Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

Many people never made it to the cafe's doorstep, but my parents managed to help them in other ways. The hardships that hit the Great Plains farmers in the 1920s continued into the 1930s, worsening the effects of the failed economy. There was drought and more drought. As a child in the mid-1930s, I recall dust storms that blackened the skies at noon and choked people and animals with swirling grit. Business at the cafe dropped down to nothing because nobody went out. At school, teachers turned the lights on and tried to teach, but nobody could concentrate in the black-brown darkness because you could hear the dirt peppering the window glass and the windows and doors rattling in the wind. It was scary. The sound was alive, like a rasping intruder clawing at the walls. Thick grit drifted in around the windows and under the doors and nobody could stop it. At home, even when we had some warning of an approaching storm, and Mother got John and me to help her tape cellophane or wax paper over the windows, the dirt still found its way inside. When the storms ended, we swept the dirt up and carried it outside in buckets. Worse still were the storms of grasshoppers. They, too, blackened the sky as they swooped down to devour entire fields of wheat and corn, denude home gardens, and form writhing, hopping clusters on the streets and sidewalks, where they crunched sickeningly under your feet when you walked.

The victims of these plagues—and they seemed biblical in their ferocity—were often immigrant farm families. There were kids in my school who wore the same grimy overalls for days on end and slumped at their desks looking dirty, dusty, and hungry. My parents made food baskets for such families. My mother had emerged from her depression and found busyness the best therapy to keep it from returning. So she made scarves, hats, socks, and mittens for needy children and baked bread for bake sales to benefit the poor of Kearney. Their charity also went back home to Greece in the form of the clothes my mother made and the money my father gave to benefit their villages—half his savings when the times were prosperous. It was to be a lesson I never forgot.

As a young man, I did not fully appreciate the lesson these efforts of my parents conveyed. It was as simple as could be: Give something back. Nobody gave my parents anything except the most precious gift of all—the opportunities this country offered them when they landed on its shores. For the chance to be who they could be and to be successful, they recognized civilized society's fundamental bargain—it's a two-way street—and they repaid their gift by helping those less fortunate, near and far away.

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