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    Columns
    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    For daily bread

    When the salesman knocked on Elizabeth Weed’s door, he was peddling refrigerators, a hard sell during the Great Depression. Elizabeth, a school teacher, and her widowed mother lived in a small cottage on Grove Street in New London. It was 1933 and money was tight. Thomas Johnson was a handsome Southern charmer. Elizabeth was a frugal but unfailingly kind woman, so she let him come in to make his pitch. They got married two years later.

    Thomas was a West Virginia native who’d lost both parents by the time he was a teenager. Right after high school, he worked as a traveling shoe salesman for a firm in the Midwest. He did well and plowed most of his earnings back into company stock. When the market crashed in 1929, the company failed and the stock was worthless.

    A little unsure as to next steps, Thomas moved to New London and began selling kitchen appliances. Immediately after his marriage, that company folded, and to make matters even worse, Elizabeth had to relinquish her teaching position because hiring men and single women took priority over employing married women. Now the couple faced years of scrambling to put bread on the table.

    First they opened a small business in New London, Johnsons’ Cleaners and Dyers, which was briefly successful but soon went under. Next, unable to find local opportunities, Thomas spent the winter of 1937-38 working for the Central Vermont Railway.

    One of his jobs was painting railroad bridges in Vermont, where it was so cold he had to set his paint can in a bucket of hot water to keep the paint from freezing. Railroad machinery had to be thawed out occasionally, which often meant moving four feet of snow from around the gears before the thawing process could begin. Apparently, the men’s barracks were railroad cars, because Thomas mentioned in one of his letters to Elizabeth that they were going to move into a new set of cars and he hoped the new quarters would be equipped with chairs.

    In another letter, Thomas assured his wife of his fidelity: “Don’t worry one minute about us – we’ll be all right. Being away from you hurts me as much as it does you, but I go that we may eat, and that we may live again.”

    In the spring of 1938, Thomas went to Baltimore, hoping to catch a job on an oil tanker plying the waters between the United States and Mexico. He scoured the docks without much luck, then gave a union leader $20 to place his name high on a waiting list, but the timing was horrible. Days later, the Mexican government, prompted by internal labor protests, seized the assets of all foreign oil companies conducting business there. The United States’ response was moderate; as long as Mexico agreed to compensate the oil companies, there would be no retaliation because Mexican assistance in the form of petroleum products was going to be essential in the war that was obviously coming. For the immediate future, there’d be no work on oil tankers. Thomas wrote home that over 1,400 ships that hauled Mexican oil were now out of business; 47 of them remained docked in Baltimore until the situation changed.

    Thomas looked for other jobs and was promised work on a fruit boat, but this too fell through. He returned to New London to continue the increasingly desperate search for work.

    Thomas and Elizabeth took in boarders in the Grove Street cottage. At one point, they ran a farm in Montville with another couple. But it took the outbreak of World War II and a job at Electric Boat for them to finally have a steady income.

    They’d found financial stability if not abundance, and enjoyed a long, happy marriage. They rarely talked about the years of hardship because they knew they’d been luckier than millions of others.

    I wish I’d thought to ask Mom if she bought a refrigerator on that long-ago day when my parents first met. It doesn’t matter. Dad made the sale that really counted.

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