By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – I was a big fan of the late comedian and radio and television personality Jack Benny. Jack, of course, unbelievably generous in private life, wanted everyone to know of his reputation for frugality that bordered on miserliness.
In film and on his weekly radio and television programs, skits often centered around his persona that he would not put an extra dime into a pay phone if his life depended on it.
In a skit, an armed robber told Jack, “Your money or your life.”
Long silence. “Well, Buddy, which is it?”
“I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”
No question about it. Jack Benny’s stage persona was that he was tight with a nickel.
My late father lived through the Great Depression and always feared that bad times would return. He told us many stories of the struggles he experienced during the Depression and consequently was quite careful with his money.
That self-defrosting refrigerator that Mom wanted so bad would just have to wait. So would that brand-new oven that would have made her life a little easier.
Given what Dad remembered from the 1930s, Mom just had to make do with the appliances that she had in her little kitchen in a house that Mom and Dad shared with my uncle and aunt.
Today, it seems odd that my Uncle Joe and Aunt Antonetta would share my parents’ tiny house. But that was the way things were back in the Depression years.
Mom loved to talk about her nephews who were so good to her during those tough years. Her nephew Carmen would walk along the railroad tracks, looking for small pieces of coal that dropped off one of the train cars back before diesel locomotives powered the trains.
That coal warmed her house. Her nephew Jimmy, who owned an old pick-up truck, took out the ashes every Saturday and was always there to repair the roof tile or check out the temperamental plumbing or do electrical work. Her nephew Paul always seemed to appear with a few dollars when groceries were needed to feed the family.
My grandparents on both sides died before I had a chance to know them.
Mom’s father, Paul, was a businessman who brought the fireworks industry to the New Castle area from his native Italy. From all accounts, he was a generous man who shared his success with friends and family during the Depression.
According to my mother, he was often too generous and in the end had little savings to help the family in their time of need. His kind ways made him one of the most popular residents of the town.
Dad’s father, Gerald, was a simple farmer who worked very hard raising and selling vegetables. When Mom and Dad married, the newspaper account of the wedding credited the wrong grandfather with paying the wedding costs.
Mom’s dad, Paul, the businessman, according to the article on the society page of the local paper, paid for the wedding. Sadly, the paper got it wrong. It was the poor farmer Gerald who paid for his daughter’s wedding. As you can imagine, the mistake in the paper caused a rift that lasted years.
Grandpa Gerald was concerned that the young couple had no house of their own. He, however, had a solution. He heard that the Carnegie Steel Co. was getting rid of its small office building on its property in New Castle. Grandpa asked if the structure were for sale.
It was. So my parents had a house – of sorts. Turning the company shack into a home for my parents must have involved a ton of work and a fair amount of creativity.
A basement was dug and the structure eventually became a home for Gerald’s son and his new bride. Mom and Dad had a house that protected their growing family. Two grandsons and three granddaughters were reared in that one-time shack.
We loved our makeshift house and lived in it for decades, happy decades. Moreover, while I was often too embarrassed to bring a classmate home with me for fear that he would make fun of it, a picture of me on my 16th birthday on the porch of that house surrounded by a dozen or so of my classmates helped me to get over any embarrassment.
To this day, I think of the many holidays spent in Grandpa Gerald’s shack converted into a house. Laughter, music, great food, and much love filled that little house during the holiday season.
My dad never shared this but I knew that he was always concerned that the wood and paper structure where he reared his family might one day catch fire.
Before he headed off to work each day, he prepared the furnace by removing ashes and putting large lumps of coal into the furnace so that my mom would be warm throughout the day.
He often asked me to look at the chimney before I went off to school. “Lou, can you see any fire coming up through the chimney?”
“No, Dad. But I do see a reddish glow.”
“OK,” he would say. “How is it now?”
“It’s fine, Dad.”
Eventually, that shack that we loved so much, which saw generations live in it, was torn down by the redevelopment authority after it had made Mom and Dad an offer. The offer was $800.
When Mom read the letter, she marched right into town to the redevelopment authority headquarters and cried, “It may be worth only $800 to you but to us it is our home.”
The redevelopment authority ended up giving Mom and Dad nearly $3,000, a down payment on a house on the property of my older sister and kind brother-in-law.
When I recall the story of Grandpa Zona’s shack, converted to a house in the heart of the Great Depression, I think of that simple farmer who protected his family as best he could by turning a Carnegie Steel Co. shack into a beloved home.
Grandpa Gerald and Grandpa Paul eventually buried the hatchet and shared a great love for their first grandchild, Tina, who was born and lived in that Carnegie shack turned into a home.