Camera Rolls: 318:81-83
Sound Rolls: 318:42-43
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Muriel Vandever , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 19, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Muriel Vandever take one.
Now we're going to talk a little bit about what you remember from around 1937-38. If you can describe for me a little bit what you remember life being like for you and your family during those years.
What I remember is that life was very grim and I think because I was an emerging teenager I was becoming aware of so many inequities in life, and there were so many problems in the family because my mother had recently become paralyzed and what that meant in the way of responsibility for all of my brothers and sisters and myself. We didn't ever seem to have the luxury of zeroing in on our problems or having them loom very large because they were always in the background of the main family problem, which was to survive, as best we could. And that's my most vivid remembrance.
Talk to me a little bit about how you think the hardship of those years shaped you and your brothers and sisters.
- Oh gosh I look at the pictures of my brothers and sisters and myself, and I see in the eyes the same look that Margaret Brook White's pictures of migratory workers' children. I see sadness. I see pain, and to this day we've all managed to come out of it with pretty good lives, all in all. But I still see that look in the eyes. It never goes away. We were marked by our poverty.
Muriel Vandever take two.
I want to go back to what we were talking about before, and I'm trying to understand what it must have been like for, really, since you were a child until a teenager, you'd been living through these hard times. What did you sort of feel about life or about the future? Was there a fear that this was just going to go on and it was never going to be any different?
Oh, I don't know if I would say an unhappy child early on. I don't think I was. I think I had a lot of spirit early, and I think I wanted to be happy. I was silly, I would giggle, and then it at a very early age it seemed like all that stopped. And like I was saying, in the pictures of my sisters and my brothers and myself we're never smiling. I have a quite a few pictures and there's not a smile on any of our faces. We were very serious little children and yet I know among ourselves we played and we made our own fun. We'd do the dishes together and decide what we were going to do of an evening. So we did have some good positive moments and times together. We'd decide to make fudge, or we'd decide to tell ghost stories and scare ourselves. We'd sing, harmony. Later on we read plays. But there was a knack in myself, and I can only speak for myself in this personal way, and that is that I felt very, very oppressed. I remember going to school with a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I was carrying around a huge rock. And that was true, oh, until my twenties, I think.
What about the coming of war? That was also, obviously, something else pretty heavy. When did you first hear about war and how?
When I was in high school they began to show newsreels in the movie theatre of bombing in Spain and we began to be aware that Americans were going, American boys were going, the Lincoln Brigade. Later on we became friends with many of the returning veterans from there. Some were wounded.
Sorry to interrupt. Tell me a little bit more about school. What did hear in school? Describe it for me.
we began to have broadcasts of Hitler,
** Hitler's speeches, his crazy wild rantings, and they would put it on the loudspeaker to the various rooms, and it was very confusing and very frightening. At the same time my mother and father were going to a night class taught by a Professor Wassermann and I would go along sometimes and I remember a huge big map, and he would put pins as Hitler was marching across.
** It was very frightening, very confusing to me at that age.
** [NOTE Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression: Arsenal of Democracy; Episode 317-23]
Did it seem real, like you were talking about something that was real?
It did. Yes it did, because of my mother and father's awareness and family discussions. We were always a political family and anything that was happening in the world was discussed in our family.
Tell me about the newsreels that you saw, and go into the details.
Oh, yes. I remember my older brother and I when the newsreels came on in the local theatre and Mussolini would be on his little balcony and talking to throngs of people, and quite a few of the local Italian farmers seemed to be applauding him. And my brother and I would boo, and we had the feeling that we were the only ones, and that we were taking a very unpopular stance.
Do you remember anything about Hitler's invasion of Austria, and the Munich Agreement that came out of that? Can you tell me what you remember about that?
Yes, I do remember that because—who was he, the one with the umbrella?
Chamberlain. His speech was broadcast in high school. I remember that very vividly. At that time, early on, we were all hoping for peace but it became obvious that wasn't going to be the case, and so we were not sympathetic with the appeasers at all.
So you were shocked a little bit by what was going on over in Europe, by the agreement?
Yes, and I remember discussions in the family, the older friends and my parents, talking about how in Great Britain there were many fascists who wanted the war, instead of fighting Hitler, fight Russia. And that was our great fear, that the forces of the world would be turned against Russia.
Tell me what you heard FDR say about all of this.
Well early on he made a speech, Fireside Chat, I believe, where he said that not one American boy would go overseas. And early on, of course, we were sympathetic with that. We thought that, "Here we go again, World War I all over again. This system can't survive without having a war every so often in order to give a jolt to the economy. Here we go again." And then of course as time went by and we saw what Hitler meant and what fascism meant then we gradually came around, instead of being isolationist in our feelings we began to see that this had to be something that we had to take part in to defeat Hitler.
[production discussion][slate marker visible on screen]
I wonder if you were, when you would listen to FDR—you mentioned the Fireside Chats—would your family sit around and listen to him on the radio?
Oh yes, I think we listened to all of his Fireside Chats. What a wonderful PR! Really, they were marvelous. I'd love to have copies of those.
Tell me about some of the other radio shows that you remember enjoying the most.
Tell me, I hadn't heard about this One Man's family. Tell me a little bit more. What was it? Did your whole family sit around and listen?
Yes. It was the early forerunner, I think, to the soap operas on television today.
It was a family, a very rich
** bourgeois family, San Francisco family. And there was Father Barber and Mother Barber
** and you know, he was a banker. There was Hazel, the stable, sensitive one. I always thought of my sister Vivian as being Hazel. And then of course there was the younger, although I'm older I still identified with the younger one Claudia, who was a little bit flamboyant and always getting in trouble, and I liked her spirit because I didn't have that much spirit I think, and I wanted to be her. And then my older brother, he would have been Paul and he was always the one helping to solve the problems of the other children. And of course my brother did play that role in our family. He was kind of a substitute father figure for when my father wasn't around.
So what did this family represent to you, do you think?
Can you say that for me a little bit in a full sentence, I'm not going to be able to know what represented. You can say "the show" or "the show represented."
it represented everything we didn't have, that we weren't,
** that we had no hope of being, and yet we knew that we had the potential to be a beautiful family like that, where everything is pretty and everything is orderly and there is no big financial problems. Sort of a dream world. I guess during the same time they had all these movies about rich people, when there were so many poor people. Escapism, that's what it was.
So you would sort of run home and all sit down in front of the radio?
While we're on the subject of the radio and the coming of war, do you remember ever hearing Lindbergh on the radio, or any of the America First—
Yes, yes I remember hearing Lindbergh and the "America First" speakers on the radio and I remember that early on we thought that was a good idea because we're first and foremost for peace. Always have been, until it became revealed that was not the way that we could go anymore and that, in fact, as we began to believe that Lindbergh had sympathies toward the Nazis. And so of course that was a short period where we hoped that we could stay out of it. We had always been against war.
When war came you got a job though. Can you tell me about how you heard about working the shipyards, how you came to go work there and what that was like?
I first heard about it, I believe, in an ad in the papers. I heard that there were going to be training programs for the shipyards, so I went down and was interviewed, and along with a group of about twelve young women we were trained. I didn't think that there was anything special about it. We were sent out together to Kaiser, interviewed again and were given jobs in the shipyards after having gone through quite a rigorous training period, but it turned out I had a very steady hand and I was a very good burner.
Well tell me about—there was a point to the training program, I mean why you were going through this rigorous training program. What was the point of it? Tell me about that.
I don't know that early on that, even in the training program, that they knew that we were going to be used that way but soon, when we were sent to Kaiser, it became obvious that they wanted a group of women to try out and test whether or not they would be suitable for working in the shipyards. And so they decided to use us, this whole group of us, and we were sent out to Richmond Yard.
Tell me about your first day. What happened?
Oh, the first day we walked on the job they sent us to a huge, big plate shop. That's where they assemble the steel into patterns and then take it to the place where they assemble the ship on the, what do they call it, on the dock I guess. So when we arrived, walking through the plate shop,
the men just seemed to be totally surprised, totally outraged. Their mouths dropped open. They dropped their tools,
** they stood, just wondering what's going on and we were told, "Don't pay any attention" and were given over to a leaderman [sic] who took charge of us. And some of the men would stand around and hoot and holler and make fools of themselves, and we just, partly because we were embarrassed and partly because we didn't know how to respond, we just kept our nose to the grindstone and did our work,
** and worked much harder than anybody else. After a week or two, it happened so slowly, finally they just began to come around and nod their heads and say, "My God, that's very good. That's very good. And then they got used to us being there, and even I think liked us being there. We were all young girls. We were all pretty, young girls. Why wouldn't they like it? So anyway then gradually there came a dribble of more women, more women coming through until finally, I don't know the percentage, but maybe a third or half of all the shipyard workers were women.
What do you think that did? What did it do for you personally to have that job? Did it change you?
What about your sense of yourself as a woman and all? Did it alter that view of what you could do?
Oh, sure. It altered my view of myself in that I felt that I could do anything that a man could do on the shipyard and I think I held on to that feeling afterward, all my life. I never felt intimidated by applying for any job that I was totally unprepared for but I always felt I'd either learn it on the job or if somebody else could do it I could do it too.
Yeah, I was wondering, when we were talking before you were talking a little bit about it being kind of the beginning of a new sort...it was opening doors for women, really. It seems like that was your experience too.
Well there were a lot of doors opened around that time because men were being drafted and sent to war and there were many openings and many jobs went begging for people to come and apply for them. When I would occasionally get tired of that noise and the dirt that would accumulate in my pores of my thighs and I couldn't scrub it out, I would take a leave and I would get a white collar job. Oh there were lots of jobs. It was wonderful to have all these options all of a sudden.
After all those years of hardship?
After many years of hardship and that feeling that all doors were closed to you, to have these doors suddenly opened, and to be able to have a choice of where to go. But I always went back to the shipyards because of that big money.
It must have been hard work too, though.
It was hard work. It was very hard work. Dirty work, and I remember I worked in the plate shop for quite a long time, and then I was put on the hull and I took great pride in that because you had to be a really good burner to burn on the hull because everything you did was final. Like you cut the port holes and things that were very important things to be doing and in the beginning I was very frightened of heights, which you start on the hull when it's just a foot or so high and you go up with it and before you know it you're working on a scaffolding on the outside of the ship and you're way up in the air. And now when I think that I did that, especially when I see the ship the S.S. O'Brien over at Fort Molly I think, "My God I stood on the outside of this great, big huge tall ship and worked with those hoses and dragged them around and stood on the scaffolding.
It sounds terrifying, actually.
It does now. It sure does now.
I want to ask you some sort of more summary questions about how living through all those years of hardship during the Depression and all, how do you think that shaped you and changed you?
I think it marked me very much. I think that it made me more appreciative of good things that came my way later on in life. I never took anything for granted. As a matter of fact, to the extreme I never took anything for granted. I never thought that anything was permanent. I always felt that everything could be whisked away overnight. Probably an early memory of a Montgomery Ward truck backing up to our place where we were living and taking away all the furniture with my mother crying made me feel that nothing was permanent. I still struggle with that.