© 2006 Dean Newhouse. All rights reserved.
I am one of the five million young men in the United States whose lives have been profoundly affected by the economic flux of the last three decades. At twenty-three I am a senior in a downtown business school that is affiliated with a large Cleveland university.
Perhaps a little smugly, I think of myself as a young man who has survived when others have not. I think of myself as somebody who will continue to survive when others do not. This is to be a discussion and a narrative of how I arrived at the particular state of mind.
A war baby, my first recollections are of a wooden gun I whittled out of a lathe. I was especially proud of the fact that it was just like the ones on the army posters, bayonet and all. I used to play war behind an orange crate in the dining room. My father was killed in action in Belgium.
I came from Lima, Ohio, to Cleveland in 1928 with my mother who taught both day school and night school. I was alone much of the time. As a high-school student I was constantly aware of the struggle my mother was making, first of all, to earn a living and, secondly, to finish her college education which she abandoned at marriage. But the golden era of '28 was to her advantage, and the fight, for a time, was an uphill, successful one. The depression changed that.
As a junior in high school I left home and was on the road half a year because it seemed to me that my absence would lighten the load for my mother. In our little family, besides myself and mother, there was my grandmother.
I went east to New York, looking for a job. I left the great city and rode the freight trains, or "drags," through the south to New Orleans. Leaving Algiers, on the west side of the Mississippi, I rode a train that carried more than three hundred men. Literally an army of jobless -- chronic bums, road kids looking for adventure, and honest men out of work and wanting it badly, scores and scores of them.
The joke current among these men was: "Washington freed the thirteen colonies, Lincoln freed the black man, Hoover freed the working man."
When the "drag" stopped at a water tank we made a scramble for the empty box-cars. For a night and a day I traveled in an empty with forty-eight other men and one woman. This is the actual count.
Probably a third of my companions were boys. Many were younger than myself. One of them, a blond boy with brown eyes, I noticed because he was especially handsome. So young that the delicacy of his features had not yet deepened into heavy masculine lines, he could have passed for a woman. He talked out of the side of his mouth, and smoked butts of cigarettes given to him by those prosperous enough to roll their own.
At Ferioia, Texas, he was killed.
The train had stopped to re-make. After the mob of us swarmed through the little town in search of food we came back and waited for the train to leave. As one of the older men put it with a sneer of impatience, the blond boy passed the time by "horsing around." He road back and forth through the jungle of cars that the switch engine was building into a new train.
I was lying on the grass near the round-house when it happened. I saw him. It was a tank car, going a little faster than he thought. He caught hold of a steel ladder-rung about waist high. The momentum threw him off balance. His foot missed the stirrup, went between the rungs under the wheels of the tank-car. Then he let go entirely. What was left of his leg caught, and he was dragged for fifty feet, his head flopping on the ground.
A man sitting near me with his arms wrapped around his legs sucked in a sort of gasping noise. Then he leaped to his feet and ran to the tangle of flesh, lying among the tracks. As he ran I heard him say, "Oh, Gawd damn it!"
There are times when I think of the way he said it.
I returned to Cleveland, and in spite of the depression, graduated from high school. For a year, I worked for a while as a salesman demonstrating a nationally known brand of canned soup. For twenty cents an hour and carfare, I did part-time chauffering for a local politician.
I went on the road again. For a time, I held down a job in Chicago as assistant to a writer's agent, a business that was 90% racket and 10%, or less, legitimate service. I was in San Francisco when the Longshoreman's strike was in full swing. A peculiar thing happened to me there.
I was discouraged. I was living on handouts, and on the proceeds of odd jobs. I had, it seemed to me, been in every newspaper office on the continent asking for a job. My life had been simplifed to the point of sleeping, waking, and sometimes eating. I didn't do much thinking. I just let things happen. I lived the way a John Steinbeck character lives. A thing happend to me, and I reacted. I was sleepy, I slept. I was hungry, I tried to find food until either I found it, or the sleep impluse over-weighed that of hunger, and I again slept. I might have done almost as well without a mind at all.
Here is one thing that happened to me. Two men came up to me in San Francisco as I walked toward the Embarcadero. I had bummed a couple of sweet-rolls from a bakery and was eating them while I walked. I had a pair of overalls under my arm. Beggars sometimes mistook me for a working man and "hit" me for a dime. Twice the day before I had been approached, and I had developed a sort of reflex action to anyone who started toward me. As these two men approached, I greeted them with something about I'm broker than you are buddy, and tried to turn away from them.
One of them said, "Are you looking for a job?"
I kept on repeating that I was broke and couldn't help them. They grunted something impatiently. The biggest one said, "You'll get along all right then, you don't need a job."
They turned away. I went on. After several minutes the things they said came back to me. I suddenly realized they'd been trying to offer me a job. I ran after them, but they were gone. I never saw them again.
Later, I tried to appease the ache of disappointment by thinking that they were probably looking for "scabs" to load the boats that had been caught in the strike. I tried to tell myself that I was better off without such a job. But I knew better. I wanted to be a "scab," anything but what I was. Later I became acquainted with the Roosevelt transient camp system and ate more regularly. I was more satisfied with my lot.
In 1935, I again returned to Cleveland and entered college as a full-time student, working my way with a janitorial job that pays my tuition and several part-time jobs that pay for my food. I sleep on a couch in the men's lounge. I have lately discovered a hunger for education and culture that I did not have before. At one time it seemed to me that college was merely a step closer to a steady job. I don't feel that way any more.
Certain personalities have profoundly influenced me. The first of these, Dr. Winfield Rogers, was a professor of literature, but more interested in philosophy. I wrote two stories and asked him to criticise them. He laughed at my romantic version of life, and for a while I hated him.
Then I met a man by the name of Baldwin. He, also, was a professor. I went into his class one day as an auditor. When it was done, I went to the registrar's office and signed up for two of his courses. The man had cast a spell over me that I've never quite gotten over.
He was a historian, but it seemed a little as if he had taken his degrees in not just one science but all of them. He was an Edgar Allan Poe-is sort of man, and I think a little displeasing to the eye at first. He couldn't sit still while he talked. He wrestled with his chair or picked it up and set it down. He couldn't get comfortable. He jumped up and almost crawled across his desk to shake his finder under a student's nose. He had a way of plucking at the air with his thumb and index finger as if for ideas. Talking without notes, he wove an intricate and tremendously logical lecture out of a million historical and philosophical facts. He reasoning was superb. His lectures were like a mosaic, built up piece by piece into a perfect whole.
I thought then that here was a man with the most powerful mind I had ever come in contact with, possibly the most powerful mind I would ever come in contact with.
He talked of Grotius, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzche, Rousseau, Hume. I began to read these philosophers. He described the vast drama of civilization, and it unfolded itself before me as something vital, something of which I was a part. I remembered that I had sometimes thought of suicide. I had even thought of robbery. I had had no feeling that these things were wrong. I suppose I had committed neither because I was afraid rather than because of moral stiffness. Now I began to see them as they were related to the great human whole. These acts were as if the right arm should break the left arm, or they were like the snake that bit itself. I was without religious conviction, but I became aware of humanity as part of me just as I was part of it.
I began to see the whole human animal as a sick animal indeed. If I were one cell of the whole, I saw that I was one of the diseased cells. I began to see in myself an example of what a strictly Utilitarian material way of thinking had produced.
For me, there had been only one thing in life, a job, work that would give me money with which I could buy food, clothes, a shiny automobile, and money with which I could substantially impress pretty women. These were my dreams, and represented the sum total of my mental processes.
Now in my fourth year of college, I don't suppose I have changed a great deal, but I am changing. I have begun to think. I have begun to want to think. I have resumed an old desire to write, not because it seems to be a profitable, or even a satisfactory method of earning a living, but because it can be, as Louis Adamic put it, "an aid to my thinking." For a while I want to teach in an adult college. This also I want because I feel that it would be an aid to my thinking. It would enable me to finish or to gain a worthwhile academic education, which is effectively prevented for the undergraduate by the requirement of a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Next year I intend to go to graduate school. I rather expect also to get married. I am practically penniless, but these things don't seem out of reach.
I want them because I feel that as part of the while human civilization, I am a diseased cell that is well again, and I feel that I ought to help the rest of the organism become well again. I want to study the classics and to trace the history of thought. And I want to know why the cultural peak of this civilized era was probably in the latter eighteenth century rather than in 1938, or the faroff future. I want to know why the amazing modern conquest over materials could have occurred, while, at the same time, five million young men like myself were reared in the world.
I want to know why there could be tons of concrete and steel upheaved into the sky to produce a sumptuous palace like the Empire state building, while five million young men were educated to despair, hatred, and a desire for shiny automobiles. I want to know why the human animal is so sick that on two continents it seems about to murder itself with war.
I think I know why, and when I am sure, I shall want to know why the disease can not be cured; I shall want to help cure it.
I do want to help cure it.