What made Cradock great for us?
For years, I have listened as my childhood pals, contemporaries in Cradock, have romantically extolled the wonders of growing up in Cradock in the forties, fifties and sixties. I was amazed that so many have mawkish reminiscences of the place and time when I lived there. Until lately, I never had a sentimental thought about “the good old days” in Cradock. For me, living in Cradock from 1941 until 1961 was quite without introspective thought and very simple and I took it as it came at me. I never thought of Cradock life in the fifties as the halcyon days of yore. What was that all about? Why did I miss something that so many others seemed to get? Last year, as we approached celebrating my CHS 1957, 50th Class Reunion, I tried to answer the question: What made us think Cradock is so great…our depression era parents…the simpler times before big TV, technology, the internet?
The central player in my childhood was not so much any single person or thing but “Cradock” itself and the “survival of the fittest” ways it reflected: a belief that life wasn’t easy, but more or less fair; and everything was supposed to get better in our lifetime…not greatly better, but indeed better.
If anything was true about all of Cradock, it was that our hometown was blue collar through and through. Foremost was the chief blue-collar employer the Navy Yard, but our fathers worked as sailors, truck drivers, auto mechanics, phone installers, deliverymen, store clerks, salesmen and laborers outside of the ship repair business. Most of our mothers stayed at home, but some worked as salesclerks, teachers and nurses. No one I can recall was rich, not even the few Doctors and professionals who lived with us, and I could never tell who was poor.
In my time there, most of us were the children of a large late thirties-early forties migration of North Carolinians and western Virginians with Scotch, Irish, German and English roots. They came looking for jobs after the depression. They came because of the War. There were no blacks, Muslims, few Jews, Hispanics, or Asians. Everyone spoke English and a few spoke another language at home. We almost all had two parents at home. I only knew one childhood friend whose parents were divorced, and I only remember one widow, the mother of a friend whose father died in the 1944 Italian campaign.
Most teachers were women, and excellent professional teachers, probably because there were few alternative jobs for talented, bright women. Today, they might be highly successful in the professions, but given the social limitations of the time, they were doomed to teach people like us, although, I doubt if they thought of it that way. Our teachers were demanding and fair. Whatever modest “book learning” skills we have can probably be traced back to the disciplines they passed on in sometimes poorly heated and never air-conditioned Cradock classrooms
There was a very great hidden lesson in the Cradock melting pot for anyone paying attention and I certainly was not at the time. If you by chance got better marks in school than one of your classmates, you knew that he or she could do all sorts of things better than you could. It took me a few years, but I finally learned that life’s lesson. It worked well for many years in my janitorial business. At work, I learned how very bright our cleaners were despite being at the low end of the array of occupations.
I have memories of the problems our families faced: our parent’s lives were often not easy, and their career prospects had been limited from the time they were born back in the teens and early twenties. They had struggled against stiffer, almost inflexible class lines, with little or no chance at college, dealing often with household budgets that took financial discipline…too few bucks to go around, and more than a little luck. No one heard of or owned a credit card. Most of those who went to college were the first in their families to do so. The prejudices against what women could do existed, not merely in the larger society, but in our homes. Our moms and dads shared them.
Today’s America is fast, rich, predatory and anxiety driven. The simpler more stable, more predictable America we grew up in seems light years away. We have lived 50+ years since high school graduation with a new American era packed into every ten years. Nothing like that ever happened before our century and our lifetime…and as fast paced as the first 50 years of the twentieth century was, certainly not in our parents and grandparent’s day.
Our parents were children who matured during the Depression and we were pre-baby boomers. Our birthdates shaped our lives. Our 1957 class except for two classmates, were born in the thirties.
Few of us remember much of WWII…maybe blackouts…or FDR’s death…or the A-Bomb dropping…the big stuff of history…or an event that traumatized us as youngsters, like a ride on the roller coaster at Ocean View. Most of our first memories are of the times after the war, in the late forties, when the war-torn world transformed politically, and the 40-year cold war began. They were hopeful economic times in many communities but not ours. The Navy Yard, which controlled our economy, was laying-off thousands each year and the economic prospects looked dim for many Cradock folks. Nevertheless, there was always the hope and belief that the world would pay off for everyone who worked hard. That thinking brought our folks out of the great depression and it was there after WWII. Our parents and teachers believed it and they taught this to us.
The predominantly optimistic spirit we had in Cradock started in our elementary and high schools. They were good schools, and had been for years before we came along and were for years after we graduated. Excellent teachers prepped Cradock kids to get their share of the “American Dream”…certainly, as much as our parents did. Our school, other than the not to be ignored fact of segregation, was practically classless. A few of us lived in poverty and in the school system, because there were wise school administrators to do so, we got assistance. If you needed a free lunch, you got it and your fellow students were none the wiser.
The teachers were beyond the reach of most of us. They taught, and as they did, they ruled in the classroom like dictators, in a universe they created. Then, after school, they quite simply and almost completely disappeared. Most of us never saw them…not at the movie theatre, not in hair rollers and short-shorts at the supermarket, not on the streets. They became invisible people. In that distance and aloofness, lay their power, and in the end, we all benefited from it.
Lately and especially in the past few months, I thought of those teachers, Ms Fitzgerald, Mr. Mandell, Mr. Niemeyer, Mr. Carter, Ms. West, Mrs. Bruce, Dr. Yarborough, Mr. Linzey, and others who had a sense of purpose and duty in teaching us. In fact, often they had more faith in us, and what we might be, than we had in ourselves, and in many cases, more than our parents did. I thought how lucky we had been growing up in a place like that at a time like that. I realized that Cradock, which might have…on the surface poor, was in so many important ways not at all poor. We, who had passed through the gates in those years of the late forties through the mid-fifties, in so many ways that we did not understand then, experienced privilege.
Maybe that is why so many of us look back on that and think Cradock was great.