2009-01-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Good Riddance To 2008: Not Our Worst Year By A Long Shot
Commentary By Howard Schwach

There are those who look at 2008 as the worst year in American history.

Those who believe that way, point to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast financial meltdown, the myriad of political and financial scandals, the Bush presidency, Mumbai, the Middle East, and the beat goes on.

Of course, everybody sees such things through the prism of his or her own experience.

Ask people my age who the greatest baseball players were, and we will speak about Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ted Williams. Ask those in their 20s or 30s that question, and you will get an answer that includes more of the players from the 90s and today.

Having been born in 1939, I missed the major portion of the Great Depression with which my parents had to deal. My father, who graduated as an accountant from NYU in the early 1930s, could not find work in his chosen field and wound up working for the post office in Far Rockaway until World War II ended.

To him, I am sure, the Great Depression made 1929 and the following decade the worst in American history.

Abraham Lincoln, our stalwart leader during the darkest days of the events leading up to the Civil War and the war itself, once said, "We live in the midst of alarms; anxiety beclouds the future; we expect some new disaster with each newspaper we read."

He was right then, and he would have been right if he had said that today.

Long before Lincoln's words, however, America faced many of what could be called "the worst year in American history."

In 1798, France sought and failed to sway an American election to its own ends. France even went as far as attacking American shipping and blaming it on the Federalists - who were basically pro-British. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (you'll remember them as two of our Founding Fathers) drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, stipulating that the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by the Federalists to stop the French actions, could be nullified by a vote of a majority of states - something that would have stopped the union cold before it even got started. As Woody Guthrie said 150 years later, "It's already dying and it's hardly been born."

In 1837, people borrowed paper money to speculate in western land. Speculation grew and so did the value of the paper money, until President Andrew Jackson (remember the Battle of New Orleans) determined to stop the speculation by demanding that only gold and silver could be used for western land purchases. Banks failed. Wall Street crashed. The price of cotton fell by 50 percent and 90 percent of all of the factories in the nation went out of business. At the time, Jackson's actions led to the longest depression in America's history.

The Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, was obviously one of the most contentious periods in our history and has to rank right up there in "The Worst Year" category. One of the darkest years during that period, however, was 1862, when Lee took command of the Confederate armies defending Richmond, Virginia, and pushed back the Union army. England was close to becoming an ally of the Confederacy and the congressional elections turned bad for Lincoln's Republicans. "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it," Lincoln reportedly said.

In the early 1940s, America was just beginning to come out of the Great Depression. Unemployment in 1940 was still at approximately 14 percent, coming down from a high of 19 percent the previous year. Adolph Hitler marched into the Low Countries, threatening all of Europe and then America with his fascist rant. Troops had to train with broomsticks and paper tanks. We were not prepared for a war that was surely coming, although many Americans remained isolationist.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and America went back to work. The war brought us out of the Great Depression, but put us into a global conflict that killed tens of thousand of our young men.

My first political memory was of my aunt standing in her front yard on Watjean Court in Wavecrest, crying her eyes out.

I was playing with my Captain Marvel action figure, which in those days was made out of cardboard. I asked her why she was crying and she told me that President Roosevelt had died. I wasn't sure that I understood what was going on, but I still remember the day even now, 63 years later. Captain Marvel, of course, was wiped out when the Superman distributors sued for copyright infringement and won.

To my mind, the year 1968 was the worst year in American history, probably because I lived through it and it has more significance for me than 1798 or 1862, or even 1941.

I was 29 years old at the time, three years out of the Navy and in my third year of teaching at a Brooklyn junior high school.

My son had been born the year before, and I remember those years as more contentious and dangerous than anything else I ever lived through, including 2008.

The War in Vietnam, which started in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, was in full swing and so were the demonstrations against the war. Being a veteran put me on the side of the Hawks, at least for the early period of the war, before it became apparent to all but the most committed that it was a losing proposition that the politicians would never allow the military to win.

Then, there were the assassinations during the 60s - John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King. The day after the King assassination, the police had to escort the staff out of the Bushwick school in which I worked because young people were throwing firebombs at the building.

In the south, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing and many from my generation were going south to assist in the battle.

To me, the 60s was the worst decade in American history and 1968 the worst year in that decade.

I am sure that there are more "Worst Years" to come, but I will leave them for my children, my grandchildren and perhaps their children to worry about.

We can pray that there won't be many, but there will, and the lesson to be learned is that we recover eventually from all of them.

That is something that we all can remember moving into 2009.

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