If you met my father-in-law Dana Houston in his senior years and you were asked what he did for a living, after listening to him, your guess would probably be a college professor.
For this distinguished looking man was well read in many subjects. He could intelligently discuss the ideas of the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle or more contemporary philosophers such as Georg W.F. Hegel, in whom he was an expert.
Dana could discuss American, British and Japanese history in depth, and he was expert as well in classical music, and thoroughly enjoyed the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart in particular. And he joyously played classical music on his piano.
But I have a surprise for you. Dana never graduated from high school. In fact he spent his career working on the production line of an aerospace company as an hourly worker, thankful he had a job.
You see, Dana was a product of The Great Depression. In 1929, when the American Economy began its collapse, he was just 18-years-old. He spent much of the 1930’s “riding the rails,” as he, like millions of others, illegally hopped on trains taking them anywhere to look for work.
“Every day you awakened with the dreaded prospect of emptiness and purposelessness,” he said in his Memoirs and Recollections. “When a person is not gainfully employed he becomes a non-person. There is nothing that will break your spirits more decisively than being without a job – any job. Your very existence is called into question.”
In these desperate times, Dana often didn’t know from where or when his next meal would come and he was frequently homeless or sleeping on a cot in some rat infested dump. His clothes were old and his hands were often raw from the elements but he did the best he could as he struggled to survive.
This was at a time when many families couldn’t support themselves and some were forced to live in shanty towns called “Hoovervilles,” named for the President, that were makeshift settings often along side railroad tracks. There was no welfare system and crowds lined up in soup lines, to get watered down soup or beans and some stale bread.
Millions of children dropped out of school and some were “farmed out” to family or friends who could support them, many of whom were also struggling to get by, knowing their jobs could be lost in a heart beat.
One of Dana’s many survival jobs was to work for his meals as a dish washer in a restaurant. “I received no wages for eight hours work for three of the worst meals I ever worked for anywhere, anytime,” he wrote in Memoirs and Recollections.
“It was a dark and dingy place. The place was overrun with roaches and rats. There was no dish washing machine of any kind. To make matters worse [the owner] was too cheap to even buy bar soap. When I asked what I was to use, he said bluntly: ‘We make our own soap here.’ “
How did he make soap? “All the grease used on the griddle for frying purposes was poured into a bucket … Generally a can of lye and some wood ash from the range was poured into the grease with some water. It was stirred with a broom stick and allowed to harden overnight.
“I soon learned how it was done,” Dana added, “But I hated it because it was so hard to dissolve, even if the water was fairly warm. Globs of fat floated around the surface of the dishwater and sometimes it stuck to the dishes. Dishes had to be wiped by hand so they often had a tell-tale film of grease on them. Waiters complained because customers complained. It was a vicious circle.”
So why did he stay? “One can say that if I did not like the job I could always quit. True. But the other side of the coin was that any job was better than no job, no matter how bad it was.”
In the late-1930’s, Dana and many others got jobs on massive government works projects and while it didn’t pay well, and offered difficult living conditions, at least it put food on the table and offered a safe place to sleep. And many could send money home to help support their families.
In 1940, with the coming of World War 2, Dana and soon millions of others finally found steady; good paying jobs with military contractors. Thankful for his job with Douglas Aircraft, it is where he spent the rest of his career until he retired in 1973.
But in the 1940’s another aspect of Dana’s life, the romantic side, had long been neglected and his brother-in-law helped him, by introducing him to Mary Kimberling a divorcee with two children. She had Ed who was just 5 ½ years old, and Anne, who was only 3 ½.
Her ex-husband had taken no interest in them but Dana at 38 knew he had met the love of his life and could have the family he always hoped for. On their third date, while sharing a box of Cracker Jacks, they found the prize was a plastic engagement ring. “I put it on her finger and it fit!”
He then proposed and she accepted and soon after they were married, a marriage that would last 50-years, until his passing in 1999 at the age of 88.
As for the children, her ex-husband hadn’t paid any child support (or alimony) and Dana legally adopted them as his own. During the adoption proceedings, this man had just one thing to say to Dana, which was “We all make mistakes.” To him this lovely family was as a “mistake,” but Dana knew it was a blessing that would fill his life with joy.
Another aspect of Dana was that he had a brilliant mind and a fascination with learning and might have become an outstanding college professor, if only The Great Depression had not crushed his spirit and made him fearful of ever being without a job again.
So Dana did the next best thing he was comfortable doing. He devoted himself to his family and he also read book after book and educated himself. Few at Douglas Aircraft knew his brilliance as he performed his job each day with pride, but no fanfare.
But outside the plant, Dana had a world of knowledge to offer and he became highly respected as a scholar and his advice was sought after by those who knew him.
And with his beautiful wife Mary, who with his encouragement later graduated from college and became a school teacher, traveled much of the world to see some of the places he’d read about.
If you have an unfulfilled dream, why not take the first small step today to make it reality. It could place you on a path to uplift your life and to find the greater meaning you’ve long been seeking.