The Good Old Days Weren’t Always So Good.

When I was a young girl my grandmother would tell me stories about the “good-old days,” while showing me worn-out, black and white pictures of family members long-passed before I was born, or of those I knew, but with unfamiliar faces, fifty or sixty years younger than the faces I recognized. I was at the age where I thought old people were always old. So it was hard for me to imagine a time long ago when my elderly uncles hung from trees wearing sailor hats, or my aunts who walked with canes, swing-dancing in the middle of a crowded ballroom – even though it was right there in the pictures.

I looked through the old, torn-at-the-edges pictures believing my grandmother as she spoke fondly of a past where people lived “simple lives, spent time together, and didn’t do bad things to each other.” I believed in the superiority of the “black and white picture” era, and that the people and the times then were so much better than they were in 1985, until I learned better.

The “good-old days” weren’t good for everyone. And people did do bad things to each other. They stole. They cheated. They scammed. They murdered. They were opportunistic when they should have been empathetic and moral. In the last century alone, some of the most horrific acts against man occurred, yet somehow those years are still considered “the good old days.”

I don’t have the space in this blog to detail these atrocities, but pick up a history book. It’s all there. The past was just as unscrupulous as the present. I was reminded of this fact on July, 24 2015 while reading an article in the Chicago Sun-Times about a tragedy that had occurred on that date one hundred years ago.

On July 24, 1915 a passenger ship called the Eastland capsized in the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, within two dozen feet of shore. Crowds of people, possibly loved ones of the passengers, who had watched the vessel leave its dock, threw ropes and chairs, whatever they could find, into the water. There were hundreds of splashing, terrified people, including children, struggling to stay afloat on the surface of the Chicago River. The situation was worse for women because they were tucked tightly into their long and heavy dresses, impossible to take off by the time they were weighted down.

Eight hundred and forty-four people died that day. It is reported that some bystanders did jump in the water to try save as many lives as they could. But others used the tragedy as an opportunity to take advantage of people by picking the pockets of a concerned and distracted crowd, and some opportunists even robbed the dead. The Sun-Times wrote that the captain delayed a rescue attempt because he was concerned about a boiler explosion. The police would later be accused of not attempting to help the people in the river, instead maintaining the crowd and holding back possible rescuers.

The public was morbidly curious to see as much of the tragedy as they could, and after the bodies were recovered from the vessel and water, a make-shift morgue was created at the scene so loved ones could identify the bodies. The spot was closed off for privacy, but a janitor of a nearby building charged peepers a dime for a look…at dead people…as families mourned.

When the names of the deceased were released, and this included 22 entire families, some of the homes were robbed.

This made me think back to when my oldest sister got married. I was nine and my parents arranged for someone to be at our house while we were gone.

“Why do we need someone to stay at the house when we’re not here?” my younger-self asked.

“Because people will see in the newspaper that we’re having a wedding and assume no one will be here, and then rob the house.”

I’d never heard of such a thing, and certainly I would never have considered something like that happening in the “good-old days,” because people in black and white photos were better than the people living in the eighties. They wouldn’t rob a family’s house during a wedding…let alone a funeral.

But they did, and despite knowing the dark truths about the past, I still catch myself romanticizing the “good-old days” whenever I look at black and white photos from a past generation because I want to believe there really was a time when people didn’t do bad things to one another.

boy and a dog     boy in background

boy and truck

*The Chicago Sun-Times was my only source for this article. All of my facts, number of people dead, details of the tragedy, came from the article.

**Note:I do not own these pictures. I believe they are public domain, but if they happen to violate any copyright laws, I will take them down.

A Hundred and Eight Years Later, The Jungle Still Hits Home

A writer writes. Nothing new there. Everybody knows that.  But a writer also reads. A lot. At least, they should. I often narrow my eyes with skeptical sideways glances toward writers who confess they don’t read much. “Just don’t have the time,” they say. Hogwash. You make the time because for writers, a day without reading should feel like a day without breathing – a necessity to living.

I enjoy learning favorite books of other authors, which almost always include the classics from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lee, Poe, and Salinger (to name only a few). And why not? That’s why they’re classics. People love them. And though I adore the stories written by these exceptionally talented writers, (if only I had an iota of their ability. sigh) my favorite all-time book is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I need to read this book every couple of years. It is that good.

The way Sinclair describes his characters and the scenery makes me feel I know these people (they are me) and I am living inside those pages.

The Jungle is set in the early 1900’s and tells the story of a Lithuanian couple, and their extended family, who are lured to America, Chicago, for the opportunity of a better life through the promise of higher wages. Based on the advertisement the Chicago companies, the Stockyards of Chicago, use to recruit immigrant people, the family’s image of the beautiful land they will soon call home doesn’t fit the reality of what awaits them.

This becomes apparent on their train ride as the scenery of colorful green pastures and wild flowers mixed with the scent of fresh clean air gives way to the dreary and gloomy sights of the Stockyards, lined with slaughterhouses and over-whelmed with the rancid smell of death, where their ride ends.

This is home.

Upon their arrival, the family faces a huge setback when they realize the inflated cost of living will cancel out any advantage of the higher wages they may earn. This forces every single member of the family, including the children and the old, to work long hours, every day, just to stay afloat.

This book brilliantly depicts the struggles of each character as they face the harsh realities of their new life.  The Jungle incorporates social injustices such as the exploitation of immigrants, the lack of labor laws, including child labor laws, workplace safety issues, and political corruption as contributing factors in the decline of a once morally and ethically strong extended family of twelve.

For his research, Sinclair is sent to The Stockyards, by a socialist newspaper, to live among the working people in the meatpacking district for seven weeks. He becomes one of them. The Jungle is his firsthand account of the horrible living and working conditions forced upon the immigrants.

There was a huge outcry from the country after The Jungle came out, but it wasn’t the reaction Sinclair was aiming for. His intent was to get an appalling reaction from his readers through the cruel injustices that were inflicted upon human beings at the hands of corrupt individuals, politicians, and corporations.

Instead, America was sickened by the dirty and unsanitary way their food was being handled. When the public found out that rats, spoiled meat, and whatever happened to be on the filthy floor at that time, was shoveled into cans with the rest of the food and packaged to be delivered to someone’s dinner table, the outcry was loud. President Theodore Roosevelt created the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, the same year the book came out.

Upton Sinclair is famously quoted as saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit in the stomach.”

What resonates with me when I read this book, that was written over a hundred years ago, is how socially familiar these injustices still are. And that is sad.

When reading about the atrocities inflicted upon people in a book that was published in 1906, my first thought was, “Wow. History has a horrible way of repeating itself.”

 

Photo courtesy of Public-Domain Images.

Photo Courtesy of Public-Domain Images