Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
A Good Life and A Good Death by William Appleman Williams
Page 6

VI: Another Kind of Depression

Unhappily, another kind of chasm soon opened before the family. The combination of verve, daring foolishness, skill, and hard work that had created and sustained Porter as a businessman was subverted by the marketplace while Mildrede and her son were reviving their lives in California. The American capitalist system failed again, just as it had in the 1870s and the 1890s.

Almost overnight it no longer made any difference (if it ever had) that Porter was a stockholder in the Gerard Oil Company, the Oxford Gold Mining and Milling Company, the Eastern Montana Gas Service Corporation, the Gold Bar Mining Company, the Potsdam Gold Mining Company, the Marigold Mining and Investment Company - or even the Haifa Oil Company. All those dreams disappeared into shafts and wells that had never been dug or drilled.

Ah, yes: "A fool and his money...." Porter had no serious cause to complain about those losses. Granted his patriotic faith in the endless growth and success of American capitalism, he had nevertheless invested some of his profits at unwise (if not silly) risk and suffered the consequences. He very probably would have lost those monies even if there had been no Crash and Great Depression.

The same cannot be said, however, about his investments in good farm land, skill, and love for highly bred and trained animals. In those areas he became a victim of the system. The land was fertile, his abilities were internationally recognized, and many of his animals were truly special. There he gave his all, and the system blew him away.

Nora, Porter and Maude.
Nora, Porter and Maude.

It would be easy, and many people find it convenient, to ignore Porter the human being and place him as a statistic in a textbook on The Great Depression of the 1930s. Oh! Goodness Gracious!! There is Porter on page 417. Isn't that interesting. I never thought one of our family would get into a book. Isn't that nice. I wonder why they didn't use his name.

They did not use his name because they did not give a damn about him as a human being - neither the government nor the economists nor the statisticians. Let alone the bankers and other capitalists. Porter was not stupid, and in the months that followed he began to realize that he was being shoveled out into nonexistence. He did not like that: he fought it as best he could, but in the end he was defeated. Maude and Mildrede were not stupid, either, and they struggled to save Porter as they sustained their own integrity and independence.

That was extremely difficult because one of the first things that people stop buying in a depression is high-priced thoroughbred hunting dogs. His reputation was legitimate, but if nobody comes to you for your life's work, it does begin to gnaw at your innards. He began to fondle all those ribbons: during one week, for example, Porter and his animals won seven blues, and two purple class of field. And he began to tell the same stories too often.

They were terribly moving accounts of the relationship between a man and his dogs. He had two favorites. One involved Prince, a magnificent Labrador Bay Retriever. Tossie always sent Prince along when his grandson and his friends went off to cross-country ski down to the river to build a fire, cook hot dogs, and play shinny hockey on the ice. One day, silly-ass puttering around and showing off as is the nature of young children reaching for adulthood, the grandson went too far along on mushy ice and dropped into the river. Prince came off the bank in a flash, grabbed the boy by his belt, and brought him back to the bank.

The boy could swim, the river was not that deep, and the current not that swift. Hence it would be an exaggeration to say that Prince made all the difference. But he sure did help. Porter never sold Prince, even when in the depths of the Depression he was offered a large sum of cash. Neither Maude nor Mildrede complained. They understood that Porter needed that living memory of his achievement.

There was another dog, Big Red, a gorgeous setter, who could find and point a quail where no quail were supposed to be. A man from Arkansas, a sure-shot hunter, watched Big Red win two field trials and developed a lust for the animal. He nagged Tossie about twice a month for almost a year to sell the dog. Finally, with great reluctance, but knowing the family needed the money, Porter shipped the dog down the Mississippi.

Very soon, surely within a month, Tossie received an angry telegram followed by an irate phone call. The message was simple: Big Red had run away, and the man demanded a full refund. Mildrede told the story better than anyone else. "By that time Father was getting depressed. But he got up out of the chair by the radio and told that man that he must have mistreated Big Red. Then he got very angry. He said, 'Either that dog will come back to you, or it will come back to me.' And he slammed down the phone."

Sometime later, maybe a month, maybe six weeks, anyway along about supper time, Maude heard a whimpering on the porch.

"Porter, I think one of the dogs got out of the kennel and has come up to the house. It sounds sick. You better go see to it."

It was Big Red home from Arkansas. He was literally almost skin and bones, he had a fever, and his paws were splotches of caked blood. Along his back and hind quarters were the marks of having been whipped with rawhide. Porter nursed him back to feisty health and did not refund the money.

Those stories (and others almost as moving) did not change the harsh truth that Porter had been displaced as the family breadwinner. There he was, aged 63, becoming rapidly dependent economically, and even in some ways emotionally, upon his daughter. It hurt him, and it scared him, and he did not know how to make a new contribution to the family.

It was not much easier for Maude or Mildrede or the son. From the beginning, and even after she had returned from California, Mildrede was paying for her education at Iowa State Teachers College with money from several sources: Billy's military and civilian insurance, which provided a relatively small fixed sum that decreased every month; a Veterans Administration pension to an unremarried widow with child of an officer killed on active duty; scholarship aid and other occasional payments from the college; and periodic supplements from Maude's savings. (It is worth noting that, fifty years later, Mildrede's VA pension had climbed to the stupendous figure of $325 per month. Imagine how small it was in 1931-32!)

It was grim. Mildrede had little time or energy to function as a mother to her child. She simply had to graduate to get a job. Thus Maude had to divide her wisdom, energy, and will in four ways: to wive her husband, to mother the child, to support her daughter, and to continue participating in the community. And the child had somehow to strike a compromise between his mother, his grandmother, his grandfather, and his own resources.

So much for the claims of capitalism to provide opportunities for everyone to realize their full potential. Everyone was being driven to the wall. One weeps while reading a letter from Tossie to his daughter explaining that he cannot meet the payments on the Montana and Nebraska land, and other debts.

"I hardly know how to say this, but we all make mistakes. I have too many debts, and I don't know what to do. I could get by and maybe even make some money if I had the capital, but my capital is all in the dogs, and nobody is buying them. I even have a problem paying for the new typewriter that I really need for the abstract business which isn't doing any good either right now.

"I get a few inquiries and cut the prices and ship the dogs and then I don't get any money back. Maude tells me I shouldn't ship till I get at least some money, and I suppose she is right, but I have always done my business on trust, and I'm getting no trust. I have got three good dogs out and ought to get about $500, but I guess I'll be lucky if I get anything.

"It's so bad that sometimes it is hard for me to think, to work, or accomplish anything when I get into that condition from worry. Some days I almost forget to go out and feed the dogs. No one can work well or do a thing well if they are so wrought-up, and I often wonder how you do as well as you do.

"I promise you I will not ask you for any of your money unless forced to. I may be able to squeeze through. I will try hard in every way I can. I'll do the best I can and hope it works out in the long run.

"With love to you - Father."

Mildrede was not very good with words in response to a letter like that. But she did know what to do. She told Maude to stop sending any money, cut her own few indulgences to send more money home, saved more by cutting her trips to Atlantic, and slugged her way through summer school in order to graduate as soon as possible and begin earning an income to support the family.

The glorious rhetoric about the virtues and freedom and rewards of marketplace capitalism found no echo in the family. Even Maude and Porter, for the first time in their lives, voted for a Democrat. Porter did get paid for one dog. Maude claimed the money. She used a bit of it to hire a Black man in the neighborhood who was out of work to put up a basketball hoop in the alley for the grandson. It was time to stop breaking windows.