The American People and Hard Times


I was born in the summer of 1951, one of those Boomers who’ve lived the transformation from simpler, more innocent times, to the hi-tech, instant everything, get outa da fast lane if ya can’t go 80, in-your-face 21st century. 1951? Maybe the best debut year in post WW II Major League Baseball, as both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays broke in that year. They combined for just shy of 1,200 career homers. I grew up watchin’ both of ‘em in their primes, as they played at levels normal humans can only daydream about.

America was a country in transition. WWII victoriously concluded, albeit at horrific cost, the Korean ‘Police Action’ winding up , and Boomers were being born by the hundreds everywhere you looked. It seemed so many paradigms were simultaneously shifting. The GI Bill was sending thousands of young men and women to college — folks who before the war could only have fantasized earning a college degree and the life it promised. Suburbs entered our lexicon. Home ownership started growing at a prodigious velocity. Cars became a must have item — affordably so.

It all sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? It was, but all wasn’t Channel No. 5, Willie makin’ basket catches, and Mickey hittin’ tape measure shots .

My memory really only goes back to around 1956, when I started kindergarten, and got to attend ‘regular kid’ Sunday school at Dad’s church. Of course, it wasn’t ’till much later in life I realized why I had such a good time with the older kids — duh, I was the preacher’s kid, but wasn’t anything in the same zip code as a goody two-shoes — a harbinger?

Ironically, like many Boomers, I learned how Americans handled hard times by listening to Grandma and Grandpa tell their own tales of the Great Depression. Once you’ve heard enough of those stories from those who lived through it as teens and emerged as adults of tempered steel, you tend to shy away from self pity when hard times come knockin’ at your door — hard times hardly in the league with what they experienced.

Grandma was the oldest of eight kids who were born and raised in rural Missouri. Hard times? Most don’t realize this, but hard times hit rural areas way before the crash of 1929. In the mid to late ’20’s Grandma and Great-grandpa (also a preacher) frequently headed out on a freight train, leaving family behind to work on dairy farms in Ohio, pick crops in neighboring states, or in one case shuck corn at harvest time in Nebraska. She was 14 when her dad began taking her with him on those sojourns.

Grandma once told me the winter following her trip to Nebraska to shuck corn was the first winter all of her brothers and sisters got new shoes the same year. Ponder that awhile.

Hard times? Those were hard times. And that’s how Americans back then got through them. They relied on family and neighbors and themselves, making incredible personal sacrifices as a matter of course. It takes a village? My ass. It took rugged individuals who helped those who helped themselves. Their hard core sense of self reliance, responsibility, duty to family and those in need was fierce. Wanna know what was missing? A sense of entitlement and moral relativism.

Even those showing up at Grandma’s door, later on during the actual Depression, in Vista, California, would refuse even a sparse meal of scraps unless they could do something, anything to earn their way. The worst of it though was when, “We literally didn’t have anything to share — then being thanked for our kind hospitality.”

Hard times.

We’re in the middle of a giant helping of what my fighter pilot Uncle calls FUBAR. Don’t know what it means? Ask anyone who’s been in the military. It means things are screwed up pretty badly. Having lived through many recessions, I have my own sad stories, which I won’t share here, as my stories of woe are surely no different than yours.

I’ve stared into the black abyss alone too.

It’s an experience we’ve all had when times turn harder than Aunt Evie’s stare after you’ve crossed her. It’s the sudden awareness that your worst fears may indeed become  your life’s new reality. The cold chill of desperate fear that sweeps through every part of you with a sometimes literal sense of temporary paralysis. It’s when we look directly into the black abyss — alone with our thoughts. It makes some, it breaks some — but it’s difficult to imagine it leaving anyone the same as before.

And the nights? Geez, Louise, Mytle — who hasn’t gone through an eternal night of your mind playing horror movies with you as the victim? It can be debilitating.

So many of those in real estate and related fields have been playing out the black abyss part of their life’s script lately. We all make that trip alone, regardless of our support system. It’s like surgery — your family and friends may be there for you, but you’re still the only one on the table with a doctor standing over you, scalpel in hand. Support only goes so far.

I write about this only to remind you — you’re not alone — not by a long shot. Speaking only for myself and my past trips through the black abyss, I can tell you this without reservation. I came out a better person, with a stronger sense of who I am, and a steely confidence born only from the heat it takes to temper high quality steel.

I also discovered, quite thankfully, that my spiritual faith had been tested. Turns out my faith and core beliefs were strong, and made stronger — a blessing from which I benefit to this day. There’s nothing like getting your priorities right, while learning you were up to the challenge.

Would most of us go through the black abyss again by choice? No sir, not me. But I’ll tell ya something that surprised me about myself — I wouldn’t go back and erase those terrible times for all the gold bricks in Fort Knox. There’s a freedom that comes with successfully staring down the demons that seem to arise in us during soul-wrenching, character testing hard times.

There’s no feeling more liberating than the knowing in your heart of hearts you measured up. You were knocked down, but not out. You emerged as a higher quality, tempered steel. And even more valuable than that? Hard times will never scare you again.

Put a price on that.

About Author

Jeff Brown

Licensed since 1969, broker/owner since 1977. Extensively trained and experienced in tax deferred exchanges, and long term retirement planning.


  1. That’s one hell of a story Jeff. While this is my first run through tough times, I agree with your sentiment. Challenging times bring out the best in some and the worst in others. Those that choose to persevere instead of giving up and taking the never-ending handouts are building the thick skin to really blossom when things pick up again.

  2. Jeremy Ashburn on

    Hard Times. Wow. Very fascinating story. I’ve been in the work force since 2002 and have never faced times like today. Your story really paints the big picture about sucking things up and working hard to survive hard times. I am a recruiter who works in the transportation industry; I saw my income drop by 60% in 2009. 60%! In order to survive my wife and have become a tighter team, she went to work, and we both started side businesses to develop separate streams of income. 2009 was my Valley of the Shadow of Death. I’m still mostly there. During this time I’ve really discovered that the Lord has been with me, lead me, and guided me. I’ve started into the black abyss and realized that I wasn’t alone. Amazing.

  3. Jeff… what a tremendous story. Coming from the same decade… I was born in 55′, and having grown up in small town USA, (Mandan North Dakota) I tracked with everything you wrote.

    The hard times suck! And if someone ever tells you they haven’t experienced hard times they are either lying or aren’t living!

    I know I am speaking to the choir when I say… it’s not what you experience… it’s how you respond… that makes the difference.

    Great post!


  4. Jeff Brown

    Peter — Exactly! My first brush with spirit crushing times was the post Carter recession. FHA was 16.5%, prime rate was 21%, and inflation was well into double digits. I emerged as a different man in two ways. I lost my cockiness, as it was false anyway, and I gained a core confidence in myself that’s only grown over the years. Not too much gets to me now.

    Good to hear from someone who’s shared my experiences.

  5. Question: Why do we keep letting power-lusting politicians create these hard times for us? To improve our characters? The Roosevelt administration took a financial crisis caused by the government in the first place, and stretched it out like taffy over a dozen years, by placing huge new burdens on the back of a fragile economy. By 1937, unemployment had climbed back up to where it was in 1933, at the height of the depression. The current administration has vowed, very explicitly, to use the Roosevelt administration as a model. I think there are better ways to build national character.

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