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If I'd gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I would never have left Illinois.
I've often wondered at how lives are shaped by what seem like small and inconsequential events, how an apparently random turn in the road can lead you a long way from where you intended to go -- and a long way from wherever you expected to go. For me, the first of these turns occurred in the summer of 1932, in the abyss of the Depression.
They were cheerless, desperate days. I don't think anyone who did not live through the Depression can ever understand how difficult it was. In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, "the country was dying by inches." There were millions of people out of work. The unemployment rate across the country was over twenty-six percent. Every day the radio crackled with announcements warning people not to leave home in search of work because, the announcer said, there were no jobs to be found anywhere. There were no jobs, and for many, it seemed as if there was no hope.
In Dixon, the town in northwestern Illinois where I lived, many families had lost their land to crushing debt; the cement plant that provided many of the jobs had closed; on downtown streets there were perpetual clusters of men huddled outside boarded-up shops.
I'd been lucky. In the summer of 1932, I'd been able to work a seventh summer as a lifeguard at nearby Lowell Park and had saved enough money to finance a job-hunting trip. I had a new college diploma that summer and a lot of dreams.
Keeping it secret from my father -- I knew he believed those daily announcements and would have said it was a waste of time for me to leave Dixon in search of a job -- I hitchhiked to Chicago after the swimming season ended with visions of getting a job as a radio announcer. But all I got was rejection: No one wanted an inexperienced kid, especially during the Depression. And so I had hitchhiked back to Dixon in a storm, my dreams all but smothered by this introduction to reality.
If there was ever a time in my life when my spirits hit bottom, it was probably the day I thumbed my way back to Dixon in the rain, tired, defeated, and broke.
But when I got home, my dad told me he had some good news: The Montgomery Ward Company had just decided to open a store in Dixon and was looking for someone who had been prominent in local high school sports to manage the sporting goods department. The job paid $12.50 a week.
Suddenly, I had a new dream -- not one as seductive as my real dream, but one that seemed to be more grounded in reality, and for a time late that summer, nothing in the world was as important to me as managing the sporting goods department of the new Montgomery Ward store. I loved sports; I'd lettered in football in high school and college and loved just about every other sport there was. The job offered me the chance not only to help out my family financially at a time it really needed it, but to get started on a life career. Even during the Depression, Montgomery Ward had a reputation as a steady employer and I knew that if I did well in the sporting goods department, promotions would follow.
I told my father I'd run the best sporting goods department Montgomery Ward had ever seen, and when I applied for the job with the manager of the store, I told him the same thing, and then waited for his decision.
His decision several days later was a heartbreaker. He gave the job to a former superstar on our high school basketball team.
I was raised to believe that God has a plan for everyone and that seemingly random twists of fate are all a part of His plan. My mother -- a small woman with auburn hair and a sense of optimism that ran as deep as the cosmos -- told me that everything in life happened for a purpose. She said all things were part of God's Plan, even the most disheartening setbacks, and in the end, everything worked out for the best. If something went wrong, she said, you didn't let it get you down: You stepped away from it, stepped over it, and moved on. Later on, she added, something good will happen and you'll find yourself thinking -- "If I hadn't had that problem back then, then this better thing that did happen wouldn't have happened to me."
After I lost the job at Montgomery Ward, I left home again in search of work. Although I didn't know it then, I was beginning a journey that would take me a long way from Dixon and fulfill all my dreams and then some.
My mother, as usual, was right.
I was born February 6, 1911, in a flat above the local bank in Tampico, Illinois. According to family legend, when my father ran up the stairs and looked at his newborn son, he quipped: "He looks like a fat little Dutchman. But who knows, he might grow up to be president some day."
During my mother's pregnancy, my parents had decided to call me Donald. But after one of her sisters beat her to it and named her son Donald, I became Ronald.
I never thought "Ronald" was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy and as soon as I could, I asked people to call me "Dutch." That was a nickname that grew out of my father's calling me "the Dutchman" whenever he referred to me.
My delivery, I was told, was a difficult one and my mother was informed that she shouldn't have any more children. So that left four of us -- Jack, Nelle, and my brother, Neil, who had been born two years earlier.
My dad -- his name was John Edward Reagan but everyone called him Jack -- was destined by God, I think, to be a salesman.
His forebears had come to America from County Tipperary by way of England during Ireland's potato famine and he was endowed with the gift of blarney and the charm of a leprechaun. No one I ever met could tell a story better than he could.
He was twenty-nine when I came into his life. Like my mother's, his education had ended after a few years in grade school. He had lost both of his parents to a respiratory illness that people in those days called "consumption" before he was six years old and was brought up by an elderly aunt who raised him a proper Irish Catholic.
Despite the brevity of his formal schooling, Jack had a lot of what people now call "street smarts." Like a lot of Americans whose roots were on the nineteenth-century frontier, he was restless, always ready to pull up stakes and move on in search of a better life for himself and his family.
My dad believed passionately in the rights of the individual and the working man, and he was suspicious of established authority, especially the Republican politicians who ran the Illinois state government, which he considered as corrupt as Tammany Hall.
Among the things he passed on to me were the belief that all men and women, regardless of their color or religion, are created equal and that individuals determine their own destiny; that is, it's largely their own ambition and hard work that determine their fate in life.
Although I think Jack could have sold anything, his specialty was shoes. A large part of his life Jack pursued a singular dream: He wanted to own a shoe store...not an ordinary shoe shop, but the best, with the largest inventory in Illinois, outside Chicago.
Nelle Wilson Reagan, my mother, was of Scots-English ancestry.
She met and fell in love with my father shortly after the turn of the century in one of the tiny farm towns that were planted on the Illinois prairie by pioneers as they moved westward across the continent during the nineteenth century. They were married in Fulton, Illinois, about forty miles from Dixon, in 1904.
While my father was a cynic and tended to suspect the worst of people, my mother was the opposite.
She always expected to find the best in people and often did, even among the prisoners at our local jail to whom she frequently brought hot meals.
I learned from my father the value of hard work and ambition, and maybe a little something about telling a story.
From my mother, I learned the value of prayer, how to have dreams and believe I could make them come true.
Although my father's attendance at Catholic Mass was sporadic, my mother seldom missed Sunday services at the Disciples of Christ church in Dixon. Like Jack, she had a natural and intuitive intelligence that went a long way toward overcoming a shortage of formal schooling. While my father was filled with dreams of making something of himself, she had a drive to help my brother and me make something of ourselves.
My brother and I never knew our grandparents. They had all died before we were born. My father had one brother, but they lived far apart and seldom saw each other. My mother, on the other hand, had five sisters and brothers and it was a very close family; one sister was married to a farmer and they owned a big farm and a country store and we'd visit with them during the heat of the summer; another sister lived in Quincy, Illinois, and sometimes we'd go there for a vacation. Once, we visited another of my mother's sisters who ran a hotel in the Ozark mountains; she had an only son and later, for some reason or other -- I don't know what happened -- she was no longer managing the hotel and had to move in with us with her son, and we all lived together for a while.
When I was a child, we moved a lot. My father was constantly searching for a better life and I was forever the new kid in school. During one period of four years, I attended four different schools. We moved to wherever my father's ambition took him.
Tampico, the place where I was born, had a population of only 820. There was a short paved main street, a railroad station, two or three churches, and a couple of stores, including the one where my father worked.
When I was a baby, we moved from the flat above the bank into a house facing a park in the center of Tampico that had a Civil War cannon flanked by a pyramid of cannonballs. One of my first memories was of crossing the park with my brother on our way to an ice wagon that had pulled up to the depot.
A pair of toddlers intent on plucking some refreshing shards of ice from the back of the wagon, we crawled over the tracks beneath a huge freight train that had just pulled in. We'd hardly made it when the train pulled out with a hissing burst of steam. Our mother, who had come out on the porch in time to see the escapade, met us in the middle of the park and inflicted the appropriate punishment.
When I was two, we moved to Chicago, where my father had gotten a promising job selling shoes at the Marshall Field's department store. We moved into a small flat near the University of Chicago that was lighted by a single gas let brought to life with the deposit of a quarter in a slot down the hall.
Jack's job didn't pay as well as he had hoped, and that meant Nelle had to make a soup bone last several days and be creative in other ways with her cooking. On Saturdays, she usually sent my brother to the butcher with a request for some liver (liver wasn't very popular in those days) to feed our family cat -- which didn't exist. The liver became our Sunday dinner.
In Chicago I got a serious case of bronchial pneumonia and while I was recuperating one of our neighbors brought me several of his son's lead soldiers. I spent hours standing them up on the bed covers and pushing them back and forth in mock combat. To this day I get a little thrill out of seeing a cabinet full of toy soldiers.
Our stay in Chicago introduced me to a congested urban world of gaslit sidewalks and streets alive with people, carriages, trolley cars, and occasional automobiles. Once, while watching a clanging horse-drawn fire engine race past me with a cloud of steam rising behind it, I decided that it was my intention in life to become a fireman.
After we'd been in Chicago for less than two years, Jack was offered a job at 0. T. Johnson's, a big department store in Galesburg 140 miles to the west of Chicago, and we moved again, this time to a completely different world. Instead of noisy streets and crowds of people, it consisted of meadows and caves, trees and streams, and the joys of small-town life. From that time onward, I guess I've always been partial to small towns and the outdoors.
We lived at first in a rented bungalow on the edge of Galesburg, then rented a larger house with a big lawn a block away -- and it was there that I began my career as the Great Naturalist.
In the attic of the house, a previous tenant -- an anonymous benefactor to whom I owe much -- had left behind a huge collection of birds' eggs and butterflies enclosed in glass cases. Mentally appropriating the collections, I escaped for hours at a time into the attic, marveling at the rich colors of the eggs and the intricate and fragile wings of the butterflies. The experience left me with a reverence for the handiwork of God that never left me.
By the time I entered the first grade in Galesburg, I was already a bookworm of sorts. I don't have any recollection of ever learning how to read, but I remember my father coming into the house one day before I'd entered school and finding me on the living room floor with a newspaper in front of me. "What are you doing?" he asked, and I said, "Reading the paper."
Well, I imagine he thought I was being a bit of a smart aleck, so he said, "Okay, read something to me," and I did.
The next thing I knew, he was flying out the front door and from the porch inviting all our neighbors to come over and hear his five-year-old son read.
I suspect I'd learned how to read through a kind of osmosis: My mother always came into our room at bedtime and wedged herself between my brother and me to read us a story. As she read, she followed each line on the page with her finger and we watched. I think I just picked it up that way.
After entering school I discovered I had a pretty good memory. I could pick up something to read and memorize it fairly quickly, a lucky trait that made schoolwork easier for me but sometimes annoyed my brother, who didn't have the same ability.
My dad was happy at first with his job in Galesburg. But my brother and I often heard him telling Nelle that he would soon be doing better. There was a great deal of love between Jack and Nelle, but in Galesburg I began to suspect there was also a mysterious source of conflict between them.
Sometimes, my father suddenly disappeared and didn't come home for days, and sometimes when he did return, my brother and I would hear some pretty fiery arguments through the walls of our house; if we'd come into the room where Jack and Nelle were talking, they'd look at each other pointedly and start talking about something else.
There were other mysteries in our household: Sometimes out of the blue my mother bundled us up and took us to visit one of her sisters and we'd be gone for several days. We loved the unexpected vacations but were mystified by them.
World War I started when we were in Galesburg. Like almost every other American during those years, I was filled with pride every time I heard a band play "Over There" or I thought of our doughboys crossing the Atlantic on a noble mission to save our friends in Europe. There were some days when everybody in Galesburg dropped whatever they were doing and rushed down to the depot to cheer on a troop train passing through town. The train windows were usually open to the air and the doughboys would be in their khaki uniforms and would wave to us; we waved back and cheered. Once my mother picked me up and gave me a penny, which I gave to a soldier, saying in my small voice, "Good luck." Another time, there was a big show at the school to raise money for the war and the whole family went. My dad -- who as a father of two had been rejected for the army -- disappeared and surprised us by coming on stage as a snake charmer wearing a wig and a hula skirt.
Not long after I completed the first grade, we moved to Monmouth, a college town not far from Galesburg, where my father took a job at the town's biggest department store. I'll never forget Armistice Day in downtown Monmouth: The streets suddenly filled up with people, bonfires were lighted, and grown-ups and children paraded down the street singing and carrying torches in the air. I was only seven, but old enough to share the hopes of everyone in Monmouth that we had fought "the war to end all wars." I think the realization that some of those boys to whom I'd waved on the troop train later died on European soil made me an isolationist for a long time.
Not long after the war ended, we moved again, this time back to Tampico, where my dad had been offered the job of managing the same H. C. Pitney General Store he was working at when I was born, and we moved into an apartment above the store. The owner, Mr. Pitney, who wasn't so much a merchant as an investor, liked my father and promised that, as soon as he could, he would try to help him become part owner of a shoe store.
After a year or so, we packed up all our belongings and headed for Dixon, where, keeping his promise, Mr. Pitney had decided to open a swank shoe store called the Fashion Boot Shop with Jack as his partner.
It was in Dixon that I really found myself -- and discovered why Jack disappeared from home so often.
Copyright © 1999 by Ronald W. Reagan