Friday, March 09, 2007

My Grandfather Speaks

In the early 1900s when I was about 10 years old, I was invited, along with two of my buddies, to spend a weekend with another boy at his father's farm north of Bessemer, Michigan. It was a large farm for that area, well-equipped and operated, and of great interest because it was the county "Poor Farm," with the accent on "Poor."

The Andersons were actually tenant farmers who had a working agreement with the County of Gogebic whereby they housed and fed inmates (nobody would think of calling them guests) who had been placed there by the authorities.

None were compelled to remain, but they had no alternative. Of the 20 or so there at the time, mostly men, all were old and, though still able to walk, unable to earn a living, and all had given up the struggle. The air of hopelessness and despair was overwhelming.

At about the same time, I also observed that here and there in our neighborhood there were old people living with their sons or daughters and their families and thus able to avoid the stigma attached to the "Poor Farm." This system of family responsibility appears to be as old as civilization, perhaps older.

Invariably, these folks would remain out of sight until mealtimes when they would appear at the table to eat and then disappear again. They didn't take part in conversation nor were they encouraged to do so.

Naturally, I didn't see this occurring very often, but I knew it existed and I also knew that it was only a step above the Poor Farm situation.

There was yet another group of old people commonly known as "tramps" who wandered up and down the countryside doing odd jobs around homes and receiving handouts from the housewives and permission to sleep in barns or haylofts. While unable to hold down steady jobs, they too avoided the degrading existence of the Poor Farm.

I did not include the able-bodied men in this general category who were vagrants by choice, and traveled on freight trains or walked from town to town begging, stealing or working for a meal in a pinch. I felt no pity for them, nor did they deserve any. They were not numbered among those that the Bible says "we will have with us always."

I dwell on this general subject for one reason only: When I became old, I wanted to be included out of this existence.

Parenthetically, I should state that I grew up in a neighborhood where there was only one "rich" man, the mine captain, who was reputed to be earning $200 a month.

None of us thought that we were poor -- President Johnson had not yet invented the "poverty" caper and we firmly believed that each of us was completely responsible for his own future. There was nothing resembling "public assistance" or "Social Security" and pensions (very small) existed only for some war veterans. If anyone had told us that we had "rights" we would have been mystified. Our schooling, of course, was free through high school, but that was about it.

While no one spelled it out, I knew that one should go to school until he was 16 years of age and then should go to work giving all of his wages to his parents until he was 21. Thereafter, he must pay board, buy his own clothes, etc. and save up for his old age. Marriage, which was now a
probability, should not shut off (though it certainly would curtail) this saving habit.

The conviction that I had to provide for my own old age grew stronger and stronger as the years went by, and in time resulted in an effort to increase my earning power.

The only solution appeared to be to go to college and prepare myself to handle a higher-paid job such as being an engineer, accountant or school teacher.

In this I was greatly influenced by our school superintendent and the science teacher at our high school -- two wonderful men.

Arthur Peterson was the son of Danish immigrants on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After dropping out of school to help support his family by working in the mines, he was persuaded to return and earned a scholarship to study metallurgical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. This undated letter to his grandchildren was written in the early 1970s. The picture was taken at my wedding in 1971.

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