The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1931-1936: The Wasted Years

By Grace Cash © 1990

Issue: February, 1990

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

After the sturdy, no-nonsense start I got early in life at Papa's Place, it is hard to believe that I was ever bound in a maze of wasted years. But that is how I sum up what the Depression did for me, more remarkably from 1931-1936.

I was born of an optimistic nature, which was a family characteristic, and I didn't at that time think I was wasting the years, even though I knew any further progress in education, or getting a job was at a standstill.

The year 1931 started brightly, like any burgeoning Spring on the farm. People were still talking about Col. Lindbergh's non-stop flight to Paris from the United States in 33 and one-half hours on May 22, 1927, and now they were talking about a French flier, Captain Coste, who made the first non-stop flight from Paris to the New York in 1931 in 37 hours and 18 and one-half minutes. President Hoover congratulated the French flier; on June 19, 1928 the New York Times announced in a headline" AMELIA EARHART FLIES ATLANTIC, FIRST WOMAN TO DO IT.

By 1931, Germany was also getting into the news. A fire in Berlin wrecked the Bluecher Palace. At our house, being "part German on the Miller side," we were more interested in the palace fire than hearing that King Alfonso had been welcomed to England by King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, after Spain became a republic and that country elected its first President.

I graduated from Chestnut Mountain High School in April, 1931. It was a seven month school, and farmers' children missed several weeks at the beginning and the ending of the crop season, so that most of us didn't actually attend school more than four months each school year. Frank also graduated in 1931. My brothers and I had shared the same set of textbooks for several years, but Carl had taken a grade over and didn't graduate with us. The Speller was the easiest to share. I would copy off the list of assigned words and let the boys study the book together. They were good spellers and could memorize an assignment easily.

In the ninth grade we had to memorize "The Man With The Hoe," by Edwin Markham. It was a long, difficult poem, with such lines as, "bowed by the weight of the centuries he leans/ Upon his hoe and gazes at the ground..." which we well understood, but we had no idea what the poet meant when at the last he wrote: "How will it be with kingdoms and with kings.../ With those who shaped him to the thing he is../ ... After the silence of the centuries?" I missed one word, reciting this poem; Frank, two words and Carl, three words of this 49 line poem.

On Graduation Night, the principal had a Superior Court Judge down to deliver the baccalaureate address. There were three girl-graduates - a cousin, a friend and myself. We wore long white dresses with black velvet sashes, and we carried in our arms bouquets of fresh cut lilacs. The three boys wore their Sunday church suits, and in that number there was Frank, a cousin and a friend. Frank had been plowing all day, and nearly fell off the stage when he stumbled toward the Judge to receive his diploma.

After ending school, the highlight of our lives, there was always an interval of getting back into the general condition of the country. We read every scrap of information about the 20 month old son of Col. Lindbergh. The child had been kidnapped on March 2, 1932, from his home near Princeton, New Jersey; (In 1935 Bruno Richard Hauptmann was sentenced to death for the murder of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., but he declared till the very end that he was innocent.)

In 1933, Dillinger was shot dead in Chicago by federal men in front of a movie theater. We talked at length about him, and other gangsters we were acquainted with by way of "The Tri-Weekly" and the radio. We didn't know enough about Hitler to worry about him becoming the President of Germany when Von Hindenburg died at 86 in 1933. Everybody was blaming the Depression on President Hoover, and we thought nothing could be worse than the helplessness of being unable to help oneself. (In 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President. He went to work at once to end the Depression, and that March he declared a four-day bank holiday. Hitler was getting into the news steadily, but it didn't cause more than a ripple of interest at our house when three of his Nazi leaders were slain. "Nazi" was a new word which would take time to understand.)

I didn't rest till I got to Oakwood for the eleventh grade finishing year and I enrolled in the Fall of 1933. We harvested a good crop, even though two of our workhands fell by the wayside before laying-by time. Carl and Lillian had the mumps and got out of a great deal of work during that season. One out, two out - work left to those who were able-bodied, doubling up the load, but nobody was graceless enough to say so, except to grit their teeth when they saw the two "mumps victims" sitting on the porch, grinning at us at work, or we thought so although sick or well, those two couldn't be kept from having fun. Irma hadn't finished the eleventh grade, for lack of transportation, but she went to Oakwood that Fall also and we graduated the next Spring in 1934.

The seven and one-half months Irma and I had at Oakwood High School were the most unique of our entire school life. It was a stroke of good luck, or as I had rather say, a heavenly blessing, that Papa had enough money left from paying old debts, always incurred during the crop-season, to pay our transportation on the commuter's bus driven by the high school history teacher who lived at Chestnut Mountain. The other twenty-eight seniors were well along in their textbooks, but we caught up easily. I had done nothing for the past two years, nor had Irma in the past five years, except work on the farm and in the house and read whatever came our way. We took a course in Sunday School teaching from Nashville, Tennessee, at Southern Baptist headquarters, and at least that was an accomplishment, since I believe both of us became better teachers in the Sunday School. I borrowed books-by-mail from a Young Farmers' Library in Alabama, and we wasted a lot of time reading slick paper magazines handed down to us by neighbors, harmless reading perhaps, but adding nothing to mental and spiritual growth.

Even so The Wasted Years had highlighted events galore, whether leading to anything substantial notwithstanding. At Christmas season the young people got together to serenade. We disguised ourselves in our parents' clothes, or any old long dress and coat. We wore a stocking mask over our faces, with cut-out eyes and mouth, blackened at the slits with charred fire coals. One winter I wore for everyday, a pair of Papa's old leather brogans, and they were fine for serenading, since the disguise hid them from staring eyes at "a girl's shoes," but for Sunday and parties I borrowed Mama's nicely-kept black oxfords. Our noisy singing and yelling festival greetings were usually welcomed at the houses where we stopped, and went in, but at one house we were turned back.

Another highlight was at the Oakwood School, where I had five teachers, not just one as I had had all through my other public school years. The change of rooms was exciting, walking down the hall, saying "hello" to students I hadn't noticed before. Once I caught a boy by the arm and said, "Come on, Naomi," thinking he was the girl classmate with whom I shared a small desk. He thought calling him by a girl's name was hilarious. Instead of long white dresses of voile and black velvet sashes, we wore caps and gown when we graduated. It was my first knowledge of mortar boards, and the custom of turning the gold tassel in the opposite direction to indicate we were now at last and forever "through school."

During The Wasted Years, we lived on a 360 acre rented farm. Papa owned four mules and that meant we were thirds-farmers. He in turn sub-rented a small portion of land to a Negro family.

During those idle years our front porch would be full on Saturdays. Girls came to get Mama to cut their hair the windblown style just as she did for her five daughters. Boys walking toward the village stopped to join the fun. She had cut Papa's hair ever since they got married in 1909, and she cut my brothers' hair till they got jobs in the Chicopee mill and started going to the barber shop in town. On a summer day during The Wasted Years, I went with Carl to the barber shop and I told his barber I wanted a "boyish bob." For a quarter he cut nearly all of my dark, healthy hair off - enough to make a full blown wig if he had been in the hair selling business - and I wound up looking more like a boy than either of my brothers. Ever afterward, I got a sick feeling every time I passed a barber shop.

After I graduated from Oakwood High School, I worked on the family farm in my usual capacity, unemployed otherwise, my mortar board all but forgotten, like my lavender silk class dress in which I had recited from the class poem I wrote for the occasion: "We build the ladder by which we climb/ With heartaches, tears and toil..." Yet any future heartache we might have envisioned for ourselves, supposedly now on our own, was but a parallel to all the other sadness in the land.

In 1936 Will Rogers died in an airplane crash in Alaska, and King George of England died. The Prince of Wales, then 41 years old, became the king - known as King Edward VIII. He abdicated the following December to marry the American, Mrs. Simpson. His brother, the Duke of York, succeeded him, and he was known as King George VI. He brought to the throne with him his wife, Queen Elizabeth and the little princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.

In the 1930's there were so many changes taking place all over the world, many that would live on in history for all time that it sounded unbelievable to call 1931-1936, The Wasted Years. Yet in the United States of America, it became just that in the memory of millions of people, especially young people whose dreams died before full blossoming, like rose buds scattered in a dry Western wind.