Friday night, for the first time in months, a man tried to pick me up in a bar. The country singer at the Occidental Saloon was playing a cover of Dwight Yoakum when 91-year-old Merlin "Whitey" White asked me to dance. Whitey wanted to teach me the two-step, but I prevailed upon him to sit down and tell me about his life instead.
Eighty years have passed since Black Tuesday opened the darkest chapter in American economic history, but Whitey still holds onto powerful memories of troubles the Great Depression visited upon his family.
After his parents divorced around 1920 when he was just a toddler, Whitey went to live with his Grandma and Grandpa Long, his mother's parents. Grandpa Long, a bee farmer, owned a small plot of land and 100 hives in Beaver Crossing, Iowa.
By the age of ten, Whitey knew how to help change frames in the hives and trap wild bees to build new colonies. When Grandma Long packaged honey they collected, Whitey would sometimes go on long drives with Grandpa, delivering the sweet cargo stacked in the back of his Model T to a roster of regular customers.
Then one day in the early 1930s, Grandma and Grandpa Long received an ominous letter from the bank, which regretfully informed them that foreclosure was imminent. Only in his early teens at the time, Whitey doesn't recall the precise financial circumstances that precipitated the foreclosure, but he could never forget the emotional response the notice provoked. "Grandpa and Grandma, they shed a lot of tears when that happened. They didn't know what they were going to do," Whitey recalls.
A heavy pall of trauma and despair settled over the house, until a wealthy neighbor stopped by a week later with an idea. The neighbor proposed to purchase the bee farm, then rent it back to the Longs for a reasonable rate. Whether the neighbor offered the arrangement simply out of kindness, or in recognition of the critical function Grandpa Long's bees provided to local agriculture, it didn't really matter--their livelihood was saved. Whitey's other grandparents did not have the good fortune to live near a generous financial supporter when their foreclosure notice arrived.
Grandpa White--in his early 60s when the Depression claimed his land--had farmed his entire life. On a small plot of land in the country, the Whites grew alfalfa and corn, and raised pigs to sell. Grandma and Grandpa White also had the means to feed themselves from their land--a full garden in the summer, chickens for eggs and meat, two cows for fresh milk. After foreclosure, they had to move into town and accept government assistance so they could get food from the grocer. Grandpa White became a handyman, working whatever odd job he could find.
"The Depression was just sad for quite a few people," Whitey remembers. "So many people were hungry. And poor. They had to get help just to have food."
These days, Whitey lives in the Wyoming Veterans Home at Fort McKinney in Buffalo. During World War II, he spent two years in service with the 6th Aircraft Repair Unit-Floating, stationed mostly in the southern Philippines. Having gone through the Great Depression, a World War, two marriages, and other challenges in more than nine decades of living, Whitey points out that he has had many opportunities in his life to become bitter, angry, or defeated. So he wanted to share his own words of wisdom for anyone facing hard times because of the recession:
"I know it seems hard to do, but you just have to have faith that things will work out how they're supposed to. Just try to be happy and everything will turn out. Negativity--keep it out. It has no place. Doesn't help anything. Just stay positive."
After a moment's pause, Whitey has one more thought: "And go to church."
"And dance," I say back to him.
"Oh yes," he says with a twinkling smile. "Definitely dance."