. . . taught lessons worth remembering

March 15, 1995|By Signe Lauren

THERE'S A LOT of uncertainty these days, economically speaking. At times, the value of the dollar has been in an apparent free fall on some foreign markets, sending shivers through Wall Street. While the unemployment rate recently dropped, many are dismayed by the lack of well-paying jobs.

This turn of events makes me think about my parents, the late Albert and Ruth Sass, and the stories they used to tell about life in Baltimore during the Depression.

They were married three months before the stock market crashed in 1929. The two 21-year-olds had no stocks, but, like many others, the economic downturn drastically changed their lives.

My father was the office manager for a drafting firm that folded shortly after the crash; nearly seven years would pass before he was securely employed again.

My parents lived in the cramped upstairs apartment of my father's parents' home, a block from Union Square, for 11 years before they could afford a place of their own. Like many families during that time, they banded together. My father's father, Ike Sass, a Russian Jewish immigrant, lost heavily in the crash and later had to sell his once-flourishing candy business.

Many say the worst year of the Depression was 1933. It certainly was for my parents. My father didn't work one day during that year. But, like countless others, he was out all day, every day looking for work. At noon, he stood in soup lines for a free bowl of soup and a slice of bread.

Each day my father would stop at Rice's Bakery on Baltimore Street at 4 p.m. -- the time when the day's leftovers were marked "day old" -- and pay six cents for a pack of rolls. Many days he had trouble coming up with six cents.

In 1934, to add to their economic woes, my parents learned that they would soon have a third mouth to feed; my mother was pregnant with their first child, my brother, Donald.

Donald's birth brought joy into their lives when they desperately needed it. He was the fulfillment of young love. He was also the biggest, fattest and most contented baby they had ever seen. He was my father's parents' first grandchild.

Early in 1935, my father was hired by a Baltimore liquor company as a route salesman. His job was to build up a new route, using his own car. He was thrilled to be working and happy that his customers liked him. My mother became pregnant with their second child, my sister, Bette.

Disaster struck again when my father lost his job to the liquor company owners' unemployed nephew. My grandparents advised my father not to tell my mother he had lost another job until after the baby was born.

Bette was born two weeks later. Each day during those two weeks before her birth, Daddy got up and dressed and left "for work" as usual; he came home at the same time, spending his days looking for work.

On the day they brought Bette home, with his parents at his side for moral support, Daddy told Mother the news. She was grieved that once again their plans to get a place of their own would have to be delayed.

A few weeks later (March, 1936) my father was hired at the Glenn L. Martin Co., then a modest airplane plant in Middle River (now Martin Marietta). His new job involved working with tools, something he had never done before. He was stressed by the newness of it, but was determined to succeed. He became a tool designer -- creating the tools that were used to build World War II bombers.

After some months at Martin, Daddy still couldn't afford to buy a house or a lot, but he purchased a set of house plans. He decided to try and build a house, in his spare time, and then sell it to raise money for his own home.

With the profits from that sale, in 1940 my parents bought a house on old Eastern Avenue in Middle River, which was mostly farmland then.

Always concerned that their good fortune would not last, they later started a prosperous laundry business and invested in rental-income real estate, all while my father continued working at Martin.

I was born in 1945 when they were 38, which was then considered middle age, too old for having babies. They said that my birth gave them renewed vigor, which they said they needed in rearing me. After what they had been through, raising another child probably seemed like a minor adjustment.

Their Depression-era generation was tough. They taught their children how to build a life with few material comforts. Now their stories about the lean times are remembered by many in our material-possession oriented society. But, if another Depression strikes tomorrow, and it could, I know we'll make it. They taught us well.

Signe Lauren writes from Baltimore.

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