Image Credit: Rare Book Division, New York Public Library
By Jason Zweig | Oct. 17, 2018 7:12 ET
At the Bogleheads conference a few weeks ago, I was asked how to teach children to handle money responsibly. “Tell stories,” I said.
And yesterday, I was eating an apple, munching my way down to the core as I always do — in order to leave nothing but the core — when I stared at it in my hand. A story came back to me.
I’m guessing it was either 1973 or 1974, when the nation was deep in a recession. I was 14 or 15 and prided myself on being precocious. Reading some article in the newspaper about people buying things they couldn’t afford, I turned to my father and said with what sounded to me like wisdom beyond my years, “You know, I think what this country needs is a good depression.”
I’d been naive enough to think that little quip would get a laugh out of my dad, but I immediately realized that my attempt at humor wasn’t funny. My dad had turned 14 only a few weeks after the stock market crashed in 1929. And in 1933, when one out of every four American workers had no job, he was 18. He looked at me, his normally bright blue eyes as dark as I’d ever seen them.
“I’ve told you about Mr. Van Alstyne,” he said.
I nodded: Mr. Van Alstyne, I knew, had been the principal of the tiny public school my dad and his three siblings had attended in rural New York State. Mr. Van Alstyne, my dad had told me several times before, carried a three-foot length of two-by-four lumber that he called his “Board of Education.” He regularly beat students with it — for getting a wrong answer, for talking back or disobeying, or for not being a Protestant or for having been born to immigrant parents. So my father, even as the star student, often got pummeled black and blue simply for being the child of immigrant Jews. All the kids — good and bad, scholars and slackers — were terrified of Mr. Van Alstyne. And their parents all expected them to treat his word as law and his beatings as the price of a good public education.
My dad continued:
One beautiful summer day, probably in 1931 or ’32, Mr. Van Alstyne was walking down a dirt road around lunchtime when he came on one of the kids from our school — I don’t remember his name, so let’s call him Johnny — sitting on a split-rail fence at the edge of the field by the side of the road. And the kid was eating an apple! A big, fat, juicy apple. A single beautiful apple that was an unbelievable luxury for anyone in August, even the most feared man for miles around.
So Mr. Van Alstyne stops, squares his shoulders, looks the kid commandingly in the eye, and says slowly, “Young man, give me a bite of that apple.”
The kid, up on the top rail of the fence, looks down on Mr. Van Alstyne and just keeps right on chewing.
Mr. Van Alstyne stares at him, furious. He wants to scream at the kid, or beat him to a pulp — but much more than that, he just wants a bite of that apple before Johnny can eat the little that’s still left.
So he says again, in an even deeper voice, “Young man, give me a bite of that apple.”
Johnny munches away, barely even bothering to look at Mr. Van Alstyne. Finally he swallows and stares him in the eye. Then he points with his free hand to the surrounding hay field, and says: “Mr. Van Alstyne, this field ain’t school.” Then he smacks the wooden rail he’s sitting on and says, “And this fence ain’t your Board of Education.” Then he holds up the apple, and he says, “And this ain’t your apple.” He takes another bite.
Mr. Van Alstyne, struggling for composure, thinks for a minute. “All right, then, young man. Give me the core of that apple when you’re done.”
Johnny slowly inspects his apple again, then takes another nibble and takes his time. Eventually he looks over and says, “Mr. Van Alstyne, this field ain’t school, this fence ain’t your Board of Education, this ain’t your apple, and there ain’t gonna be no core.”
I burst out laughing. When I stopped, my dad said: “That’s what the Depression was like. It turned even powerful people into beggars. And it meant that if you were lucky enough to have an apple, you darn well wouldn’t waste the core.”
From that moment on, I’ve thought twice before throwing anything away. I turn the water off when I brush my teeth or shave. I compost, I print on both sides of the paper, and you should see my drawerful of used paper clips.
I worry that the memory of how important it is to save is fading into oblivion in most families — and I hope Americans can learn to save again without having to go through another Great Depression.
For further reading:
Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor
Jason Zweig, The Devil’s Financial Dictionary
Jason Zweig, Your Money and Your Brain
Jason Zweig, The Little Book of Safe Money
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