Growing Up During the Great Depression

Bruce ‘Four-Eyes’ Miller Jr., a resident at the Sippican Healthcare Center in Marion, recently finished writing his autobiography which focuses on his early life as he was growing up during the years from 1929 to 1939.

Those ten years are known as the Great Depression, which was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialized Western world.

The Great Depression is said to have begun with a catastrophic collapse of stock market prices on the New York Stock Exchange in October 1929. By 1932, stock prices had a value of only 20% of what they had been prior to 1929. Any bank that held a stock portfolio suffered a slump which, combined with a general and nationwide loss of confidence in the economy, led to reduced spending. With less demand for products and services, a downward spiral ensued. The Depression started in the United States, but quickly spread to Europe.

“We didn’t have much, but neither did anyone else,” said Miller. The fifty-page autobiography is poignant, heartfelt, uplifting, humorous and inspirational, all at the same time.

Miller says that he is grateful for everything he has and has had in life. “As far as togetherness, we had that. I knew all my relatives and spent time getting to know them, and that’s something you don’t see much of today.”

Miller is an avid reader and enjoys reading dictionaries. His bookcase includes dictionaries of science, medicine, law, college, as well as the Britannica Encyclopedia. “You can learn so much by reading a dictionary,” says Miller.

“I love to read,” said Miller. When asked why he wrote his autobiography, he replied, “I was thinking about growing up during a special time in history, talked about it and decided to write about it.”

Miller’s autobiography captures his parents’ struggles to keep and find work to support their children. He attended ten different schools before graduating from high school. “Any kid who gets to stay in one place during their childhood is very lucky,” said Miller, whose childhood consisted of settling down in a town, making friends, and then moving away to another place. “We went where the work was,” said Miller.

But the joy of growing up, for Miller, was that he and his brother and sisters could be outside all day and come home at dinner time. “We were out catching frogs, turtles, fishing and just exploring and fooling around all day,” said Miller.

Born in 1925 in Wrentham, he was one of four children, two boys and two girls. One of his vivid childhood memories is climbing down from the second story of his home and into a rowboat when the banks of the Connecticut River overflowed its embankment. Another antic involves his brother acting like a squirrel, jumping from limb to limb on a tree, and falling to the ground, breaking a collarbone. One other story has his brother, Burt, being stung by wasps when a wayward football hit a nest. A farmer came and dumped a bucket of milk over Burt’s head and all was well, except for the loss of the milk.

His nickname – ‘Four-Eyes’ – came from wearing glasses, which gave him great trouble with all the moves from town to town. Miller learned to fight to protect himself from bullies. “One time, I was in a fight and I got lucky with a punch that broke off the bottom part of my opponent’s upper front tooth. There were some landscaping employees nearby and one was one of my many uncles. They saw the fight and dropped everything to come and cheer on the fight. My opponent started to cry. I almost did, but I fought back the tears.”

Pets were a big part of growing up and Miller had skunks, dogs, cats, mice, pigs, a duck and many other animals as part of the household. One year, the Millers’ received used bicycles as presents at birthdays. “We painted our new bikes, greased them, and kept them well-oiled and we were ‘ready to roll’ at a moment’s notice.”

The 1938 Great Hurricane came while Miller was living in North Attleboro. “Burt and I were too young to recognize the danger and went outside and into town. We saw two big poplar trees go down and were so excited with the wind and storm. We arrived at the town common just in time to see the steeple above the Congregational Church lean over and, almost in slow motion, tumble to the ground.” Miller noted that there were no chainsaws in that era, so any able-bodied person who could help was paid to help move debris and clean up the enormous damage done by the storm.

During World War II, Miller wanted to join the Marine Corps, but was rejected due to poor eyesight. He eventually joined the United States Navy Seabees and had duty in Trinidad, British West Indies. He was assigned to the Main Motor Pool and was responsible for dispatching large stake-bodied trucks to pick up hundreds of natives who were employed by the U.S. government at the base. “I kept a record of all vehicles dispatched, destinations, names of drivers, mileage and any relevant facts,” said Miller. It was during this time that he met his wife, Richardine Diane Mitchell, who also worked at the base.

Another adventure covered in his autobiography describes a cross-country hitch-hiking trip with two friends in which they spent time sleeping in orchards, fields and other places to save money during the trip. “I’m so glad we did it because the memories of the people we met and the experiences we had were so incredible that they are seared in my mind,” said Miller.

Miller welcomes company and visitors at the Sippican Healthcare Center. Please call before visiting.

By Joan Hartnett-Barry


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