In 1957, my grandfather, Oliver F. Hansen, age 48, a boilermaker by trade, was laid off by the railroad; the age of the steam engine had died. Since moving to Sparks as a teenager in 1926, he had worked for the railroad, virtually the only employer in Sparks at that time. He had an eighth-grade education. He had gone through the very lean times of the Depression. To have a job — any job — was something to carefully protect. The idea of quitting a job was alien to him, who had his formative years movingly shaped by the economic shock of the 1930s.
He was the last member of my family to know true poverty. He had gone hungry as a boy, and he always carefully stored food. He was a master craftsman in his trade, and could do amazing things with a sledgehammer. In his prime, my Dad described him as having long, powerful arms from swinging large hammers all day. He was partially deaf, also caused by his trade. In fact, one of the reasons I am not anti-union, like so many of my fellow conservatives, is from the real-life examples my grandfather told me about how he was treated before and after unionization at the railroad. When the town has only one employer, the unfortunate human tendency to exploit workers has no check. He became a union leader on the railroad, and had to fight the other unfortunate tendency of the union people trying to force ridiculous demands on the railroad.
When he was laid off in 1957, age 48, he had five children at home. His work opportunities for a man past his prime and with skills no longer needed were simply not there.
Exactly how he coped with this huge blow to his manhood I do not know. The family survived economically thanks to having carefully paid their bills and avoiding debt like the plague. He picked up odd jobs here and there, but never had what we today would call a new start.
For me, who came along three years after this economic catastrophe, it was a blessing in disguise. My grandfather was a strong and almost always available presence in my young life, and his guiding hand was a huge factor in shaping my character.
So, today, with our economy sputtering, with so much uncertainty in the air, I cannot help but compare my life at age 48 in 2008 to my grandfather at age 48 in 1957. I still have five children under my roof, but the Sparks of 2008, with roughly 80,000 people, is a lot different from then, which had fewer than than 15,000 folks here.
Our economy is much more diverse. The total amount of real wealth here is huge; despite the current mess, the likelihood of a 1930s-style collapse seems remote.
Economically, what does the future hold? Perhaps the wisdom of the ages, such as avoiding debt and interest payments, is still sound advice. My eighth-grade educated grandfather understood well another economic maxim that he would repeat frequently: “Production creates prosperity,” something our decades-old infatuation with “free trade” seems to have erased from our collective memory. China — communist China — has an economy growing at 8 percent a year, and there is a direct relationship to that growth and the fact everything we buy is “made in China.”
The America built by my grandfather’s generation – the Great Depression and World War II-shaped generation – created the wave of prosperity we all know today. The lessons of high levels of production, thanks to a strong manufacturing base, of low taxes, of careful investment and minimizing debt, seem especially appropriate for today. Credit and borrowing have become epidemic, while saving and frugality are almost frowned on.
Regardless, the main lesson from my grandfather’s painful experience is this: The most important things in life are not material; economies climb and fall, but the real bedrock of life is family. Economics are a means to an end, not the end itself. When the smoke clears, the amount of money you have accumulated means little. I received little from him financially speaking other than a very strong work ethic. But the real value was wisdom: a lifetime commitment to our three great loyalties of God, family and country. At 48, those lessons place me in a real-life Fortune 500.
Ira Hansen is a lifelong resident of Sparks and owner of Ira Hansen and Sons Plumbing.