Sunday, October 10, 2010
In the Eye of the Storm - My Dad and the Great Depression
I began thinking this morning about my father, Ernie Coulson. He was quite a man, as they would have said about him back in his day. Ernie would be 110 years old this year. He was born on Christmas Day 1899. The very end of the century before last. Kind of a trippy thought. He said things to me like, Never invest in the stock market. - To have a vision for the future you must know history. - Nothing is constant but change. - Give ‘em enough rope and they’ll hang themselves. We had very few long conversations, my daddy and I, but his pithy remarks and his life story molded me into the person I am today.
His friends always said, “Yep, Ernie Coulson told us it would work out this way twenty years ago.” A visionary in a grey flannel suit. A man who was too young (just barely) for WWI and too old for WWII. A man who drove a Model T Ford from Missouri to California on dirt roads. He told me about a sign he saw in Texas that said, “Pick your rut you’ll be in it for the next fifty miles.” My daddy hated ruts. He loved being carefree.
He had his degree in business, but that didn’t keep him tied down. In the 1920s and into the ‘30s he did the accounting for many of the brothels on Cannery Row in Monterey, California. It was a very lucrative business. The madams loved him, and I’m sure he loved them too in his way, a little detached, but appreciative. I actually worked for one of those madams in the 1960s, but she no longer had a brothel. She owned the Amador Hotel, a restaurant and cabaret, in an old mining town in Northern California, where I sang and danced on weekends. Her name was Grace Chaney, and she was married to Lon Chaney Sr.’s brother George. When my father walked in opening night, her face lit up. “Ernie Coulson, you old dog,” she said, as she wrapped her arms around his neck. She almost kissed him, but pulled back demurely when she noticed my very proper mother standing behind my father glaring at her.
But let me go back to that time when my father was fancy free. The Great Depression had descended upon the country. Long lines of people trying to find work, trying to find food, losing their homes. But my daddy wasn’t in any of those lines. He didn’t come from great wealth, and believe me, very few of the rich suffered during the Great Depression. He was just a guy from humble beginnings, on his own, living in Northern California and having a hellava good time. He drove a dark green Auburn roadster convertible. He lived in the Senator Hotel, Sacramento’s luxury hotel, just across the street from the State Capitol. He owned four hundred suits (I know, hard to believe) and had a personal valet. He hung out with his cronies -- politicians, businessmen, and a famous boxer, Max Bear -- in a restaurant called Bedell’s, down the block from his hotel. He was a man about town. By this time he had let most of his Cannery Row clients go, and was teaching at the Sacramento Business College. He walked with a swagger, and smoked a pipe. He wore his fedora cocked jauntily to the left. Women were crazy for him. But my mother snagged him.
My daddy never suffered from the Great Depression. He knew instinctively how to live in the eye of the storm. I think it was his philosophy taken from Socrates, There is nothing constant but change, and his vision -- his ability to see what was coming next. He didn’t let himself get stuck in the common knowledge that all was lost. He surfed the Great Depression. He lived with a sense of joie de vivre and non-attachment. He didn’t own much, just his suits and his car. If he lost those he knew he would still be himself. He lived in the moment. He didn’t fear the future, because he was immersed in the present. But even as he was focused in the present, he also had this vision of a prosperous America in the future. He saw the 1950s in the 1930s. His friends counted on him for this vision.
Because I am the daughter of Ernie Coulson, visionary, I have been blessed with this ability to relax in the present, without attachment to possessions, and see the future. Again, we are in a financial crisis. But as Ernie Coulson’s daughter, I know that there is nothing constant but change. That there is a bright and prosperous future coming soon. And that if I stay in the present moment, hang out with my friends, have a good time, and don’t invest in the stock market, all will be well.