A Hobo Child

By David Glenn Cox

My father was born in 1920, in Springfield, Ohio. His father worked in one of the six steel mills in town. They had no union to protect them, and they had no healthcare plan. If you were injured on the job that was your own personal problem. You were off the payroll when your feet left the property. He attended local schools and said his shop class built tables and chairs for the kindergarten. Practical and resourceful yes, but safe?

Dad’s first job was picking up bottles for bootleggers at five cents a bottle. One day he pulled his wagon up the drive and knocked on the door. A policeman answered, and he turned his wagon around and went it search of another bootlegger. That’s how hard it was to find a bootlegger…a child could do it. He also remembered the Great Depression. He was in a food riot and ran away from home as a teenager. He spent the summer riding trains being a hobo. He was always quick to tell me, a bum doesn’t want to work a hobo doesn’t want to work anymore than is necessary.  He enjoyed the lifestyle and envied their freedom but returned to high school graduating in 1939.

He said when FDR said, “this generation has a rendezvous with destiny,” he knew what that meant, and he knew it was directed at him. But he’d landed a job as an apprentice draftsman. He was learning a trade and the job was draft deferred they were building machine tools for the B-26 bomber. He heard the news about Pearl Harbor that Sunday afternoon and knew what that meant as well. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps before Christmas.

When they took their physicals, my father failed his Wizz quiz. High uremic acid meant possible kidney stones and so he was grounded before he ever got off the ground. Upon hearing the news, my father said, “If I can’t fly, I’m not staying.” It was then explained that he had signed the paperwork and had been inducted into the Army. The old man had an ace up his sleeve with twelve million men being drafted he knew they wouldn’t be chasing anyone who enlisted in another service.  After his physical he walked down the street to the Navy recruiter and signed up again. When it came time to take the Wizz quiz my father asked the guy next to him, “fill this for me” and became a naval airman candidate.

He was sent to Chicago to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It was while he was in Chicago that he met my mother. From there he was sent to Lakehurst, New Jersey, for flight training. Lighter than air flight training. He had dreamed of flying Hellcats off carrier decks but ended up flying a blimp instead. Officially, he was the flight engineer, but they flew twenty-four-hour missions, so everybody had a turn at the wheel. They were flying over the Atlantic looking for U-boats they had radar and could stay aloft while airplanes could only fly for a few hours at a time.

When FDR died, he cried. He was nearly twenty-five years old and FDR had been President since he was twelve. My father had survived the Great Depression and was about to survive the Second World War. Under the G.I. Bill he took his discharge papers and his high school diploma to The Ohio State University and enrolled. He was given a voucher for the bookstore and he was in. He and my mother along with a baby lived in a twelve-foot Burro trailer for four years.  Graduating in the class of 1950, he was firmly established by the time I came along.

He owned a new home and drove a new car. He was the first in his family to ever dream of going to college. By 1966 he was Vice-President and general manager of a manufacturing firm. Ten years later he was Vice-President and senior project manager for a larger company. Ten years after that he became a Professor at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. A kid who hopped trains and admired hobos had gone a long way. He had money employment and healthcare.

We his children had new bicycles and birthday parties. Trees and Santa at Christmas, there were no depressions or foot riots. There were new homes and lots of graduates from the class of 1950 and 51 and 52. Gaggles of children roamed the streets well clothed and well fed riding a wave of prosperity undreamed of a generation before and you can boil it down to just one man. The blessings my father received that were passed down to me came from Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. My grandfather retired as a Union Shop Steward with a pension and healthcare.

So, as we remember those who have served, let us remember those who served us well. Elected in the depths us the greatest depression we had ever endured. At his death we were the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. His programs and policies created the greatest generation. Franklin Roosevelt died more than a decade before I was born but is the most influential President of my life. Thirty-year mortgages, educational opportunities, and non-predatory student loans. Banks that didn’t fail because they were regulated, and parks that were free.

I was living in Lawrenceville, Georgia, in 1995 my children were drinking tap water that came from a lake built by the TVA. The lake is the primary water source for the city of Atlanta and without it the modern city of Atlanta wouldn’t exist. It is hard to conceive of all the ways one President and one twelve-year period of American history so fundamentally changed us as a nation.

So, as we remember their sacrifices let us remember their fruits as well. Let us use their memory as a road map and follow their path in solidarity.

“The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power…. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.”
― Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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