A few years back I was in an old working class neighborhood of Great Falls, walking down tree-lined avenues that must have been something a few years back. But now the houses needed paint and lots of other things besides.
Most of the residents seemed to have lived there for some time, and as I walked along I realized that once upon a time this had been the realization of the Great American Dream for these folks: a secure job, their own house, a pretty yard, maybe even a flower garden. Not a lot to ask out of life. Not then, anyway, and now it was fading away.
It seems we Americans have an incredibly short memory of why things are the way they are and how they got that way. Things just sort of change little by little, and then, if you are old enough and wise enough, you can remember how it used to be in comparison to how it is now.
Our parents and grandparents lived in both the worst of times and the best of times. First came the utter misery and hardship of the Great Depression, followed by World War Two. Those who survived entered into a new American era after the war. Service men and women were able to go to college, an accomplishment few of their parents could claim, and they did it on the GI Bill. The American economy began expanding and jobs were not only plentiful, they paid well. People were able to buy a car, a house. People were able to dream of what kind of life they wanted to live, in short, they had choices.
And it seemed like the American government actually gave a care about the working men and women of America. It cared about the poor, and the sick, and those who were downtrodden because they were black, or yellow or brown.
Americans were looking towards a good life, and they expected that hard work and a caring government would help them fulfill their dreams.
So, for a few decades two or three generations of Americans lived the good life – not everyone, of course, but still an awful lot of people, and even the living standards of the rest of the population, while not great, were better than it ever had been.
Something has changed, and it seems to me it’s how we look at life. During the Depression and the second world war people pulled together because there wasn’t a heck of a lot of choice if you wanted to survive. A neighbor of mine told me how his father would bring wagon loads of vegetables to towns in North Dakota to give away to people. Nobody asked him to do it. It was, for him, the right, the only thing to do.
That war and the Depression are long gone, and thankfully so. But those hardships created a couple of generations the likes of which we may never see again. They were tough, they were frugal, they had grit, and they cared about their fellow citizens and helped them when they could.
Maybe as a result of easier times we became a less cohesive society, and somewhere along the line we forgot that we needed each other. We needed each other to succeed, we needed each other to give meaning to our lives, and to give fabric to our communities. We can say, “Yes, well, those were simpler times,” but the need doesn’t change just because the times change.
It would be nice to have that kind of America – and Americans – back again.
Jim Elliott is a former state senator from Trout Creek.