the deserted street.

The day they bombed Pearl Harbor

It was Dec. 7, 1941. I was a 9-year-old fifth grader. I remember so vividly that drizzly Sunday afternoon when my teenage uncle burst through the front door, screaming the news. That sort of reaction must have been happening all over our nation, exactly the same reaction that we all had when 9/11 occured.

At that time, my sister and I were living with our maternal grandmother in Ladonia, a tiny hamlet near Dallas. Uncle Scott hysterically babbled the details, vowing to run out and join the Army right away.

Just as Grandmother finally calmed all of us down, the phone rang. It was Cousin Anna across town with the heart-rending news that her only son, Barron Bishop, had just gone down on the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor. That night, I lay in the dark, wondering who were the Japanese and what would happen to all of us.

Many years later, I visited the memorial to the dead of the U.S.S. Arizona there in Hawaii. Incongruously, the Japanese bomb had fallen straight down the smokestack. Hundreds of sailors were killed in the violent explosion far below deck. The great battleship slowly sank to the bottom of the bay with all those men trapped below. He ship was never raised, but just left there to serve as a watery communal grave for all those sailors. I found Barron's name on the bronze plaque.

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