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

Although the dust storms and raining grasshoppers frightened me and I felt bad for the hungry men and the poor farmers, the Depression came down to something more self-centered. Two or three of Kearney's barbers ate at the cafe, and they were hard-pressed to pay for meals once their customers started skipping haircuts. My father worked out a reciprocal trade agreement, swapping food for services: Whenever my brother and I needed haircuts, our father sent us to the barber who was next in the rotation. This would have worked just fine, except that they didn't all give good haircuts. If the wrong barber came up in the rotation, I could end up with a bowl haircut that left me looking like the farm boys who (I imagined) got shorn at home by their fathers, using pruning shears or blunt scissors. I hated these haircuts, and argued with my father about getting them.

But in the end, I had no choice because, as he explained, they were the only way these men had of satisfying their debts to the cafe, and he was not going to turn them into deadbeats just because his son was too vain to accept a perfectly good haircut. I usually snipped away with scissors afterward, trying to repair the damage, but it never did much good. Only later did I appreciate the thrift that the Depression enforced with a harsh hand, the lesson of never, even in the bad times, spending more than you earned. And in the good times, you saved and saved.

In our family, my father enforced the saving habit rigidly. He brought me a piggy bank from the local home savings and loan bank, but the pennies and nickels I put into it weren't for a rainy day. He wanted me to prepare for a monsoon. I was not allowed to raid the piggy bank for something I might want, like the little snapshot camera that I craved. Savings were meant to be saved. Rather, I stuffed the bank until it weighed a ton. Only then would my father unlock it and let me spill out its treasure of coins onto my bed, where the sight of them made me feel rich, but, alas, I couldn't spend them. I had to count them and stack them in wrappers to be taken to the bank to put into my passbook savings account, which slowly grew larger. My father carefully supervised this rigorous process for years. This personal savings account helped pay for college.

Eager to Please

Most of what I did as a young boy was designed to please one of my parents or the other. To my father, I wanted to prove that I was up to his taskmaster's standards. As for my mother, I simply wanted to regain her attention and make her happy. I was still young and naive enough to think I could fill the void caused by Elaine's death.

After she returned from the Mayo Clinic, on the better days of her recovery, she regained her magician's touch in the kitchen. She was a great baker, and when I arrived home from school in the afternoons I would find warm buttered toast made from her homemade bread, a big pot of hot chocolate, and Greek pastries. You couldn't stop eating her glorious baklava or her kourambiethes, almond shortbread cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar. Her theeples were equally addictive, thin triangles of dough rolled together and deep-fried and then lathered with honey, nuts, and cinnamon.

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