The Great Depression and the start of World War II…
Like many small businessmen, Alphonse was unprepared to face the economic catastrophe that hit the country in 1932, the result of the stock market crash of 1929. The closing of the local textile factory, the biggest employer in the area was the final blow. Alphonse lost two restaurants and a house. He moved the family into several apartments while he looked for work in different locations including Woonsocket and a hotel in Maine. In 1933 the chef finally got a break.
A well-known businessman in Woonsocket opened a first class restaurant and hired Alphonse as chef. So the Charest family settled in Woonsocket as it tried its best to survive while waiting for better times in the country. Alphonse’s reputation as a dependable, creative and hard-working man spread through the city in the next several years. Business was good at the restaurant and the owners prospered.
Since Alphonse could not read or write English, I had the pleasant job of going with him very early to write out his day’s menu. We became close that way. As a reward the chef always prepared a breakfast for me fit for royalty. It usually consisted of a giant piece of ham along with potatoes and eggs, or a giant steak with hash browns and toast. I would then go home carrying a jug of the previous day’s soup and leftover pies. At times the soup would spillover the brim and I would smell like a soup pot.
An ugly economic situation had hit the country. By 1932 it was estimated that 25% of the people were out of work. The textile industry began to move out of New England and New York for non-unionized states in the South, mainly North and South Carolina, where the wages were lower and the politicians and the brain-washed workers friendlier to big business interests. In Woonsocket a factory employing 7,500 workers dismantled the machinery and said goodbye to the city. The resultant unionization was pushed in an atmosphere of mistrust and hatred of the ruling class. It was no surprise that a dangerous riot broke out in 1937 that threatened the safety of all residents. Since the majority of the textile workers were women, the factory owners found it easy to intimidate them into not joining unions. It was the same throughout the country.
The automobile and coal mining industries became unionized, but not until intervention of the courts on the side of the workers. President Roosevelt, himself called a traitor by the ruling classes because even though he had been born in money and privilege he favored the working classes, persuaded the American people to stay calm and to trust in the Constitution. He and the Democratic Party passed laws that reformed the banking system thus reigning in abuses. The forty–hour workweek went into effect; in 1935 the Social Security system became law; welfare laws went into effect, thus making it possible for people to receive help.
Storm clouds were gathering overseas. Japan attacked China in 1931, invaded it in 1937; lta1y invaded and conquered Ethiopia in revenge for an ltalian defeat inflicted by that country in 1896; Spain endured a terrible Civil War from 1936 to 1939; Russia attacked Finland in 1939; Stalin killed off his top generals for fear of a revolt; Italy invaded Albania in 1940, moved into Greece; Hitler persuaded the German population that since Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat in 1918, they should all be executed; America closed its eyes and mind to those troubles and concentrated on its own. That was a major mistake.
The nine children were not really aware what the depression meant. Compared to most families ours lived quite well. Since our father was a chef, we had plenty of good nutritious food. We never were deprived of all the milk, bread and meat we wanted. We went to a good parochial school, S1. Anne’s, run by dedicated nuns who spared no effort to teach us more than reading and spelling. We engaged in games and sports activities, enjoyed family get-togethers in which aunts, uncles and cousins counseled and advised us on life matters and who also kept us on a straight path, something that is perhaps not done today.
By the time I was twelve years old I had read through the local library. As much as I enjoyed sports, there were times when I wished for rain on Saturdays so that I could spend the day browsing through the book stacks. The 1930s were carefree years for children, perhaps the last generation to enjoy such times. We spent the time attending story-telling sessions at the local library, playing sports depending on the season: softball, swimming, volleyball in the summer, football in the fall, ice hockey and basketball in the winter, soccer in the spring.
We lived in an age noted for creativity in music and the movies, a time that saw perhaps the greatest concentration of musicians and movie performers ill our history. We danced and sang to the tunes of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman; we wept with Bette Davis; we charged enemy lines with Errol Flynn and Victor McLaughlin; we laughed with the Three Stooges and became hysterical with Laurel and Hardy; we solved crimes with Charlie Chan; we thrilled to the romantic behavior of Clark Gable and Lana turner.
Two weddings took place in the late 30s. Therese married Lionel Hurteau, her childhood friend and one of the brave firemen; Marguerite married Andrew Paquin, an ex-soldier. In October 1941, Alphonse and Emelie celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with a formal ball and a gala dinner. A tragedy based on a giant misunderstanding darkened the family life. Alphonse quit his job!