Mr. Charlie Bennett was born in 1926, a few years before the Great Depression hit. He lived in Natick, Massachusetts with his siblings and parents. Mr. Bennett reminisces about the tough times that he and his family had to go through. He is a friendly and wise individual who has a lot share with not only kids today, but adults as well.
This is Ethan Aaron and Alex Wright, and we are interviewing Mr. Bennett on May 15, 2008 for the Wayland High School History Project
Q: Please state your name.
Mr. Bennett: Charles Bennett. Charlie.
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mr. Bennett: Four years old.
Q: Where were you living during the Depression years?
Mr. Bennett: Right in Natick, the next town.
Q: What were your parents’ names, and what did they do for work when you were small?
Mr. Bennett: My father was Harold Bennett, and my mother was Mabel, and, in those days, women didn’t have outside jobs. They were strictly in the household. My father was a locomotive engineer for the Boston Albany Railroad.
Q: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Mr. Bennett: I have two of each, all older than me.
Q: So you’re the youngest?
Mr. Bennett: Yeah, that’s the best way of putting it, instead of baby of the family.
Q: How was your mother’s role as a homemaker impacted by the Depression, if at all?
Mr. Bennett: Well, that’s a tough one because women didn’t work in those days, or very rarely, but because of the Depression and the fact that so many people were out of work, the women had to do an awful lot. My father, once he was out of work, had to go looking for work. My mother had to take care of five kids, do all of the cooking, with, of course, no refrigerator, and she had to stay up and run the furnace, which means shoveling coal. I guess you people maybe have heard of those things, but that’s how she was impacted. It was a big job.
Q: So your father lost his job during the Depression?
Mr. Bennett: Yeah, in ‘29 he had just bought a house. We were living in one house in Natick. He bought another one and hadn’t sold the first one. We moved into a new house, and I guess it’s hard for me to really remember, but probably we were only in the new house a year or two when the people who were renting the first house couldn’t pay the rent. We lost that house. Then when he got laid off from the railroad, obviously, he couldn’t pay the rent, and eventually we lost that house too.
Q: How did the stock market crash of 1929 affect your family?
Mr. Bennett: Well, in those days, not too many people were involved in the stock market, just the people that were in the financial world. The effect was that so many people were out of work, and people weren’t buying things, and then more people got out of work, and it just became a compression, and obviously a Depression, same thing. So many people lost their jobs. In the neighborhood I grew up in, I think all the fathers were out of work in my immediate neighborhood. So you really didn’t notice the Depression that much. I mean you are all in the same boat. It isn’t like the people on the next street were living in luxury or anything.
Q: What did you eat as a child? Did you eat any pre-made foods, or was it all homemade?
Mr. Bennett: Well, first of all they didn’t really have prepared foods in the stores in those days, but you bought things that were least expensive and you stretched them out quite a bit. I mean, I can remember things I won’t eat today like fish chowder because fish was pretty cheap, and you could make it go a long way, so now I don’t eat it.
Q: Did your family own a car back then and, if so, how did it impact your family life?
Mr. Bennett: Well, we didn’t own a car. When we first moved to the other house, it was close to the railroad, and my father worked for the railroad, so he could just walk to catch a train and go into Boston where they would pick up the engines and so forth. Then after a few years, we were more into the Depression, and he did get a job, but he had to have transportation, and so we had what I guess they still refer to as a little Model T rumble seat Ford.
Q: How would you compare the typical clothing back then to the clothing today?
Mr. Bennett: It’s not greatly different. Boys wore knickers if you know what knickers are, like what golfers wear. That was the normal kind of wear right up through, in those days, what was called Jr. High versus middle school. Other than that, the shirts were much the same and sweaters and the outerwear was the same. The only thing was that you had hand-me-downs, and being the youngest, I would get all the hand-me-downs, but you know, everybody was in that boat.
Q: What were your earliest memories of the hard times of the Great Depression?
Mr. Bennett: That’s very difficult because you know the Depression didn’t really affect many people with the stock market crash. It was later in ’30, ’31, and so forth. I think hearing all my older brothers and sisters talk about all the things they used to get for Christmas, and they were pretty lean by the time I got to realize what Christmas was.
Q: What did you spend most of your time doing as a child? What did you do for fun? What games did you play?
Mr. Bennett: You know that was pretty interesting. All the kids in the neighborhood all played together. It didn’t go by grades or ages. Everybody would play baseball games. We would play games like red light, steal the eggs, and you know, some of the same kinds of games, I would hope, are being played today. Everybody joined in, because nobody had anything. Very few kids would even have a bicycle, and the families didn’t have cars, so you didn’t have this, I guess, transient kind of growing up. You are all sort of stuck with each other.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus, carnivals or the movies?
Mr. Bennett: I think, probably, first I went to the circus, but it was not until about 1936 or 1937. Earlier than that, we could go to a movie every now and again if we worked and earned a little money. Like when I was in fourth grade; I would go door-to-door and sell magazines. That seemed to be a thing kids did, and you could go to the movies. I think, the movies were only ten or fifteen cents, but ten or fifteen cents were hard to come by.
Q: What were the movies or radio-shows like?
Mr. Bennett: The movies they had, I forget what they called them, but they would be a continuing kind of thing almost like today, a short subject or something. Except, I guess it was called a serial, and then they would have a double feature. The movies, by the time I was going, they were “talkies.” It wasn’t that far back.
Q: Do you remember sports of this era? What was your favorite sport, and why?
Mr. Bennett: I think all the kids in my neighborhood would play baseball all the time, and then with the radio, we could get the Red Sox and the Braves games. Well, in those days, the Atlanta Braves was the Boston Braves, so we had two major league teams in Boston, and that was good. We had the Boston Bruins playing, and you could listen on the radio to all of that stuff, which is probably good for building imaginations because you didn’t have to look at a screen.
Q: Did you have a role model or a favorite sports player?
Mr. Bennett: You know, I had thought about that one. I think probably it would have been someone like Charles Lindbergh, who was such a famous person having flown the Atlantic several years before my kind of awareness of him. Of course, he had gotten married and had a baby which was kidnapped, and that put his name into the news all over the world. At that time, there was a little airport called the Natick-Wellesley Airport, which was on Route 9 where the bowling alley is now. Saloo’s Bowling Alley is right on Apple Hill, I think they call it. Well, that was nothing but a grass airport in the 30’s, and then there was a big farm, Saloo’s Farm, out behind that, and my older brothers and sisters, could go over there, and I think it was a dollar, you paid a dollar and they would take you up and just fly around and come back in and land. My older brothers and sisters all did that, and I never did, so probably it made me want to fly because I couldn’t. So eventually I did during World War II. I joined the naval air corps and eventually became a navy pilot.
Q: What was community life like then?
Mr. Bennett: You know, it wasn’t too much different from nowadays, except that without having this ability to go around, and ease of transportation and all that sort of thing. You didn’t have a lot of meetings to go to or lodge meetings or stuff like that. First of all, people couldn’t afford it. Transportation was limited, and they did have buses, but they cost money too. Families seemed to stay pretty intact. We would all sit around in the evening and listen to different radio programs, the whole family, including my father if he was home. When he was working the railroad, you never knew whether he was going to be working night or day. But that was pretty much what went on in terms of entertainment.
Q: Do you remember the Hurricane of 1938?
Mr. Bennett: Very much. I was in, I think, the ninth grade when that started. Yeah, the great thing about that from a kid’s point of view was that we didn’t have to go to school for two weeks. (Laughs). But yeah, they were building Wellesley High School. It was just opening, the current high school, and we could hear all of the construction finishing up, and that fall it was supposed to open, which it did, late. That was really a tremendous experience. We lived in Wellesley by that time. After my father had lost both houses, we were eventually able to get, with the help of relationships, a house in Wellesley. We lived near the railroad tracks and we watched. Some of my friends and I stood up on the railroad bridge looking down the tracks, and we could see a whole line of trees, all of a sudden, just topple over right onto the tracks. It was a very unforgettable experience to put it mildly.
Q: Your parents let you outside during the hurricane?
Mr. Bennett: Well, you know, we didn’t know what was going on except there was a big windstorm. You didn’t have the kind of things that you have today like the television, even a radio; and it was not really forecast to the extent that it was such a fantastic, huge storm. We had been out playing football. You know, just choose up football with the kids in the neighborhood, and it got windier and windier; we couldn’t even throw a football around, so we started going where the action was. So, if you didn’t go home first your mother didn’t know to call you in.
Q: You said that you and your family would listen to the radio; do you remember any of Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats?
Mr. Bennett: Yes, very definitely. To me, Roosevelt was just one of the greatest things in the world. He started a bunch of programs, as I am sure you have read, the WPA and the CCC, and he gave people hope. He just looked into things as though everything would get better because of him. Not only that, but when my father was out of work, he went to work with the WPA which brought food into the house and so that was a great thing. My oldest brother quit high school, and going to school in those days wasn’t as important as it is today, or it wasn’t made important by the families as it is, and should be, today. But, I think he quit his senior year in high school and went into the CCC, which is the Civilian Conservation Corps, and so two of my family members were involved with federal projects in a sense.
Q: On the topic of radio, what kind of music did you enjoy?
Mr. Bennett: Well, you were limited on that because you only had one radio in a house. It is not like nowadays when everybody got a million of them; and so you pretty much listen to whatever the oldest, most powerful siblings are listening to. But it was the start of about the mid-thirties, I would say, the big band era, and so kids were going around singing some of the very popular songs of the day. But when the radio was on, in the evening, it was all serials, things that the whole family could listen to. Amos and Andy was a famous program and it is hard to remember some of the other names.
Q: What chores or responsibilities did you have growing up, and were these impacted by the fact that it was a Depression?
Mr. Bennett: I don’t think so. In terms of chores, I would get to do whatever my older brothers told me to do, and what they would tell me to do was what they did not want to do, obviously. Then, I think in the fourth grade I mentioned I was out door-to-door selling magazines, and I remember going out and selling candy bars and things that you might do now for like the Booster’s Club or something like that, but that was a way of us kids making some money. My older brothers were then starting to caddy, and they would walk from North Natick to Sandy Burr up here every day to caddy, which is a pretty big walk. Then I eventually caddied. But the chores were just what you would do around the house today, I guess.
Q: Do you recall your first job that you had for pay? What was it like? What did you do with the money you made?
Mr. Bennett: I think the very first thing I did was caddying when I was eleven years old. I was just finishing seventh grade in that spring. We were living in Wellesley. I went up to Wellesley Country Club, and somebody taught me what I should know in caddying, and I did that. That was the first, I guess, real paying job and later on, I did other things like; probably, you know they used to set up pins in a bowling alley by hand, not by machine; and so, we used to do that.
Q: With the money that you made from that job, did you get to keep it or did you have to provide for your family?
Mr. Bennett: My folks were very good about that. They let us keep it. They didn’t expect us to turn it in as many of my friend’s families made them do. But we started, all of us saved our money and then we, as soon as we could, we started to buy our own clothes, to some extent-to the extent of the money you had, just because you knew you should help out.
Q: Was your religious faith strong during the Depression, and was religion impacted by the Depression at all?
Mr. Bennett: It was impacted I think to the extent that. . . We lived a couple of miles, we lived in North Natick and the churches were basically in those days right in the center. So, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, I, being the youngest and smallest, didn’t have to make that hard walk every Sunday. The impact was just in terms of, you’re not going to send the kids out to walk a couple miles to church in a snowstorm or rain or something like that. So that was the basic impact.
Q: How do you recall Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Mr. Bennett: I guess just listening to him on the radio you get one whole sense of a person and then when I was old enough to go to a movie and see, you know, they always started with the news, it was a pâté news, and they’d show him. We never really knew that he was as much crippled by polio as he was; that he could really barely walk. But you never had that sense because they always had him behind a podium, or sitting in a chair, or at times he would stand, but he had all kinds of braces and stuff like that so you didn’t realize. I think all of us just look upon him as, as being just the greatest thing since sliced bread really.
Q: So even as a young boy President Roosevelt was still a savior to you? I mean kids in our generation, they see the president as only, the president, it just seems that you look to Mr. Roosevelt really as more of a hero.
Mr. Bennett: I think because you don’t have, in those days, the news is very weathered. You get the news on the radio and in papers and certainly when I was 7, 8, 9 years old, I probably read the sports page, not the news, so you didn’t have all these adverse things you hear today, on the computer, T.V., magazines, newspapers, all of that, radio, where you hear so much in terms of positives and negatives. In those days it was mostly positives; people didn’t try to dig up the dirt on people to the extent that it happens today, so I don’t know if that answers your question.
Q: Do you remember the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt? What was she like?
Mr. Bennett: You know it was very unusual I think in those days for a woman to be, she would be on the radio every now and again and you’d see her in film clips when you were at the movies. She just, I think, did an awful lot for women by speaking out and I think that it had not happened before. I mean you’d have people, famous aviatress like Amelia Earnhart or you’d have movie stars, but she was from the political world so to speak, and was involved in a number of things. She was one of the first people to bring to the American public the fact that blacks were put down and were still in the area of slavery in the sense, not really but looked down upon, and she brought an awareness, a starting of that. And for that, she was great, among other things.
Q: Do you ever recall seeing a “Hooverville” of homeless people? And what was that like?
Mr. Bennett: No I really, I never did. I mean we didn’t get around very much, you know when we did get the car, it was basically for transportation but we didn’t make trips and stuff. I had seen them in the news during that period at the movies, but I don’t know; that must have been terrible. What a terrible life.
Q: Do you remember any of the great construction projects of the period like The Golden Gate Bridge or The Empire State Building or the Hoover Dam?
Mr. Bennett: You know not really, obviously I knew about them but I mean, it’d be on the news, but you didn’t have any concept as to the hugeness of it because all you had was like a picture in a newspaper. If you did get to a movie and they normally wouldn’t be showing something like that, but you still wouldn’t get the huge enormity of the Hoover Dam or something like that.
Q: Did your parents think FDR’s New Deal was a good program?
Mr. Bennett: They certainly did, you know, it put food on the table. I mean, I think most of the people in that period looked upon the government as a savior and even though there was always dissent, there’s bound to be, but the huge majorities of which FDR was elected I think is testament to the fact that so many people looked upon him as being the person that would get us out of the Depression.
Q: When did you start to see the end of the Depression, or when did you start to see not hope but steps forward?
Mr. Bennett: I think I started to look that way probably around 19, for us, 1936 when my father was able to get back onto the railroad. The pay wasn’t that great but it was an income and he had to work, and whenever they had an extra train coming up they would put him on it and then he would go to the next guy eligible and so forth, so you might be called out in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day. He took the jobs when he could, and we had an income. I think I was a little older by then and I was, as I said by ’36 or ‘7, I was caddying and setting up pins and working odd jobs in the neighborhoods, I mean kids hustled a lot then, I mean we had to.
Q: Do you remember the New York 1939 World’s Fair?
Mr. Bennett: Yeah, I was in ninth grade at that time . . . I was in Wellesley at that time, a little more affluent community, so a number of the kids I went to school with, not in my immediate neighborhood, but they and their families would go to New York. The thing I remember about it mostly is, I think they call it the Trilon and the Perisphere and I don’t know what the heck they were, but I can remember that was one of the big features of it.
Q: While the country was in the Depression, do you recall learning about Hitler’s rise in Germany or the Japanese Military advancements in Asia?
Mr. Bennett: Yes, but later I mean you know like when I was in junior high school and we’d have civics classes and so forth and discuss that and I remember the French building a famous, I guess you’d call it a battlement called the Maginot Line, and that was supposed to be between France and Germany and that would repel the Germans incase they ever attacked, and I remember doing a big project on that in 8th or 9th grade. In retrospect it was probably one of the stupidest things they ever did because the Germans just went around it and it was basically useless after so many millions of dollars, but yeah and even in ’36 with the Olympics and famous American runner Jesse Owens. Hitler, of course, looked down on black people. They weren’t equal to the master race, which was what Hitler called it and when Jesse Owens won so many medals it was really like, sort of thumbing his nose at, he didn’t of course, but I mean it was a greater front to Hitler, which made everyone feel good.
Q: Do you think we’re still affected at all by the Great Depression?
Mr. Bennett: I think in ways. I think that when anything like currently is, you’re well aware I’m sure of the fact that we’re probably in a recession, and people are talking about the long lasting effect of the housing bubble and all this wasted money in the Iraqi war and so forth that we could slide into something like that. But, I think one of the great things about it is Bernanke, who is the current fed chairman, made a study when he was in college of the different steps that were done during the Great Depression and so I think that with all that prior knowledge that the efforts to avoid something like that will transpire. At least, that’s what we should all hope for.
Q: As you see it, how are kids different today than in your childhood era?
Mr. Bennett: Basically no, but in terms of what you kids have today, in terms of the electronics and all of that, and transportation and all that sort of thing. Well, I guess most kids today aspire to college, which is really great. Education is more important than it was back then. It wasn’t really in the families that I grew up with, and I know I was the only one in my household to go on to college, and it just wasn’t as affordable and not that many kids did go on, and the fact the only way that I went on was I earned enough money to pay my first year of college, and then after that I thank goodness I had the G.I. bill that paid for my bachelors and masters so that was very helpful to me.
Q: We’ve been hearing a lot about how badly the economy is doing these days. Oil prices are at record levels, food prices are way up, inflation is up, unemployment is up, war costs are close to a trillion dollars, and our national debt is over seven trillion dollars. What are the lessons of the Great Depression today, and have we learned these lessons?
Mr. Bennett: Well, I kind of covered a little of that before with the way, the steps they’ve taken, like to bail out a Bear Stearns, which you’ve probably been reading about, which some people think was a mistake, but was done so that the whole financial system didn’t collapse, which was the fear. Whether it would’ve or not, obviously none of us know. But I think those are the things that are, it’s the kind of thing that people do in government and Federal Reserve to avoid some of the mistakes that were made back during the Great Depression. I think in retrospect one of the things of the Great Depression was the fact that they did not increase the money supply and so forth, which prolonged it, deepened it and so forth. I guess from that perspective, we’re doing things today that will help. In terms of the national debt, to me that’s a real worry and there’s not a heck of a lot they can do about it as long as we’ve spent so many billions of dollars in whatever it is now per year, in Iraq alone, and how much that’s going to impact you kids as you get out with your families and so forth, and its bound to. I think this country’s got the government, the congress, and whoever is the next president is, has got to pay more attention to the national debt and the way we’re spending the money, how we should spend it, and where it will do the most good. I don’t want to say more and show exactly how I feel about the current situation.
Q: Do you have any lasting memories of adventures or anything from when you were a child?
Mr. Bennett: Not really, I mean as kids in the neighborhood, we used to just play together so much and go swimming and fishing, and you’d do things that didn’t cost money. That’s basically it. And that was typical of all of us, but nothing great I think. I think the first thing I ever did; I went to stay at an Aunt’s house for a couple days when I was probably about ten or twelve. My sister was next in age to me and that was the first time I had even been away overnight, so it’s really so much different from today. It’s pretty hard to pick something that was an event.