Public Health and Public Fear
In a grim time, during cold dark early hours of the day to come, my Dad ran as fast as he could alongside an accelerating freight train. He threw his satchel through an open boxcar door, grabbed a handhold and pulled himself aboard.
This was during the early 1930s, the worst period in the terrible, relentless, seemingly endless Great Depression. At that time, he was a very young Chicago workingman. He was slowly succumbing to malnutrition, even as our nation was steadily sliding into what appeared to be an accelerating, frightening political and social as well as economic abyss.
Even when he secured a paid day of manual work, wages had become so low with all the available surplus labor that life could barely be sustained. Unwilling to burden his already hard-pressed family, he hit the road.
Like most kids, I tended to tune out a great deal of what my parents told me. The story of this remarkable odyssey, however, was so gripping that I listened carefully.
I asked my Dad if he was scared. He said he was fearful, but not excessively, because in those days there were vast numbers of men and boys riding the rails. Consequently, there was safety in numbers, and feelings of community.
The ones who really were scared were the Bulls, the term the freight train riders applied to the railroad guards. Guards generally remained in the caboose, playing cards, looking preoccupied, pretending the uninvited riders were not there.
Dad’s goal was Texas. In that era, as today, the United States was one of the principal petroleum producers and refiners in the world. Around 1960, reflecting the long-term trends in our national and the global economies, we shifted to being a net oil importer. Thanks to innovations in technology and business, we have returned today to net exporter status – bigtime.
In the 1930’s jobs were plentiful in the oil fields. The labor was hard and often dangerous, at times literally backbreaking. The heavy mechanization and automation that today is integral to oil drilling was largely in the future.
However, the pay was extremely good, and there was reasonable job security, in contrast to most of the rest of American society. In that part of our country, the Great Depression almost did not seem to exist. The depths of that economic collapse, reinforced by extreme protectionism in our country and industrial nations across the world, is today difficult to grasp.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration brought political change, beginning in early 1933. The New Deal spurred public confidence, stabilized the financial system and brought basic social reforms, notably Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. However, the economy did not begin to recover strongly until 1940 with military rearmament.
My Dad joined the Texas Army National Guard. The extra income was helpful, and his social life improved. His example inspired me, reinforced by his pressure to enlist. I went through Army ROTC at UCLA, and gained greatly from military service.
Before World War II, the National Guard units were a mainstay of the small, underfunded U.S. Army. Evan after war broke out in China, North Africa and finally Europe, isolationist sentiment was dominant in Congress. That did not change until the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He described a visit by two German army officers representing the new regime of Adolf Hitler. Even from a distance, their disdain for the American soldiers was obvious.
Across Europe in those hard years, people waited for the burgermeister, the prefect, the local councillor or other government officials to tell them what to do. In America, possessing a very different culture, people felt more free – and were more free – to use their own initiative, individually and collectively.
That quality was crucial then, and will help us conquer the challenging public health threat now.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org