Kensington Strong- Decades of Crisis

I once told you I have a time machine. Don’t laugh. You have one also. That time machine is my memories, coupled with my historical fiction writing experiences. Both of these skills allow me to go back in time as far as there are written records, but right now, I want you to come with me as we travel back to the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

These were the years most of those who will travel with me were small children or teenagers. If you think the Covid-19 virus crisis is severe, wait till you see what those years had in store for our unsuspecting relatives. Okay, are you ready? Here we go…wham!

Our journey to the past starts on a small street in the Kensington section of Philly in 1939. It could be almost any street in north or south Philadelphia as all did look similar. There’s a group of teen boys playing handball on the corner. A few of the boys have large holes in the knee of their pants from falling, trying to get to home base. Little did they know that 60 years in the future, people would pay hundreds of dollars for jeans with holes in them.

Halfway down the block, some young girls were playing Jacks on the steps, while their mothers were several doors down talking. An elderly grandma was sweeping her front pavement. Two blocks away, several of the dads were having a beer at the corner taproom and talking about how the job market was just starting to get a little better. In 1929, the Great Depression had just begun, and by 1933 the jobless rate was 24.9%. In 1939 there were rays of hope that the depression would end or at least get better in a year or two. What they didn’t know then was that the next five years would be some of the worse they would ever have to endure.

It’s time to move along.

We’re on the same street, but it’s 1941, Monday, December 8. No kids were playing in the street; they are all at school creating art for Christmas, or learning to play a small metal flute. The moms were gathered together in one of their little red brick homes glued to the radio. Some of the dads were at work; the jobless rate had got better in 1940 at 9.9%. Other dads were at the armed forces recruiting centers signing up to fight what would be the most horrible war in world history.

As we look down the empty street, we future humans know what happens in the next four years, but people in 1941 had no clue. They didn’t know that meat, butter, salt, gasoline, some medical supplies, tires, and other goods would be rationed and hard to find. They didn’t know that over 400,000 of their family members would not come home from the war. They didn’t know they would spend sleepless nights worrying about friends and family who were fighting the war in Africa, Europe, and Asia. They didn’t know that many of the grandmas, wives, and sisters would soon take over at the factories, making uniforms, bombs, and bullets. They didn’t know when we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that it would end the war and be the beginning of a new type of war called The Cold War. They didn’t know that after the war, things would get a lot better, at least for a while.  

Let’s go; those war years scare me.

Now we’re in 1953, and kids are at Stetson school having an air raid drill. They’re sitting in front of the lockers away from the glass windows with their heads in their laps. For several years the all learned what to do if the Russians dropped an atomic bomb on them. In the school basement, there was a stockpile of dry and canned food, water, and medical supplies.

Back on the street, we see the moms were out on the steps again discussing the price of milk, or so they said. The dads were all working, and a few of the granddads were at the corner bar. The moms had a few sleepless nights a week worrying about their children getting whooping cough, rheumatic fever, and especially polio. As the summer waned and the trips to the Jersey shore or the Poconos were behind them, they longed for the colder months when the threat of polio would diminish.  They didn’t know it, but there would soon be a vaccine that would eradicate that dreaded disease.

After I snap my fingers, we are going to October 22,  1962. Are you ready? Snap!!!!.

A bunch of boys and girls are standing in front of the corner candy store, sipping Pepsi Cola, eating Tastykakes, and listing to Ricky Nelson sing Travelin’ Man on their transistor radios.  There are several pairs of sneakers hanging on the electric wires high above.  

The moms are in the house glued to the television, looking to see if we were going to nuclear war with the Russians and Cubans. A few of the 18-year-old children were at the armed forces recruiters signing up, just in case we did go to war. It was just another thing to keep the parents up at night. They didn’t know it then, but by October 28, the Russians blinked, and the war was averted. They also didn’t know that in three years we would be at war in a country most of them never heard of called Vietnam. Some of those kids who had been hanging on the corner would be in the Jungle listening to bullets fly over their heads. Over 58,000 would not come home, and many, many more came back disabled, either physically or mentally.

Through all of these crises, the men, women, and children of Kensington and the entire USA created one of the most robust economies in the world, actually the most robust economy. We sent people to the moon, created the Internet, had significant medical breakthroughs, helped to rush in the digital world, and all the while being the most generous countries in the world.

If that’s not Kensington strong, I don’t know what is. So I say F the Covid-19 virus and the economic downturn. The people will make it right in the end.


Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.

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