OPINION: Public health, public fear and public policies

Staff Writer
Santa Rosa's Press Gazette

In a grim time, during cold dark early hours of the day to come, my Dad ran as fast as he could alongside an accelerating freight train. He threw his satchel through an open boxcar door, grabbed a handhold and pulled himself aboard.

This was during the early 1930s, the worst period in the terrible, relentless, seemingly endless Great Depression. At that time, he was a very young Chicago workingman. He was slowly succumbing to malnutrition, even as our nation was steadily sliding into what appeared to be an accelerating, frightening political and social as well as economic abyss.

Even when he secured a paid day of manual work, wages had become so low with all the available surplus labor that life could barely be sustained. Unwilling to burden his already hard-pressed family, he hit the road.

I asked my Dad if he was scared. He said he was fearful, but not excessively, because in those days there were vast numbers of men and boys riding the rails. Consequently, there was safety in numbers, and feelings of community.

Dad’s goal was Texas. In that era, as today, the United States was one of the principal petroleum producers and refiners in the world. Thanks to innovations in technology and business, we have returned today to net exporter status — bigtime.

In the 1930s jobs were plentiful in the oil fields. The labor was hard and often dangerous.

However, the pay was extremely good, and there was reasonable job security, in contrast to most of the rest of American society. In that part of our country, the Great Depression almost did not seem to exist.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration brought political change, beginning in early 1933. The New Deal spurred public confidence, stabilized the financial system and brought basic social reforms, notably Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. However, the economy did not begin to recover strongly until 1940 with military rearmament.

My Dad joined the Texas Army National Guard. The extra income was helpful, and his social life improved.

Across Europe in those hard years, people waited for the burgermeister, the prefect, the local councillor or other government officials to tell them what to do. In America, possessing a very different culture, people felt more free — and were more free — to use their own initiative, individually and collectively.

That quality was crucial then, and will help us conquer the challenging public health threat now.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact