Author’s note: I wrote this as a college writing assignment, the original is dated 9/28/2005.
Life for most Americans during the Great Depression could be compared to the living conditions in may third world countries of today. It was not uncommon for people to starve to death or die of malnutrition due to the lack of food and shelter. Many Americans could not find work; those who could received little in the way of compensation for their effort, which was often grueling labor. The country was in shambles and the spirit of the people reflected that state of affairs.
To gain some insight into the American experience during this time of despair, I interviewed my grandmother and listened and listened in awe as she regaled me with her story. She told me what life was like for her family and contrasted it with my grandfather’s experience during that same period (my grandfather passed away in 1989): two very different scenarios as you will soon hear. My grandmother’s tale is one of luxury and privilege, while my grandfather and his family lived through the suffering and uncertainty that is so well documented during that time.
My grandmother, Geraldine Dunlap Murray, was born October 10, 1927 to her father, Frank, a veteran of the Great War, and to her mother, Geraldine, a debutante. My grandmother was her parents’ third child but the first and only to survive infancy. Prior to her birth, her eldest brother lived only four days before succumbing; after that, Frank and Geraldine suffered a miscarriage and later a stillborn baby girl. My grandmother was a “miracle baby” in her parents’ eyes and the life the treated her to was just that: a treat.
Frank Dunlap was unusually lucky during the Great Depression in that he had a well paying job in one of the few industries that never lost its demand during the Depression: he worked for Atlas Prager Brewery at 21st and Blue Island in Chicago. In a time when the only socially-sanctioned escape from the gloom and doom of reality was found at the bottom of a bottle, Frank always had work. In fact, with a $90 weekly salary, the Dunlap’s enjoyed a rather delightful life, a rarity for the common Depression-era American family. Their home, located in the 8900 South block of Marshfield Avenue, was a veritable mansion by the standards of that day; their South Side Chicago neighborhood was even dubbed “Beverly Hills” in that time, with a social atmosphere to back it up.
In a sense, my grandmother’s life was sheltered from the sorrow and desperation that most girls her age experienced during the Depression. She attended private Catholic schools and her family often went on vacations with other families from their neighborhood. One of my grandmother’s fondest memories of childhood was riding on the back of the milkman’s truck eating ice on hot summer days without a care in the world. The Dunlap’s were even so fortunate as to be able to hire on two teenage girls to care for my grandmother and responsibilities around the home one year when Geraldine fell sick with pneumonia and had to spend several months recovering in an oxygen tent.
On the other side of the spectrum was my grandfather’s family. Donald was the oldest of four children born to James and Della Murray. When my grandfather was born on March 23, 1924, James Murray was a successful car salesman on the West Side of Chicago and Della worked for the Cook County government. Soon after, James and Della sold their single family home and purchased a “three flat” apartment building with intentions of living in one apartment and renting out the other two. By the time the sale was closed, the stock market had crashed and its rippling effects were beginning to surface everywhere. Before long, sales were so bad at the car dealership that James was laid off from his position.
The Murray’s were now depending on Della’s small income from working at the county government and soon lost their three flat investment to the bank in foreclosure for nonpayment. This, of course, was similar to the story that most everyone else lived and told in that day; everywhere except neighborhoods like “Beverly Hills” Chicago, that is. With nowhere to go and four small children to feed, the defeated Murray family reached out to the priest at their local Catholic Church and begged for help from the congregation. Seeing anguish in their faces and recognizing the severity and brevity of their situation, the priest worked hard to find them a place in a Catholic Church owned home so they could start over.
Without this selfless act of kindness and charity, the Murray’s may have perished and my own family may never have been. For fours years, my grandfather wore clothing and shoes donated by members of the church; his family ate all of their meals in the church’s soup kitchen. Everything that the Murray family had was given to them out of the generosity and pity in the hearts of the congregation. However, as with many of the stories from the Great Depression, there was a light at the end of the tunnel: a turning point that marked the beginning of the end of the struggles and hardships that everyone had grown so accustomed. That break came to James Murray in the form of a job working for a company called Electromotive in 1937.
By the summer of 1937, Japan was already on the offensive against China and Hitler was beginning his march towards destiny in Europe. With these new conflicts came demand for manufacturers to start producing the accouterments of war: military vehicles, weaponry and munitions. Electromotive manufactured engines that were used in the fighter planes and bombers over German targets; this in turn meant they had ample room in their production operations to put unemployed Americans like James Murray back into the workforce. Thanks to his newfound prosperity, James was finally able to afford to move his bustling family of six into a small apartment on Wilcox (still in Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods) and put forever in their rear view mirror the melancholy and torment of extreme poverty.
Five years of war and American prosperity later, my grandfather enlisted in the Navy in January of 1942 at the ripe young age of 17 with the support of his parents. He trained at Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Illinois; during the invasions of North Africa, my grandfather was deployed to drive the U-Boats that delivered Marines and equipment from Navy vessels at sea to the beaches of Morocco and Algeria. He served in the Navy for three years, ten months and earned the rank of petty officer before injuring his knee on a propeller; after his recovery, he was awarded the Bronze Star and honorably discharged. Upon his return home, he earned in his GED and enrolled in classes at DePaul University, joining a student body which included my beautiful and brilliant grandmother, Geraldine Dunlap. The two soon met, fell in love and the rest, as they say is history!
Source: Personal interview with Geraldine Dunlap Murray, September 26, 2005.