“The price of greatness is responsibility”

(Expanded version of a 2019 post; the title is attributed to Winston Churchill)

I have already alluded to two sets of responsibilities my parents had when they were children of The Great Depression, responsibilities which our kids would likely see as being beyond credulity as far as their own children are concerned. One set of responsibilities involved Lois’ trolley ride to Pittsburgh, and the second was required by Jerry’s paper route.

Beginning when Lois was five and continuing until she was nearly fourteen, every Saturday morning she would board a trolley in McKeesport, travel unsupervised to downtown Pittsburgh, walk to the radio station where she would perform, and then return home via trolley. Lois’ mother, if I recall Lois’ accounts correctly, did accompany her daughter a few times at the beginning, but on the vast majority of Saturdays over a span of nearly ten years, Lois was on her own. Because of that, it meant that Lois needed to be responsible for her trolley fares, at what stop to disembark, which trolley to take home, and which route to follow to the radio station while navigating and crossing the streets of a very large city.

Jerry’s frequent recounting of the details of his paper route—verified often by my grandmother, Babe, and usually shared by my father to punctuate some irresponsible behavior on my part—described a daily routine that seems almost heroic to me. He began delivering morning papers when he was twelve, and the more than one hundred papers he delivered every morning, including Sundays, were out-of-town papers brought to Harrisburg by truck and train from places like Baltimore, Philly, and New York City.

Awakened very early each morning by my grandfather, whose nickname was “Curly,” Jerry would be driven by Curly to a corner in Camp Hill where a distributor would drop Jerry’s newspapers. Jerry would pack the papers into Curly’s car and return home where, after helping Jerry get all of the papers into the house, Curly would go back to bed for a few more hours of sleep. In what I imagine was a noticeably quiet house at that time of the morning, Jerry would fold and tuck the dailies for tossing. Many of us can remember those folded and tucked newspapers that were tossed onto our front stoops (or much to the chagrin of our fathers, occasionally into the shrubbery) every day.

Placing as many papers as possible into the basket of his bike and into canvas shoulder bags—there was at least one return trip home each morning to resupply—Jerry would set out before dark to deliver his papers before it was time to get himself ready for school, which included downing a breakfast prepared by my grandmother. Babe assured me many times that only in the midst of the deepest snowfalls or heaviest downpours would Curly drive Jerry on his route. Compounding the physical task of delivering the papers was the fact that Jerry delivered at least five different dailies, which meant he had to pack the correct papers for each leg of the route, and I cannot help marveling each time I recall this story, that this job that he continued into high school and expanded—this unsupervised, complicated, and physically demanding job—began when he was twelve-years-old.

I know of other stories that have been directly shared with me over the years about the childhood responsibilities of Boomers’ parents and grandparents that astonish me: a boy working in a coal mine at the age of twelve; the oldest sister taking care of (raising, actually) a number of younger siblings because her mother was constantly busy dealing with new babies; a daughter who, at the age of seven, began cooking for and serving lunch to a dozen railroad workers who boarded at her mother’s house.

While most middle-class Boomers likely escaped those levels of crushing responsibility (or said another way, did not have the opportunities to learn from those types of experiences), many of us did have responsibilities when we were kids. My parents could not afford to pay a housekeeper to periodically clean our house or do the laundry, nor was there a gardener to cut the grass or do autumn clean-ups (no family of which I knew had such help), so I was enlisted to help with and/or do some of those tasks, and in so doing, there was an expectation that I would do the work with the quality and timeliness expected of an adult. There were no automatic “attaboys” because the operative rule was, “a job worth doing, is worth doing well.” In return, I did receive a small allowance, some of which I was expected to put into a passbook savings account.

When we were old enough to handle the tasks independently—in my case, I began at eleven—Boomers earned money by cutting elderly neighbors’ lawns or shoveling snow from their sidewalks. Girls began babysitting as young as eleven, and as we got older and the laws allowed, we worked as clerks, stock boys/girls, gas station attendants, or restaurant dishwashers, which was my first real job.

There were other responsibilities given to us as children that still amaze me. One such responsibility was serving as a member of the AAA Safety Patrol, which I did in fifth and sixth grade at Highland Elementary School. In sixth grade, I was assigned to a very busy intersection along with another patrol member.

The intersection is where Center Drive and Lowther Road meet and cross Carlisle Road, a road that was well-traveled, especially during the hours when kids were walking to and from school. Our responsibility as members of the safety patrol was to use our flags to stop traffic and then direct kids, some of whom were as young as five and six, to cross the street upon our command, and all of this was done without an adult in sight, except for the drivers of the cars we stopped.

The current AAA Safety Patrol website indicates that today, “Patrollers direct children, not traffic (and) teach other students about traffic safety on a peer-to-peer basis.” Nice, but in 1958, we did direct traffic as well as students with full and independent responsibility for doing so.

As a result, I, on the first day of school in 1958, a ten-year-old who would not turn eleven until December, was given the responsibility of a crossing guard at an intersection that would now be entrusted to paid adults, most of whom wear uniforms, have badges, and are trained by police agencies. Of course, we had badges too, which we wore every day on spiffy, white belts that crossed our shoulders and chests to signify the heavy responsibilities we proudly bore.

Whenever I think about the responsibilities I fulfilled, and the even greater responsibilities fulfilled by my parents and hundreds of thousands of other kids before Boomers were born, I think about today’s middle-class kids and shake my head, not at the kids, but at how ignorant today’s parents seem to be when it comes to honoring the potential competence of children by delegating responsibility to them.

I don’t shake my head for long because I know it was we Boomers who began the societal diminution of childhood responsibility. And why did we? Was it to protect children for as long as we could from the demands of real responsibility, and if so, why? How could we have forgotten how well those demands prepared us and our parents and grandparents to accept the full responsibilities of adulthood?

An important caveat to the message of this post follows, added after listening to Kelly Clarkson’s version of My Grownup Christmas List on the day after Thanksgiving, 2020:

On a spectrum that includes at one end the failure of contemporary parents to understand the positive benefits of their children having opportunities to fulfill meaningful responsibilities, the other end of the spectrum is anchored to an immoral and evil phenomenon still prominent in today’s world: Child Labor. Child Labor is something that a Wikipedia entry describes as “the exploitation of children through any form of work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and is mentally, physically, socially or morally harmful.”

I am hopeful that no one reading this post will think that my use of Churchill’s quote for its title endorses the kind of coerced and harmful responsibilities associated with sweat shops and mining for diamonds; and yet, I think of my father’s paper route, which he did willingly in an effort to supplement his family’s income during the Great Depression.

It is my opinion that what Jerry did is different only in degree compared to what some very poor children may be doing at this very moment to keep their families from starving. Jerry was never as destitute as today’s children of the very poor, and while he was never coerced by his parents to take on the paper route, a twelve-year-old child can sense the fear of parents brought low, and when an opportunity is presented, such a child may take advantage of it.

That said, Jerry was coerced by the circumstances in which the family found itself. How sad that the wishes and power of the affluent, whose choices created the Great Depression, still power the world’s economic engines that create the poverty that drives the exploitation of children of the very poor.

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(The featured image is from the Marleah (Lawson) Hollander Collection from the Indiana Album (Catalog Number ia-0076-0016) and is being used herein for a non-commercial, educational purpose.)