Born in 1924, John Sokel experienced the Great Depression in Meridien, Connecticut. His father, who held an office job for the government, was not greatly affected by the financial panic of his time so his family fared relatively well throughout the Depression years. However, as a young boy, he witnessed many people around him going through the hard times of this era.
Q: Please state your name for us.
Mr. Sokel: John Sokel
Q: How old were you in 1929?
Mr. Sokel: Five years of age.
Q: Where did you live during the Depression years?
Mr. Sokel: Meridien, Connecticut.
Q: What were your parents’ names and what did they do for work when you were small?
Mr. Sokel: My father’s name was John and he worked for the post office, in Meridien Connecticut, and my mother’s name was Molly, and she was a housewife. Women back then in those days didn’t work.
Q: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
Mr. Sokel: I had one younger brother.
Q: How old or at that time how old was he?
Mr. Sokel: He wasn’t born.
Q: How was your mother’s role as homemaker impacted by the Depression?
Mr. Sokel: We really weren’t impacted very much since my father was a so-called “white collar worker,” and he worked for the government, and there was no lay-offs, and he still worked and received compensation, as he would normally have. So we really weren’t affected but we lived in a neighborhood, where there was a “blue collars,” so called blue-collar people who were very badly affected.
Q: Ok, so it wasn’t just the whole community it was just, I mean you guys lucked out basically?
Mr. Sokel: Yes, we were very fortunate.
Q: What did you eat as a child, did you have pre-made foods or was it all homemade?
Mr. Sokel: All homemade.
Q: When you went down to the store what kind of things did you want to buy and how much did it cost?
Mr. Sokel: Well my favorite store was the 5 and 10 cents store, because everything that I liked was either 5 cents or 10 cents. We never had an allowance in all my growing years, we never had any allowance, whatever money we had we earned by ourselves.
Q: Did you have a job?
Mr. Sokel: Yeah I did. It’s when I was 15/16, yes.
Q: Did a lot of teenagers your age a lot of people your age have jobs at that point?
Mr. Sokel: Yes, they did yea.
Q: How was your wage?
Mr. Sokel: I started off when I was in high school. I started at 40 cents an hour.
Q: Did your family have a car back then?
Mr. Sokel: Yes we did, we had one car my mother never drove it was just my father.
Q: Did she not drive because she just didn’t want to drive or was it kind of just the standard back then?
Mr. Sokel: There weren’t too many women driving back in those days either so she never got interested in it. She tried it once or twice, but she gave up.
Q: Did the car have a big impact on your life?
Mr. Sokel: Yea it sure did, as a matter of fact it was very important to us. My father was able to take us down to the beach and we lived close to the ocean, so we were using it, we made a lot of trips. We used to go up to the Hair Pair turn in Hair Pair, Massachusetts on Route 20 Route 2 west and that was a long day drip for us. We didn’t go too far back in those days.
Q: Were there speed limits or anything?
Mr. Sokel: Yea there were speed limits but the car wouldn’t go that fast anyway.
Q: Were there a lot of regulations for driving?
Mr. Sokel: No, as a matter of fact, when I was 16, I got a license and there we didn’t have to have any drivers ed. Things were very simple. You just went up and answered a few questions and took it around for a road test, and we got our license, and we drove and we didn’t even need insurance.
Q: Were there many cars on the road at that time?
Mr. Sokel: Not that many, no.
Q: Did a lot of your friends have cars?
Mr. Sokel: The more wealthy ones did, yes. Not the children, just the families.
Q: How would you compare the typical clothing then to today?
Mr. Sokel: It’s basically the same, I mean when we went to school we were all dressed up all the time. In the summer time we had shorts. They allowed us to wear shorts in the summer time, well we were out most of the summer but we had knickers, we used to wear knickers, which were the style. Everybody wore knickers until you got to junior high and then you could graduate to long pants.
Q: How long was the school year compared to now?
Mr. Sokel: It was approximately the same as you have now.
Q: Did girls and boys have different clothing restrictions on could they wear?
Mr. Sokel: No, no they dressed up, you know nobody wore…we didn’t even have khakis back then, or jeans we didn’t know what, the ones who wore jeans were the farmers and they had the one with bib you know over the shoulder type.
Q: How did you spend most of your time as a kid?
Mr. Sokel: Well in my spare time I spent a lot of it playing sports, I played a lot of sports. I enjoyed that and although I had a younger brother, I was really not responsible for babysitting for him, my mother since she was at home, mother did all that. Our grandparents on my mother’s side lived in the same house as we did. They had their own apartment and my grandfather and my grandmother took care of my brother whenever my mother had to go someplace.
Q: So was it common for grandparents to live with the mom and dad?
Mr. Sokel: A lot of them did yes, they either lived in the same house or adjacent house or apartment with them.
Q: Were they forced to because of the Depression or was that pre 1930’s?
Mr. Sokel: No I don’t think that was because of the Depression it was just a family unity that we had.
Q: Did you ever go to the circus or to any carnivals?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yes, we used go down to in Meridien; they used to have the circus used to come to town always and I guess it was early spring, and we’d always go down there and watch them pitch the tents and watch them water the elephants. Yeah that was a big event, that was our big event of the spring
Q: So did they come annually?
Mr. Sokel: Yes they came every year, yup, same place every year.
Q: Did you go to any sporting events or anything like that?
Mr. Sokel: As I got older my father we used to go, we lived closer to New York than we did Boston, so we used we all went down to New York and my brothers team was the Dodgers who were in Brooklyn at the time and my team was the Yankees. So we had a rivalry.
Q: Did you have any sports heroes or any other heroes as a kid?
Mr. Sokel: Joe DiMaggio.
Q: Did you ever go to any movies?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yes, every Saturday morning we’d go to movies 10 cents. They had a serial, I mean a movie type thing that would go for one week to the next week and it would be Tom Nix and whatever else was on.
Q: So did they have actual theatres?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yea, we had a theatre.
Q: Did they have sound or a piano player?
Mr. Sokel: Not back when we were in the sound era.
Q: What about the radio, did you listen to the radio a lot?
Mr. Sokel: That’s the only thing we had for entertainment was the radio. We all gathered around particularly on Sunday evening and we had the radio and we listened to Jack Beny and Fred Allen and all the old timers. We just imagined what they were doing you could almost whenever they were going down the basement and they’d have the sound effects, we could just visualize them going down in the basement. That’s the only thing we had.
Q: So did a lot of people have radios was that pretty common?
Mr. Sokel: Everybody, yea oh yea.
Q: What was the community life like back then where you lived?
Mr. Sokel: Well I lived in a mixed community. We were Irish and Austrian, and most of our neighbors they were either Italian or Polish or mostly Italian Polish and Catholics. We were mixed and we all got along together. There was no rivalry. We played together and worked together and whatever else necessary.
Q: What was school like?
Mr. Sokel: Well school wasn’t much different from what your in right now. School is basically the type of the thing we didn’t have just one room we stayed in one room but it was many rooms that you could go to. We had music and gymnasium and we had shop so we learned how to do metal work and carpentry work and things like that.
Q: So you had pretty much the same core subjects, math, science that type?
Mr. Sokel: Yes we did.
Q: And what do you mean you stayed in one room?
Mr. Sokel: Well we didn’t have one room for English and another for Mathematics and the teacher did everything. She was a well rounded I guess you might say. She handled all the subjects for us. They weren’t so sophisticated; I’m talking about grade school. As we got into high school we did move around from room to room and had special teachers.
Q: What chores or responsibilities did you have growing up?
Mr. Sokel: Cutting the grass in the summer time.
Q: You had lawn mowers back then?
Mr. Sokel: Hand lawn mowers, no power mowers all small wheel type, reel type r-e-e-l reel type. And my father and my grandmother…
. . .
Q: You were talking about mowers, lawn mowers.
Mr. Sokel: Oh during the summer time we used to work with my father on weekends to my grandmother’s. My grandmother lived in the outskirts of town; she had a small farm. My father did all the work for her, the gardening, we had vegetable gardens, and grapes, and apple orchards. So we used to do all the things for my grandmother, her husband was dead, so she lived by herself and we worked up there all the time. We never got paid for it, my only reward was when I got older about 15, 14 or 15, my father would let me drive the car home but driving the car home my grandmother lived up on a hill so all you had to do was steer it down the hill, I never even had to start the car. It was about a mile away but it was all downhill.
Q: So were your chores or responsibilities impacted at all by the Depression?
Mr. Sokel: No, they really weren’t. We did the same thing year round. We were very fortunate. Because of my father’s position, we never really felt it that badly we could others in the neighborhood who were very badly effected by the Depression.
Q: So was the whole mood and environment of the community really changed a lot by the depression?
Mr. Sokel: Well the people, yeah some of the people of course the men who were working in the factories at that time so some of them were laid off and some were on shorter hours and so forth. The ones who were financially badly affected, the city provided some free flour and other items they could get, and I remember as a kid watching my neighbors come up the street with a, pulling a wagon with a big bag of flour on it and they used to get that once a month or whatever it was. I could watch coming up and wondering what when I first saw it I couldn’t figure out what was happening and I asked my mother and she said well that’s the cities providing them with flour because they don’t have any other money and they couldn’t buy anything.
Q: So you were aware of the Depression your whole life? You were aware of the effects?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yeah.
. . .
Q: Was your faith strong as a young person? Do you remember? Your faith?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yeah, yeah.
Q: Your family still kept that up?
Mr. Sokel: That was a requirement, yes.
Q: You said you were Catholic?
Mr. Sokel: Yeah, we went to the Catholic church, and went to the educational-whatever they call it today I forget, but we had every, one night a week or if you were younger, it was after Sunday Mass, we would go to our catechism instructions.
Q: Do you remember if the religion of maybe your neighbors or people who were impacted by the Depression, do you think their faith was affected?
Mr. Sokel: Probably, they were all very religious, regardless of what they were, whether Italians or Polish or whatever else. They were all very religious people and we always had a full mass. We would have two or three masses and no matter what church you went to, they were well attended.
Q: Do you think people went to church more during the depression?
Mr. Sokel: I don’t know if they went any more, but they didn’t stop going.
Q: Was there a local church, so it was easy for people who didn’t have cars to get to?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yeah, we had plenty of churches back in those days, yeah. Yeah they could walk, everybody, almost anybody except if they lived on the outskirts of town. But you could walk; going to school we always walked. Well my school, high school was a little over a mile away. But that was no big deal, that was what you did. You walked there and you walked home. And people could walk to churches; they didn’t have a problem with that.
Q: How do you recall Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Mr. Sokel: Well I recall him-he came into office in 1933. And he had four terms in office, four years each. And he was probably one of the most popular and probably the most disliked as well, individual. But I thought he was tops, he came in and he provided work for the unemployed, and things that I thought were very essential even back in those days. They used to have the CCC, I think they called them and it was the conservation group that would go around and do work in parks, and beach areas, and build things, and boardwalks or roads and things of that nature. He put people to work and I thought that was very, very important.
Q: Do you remember going to any of the beaches that the CCC did?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yeah, we did. Almost every weekend when we could, yes. And I remember I did see Franklin Roosevelt; he came to the town where I lived, and my uncle had an automobile agency, the Packard Agency back in those days. The Packard was like the Cadillac is today. And he rode through town and they let us off at school so that we could see him and he drove by right where in front of where we were standing, and he was waving to the crowd. I still remember that; I could just visualize him in the car with the open roof with my uncle next to him riding down the street.
Q: Do you remember the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt?
Mr. Sokel: I know who she was; yes she was very active in the social area, in the public life.
Q: Do you recall ever seeing a Hooverville of homeless people?
Mr. Sokel: No.
Q: Did you ever work for any of those programs or anything?
Mr. Sokel: I didn’t, I was too young. I didn’t get out of high school until I was 18, and I graduated in 1942. And right after that I enlisted in the Navy. The programs that we were talking about that Franklin Roosevelt initiated were back in the 30s.
Q: Did your parents think FDR’s New Deal was a good program?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yeah, he was very popular with my family.
Q: Was it just your family or was he just generally-?
Mr. Sokel: Everybody in our community. Well he ran for office four times and was elected all four times.
Q: Were any of your family or friends part of a New Deal program?
Mr. Sokel: Not particularly, no. Not directly, no. They all approved of it but they weren’t participants of it.
Q: Do you remember any of the great construction projects of the period (Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building..)?
Mr. Sokel: Yes, I certainly do. The Empire State Building was an area where we always went to. We used to go to New York quite frequently. And that was the big project back in those days, the Empire State Building. Fortunately I did get up to the observation room several times, and it was very, very impressive, at that time.
Q: One famous event of the late 1930’s was the New York 1939 World’s Fair which was titled the World of Tomorrow. Do you remember this famous fair at all?
Mr. Sokel: Yes, in fact we attended it. One of the things that impressed me the most back in that World Fair was the Ford Motor company’s exhibit. And they had automobiles that were going around a track up a little incline and down and I was mesmerized by the automobiles that they had. Any car that my father had was always a second hand car and these cars were just magnificent. And I did get a ride in one of the convertibles which is a favorite car of mine today, a ’39 Ford Convertible.
Q: How’d you get a ride in that?
John Sokel: They offered it; you had to get in line. It was a free ride. Ppeople that were at the World Fair joined up and they’d take so many; 4 or 5 at a time go in a car. They were selling cars; they probably had 50 cars going around this place so that you didn’t have a long wait. We went, and I waited. And I waited for the right car to come to me.
Q: So while the country was in the depression, do you recall learning about Hitler’s rise in Germany or the Japanese military advances in Asia?
Mr. Sokel: Well I certainly remember Hitler only because it was just prior to Pearl Harbor that I got familiar with him. I realized what he was doing, although we studied some in school. He had just started his movement back I think around 1938 or 1939. So he was just another figure that we were familiar with.
Q: Do you think we’re still affected at all by the Great Depression?
Mr. Sokel: No, I don’t think we are, I think we got over that somewhere around 1940. Matter of fact we had the big depression somewhere between 1930 and ’35 and a smaller depression shortly thereafter, I think from about ’36 to ’39, it wasn’t a large depression. But things started to work out well. I went to work for General Motors while I was going to high school when I was 16 and I had a big raise there. I got up to 70 cents an hour. I stayed there and I was an inside trucker, and I roamed around from one department to another moving merchandise. I worked at a ball bearing plant and periodically I’d ask the boss for a raise because a lot of people that were there were being drafted; this is going back 1939, 1940, and they were drafted so they needed more people. So I kept getting these raises and my mother said to me one time, “You’re going to get fired. You can’t keep for raises like that.” I finally got up to a dollar an hour when I finally left and went to the Navy.
Q: As you see it how are kids different today then from when you were a kid?
Mr. Sokel: I don’t see much difference at all, I spend a lot of time with Ian and his brothers and I don’t see them doing anything differently than what we did when I was growing up. We weren’t as organized; we didn’t have all of the organizations that they have for football, baseball, soccer, but we did our own. We had our own independent teams and each neighborhood would get together and have their own baseball team for instance or their football team or whatever it was. So then we would look in the paper to see who-they put wanted ads in the paper looking for a game for next Sunday or Saturday or whatever day it was. We would get calls or whoever was doing it for us would get the calls and we’d meet a team at some lot or whatever it was. So we weren’t organized, they didn’t have organized sports as much as they do today. Everything today seems to be organized.
Q: Were there still high school sports when you were in high school?
Mr. Sokel: Oh yeah I played high school sports.
Q: What sports did you play in high school?
Mr. Sokel: I played soccer and basketball.
Q: And that was roughly the same as soccer and basketball is now?
Mr. Sokel: Exactly the same, yeah. We had intramural sports as well, but if you were on a varsity team, they were restricted from playing intramural sports. When we played on varsity, we went to different schools throughout the state. We went to the championship down in New Haven for the basketball championship which is for the state of Connecticut.
Q: How did your team travel?
Mr. Sokel: Buses.
Q: We’ve been hearing a lot about how badly the economy is doing these days, the stock market dropped dramatically, 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 nine trillion dollars. What are the lessons of the Great Depression today and have we learned these lessons?
Mr. Sokel: I don’t think they learned. I don’t know where all the money is coming from, the stimulus package that Obama is talking about; I have no idea how they’re going to get that money. Who’s going to pay for it? Whether it’s you people, younger people, me, the older people. It’s going to come out of somebody’s pocket and I don’t know how it’s going to be done.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the time period of the Great Depression?
Mr. Sokel: I think we covered quite a bit of activity during that period of time; I can’t think of anything in particular. More people, I think people got closer together regardless of what their nationality was; they helped one another in our neighborhood, we had a large neighborhood, quite mixed, people would bring food to others if they were in need. They would give them transportation for them if they didn’t have transportation. They’re doing basically the same thing I think they would be doing today for some of the people that are out of work.