by Dana Heupel
When the 1940 census documents were released to the public in April, I decided to see what I could find out about my father’s family. I thought I knew where my grandparents lived at the time — in a small Indiana town where my father later graduated from high school — but when I combed through list after list of names in the census form on the computer screen, theirs didn’t appear. Then I remembered my father mentioning another place, a rural township, and sure enough, there were the names of my grandfather and grandmother and my father and his brother.
Just four lines, scrawled in longhand by a census taker. Well, five, actually. Apparently, a niece was living with them, although I don’t know why. If I ever met her later, I can’t remember it. Other than that, the census form really didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know. But just looking at it unleashed an unexpected torrent of images and random, mostly forgotten bits of history about my father’s family.
My grandfather’s occupation was listed on the census form as “mechanic” at his “own garage.” I remember hearing that my father’s family didn’t suffer as badly as many others during the Depression because even in the darkest times, people still needed their cars repaired and gasoline to operate them. That’s why, I was told, my father years later also chose as his first business a gasoline station and auto repair shop. He believed there would always be customers.
My grandfather was 41 at the time, and his birthplace was recorded on the form as North Dakota. He was the first child of his large family to be born in America. I’m told he had a recognizable German accent that stemmed from his parents, who had traveled to this country from Russia just before the turn of the 20th century. I don’t remember my grandfather’s voice; he died of a heart attack 10 years later, when I was only a few months old. I’ve heard he had been a fair semi-pro baseball player with interest from the White Sox until he was forced to give up that foolishness when his children came along.
Although the national economy was rebounding a bit in 1940, the Depression continued. Many questions on the census form dealt with whether the respondent was employed, working for a government program such as the WPA or seeking employment. Unlike the listings for most other families on the page, the section titled “income” was left blank beside my grandfather’s name. If my father inherited notions about privacy and government interference from his father, I can only imagine that the census taker got a German-tinged earful about how it was none of the government’s (expletive) business how much he earned.
My grandmother, then 42, was listed as a “housewife.” A decade later, after my grandfather died, my grandmother would attend Indiana University and live in the student dorms in her 50s while she earned her teaching degree. In my memory, her main role in life was as a sixth grade teacher in the school system where my brother and sisters and I graduated.
My father, his brother and their mysterious cousin were identified on the form as students. My father was 15 at the time. When he finished high school three years later, at the height of World War II, he would try to enlist in the military but would be rejected because of his eyesight. Inexplicably, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean conflict. He met and married my mother while both were working at the Pentagon. Her family in 1940 is next on my lookup list.
I was 19 when my father died in 1970. We couldn’t have been further apart. He was a 45-year-old conservative businessman, active in the local Republican Party. I was a member of the Woodstock generation. My peers and I were going to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” to build a society where there was no war, where people didn’t see race or gender, where social conscience trumped money and power. Now, in my imagination, I can hear the voice of my father, widely admired for humorous sarcasm, mouthing a modern-day mockery: “And how’d that work out for you?”
If you’ve hung with me this long, you may wonder what all this has to do with public affairs. Four lines scrawled on a census form more than 70 years ago reinforced a concept that took me far too long to fully comprehend: the importance of family, especially in times of crisis.
Families usually consist of diverse elements, drawn together only by bloodlines. They often display a full spectrum of views on politics, religion and values. The ties that connect them might be flimsy, often worked loose over time by their individual differences. But when a hardship occurs, the family pulls together, and those once-slack bonds become as tight as guy wires, bracing the family during the storm.
“Family values” has evolved into a political slogan. The term has come to hark back to traditions some believe have slipped away: a generally accepted view of morality, unquestioning patriotism, American dominance in world matters and “our way of life” as a role model for the rest of humanity. As a corollary, then, those who don’t believe in that definition of family values must be immoral, unpatriotic and weak.
But most families and their values are way more diverse than that. One aunt might live her life according to the daily horoscope while another becomes a nun. One brother might advocate for the Tea Party and another believes that Obama has abandoned the left. A strait-laced cousin might be “waiting until I get married” while considering her older sister “promiscuous.” They exhibit an array of beliefs and opinions about right and wrong, Republicans and Democrats, gays and straights, blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians, and whether one should accept welfare or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
But when threatened by misfortune, family members grasp one another’s hands and form an impenetrable circle. Their differences then become their strengths as they consider together all of the possible ways to solve the problem or eliminate the threat. Each point on the circle listens to ideas from the right and the left, from the Tea Party uncle and the horoscope follower, even from the naïve teenager who thinks he can teach the world to sing.
And out of that discussion emerges a well-considered
In that larger sense, perhaps we have lost our family values. And if so, we do need to restore them, now more than ever.
The 1940 U.S. Census archives can be found at https://the1940census.com.
We said goodbye last month to Linda Anderson, our associate director for marketing and circulation. She has worked tirelessly to promote the magazine and our other publications and increase our sponsorships and circulation. Linda is moving to Texas, where her husband recently accepted a job. We wish her all the best and thank her for the many contributions she has made and the many hats she has worn during her time here.
Illinois Issues, May 2012