Tag Archive | "Great Depression"

He Had a Dream

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After World War I, America experienced a period of time when the country was riding high.  It was called the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition had been enacted, drying up the source of liquor to the general populace.  To the rescue came the bootleggers to fill the void.  Fast money and fast women were on the rise.  Even the stock market expanded its sales by allowing small investors to buy on margin and thus attempt to achieve financial wealth.  This period of plenty lasted more than a decade, until October 1928.  On that fateful October day, Wall Street experienced a financial disaster.

Investors woke up one morning to find that their financial gains had gone with the wind. This was the cataclysm that sent America into the Great Depression.  The President Elect, Herbert Hoover, tried to quell the panic by treating the crash as a market correction.  He did not intervene in the process, but as time passed, the situation worsened.

Ordinary Americans found themselves not able to meet the demands of everyday life.  They looked to government to supply the answers, causing general unrest in the population, which then selected Franklin D. Roosevelt to replace Hoover in the next Presidential election.

When FDR assumed Presidential power, he knew he had the tiger by the tail and could not let go.  A Wall street market correction was not the answer.  A change in governmental policy was imminent.  To address the nation’s problems on a systemic basis, FDR consulted with leading economists as to the cause of our financial collapse.  In addition, he and his advisors had to institute preventive measures to restore the trust of the populace in a system that aspired to restore order in the country.

In FDR’s first few years in office, the country had witnessed massive unemployment.  Industrial production had declined by 45%, homebuilding sank by 80%, and more than 1 million families lost their farms. On the corporate front, profits declined by 10%.  11,000 of the country’s 25,000 banks failed, wiping out 9 million savings accounts.  At the same time, approximately 2 million people were migrating throughout the country, desperately searching for work on the remaining farms.

In 1933, Roosevelt’s administration initiated The New Deal or NRA, bringing sweeping changes to the workforce as well as banking and financial institutions.  Wage and price controls and the FDIC restored the nation’s trust in banking.  That trust was bolstered by the installation of the SEC as the governmental watchdog of the banking industry.  These were the moves that we needed to re-establish the order and move forward.

The President was a firm believer in the principle that the economy was based upon the spending power of its people.  With that in mind, he instituted the WPA to bring “shovel-ready” jobs to the unemployed.  These jobs, in turn, supplied consumer money to encourage entrepreneurs and business to expand their horizons.

The NRA that ended in 1939 ushered in:

1.       The mandating of maximums on prices and wages, and competitive conditions in all industries

2.       Encouragement of unions to raise the wages of working class by 93%

3.       A decrease in farm production, thus escalating consumer demand and causing higher prices to make

          farming more profitable

In the later years of the Depression (1934 to 1936), the Second New Deal added Social Security.  This was a pension fund established by a Federal directive and paid for by the American workforce.

The economy slowly recovered until 1937, when it had a downturn caused by the Federal Reserve tightening the money supply.  The Administration’s response was to ignore balancing the budget and launch a $5 billion spending program to increase mass purchasing power in the spring of 1938.

This program came without the consent of the Republican conservatives. Meanwhile, under the direction of Adolph Hitler, Germany decided to expand its borders.  This decision on the part of that madman sparked World War II.  With the defeat and occupation of France, European Allies looked to America to supply the materials needed to wage war.  This need created a job market that spurred on our the suffering economy.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II.  Able bodied men aged 18 to 45 were conscripted into the armed services, leaving women to step in and assume the jobs of the men sent off to war, ’til Johnny came marching home.  From 1941 through 1945, America had drafted 17 million men.

During the war years, government invested in cost-plus contracts with  employers, to stimulate development of on the job training of unskilled workers.  By 1942, the New Deal no longer existed.  With the exception of Social Security, which was saved by the conservative Southern Democrats, the NRA laws were repealed.

Today, historians still debate the pros and cons of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Despite the criticism of socialism, his legacy led America through the Great Depression and World War II, and endeared him to the hearts of most American workers.

During his four elected terms of office, he used the media to talk to the American people in what he called Fireside Chats.  His was the calming voice in the depths of the Great Depression.  His was the rallying voice when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  And his was the reverent voice when he called our nation to prayer on June 6th 1944 as our sons crossed the English Channel to establish a beachhead on France’s Normandy coast, leading to the liberation of France and the destruction of Hitler’s Europe.

On April 12th 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away, not knowing that victory was but a few short months off into the future.  However, his dream still lingers on, the dream of a vibrant society empowered by the spending power of its people to keep the engines of industry regenerating.

To many of the children that lived through the Great Depression and later fought and won World War II, that era still holds fond memories of peaceful days spent enjoying family and friends. It was a time when a penny purchased two pretzels with mustard from a street vendor.  To echo the words of former President George H. Bush, “Life was simpler and kinder then.” 

The Way We Were

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With the change in the weather brings thoughts of spring after a long hard winter. It’s the time of year when Mother Nature ushers in the birth of all things; it’s a time to reminisce.

They say that with age comes wisdom, and rightly so.  But after experiencing a lifetime upon which to reflect, I wonder where we went wrong … particularly since it seemed to start out right.

My formative years were spent in South Philadelphia, where I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood during the Great Depression.  Life was hard during that Depression, but it was also much simpler.  Then, my family’s chief concerns were the basics of life: food, shelter, and clothing.  The family, in fact, was the center of our existence.

Sharing my joys and sorrows with my brothers and parents gave me, and indeed, all of us, a sense of unity and security.  Dad supplied the needs of the family while Mom managed the household duties.  Religion also was part of our lives.  It helped to mold our characters by instilling humility and kindness into our lives.

Although times were hard, life was not unpleasant.  Family outings and visits to friends and relatives, punctuated with much laughter and good times, brought peace and serenity to our lives.  I guess you really could call them “the good old days.”

During the Great Depression, we had few amenities such as people enjoy today. The main modes of travel were automobiles and public transportation. There was no air conditioning back then, and no one had a telephone in his or her home.  Health insurance had yet to emerge, and television had yet to be invented.  Credit cards were still a thing of the future.  Yet, we all survived.

We did have gas appliances, hot water, and forced-air heat. For entertainment, we had Victrolas™, local movie houses, and the radio.  This was the Golden Age of Radio.  The music was good, and the radio also offered mystery stories, such as The Shadow, that sent chills up the spines of every single family member.  We looked forward to gathering around the radio for fun.

Other forms of entertainment were really up to the individual.  We walked and hiked to explore our world.  We played street games or listened to a public concert at a local park, which made life more pleasant.  I can clearly recall sitting by the Wissahickon Creek on warm summer afternoons, listening as the water rushed and gurgled through the valley.  That is a fond, lasting memory for me.

Then something happened that would forever change our lives: World War II came along.  With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America was plunged into war and many young people grew up overnight.  In the process, thousands of men from ages 18 to 45 years old were conscripted into the military.  In the work force, particularly in the factories, women stepped in to fill the shoes of the men drafted into service. 

Those were the days when the patriotic spirit of America flourished throughout the land. War bond sales and Hollywood stars joined forces to defeat our enemies.  USOs sprang up around the nation to offer a home away from home to our servicemen.

After four and a half years of bloody war, America emerged victorious on September 2, 1945.  The introduction of the atomic bomb put an end to the conflict and propelled the troops to return home.  There, we tried to pick up the pieces of our lives and move on into the future.

The immediate postwar years were bleak.  There was too much manpower and not enough jobs.  Factory wages were less than $2.00 an hour and the need for housing to accommodate newlyweds was on the horizon.

As we slowly moved into the future, enterprising real estate developers, such as Levitt in Pennsylvania, offered burgeoning new families modest dwellings in suburban locations, thus creating the exodus of many city dwellers to suburbia.  Along with the introduction of television, this industry spurred our economy with the need for more jobs to satisfy the wants of new home buyers.  Happy days were here again!

The fly in the ointment was the banking industry.  Back then, banks followed stringent standards when supplying loans to people without collateral.  A rule of thumb in procuring a loan was that one week of the loan recipient’s monthly income had to cover his mortgage payment.

Enterprising businessmen saw the opportunity of establishing credit to these borrowers, by offering store credit cards.  It seemed a good solution to the problem.  Hence, the system of credit scores evolved.  As we continued to move into the future, the economy improved, bringing more jobs and higher wages.

America was on a roller coaster ride.  We climbed high and exuberantly as Wall Street experienced record sales with an inflated economy.  However, the threat of financial collapse waited around the bend.  The ride, you see, was dictated by banking institutions and the very watchful eyes of the government.  The banks had to remain prudent in their lending practices; in turn, those practices were to be monitored by the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission).  Obviously, the banks and the government loosened their vigilance, for in September of 2008, we experienced another crash on Wall Street.

Barbara Streisand once had a hit song bearing the same title as this article.  Her haunting words still ring in my ears, “What’s too painful to remember is so very hard to forget.”  That just about says it all.

As I sit typing this article of reminiscence about the America in which I grew up, and the America in which we live today, I recall the Native American portrayed in a poignant, old commercial.  A tear ran down his face as he watched this beautiful land turn into a garbage dump.  Indeed, “where did we go wrong?” 

Remembering the Greatest Generation

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To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather Rocco Petruzzelli was born in Italy in 1865.  In 1896, he left his homeland and the village of Castelluccio Valmaggiore near Foggia / Apulia, Italy and set out for America, leaving his son and my father Donato – born a matter of months earlier on October 31, 1895 – with relatives.  Apparently, Rocco’s wife and the mother of Donato, Filomena (nee Schiavone) died during or shortly after childbirth.

Upon arrival in America, my grandfather settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, an enclave populated primarily by Italian immigrants and named for the village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy.  There, he met and married Giovanna Campanaro and, shortly thereafter, sent word to Italy for his son to join him.

Donato, then age 5, left Castelluccio accompanied by Domenico Rosso, a family friend from the village.  Years later, he told me that when he left home, he was riding on the back of a donkey and that, as he and Domenico departed, the villagers came out to wave goodbye.

They arrived in New York City, America in January 1901.  Anxiously awaiting their arrival, my grandfather somehow missed them as they landed at the dock.  Frantic, he contacted the New York Police, and they searched the entire area to no avail.  The police advised him to return to Roseto where, they reasoned, the person accompanying him would likely go.  Arriving home, Rocco found that his son and friend had preceded him from New York.  Safe and sound in Roseto, a joyous reunion and celebration commenced.

The Petruzzelli family continued to reside and grow in Roseto.  Not a skilled worker, my grandfather worked laborious jobs to eke out a living.  When there was no work available, he would strap a small grinding wheel on his back and seek out opportunities to sharpen knives, scissors, and various types of cutting tools.  Often, the search for work would find him walking to other towns.  One year, he walked all the way to Pittsburgh, a distance of more than 250 miles, sharpening knives and tools to provide for his family.

Nine years later, he moved his family to Philadelphia in an effort to enhance his own employment prospects and the quality of life for his family.  They settled in South Philadelphia residing in a house at 1240 South Iseminger Street.   My grandfather secured a job as a laborer with the Philadelphia Street Department, and in 1912 at the age of 47, proudly became a Naturalized Citizen of the United States of America.   At the time, his wife Giovanna (Joanne) was 14 years his junior, and they lived with their five children – Donato age 17, Filomena 8, Lucia 5, Jane 3, and Nicholas 1.

A few short years later, they purchased a home in the 1100 Block of Cross Street that would be our extended family’s gathering place in the years to follow and their residence for the remainder of my grandparents’ lives.  Here, they had two more sons, Biagio (Bill) and Rocco Jr., bringing the family total to 7 children.  When the United States entered World War l, my father Donato left this home, enlisted in the United States Navy, and served until he was Honorably Discharged on September 3, 1919.

In 1942, my grandmother Giovanna passed away only to be followed a few short months later by my grandfather Rocco.  Both were laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.  At the times of their deaths, the winds of war were fanning the flames of World War II in Europe and the Pacific.  Ultimately, three of their sons, Nicholas, Biagio, and Rocco Jr., as well as their grandson, Thomas, would all make contributions to America’s war effort.

Today at age 83, I am the oldest living member of the Petruzzelli family and filled with fond memories.  I recall a trip to Roseto with my grandparents at the age of 8.  We spent a week visiting my grandmother’s relatives.  As a city boy, I found it a wonderful experience seeing how they lived in the country.  They raised chickens and had vegetable gardens and grape arbors that stretched from the chicken coops to the house.  They even had a goat that produced milk.  Offered a glass of it, I found it strange drinking warm milk, and everyone had a good laugh at the look on my face as I drank it.

At every opportunity, I try to instill in my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren their Italian heritage in hopes that they will know about their cultural roots when I am gone.  As I reflect on my own life, I realize that my most enjoyable times were spent in the company of family and friends.

Tom Brokaw, a well-known journalist and news anchorperson on NBC, wrote a book entitled The Greatest Generation.  It was the story of the generation of Americans who lived through The Great Depression and then fought and won World War ll.  And, I am very proud at being numbered among that group.

Yet, Tom Brokaw never met men like my grandfather and all the other Western European immigrants who left their homelands to come to America seeking a new and better life for themselves and their families, many arriving with just the clothes on their backs.  In my estimation, it is they who are worthy of the designation as “The Greatest Generation.”

Come September

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In contemplating a title for this article, I could very well have lifted a line from a beloved old Grateful Dead song, Truckin’.  “What a long, strange trip it’s been” surely describes my life.  For the most part, it’s been a good life.   For everything that I have put into it and everything that I have gotten out of it, my life seemed to be headed in a certain direction — until I reached my golden years.  That’s when it turned strange.

Growing up in South Philadelphia with my two brothers during the Great Depression, the life lessons learned in my youth held me in good stead as I matured, carving the path that my life has taken.  Hard work and honesty were the cornerstones of my family.  Like most traditional families of those times, my father was the breadwinner, and my mother was the heart and soul of our household.   My dad worked long hours in my grandfather’s barbershop while my mother did the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, and nearly every other household chore, including the most important one: the majority of the child-rearing.   My brothers and I pitched in to help whenever we could.  Back then, when the unemployment rate had skyrocketed to 25%, it took teamwork to get by as well as maintain our sanity.

We may not have been rich, but we were happy.  Simple, inexpensive outings, such as a trip down the river on the Wilson Line or hiking in the Wissahickon Park provided my family with downtime as well as quality time, in which we strengthened our bonds and celebrated being alive.  I remember those times with great fondness, as I do playing stickball and other games in the street along with the neighborhood kids.  Somebody’s mother or grandmother was always peering down upon us, making sure that we were safe and causing no major mischief.  If we were the cause of any trouble, may heaven have helped us as those watchful eyes would report back pronto to our parents, who then doled out appropriate punishments.

Back then, there was no such thing as a Time Out to curtail the behavior of unruly children.  There was no such thing as withholding television from us for our minor sins, because TV had yet to be invented!   There was no such thing as “reasoning” with us or facilitating the development of our “critical thinking skills” that would enable us to see the error of our ways.  In those days, parents had neither the time not the inclination for such approaches.  They were engaged in the very serious task of keeping the roof over their kids’ heads and food in their mouths.  The ideology behind “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was not a philosophy in my house; it was a way of life.   My brothers and I quickly learned that things could be a lot more pleasant if we followed our parents’ rules and mores, including respect for others.

As the years passed, my brothers and I were able to help the family in a monetary fashion.  After-school jobs, such as serving as delivery boys for local grocers, working newspaper routes, or clerking in stores allowed us to chip in a bit at home while still enjoying a little “blow money.”

At age the age of sixteen, we traded our short pants for long ones, for that was the mark of a boy coming of age.  Many of us came of age a lot faster than we’d bargained for, courtesy of World War II.   Two years after I’d begun to wear men’s clothing, I traded those clothes for a military uniform, at the command of the United States Army.

After the war, those lucky enough to return home attempted to recapture the years lost in the conflict by trying to meld back into civilian life.  But we were forever changed, as was the nation.  When the war ended, so did the jobs that supplied the war, mostly in manufacturing.  Because there were not enough jobs for the returning troops, many veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill: a piece of legislation enabling vets to attain college educations or learn one of the trades by way of vocational schools.  With our newfound knowledge, we moved into decent-paying jobs, jobs that helped make our country the most economically sound nation in the world.

In the years to follow, we left our homes and the sheltering arms of our parents.  We began our own lives with the girls of our dreams.  Shortly afterward, we experienced the joys and responsibilities of raising our own families and understood, finally, our parents’ perspectives.   We worked, and we worked hard.  We put away for our retirement, to be able to enjoy our golden years with our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Never did we expect to find ourselves in a situation tottering too close for comfort to the same one we’d experienced as kids growing up in the Great Depression.  At least, I didn’t.

Now that I am a senior citizen, I am floored, dismayed, and disheartened by what I see, and I feel that I speak for many people of my generation.  We served our country; we worked within the system and paid into the system.  We had assumed that our honest and industrious work ethic would bear fruit, for it is karmic law that what you give out, you receive back.  We did not expect to lose our shirts when the stock market crashed nearly two years ago. We did not anticipate that our government would blithely fork over $710 billion in aid – not to a needy working class, but to the elite: those who own and run huge mega-million dollar corporations.

These events have left senior citizens up the creek without a paddle.  On fixed incomes, we must juggle the costs of necessities against the ever-rising cost of living.  In addition to food, shelter (including the utilities and appliances and everything else within those shelters), and of course, clothing, we must – by law – carry insurance on our cars and perhaps in the near future, our health.

Over and over, my mind spins with questions of how my dad managed just the basics on the salary he earned.  We owned no car.  Our home was not air conditioned, nor did it boast a hot water heater, a dryer, a dishwasher, or other modern-day amenities.  And yet, we still enjoyed life to the fullest.  As President George H.W. Bush recalled the era he lived in, “Life was simpler and kinder then.”  Where did we go wrong?  Is overindulgence the “reward” we must now reap?

If only we seniors could return to those carefree days of childhood.  Until someone constructs a time machine, that’s not going to happen.  For now, here is another hard to believe fact that seniors must swallow.  Although the estate tax for 2010 is zero, it will climb to 55% in 2011!  If you are interested in cashing in on some savings, please refer to my article on this site entitled, Single Shot 45.

I suppose the plight of the Over the Hill Gang can best be summed up in a song.  We’re not talking about the Grateful Dead anymore; we’re talking about an artist of my generation.  We’re talking about Frank Sinatra’s, The September of My Years:

One day you turn around and it’s summer.

The next day you turn around and it’s fall.

And all the springs and winters of a lifetime

Whatever happened to them all?




Shovel Ready

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Adopted by individual voters and political groups alike, the term “shovel ready” graphically illustrates our national chomping at the bit to get off the unemployment line and start earning decent wages again.  Widely used during our most recent primary elections, the phrase actually was coined during our previous Great Depression, under FDR’s administration. 

After the collapse of Wall Street, in 1932, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the National Rcovery Act to resurrect employment.  Considered un-Constitutional, one year later, the act was renamed The New Deal and included the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) and the WPA (Works Project Administration).  Established to produce jobs and put money back into taxpayer’ pockets, both entities were formed to repair the nation’s physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, parks, and highways.

The CCC was a para-military organization designed to take young men off the street and keep them out of trouble by employing them for projects such as Virginia’s Skyline Drive.  As in the Army, the workers lived in barracks and were fed three meals a day.  The WPA provided employment for older, married men via labor for governmental projects.  When the media inquired as to their exact duties, workers were quoted as saying, “I lean on a shovel.”  In other words, these jobs did little or nothing to resolve the unemployment crisis.  And if rampant unemployment wasn’t a big enough cross to bear, Mother Nature added to our national misery with droughts and dust storms.

Perceiving the Great Depression as Biblical peoples must have viewed the plagues, some Americans deemed our fate “the wrath of God.”  They’d assumed that we were reaping Divine retribution for the indulgences of the Roaring Twenty’s.

Nearly seventy years later, President Obama atempted to tear a page out of FDR’s book with his economic stimulus plan.   He also sent up a hue and cry for “shovel ready jobs.”  Our fearless leader was referring to jobs in which workers could be employed immediately, as opposed to being assigned to projects that are bogged down in planning, design, or legal red tape.

As well-intentioned as Mr. Obama may be, there remain some glaring differences between the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the Great Recession (Depression?) of 2008.   When Wall Street crumbled in 1929, the government did not — unlike Mr. Obama’s adminstration — bail out the financial institutions to the tune of $710 billion.  In fact, the governnment gave these institutions not one red cent.

In the 1930’s, there were also more shovel ready jobs — a lot more.  A road gang could easily have consisted of 300 or more workers, simply because technology was not as advanced as it is today.  Nowadays, it takes a virtual skeleton crew using state-of-the-art machinery to produce quality roadways more quickly and cheaply.  As automation continues to replace human labor, what are our children’s and grandchildren’s places in the American workforce?  Will our descendents compete with machines and slave labor in a global society?  We need answers to these questions before this or the next administration crafts another stimulus program.

Parents should seriously consider the best investments in their children’s education.  Should tuition money be paid to colleges and universities, or should it be paid to vocational schools?  Our current government seems willing to make our children common laborers by way of shovel ready jobs. I suppose this strategy is more expedient than creating jobs that require real skill and intelligence, jobs that can make them self-sufficient and in turn, restore America to a state of prosperity.

A common laborer does not require a college education.  All he or she needs is a strong back and some muscle.  In pondering this, let us not forget the wise motto of the United Negro College Fund, which can and should be applied to citizens of all races:  “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” 

The Coming Storm

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In the James Hilton novel, Lost Horizon, the High Lama reveals to his predecessor that a great storm is coming to engulf the world.  At the storm’s conclusion, the treasures of Shangri-La (heaven-on-Earth) were promised to emerge, thereby restoring a ravaged world.  In his prognostications, the spiritual leader also echoed Jesus Christ in predicting that the meek would inherit the Earth.

Unfortunately, Lost Horizon is a work of pure fiction.  The truth of the matter is, it will not be a happy ending after the great storm in America subsides.  The storm in question is, of course, the collapse of our financial institutions and, fittingly, the government that allowed it to happen. Although our present administration pontificates that our “recovery” in the wake of the $710 billion bailout is working and the future looks brighter, this storm has been brewing for quite a while now, and no hurricane hunter’s device tossed into its eye is going to deflate it.

California’s Governor has announced that his State can no longer fund itself, and has requested that the Federal government bail it out.  If the former mighty “Conan the Barbarian” can be felled by such a storm, what shelter exists for the common man and woman?  And, California is just the tip of the iceberg, as more States totter on the edge of financial ruin.  How many bailouts can the taxpayers afford?

Despite the rape and pillage of our economy by big business buying off elected officials, there has been no fiscal restraint in Washington or even at the State level. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is a strategy that does not work when our President asks citizens to tighten the belt even further as he uses that belt to strangle taxpayers with the costs linked to a proposed national healthcare system.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Americans had enjoyed an increasingly prosperous economy from the time that World War II ended, until President Bush, Senior, marched us into Saudi Arabia, thus sending interest rates skyrocketing.  The post-WWII boom began with an exploding housing industry, the advent of technology, and the race to space, which we won.  Considering that a relative blink of an eye earlier, our people were hurling themselves out of buildings due to the Stock Market crash, our fiscal rebound was an amazing accomplishment on a national level!  We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps following the Great Depression, thanks largely to the institution of FDR’s social programs (including Social Security and Medicare).  Once the war ended, peace and prosperity reigned.

Now deeming these programs “entitlements,” our government claims that their wells of funding are running dry and cannot be sustained. I don’t know about you, but when I hear our Congressmen and media reps talk about “entitlements,” as if it is a dirty world, it makes my blood boil.  If the perks given to our so-called leaders of industry and government are not entitlements, then what is?

The difference between their entitlements and ours is that we average, law abiding, hard-working slobs actually contributed to our programs with our hard-earned dollars, the same as we do when we buy any insurance policy!  There is no doubt in my mind that the program funds were mismanaged, misappropriated, and (oh, why don’t I just come out and say it?) stolen, period, for purposes other than their original intent, which was to support the common workingman and woman!

When the government decides that it is time to take fiscal responsibility and make the first cut in spending, what will be cut?  Will we as a nation reduce aid to foreign countries (a calculated ploy to buy their friendship)?  Will we cut future bailouts to institutions whose CEO’s still crisscross the country in private jets and give immense bonuses to their higher-ups, even as they plead for the handouts?  Will we continue to reward corporations who export American jobs?  My guess is, we will, and thereby will escalate the screwing over of the taxpayers!

If we all manage to survive somehow until 2012, the results of the Presidential election will herald the path that America will take. I portend that fiscal responsibility will not come without pain to America’s citizens.  Cutting spending is akin to attempting to break a bad habit, without being armed with the necessary resources.  Hopefully, wise men and women will step forward to suggest a solution that will ease the suffering while we go through an even bigger withdrawal: the separation from our earnings and the social programs into which we have paid.

Perhaps, in the end, the meek will not inherit the earth.  Perhaps, in the end, only those robust taxpaying souls strong enough and resilient enough will survive yet another national crisis.

The Unemployment Pandemic

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The graphical representation below demonstrates far better than words the staggering growth of unemployment throughout the United States during the period from January 2007 to the present time.  With double-digit unemployment spreading like a contagion to virtually every state and locality in the United States, our nation’s recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression seems dubious.

Perhaps, we can all land those “lucrative” work-at-home jobs.  Or, better yet, maybe we should all seek bailout funds from Uncle Sam.  If bailout funds had gone directly to the people rather than the Wall Street elite, then average Americans would have been able to pay their bills and keep their homes while consumer spending, investment, and entrepreneurship would have blossomed.

“While Nero fiddled, Rome burned” is an expression coined to symbolize governmental extravagance in the face of suffering and hardship by its citizenry.  While politicians in Washington posture before the media – feigning concern for the citizens who foot the bill for their salaries, lavish expense accounts, and junkets around the globe, real Americans encounter joblessness or the fear of imminent joblessness and financial ruin on a daily basis.

At the dawn of each day, government officials at all levels should be compelled to watch the video below.  Then, perhaps, they might discover the source of the collective discontent of many and commit themselves to developing “working” solutions. 

The Boys of 10th and Ritner

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My friends and I grew up in a culturally diverse neighborhood in South Philadelphia, near the intersection of 10th and Ritner Streets.  Our childhood occurred during the Great Depression, a time of immense want for so many people.  Somehow, though, I remember it with fondness, as do my friends.  In the ’30’s (that would be the 1930’s for anyone who hasn’t studied American history as you should), the streets of the city were not clogged with automobiles or choked with smog; public transportation was the mode of travel.  To us kids, life was pleasant as our parents struggled to eke out an existence, keep the roofs over our heads, and food on our plates.

To get to our neighborhood schools, we wore out a lot of shoe leather; there were no buses to transport us.  We carried our books, pencils, and papers, as well as our tasty homemade lunches (no prepackaged chemical and preservative-laden stuff from a factory). After school, we would walk home and play in the street before suppertime.  The boys would play stickball or tag; the girls would write in the streets with chalk, play hopscotch, and tend to their baby dolls.  Occasionally, one of the girls would cross the line and we’d let her, provided she could hit, run, and throw … the ball, not us!  Gender equality had not yet fully blossomed, so we may have been just a bit ahead of our time for enduring the tomboys.

After our playtime, which cost little or no money, we did not waste electricity and did not fry our brain cells a la cellular technology.  Instead, we knuckled down to do our homework, sans Internet search engines and computers.  If we really needed to research a topic, we had the public library at our fingertips.  Rooms and rooms of wall-to-wall books, and nary a coffee urn or a gourmet pastry to be found!  And no chatting, either; it was “Silence is Golden” at the library, so that everyone could study in peace and quiet.  Before snuggling into bed for the night, we listened with rapt attention to radio programs designed to scare the pants off us kids (e.g., “The Shadow”).  Ah, the thrill of a delicious mystery conducted sight unseen over the airwaves!

Later on, a cataclysmic event occurred that would forever would change our lives. When the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, America was dragged into World War II.  Some say that Roosevelt had advance warning of the attack, but allowed it to happen anyway, in order to better market the war to the American public.  We knew of no such rumor at the time; in fact, such a rumor would have been unthinkable.  All we knew is that our beautiful Hawaii had been bombed, with no prior attack on our part.  Everyone in my neighborhood was left reeling; in fact, most of us were unaware of exactly where Pearl Harbor was located, until the radio broadcast the stunning news.  Congress dove into action by initiating the Draft to conscript young men into the Armed Forces.  Factories and shipyards began to retool, run primarily by women as the men went overseas, to produce the materials and equipment we needed to wage war.  Japan had woken a sleeping giant.

When the bombs destroyed Pearl Harbor and so many lives, a lot of us kids were not quite military age, so it would be a few years before we were called.  But as the war progressed with no end in sight, we knew it was inevitable: as soon as we’d reached the age of 18, we would receive a notice from our local Draft Board. This was the summons to appear for medical and mental competency tests, to see if we were going to be accepted into the Armed Forces.   According to our ages, one by one, the neighborhood boys were swept off the streets by Uncle Sam, thus forcing us to become men practically overnight.  Since many of us passed the tests, we entered the Armed Services and remained there until the end of World War II.

During this global conflict, members of our neighborhood group fought in both the North African/European and the Pacific Theaters.  Some fought in Tunisia, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge; some were shipped off to the Pacific and China, as well as India, Burma, and following Japan’s surrender, the Occupation of Japan, as peacekeeping forces.

To mention a few of our friends, Nicky (“Blue”) Prestipino fought with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma, Andy Scrocca helped save the USS Intrepid after a kamikaze attack upon that noble ship, Jimmy Tedesco was wounded at the battle of the Bulge, Anthony Didio was awarded the Soldiers Medal in India, and Joe Ermilio was killed in action at Anzio.  Thank God, he was only casualty of the war, and he was very much missed and mourned.

With the end of the War, the neighborhood boys returned and began to congregate once again on the corner of 10th and Ritner.  Trying to recapture the best years of our lives lost due to the war, we decided to form a social club named Club Gramercy.  As time went by, we all got married and drifted away to pursue new lives with our spouses and ultimately, our children.

In the spring of 1986, two members of Club Gramercy met across a meat counter in a Greater Northeast Supermarket and talked about getting the old gang back together again.  Those two men were Joe (“Baby Joe”) Carabasi and Tony Griffini.  By networking with other members, Joe and Tony managed to contact 54 former members of Club Gramercy!  In October of 1986, at Viterelli’s Restaurant in the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia, the first meeting of the Boys of 10th and Ritner occurred with all 54 members attending.  We had a joyous reunion!

Back in the old neighborhood, news of the Boys of 10th and Ritner spread, and more people clamored for membership, or at least, attendance at our gatherings.  We decided to have more meetings in the old neighborhood at the Holiday Inn, in South Philly, to accommodate larger groups.  This went on for a few years, after which it was decided to have our meetings more often and in a less formal fashion.  The site for these meetings was Sam Cobblestone’s Bar and Grill, where we met every second Tuesday of each month.

At Sam’s, we’d gather and for a few short hours, would share a dinner and relive our past exploits of glory. John Carosiello would chair the meetings and Romeo Celommi served as our recording secretary.  Our meal would start with an appetizer, usually mussels (in red and white sauce) with roasted peppers and anchovies; these were accompanied by fresh, hot Italian rolls, and were followed by the main course from the menu.

After dinner, the chairman would inform us about members who could not attend and any other news that concerned us.  After all the formalities were discussed, the meeting would be open to conversation by the members as we relived our youth.  This included jokes by the aptly named Happy Joe Jr. and stories by “Baby Joe” Carabasi, Nicky (“Blue”) Prestipino, Jimmy (“Pinerck”) Tedesco, and others among our band of brothers.

Although most of our members were of Italian descent, we did have one member of the Jewish faith.  Danny Rose, God bless him, could bake Italian pizzelles that would rival many Italian bakeries (pizzelles are a type of flat, crunchy cookie, pressed flat in a hot grill). Our meetings continued till Sam Cobblestone’s establishment closed.  Bidding Sam’s a bittersweet farewell, we then took up the torch at Tony Luke’s restaurant in South Philly on Saturday afternoons. As time went on, we started to gather at Serra Torres restaurant in Morton, Pennsylvania.

In 1996, The Boys of 10th and Ritner held our 10th Anniversary at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The members who participated, along with their wives, stood as a testimony to friendship born of a group of neighborhood boys who refused, despite a long, bloody war and various life circumstances, to let the camaraderie die.

Since then, God has called some of our boys home; due to attrition, our meetings have reduced in frequency and members.  But the spirit of the old neighborhood, and the good times we wrested out of some the worst times this nation has ever seen, still live on in the hearts of the remaining members of The Boys of 10th and Ritner. 

A Christmas Reminiscence

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Christmas Reminiscence

In today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing world, the Holiday Season is upon us and gone before we know it.  As I consider my own Christmases past, I think about the simpler and yet – in many ways – more joyful Holidays of my youth.


Growing up in an Italian-American family in South Philadelphia, I viewed the Holiday Season as the most wonderful time of the year.  And, for those uninitiated in Italian-American culture, any Holiday was an occasion for a sumptuous feast fit for a King.  


Despite growing up during the Great Depression, I experienced no want in my family’s Holiday celebrations.  My maternal grandfather owned and operated a Barber Shop and, for these happy occasions, he would set up a long banquet table in his Shop.  There, the entire family would gather for a multi-course food fest.


With Thanksgiving ushering in this most joyous season of the year, we celebrated in grand style.  Our feast would begin with Meatball Soup, a soup created from chicken stock with tiny meatballs.  Next, was a pasta course comprised of homemade ravioli and gravy meats including meatballs, sausage, and braciole.  A short time thereafter the turkey would appear with all the trimmings.  For dessert, we enjoyed a wide variety of homemade pies and cookies, as well as fresh fruit and ice cream.  And, the best part was the thought that we would do it all over again the following month for Christmas!


After Thanksgiving, my parents would take my brothers and me to Center City where we would tour the decorated department stores and look at gifts for Christmas.  We were each allowed one small gift and the highlight of the evening was to eat at Horn & Hardart’s Automat restaurant.


The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas was a time of wonder and anticipation for a young boy.  When December 24th arrived, we celebrated with the traditional Italian Christmas Eve fish dinner.  Then, we decorated our Christmas tree with tinsel and put the star atop the tree and the Nativity Scene beneath it.  Listening to the radio and hearing Silent Night, Adeste Fideles, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Jingle Bells brought a feeling of peace and serenity.


Christmas in our family was a Holy Day and so, we went to church before enjoying the family feast at grandpa’s.  When grandpa passed away, the duty of family gatherings was passed on to my parents.  Yet, I will never forget those wonderful Holidays of my youth with grandpa at his Barber Shop.


As I reminisce Christmases past, I also think about my service during World War II, when the Holidays found me half a world away from family and friends.  The song I’ll Be Home for Christmas still rings in my ears.  And, as I consider Christmas present, my thoughts turn to our troops manning the lonely outposts of the world during this Christmas season.  May the joy of Christmas lift their spirits and may “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” lead us to a better tomorrow.

How “Great” Is This Recession?

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Great Depression

History has a habit of repeating itself, maybe in not exactly the same sequence. Today’s fiscal woes are a reflection of the Great Depression of the twentieth century.  An economic tailspin ending in financial disaster and many suicides, the Depression began with the collapse of Wall Street in 1929 as a result of greed and speculative trading.  Overnight, millionaires became paupers and America’s lifestyle altered drastically.  President Herbert Hoover turned a blind eye to the situation, erroneously treating it as a market change that would correct itself:  an entire decade would pass before the market rebounded.


Wall Street’s collapse impacted the banking industry, which was short on cash. As rumors of a banking failure ran rampant, depositors rushed to retrieve their savings.  It was like that scene from the film It’s a Wonderful Life, where everyone in the small town demanded to pull their money out of George Bailey’s Savings and Loan — except that the 1929 reality was driven by millions of depositors.  Their actions created a domino effect, toppling banking institutions nationwide and causing the economy to hit rock bottom.


Unemployment skyrocketed as businesses struggled to stay afloat.  With no income, the housing market took a nosedive; thousands of people lost their homes and farms to foreclosures.  Mother Nature added to the havoc, bringing drought and dust storms that plagued America’s farmlands.  Fearing that all this horror was the wrath of God, people all across the country prayed for forgiveness.  Most of all, they prayed for deliverance.


The difference between the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the Great Recession of 2008-09 was that the government did not extend bailouts during the earlier crash.  In addition, insured savings accounts, unemployment insurance, credit cards, and Social Security did not exist.  The future looked bleak in the ’30’s for those who had not jumped out of windows.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt succeeded Hoover as our nation’s President, inheriting the daunting task of national recovery.  Roosevelt realized the answer to solving the problem lay in the spending power of the people.  To stimulate their spending, he passed the NRA (National Recovery Act), the WPA (Works Project Administration), and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).  He also instituted the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) and the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation).  Roosevelt charged these organizations with the following tasks:


The WPA – Getting Americans back into the workforce and earning incomes.


The CCC – Taking young, indigent men off the streets to work on public projects.


The SEC – Overseeing financial institutions to ensure that they did not engage in fraudulent practices.


The FDIC – To bring trust back to the banking industry, so that depositors would reopen their savings accounts.


FDR also set up food banks to put food on the table of many starving and undernourished Americans.  He used the radio to broadcast his “Fireside Chats” and thus became a calming and authoritative voice during hard times.


As time passed, the President also enacted Social Security. This was a mandatory savings plan designed to enable those who retired at age 65 to enjoy their twilight in dignity.  All of these were the legacy of FDR, the only President in the history of the United States to be elected for four terms.


Despite his best efforts to jump-start economy, the Great Depression dragged on.  Its only solution was World War ll.  With the enactment of the draft and the demand for equipment and supplies needed to fight the war, the economy boomed.  Happy days were here again!


I lived through the Great Depression and witnessed men begging for food on the streets on cold wintry nights.   I remember how my mother made them sandwiches and hot drinks, and allowed them to sit in the entryway of our row house, out of the biting wind to enjoy the small offerings that must have seemed like manna to them.


The saying goes that “out of something bad comes something good.”  The Great Depression brought families together to enjoy each other’s company.  Holidays were anticipated with relish because it meant sitting around the dining room table for a good meal with several generations of our families.  In some respects, we may be a bit better off today with this current recession.  But in others, such as family intimacy and expressions of gratitude for what we still have, we are lacking. 

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