Camera Rolls: 318:78-81
Sound Rolls: 318:41-42
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Vivian Raineri , 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.*
I wanted to start talking about some of the things we were talking about the other day. If you can just begin by telling me what it was like for your family in 1937. Things were getting better in some parts of the country. Were they getting better for you all?
I don't think they were getting better for us. Not that early, not in 1937.
It was still a time of great hardship for our family.
** And it was a time when my father, though, was able to get work outside of WPA, at least for some periods of time. He was the chef at the Veterans Home in Yountville, California, above Napa, for a while. That was a comparatively good time. He would, I remember, bring home food, and, and that helped also. So it was, all in all, however, it was still a difficult time for growing up youngsters.
Tell me just a little bit about what the WPA meant when your father did have a WPA job. What did WPA mean?
WPA meant that, that there was a guaranteed, I believe it was $40 a month, and it meant that we could go to a grocery store, and for $10 you could come home with a very large box of groceries. So it meant that we had food in the house. Not the best food, not such healthy food. We didn't, we never had enough vegetables or fruit, and my dad believed also in what he called "hard food", that sticks to the ribs and so on and, and so WPA was very important for a period of time for our family.
Tell me a little bit more about what it was like for living in Napa during that time, because your family was, was still struggling. What was life like around you? What, what was your feeling as you were growing up?
we were very poor, and
** there were other, a lot of poor people in Napa. But there was also a differentiation. I don't know what to call it except maybe a caste. No, that isn't really the right word, but a system whereby there were "haves" and there were "have-nots" and there was, the delineation was very, very clear. And so through high school there was always the knowledge in all of us, and I think resentment, that, that the rich peoples' daughters and sons were part of a separate kind of, of a social and educational system, too, than we were. However, we were all very bright, and we got along and maybe even, even had a kind of reputation for a while as the McGuckin kids who were very smart. We were intellectually probably far ahead of a lot of our compatriots at that time. No matter how hard it was, we always had books. My mother loved books, and we always had an old piano around which we would sing in harmony and we would entertain each other. And that built, over those difficult years, that built, I think, a unity between the children that has lasted to this day, and a love and loyalty between all of us. We will fight to the death, I think, for, for the rights of, of any one of us.
Were there other ways in those years left their mark on you?
Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure there are. I think they, they make me more aware of the situation today that it is so...I think it's worse today than it ever was for us. The, the, the ability of people to step over somebody in the street is, is a sign of, of a harshness and, and a very inhuman, inhuman way to live. The fact that children kill children for shoes or a jacket is, is so horrible it's hard for me to comprehend. But it is a fact of life now and I have no envy for mothers and fathers bringing up their children now.
One of the things we talked about the last time we met was about the Okie migrant crisis in California. Did you ever meet any of the people who had come in to California who'd had to flee desperate times back...?
Well, I remember in particular one family, the Hill family. They, we lived in the country during that time, and they, they lived in a barn down the road, in a barn, and I remember when the kids in my family were invited to, to go over and play with them, or be with them, be company. And I, I remember that we played games and we got along fine, and I remember how clean everything was. In my family, things were not so neat, but they were a very industrious family and, and I do remember them. I remember Helen. Helen was my age. And then there was a time later, maybe two or three years later, when we lived in another house, also in the country, and a family, a large family from Oklahoma came through and they needed a place to stay. And my dad let them use a barn that we had way back on the property, and—but I remember that he would not allow us kids, particularly the girls, there were three of us and we were all adolescent, he would not allow us to go down there and he told them to stay away from the house. But they did stay for several weeks in the barn. It was a large family, several, several adults and a lot of children.
We had, we had talked about the, the poverty and problems that there were during that time that you lived through. Do you think that there were any solutions that, that the nation found in coping with that?
Well, I think that the people forced solutions that were at least reforms that, that helped a great deal. It made it possible for people to eat and live. And even in the cultural movement of this country there were, there were organizations that came about under government sponsorship. There was theatre. There was writing. There, there was, of course, the Works Project Administration jobs that provided jobs for men and women, and I think even there, there were jobs for some young people in high school. I think my sister had a job in the American Youth Administration, I think it was called, working for a judge, I remember, in Napa. And, and, so yes, there were a lot of programs that were gained through the New Deal. But I think they were gained because they—and, and the whole question of Social Security and, and unemployment compensation, those were gained not as gifts, you know, but as, as projects that people fought for. And they were won. And I think that that's a lesson that people should remember today when, when conditions are so terrible for so many people.
Yeah. It seems like the whole era was really of activism.
Tell me a little bit about the San Francisco Fair, what you remember about that.
I didn't go to the San Francisco Fair. We couldn't afford it. And, and I remember being very much aware that the fair was there and being very unhappy that I couldn't go and my younger sister couldn't go.
** I remember in, in our school, it was a country school at that time, she was in the seventh grade and I was in the eighth. And, and there was, there was a wildflower contest. The persons who could bring in the most new species of wildflowers in the spring were going to get a trip to the fair. And I wasn't very good at that, but Virginia, my younger sister, tried very, very hard and she didn't win either. So, no. There was some bitterness about not being able to go to the fair.
Tell me about that bitterness a little bit. Bitterness that—
Bitterness that we couldn't go. Bitterness that we didn't have money to go. Bitterness that, that a lot of, of kids went, and we couldn't. And, and I don't know, maybe it was in part even, even anger at my parents, who maybe didn't think it was very important for us to go. Because it seems to me that by hook or crook we could have done it, you know.
Why, why did you want to go so badly?
Well, reading about the exciting place that it was, and the bridge was new then, and, and going on the bridge, we had never on the bridge to that point. And just it seemed like a fairyland kind of place And, and we would hear about it and read about it in the newspapers. And it was just a place where, where magic was, and you wanted to go and see it.
Yeah, there's been, I've seen wonderful footage about it. There was also at the same time as the fair, in '38, '39, there's this tremendous turmoil abroad, and I, I wonder if you can tell me what your first memories of, of awareness of what was going on overseas were.
Well, my parents were politically aware people, and the friends who would come to see us were politically aware people, so there was a great deal of talk in the, in the house all through those years, and it couldn't help but rub off on us. And so I remember that when I was in the eighth grade we had a little school newspaper and I wrote an editorial telling children to tell their mothers to not buy silk hose that came from Japan—
—because Japan had invaded Manchuria and people were hurting—
OK. Let's stop in the middle of this story. We'll pick you up at the—
You were talking about the war before and some of your earliest memories of, of the turmoil abroad.
We were very much aware of the war in Spain, and, and were very supportive of the Spanish Republic. And the, the general build-up of fascism in Germany, particularly, we were aware of, and had very strong ideas about, all of us. And so, but I think that was mostly because of our parents and because of the kind of discussion they and their friends brought into the house.
So help me to see what were some of those discussions.
Well, you know, there, there used to be affairs at our house where—my dad was a great soap-boxer. He had been a Wobblie organizer before World War I. And there were sometimes affairs in which people would be invited to come, and my dad would stand up on a table and, and kind of orate. He was wonderful. And, and sometimes they would have mock trials, too. It was a wonderful thing that these adults did, and it was a wonderful kind of, of experience for children to, to see and hear. And so they talked about, about current events. And they, they, I know, in these trials, sometimes they were about current problems in the labor movement, and, and maybe strikes, you know, and so there would be discussion of that.
Do you remember any of the discussions about war, what the debates were?
I don't remember particularly any debates about war. I don't think it was debatable to my parents or their friends. I think it was, for a long time, it was "stay out of the war." My dad ran for state assembly in, on a ticket of, of staying out of foreign wars, and he wasn't the only one. Others, too. And generally there was at that time a move, a drive to, to stay out of the war. I remember there was one slogan, "The Yanks are Not Coming," that was used a great deal in the progressive labor movement and the left movement in the country.
What was the fear of, of involvement?
The fear was that it was another World War I. At that time, this was of course before Pearl Harbor, and before it obviously was changing into a different and such a large scale, and so it obviously was becoming more than, than as my parents, as I remember, used to say, "a redivision of the world's markets," as they considered World War I was. And, and so this became,
somewhere in there it was becoming more and more what could be termed, I guess, a people's war, a war in which people had a stake, a war in which it was really between democracy, with all its faults, and, and fascism, which was total, total repression.
Do you remember that turning point for you when, when you or your family began to realize that something much more was at stake and there was no doubt?
I think it was probably within, probably within a couple of years of, of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. And yeah, I think it probably was, we were becoming more and more aware, and the nation was, I think, that this was just a, just a tremendously important struggle between, well, the forces of good and the forces of evil, essentially.
You were still very young at that point. Was there a sense of fear? I mean, you were about fourteen or something, right? I mean, what, how, what...
I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, yeah. I had no personal sense of fear, no. And, and I was a fairly political young woman during those years, and, and so it wasn't a sense of fear. It was a sense of, I think, anger. It was concern and it was, it was caring, I think, and that was true of all my brothers and sisters, caring about people who were getting hurt, and that becoming very, excuse me, [cries] becoming very hurtful.
You want to just cut for a second?
No, no it's all right.
We were good kids. We were good to our parents, and at times when, when it wasn't deserved, even, necessarily, you know, because our parents had a great many problems of their own, and we didn't intrude upon their problems. We took care of each other, essentially. And so, so we were caring kids. We cared about our family. We cared about each other. We did care a great deal about our parents, and were sort of protective of them, I think, part of that time. And so we cared, that extended into, into the community, and I guess the world.
And that's certainly admirable. I think there's maybe not enough of that feeling today. Are you, I know, are you ready to, it's OK if we start rolling?
Let's, let's start talking about when war finally came, Pearl Harbor came. You got a job in the shipyards. Tell me a little bit about that, how you got that job, and—
That wasn't immediately, but, but it was not very long afterward. I, along with a friend of mine, heard that there would be a course given in pipe hanging. And they were urging women to sign up for it, and we did so. We went right from there into the shipyards. We learned the basic elements of how you hang pipes. It seems like a very esoteric kind of subject now, but, but we did, and, and so we got jobs at Moore Dry Dock in Oakland, West Oakland.
And tell me a little bit more about what you did on the job. What was, was it hard work?
It was hard work. Yes, it was hard work, but it was exciting work. You would start work on a very raw hull, and you would see that ship progress and develop until it was a very beautiful...I always thought they were very beautiful ships. And you would go through the ship after, I only did this, I think, once, but go through a ship after it was completely outfitted and, and see your work. You'd see your work. I worked on what was called CO2 lines. They were copper, copper pipes, small copper pipes that snaked their way throughout the whole ship. They carried a fire retardant. And that became my specialty. And when I hired in I was a helper to another young woman, wonderful young woman. All the, all the women in the shop were wonderful. And, and I was her helper. And then I learned rapidly and I became, I became a trainee. We weren't allowed to become journeymen. The unions took care of that for one thing, and I think it was just understood between the unions and the shipyards that, that we would not get journeyman status, because that would, that would give us maybe more rights than they wanted us to have. But that's a little aside. But anyway, before long I had a helper, and I was training her how to, how to hang these pipes in the, on the ships.
So you were only allowed, women were only allowed to get so far up on the, on the hierarchy?
In, in my craft at least that was true. I'm not sure it was true everywhere. I'm not sure it was true with welders and burners and, and other skills.
Can you say that in a sentence for me? That it—
Yeah. It was true that, that women in my craft could not become journeymen. Trainee was as high as you could go. But we did journeyman work. Journeywoman work, right? [laughs] And so it, I'm not sure it was true in all the crafts, but it was true in mine.
What was it like being a woman in the workplace?
Oh, it was wonderful. It was wonderful. We wore comfortable clothes and, and, and we wore coveralls and overalls. And in the beginning these weren't very attractive, but it didn't matter. Later on, I think, the manufacturers started to make some things that were a little more, a little more attractive to women. But, it was just, there was a sense of pride walking down the street in our, in our overalls and with our hard hats and hard-toed shoes. And it, it, there was a feeling, I think, amongst, at least in retrospect I seem to remember, of, of a real pride in what we were doing. And we had, we enjoyed it. I really remember enjoying being a pipe hanger. You'd go on the ship. You'd have a job to do, assigned by your leaderman [sic], and you'd go on the ship and you'd measure the, the holes that the pipe was going to come through and, and you'd make notations of all these things and drawings of them in your little workbook, and then go back to the shop and have to use the proper kind of bar. And you'd, you'd bend it and it had to all match from center to center. Maybe there'd be twelve or fourteen of these lines in, in one hanger, and you'd measure from center to center. That took a certain amount of skill, and especially to translate that into the finished product, which then was drilled on the ship, drilled into the bulkhead.
What do you think, how do you think doing this work changed you or your attitude about yourself?
Oh, I think it was a very good kind of experience, and I think it made me feel that I could do a lot more than I maybe would have known I could do before I did that. And, and I think there was a sense of accomplishment. What you did was a part of the ship, and this was a beautiful ship when it went down the ways. It was going out to sea, and it was going to help fight fascists. And, and so it was a very positive feeling.
Talk to me a little bit more about the working conditions. Was it hard? Was it dangerous?
I, I—it was hard work. It was hard work. We had to do—we had to be quite agile on the ships. And I was young enough to do that, because I'm certainly not very agile any more. But, but we, we worked at great heights in the beginning of, of a ship being outfitted, in the engine room, which was huge, cavernous, kind of an area in the middle of the ship. And sometimes the stage rigging would be not maybe as sturdy as, as it should have been, and, and, no, I really shouldn't say that, because I think the stage riggers did very good work. But it just seemed to me that it, that it was precarious, and that was probably because I have a little bit of a thing about heights. I did even then, and I do especially now, terribly now. It seemed to me that it was kind of dangerous. But that made it more exciting too, you know. And then it was in the winter time, it was very, very cold on the ships, all that steel, all that iron. And I remember that women were warned not to sit on the, on the steel. There were always long bars and, and plates of steel piled up in a shipyard, and you'd go out and try to catch a little sun because it was very cold in the shop. And we were told, though, not to sit on it because it would give you hemorrhoids. It was not good for women's organs to sit on that. And that might have been true, actually. But that was, that was part, certain part, of the environment there.
Tell me, tell me what, after all the years of economic hardship, what making steady money finally meant to you.
Oh, it was great. It meant that—
I'm sorry, can you start out, say what it was?
It was great making money from the shipyards. I remember I got $42 a week, and that was a lot of money at that time. And it meant that I had the freedom to, to buy clothes, within limits though, because there, there weren't that many fashionable clothes coming out, I think, during those, those war years. But, but it meant that I had a freedom and an independence I had never before, and maybe never imagined I could have, so
it was tremendously important to, to have a decent wage. And it meant that my father and mother could buy a little house.
** It wasn't much of a house, a gimcracky [sic] kind of thing, but they did buy a house, and we all paid rent, when we were home we all paid rent, and that helped them to buy the house. And this was the first time in their lives they had ever been property owners,
** so it did mean that kind of, of security for my folks.
What happened to the jobs for women after the war?
Oh, women were pretty much squeezed out immediately after the war, and we'd been prepared for it. There were ads in, in magazines and all kinds of, of propaganda that women now should give up our jobs. Men were coming home, they had a right to the jobs, and women needed to go back and do the things that women do, like work in the kitchen and have babies, and, and things should get back to normal. And that's, that was pretty much what we were prepared for. However, the fact is that unemployment became very widespread right after the war, and the fact is that in the unemployment lines were veterans as well as people laid off from war-time work. So they were sort of all in the same, same boat.
There were, during war, during time I know there were things provided for workers in the defense industries that weren't available to workers in other areas.
Mainly, there was available childcare for young mothers who worked in the shipyards, and this was government sponsored. And so this was very important to the war effort, and that's why it was done by the government, of course. Never enough. There were never enough. And women, I remember, campaigned and fought for more, just as they campaigned, women and men, campaigned for decent transportation facilities. Transportation was terrible. Very, very inadequate. And, and with the thousands of people who came into the area, it, it was, it's a wonder people got to work on time, much of the time. But, but childcare was a tremendously, probably the most important thing from the standpoint of women workers that was available to them. And so they could work and they could know that their children were being taken care of.
Enabling them to work, really.
I wonder if you can tell me a little bit more about the economic impact of the war on your family, what, what war coming and all these jobs really meant.
We were a shipyard family. Like many families, we were, most of us worked in the shipyard. My mother was an invalid and couldn't, and my younger brother was in, in high school, but the rest of us all worked in war industry. And it, it meant that, it meant that we were not deprived of necessities, and it meant that we could do the things to entertain ourselves that, outside of the home. And, and it just meant a whole new way of life, actually, for us. And so that, that was a very liberating kind of thing, I think, for the family as a whole, as well, and certainly for we growing youngsters.
When you look back on it, is there any sense of, sort of, regret that it had to be this, a war that really financially rescued you and provided you all of these opportunities? Have you thought about that?
Yes. I've thought about that since. I didn't at the time, but I've certainly thought about it since, and it's a, a, it's a terrible thing that it is a war that rescues people from poverty and makes it possible for them to attain things that they, that they need and want and desire. A home—many workers in the shipyards bought homes, bought property, had a bank account, never had it before. And so many people came out of the war in much, much better, better shape financially at the beginning. And it's really, it's really terrible that it had to be through a war.
I wanted to, well, of course, one of the other tragedies about the war was the interment. What do you remember about internment?
I remember a Japanese-American friend of mine having
** a party, a farewell party at her house,
** and, and I remember weeping and saying good-bye, and we were all very sad. But you know, nobody, nobody protested. Very few people anywhere protested, and, and I guess it was because we thought it was important to the war effort or to unity on the home front
** ,but it was certainly very, very horrible. A horrible thing, a criminal thing that happened to a hundred and twenty thousand Japanese-Americans. And, and since then I have been on pilgrimages to Manzanar twice and to Tulelake once with Japanese-American friends of mine. And it's, it's very important that we never forget that this happened in order that it not happen again, and that there be at, certainly, at any such attempts, there be protests made. War or no war, unity or no unity, because this is the most disuniting kind of, of action to take, repressive and, and horrible.
I wonder, looking, looking back on those years I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit more about how you think all the change that was going on in the country around you shaped you, how some of the activism that you saw shaped you. That's a big question, but I'm wondering, when you look back on those years and you see what kind of influence they had on you—
Well, sure, they, they, it shaped me and, and had a great influence, influence on me. It made me aware, certainly, of the, of the forces that can destroy people's lives. It happened here with the Japanese-Americans, with the, with the internment and the establishment of concentration camps. It happened to six million Jews. It happened to political activists and, and gypsies and, and millions of people throughout the world whose lives were destroyed. And it made me aware that life is very precious and that liberty, life without liberty is not worth, not worth anything. Therefore, when we fight for life, we fight for people's liberty. We fight for people's rights, civil rights, and,and we fight against racism, which is so destructive, and, and we fight for all the life-affirming beautiful things to be, to be part of the everyday life of all human beings.
And it's interesting, that seems like something that, all that, this passion I feel in you right now, do you think that came from these years, from living through those years yourself?
Oh, I think, I think a lot of it did. Yes, I do think so.
I wanted to go back. Before the camera cut us of,f we were talking about some of things you came to care about and believe in as a result of living through the thirties. I wonder if you could talk to me a little more about that, because it's not something I ever think about coming out of that time, and yet you lived through those years. So tell me again what it is about what you think you gained from, from going through that time and how it shaped your attitudes.
I think life during the thirties, being very difficult, certainly for little kids, and then even as we became bigger kids, I, I think it made me appreciate my family and it made me very much aware that my parents, with all the problems they had, and they were numerous, my parents were very special people. They had been part of, and continued to be during the thirties, part of a political upheaval in this country. And those kind of upheavals are very important. If it never happened, it would, it would be a very sterile—
We have to cut.
You were talking about political upheaval and what importance that has.
Being aware of the political upheaval during the thirties, and,
** and our family, the struggles of our family
** and of my parents made me, made me aware that people don't gain anything without struggle.
** It's been said through the ages in so many ways by so many people, and I think I learned the truth of that, that without struggle there is, there is really nothing. And so it made me, it made me appreciative, both in, in the sense of my family and my parents and the unity and love between my brothers and sisters and I, and it made me aware of a larger community out there and a need to be loyal to, to people who struggle and people who are poor, and not to forget them ever. And, and as long as there is that kind of deprivation, and it continues certainly now, and that we have to care and we have to do something about caring.
Tell me a little bit about something we talked about the other day, about the feeling you had at the end of the war when you were looking towards the future. This was the end of an era of struggle. What, what was the feeling you had when you looked to the future at that point?
I'm trying to, I'm trying to recall, kind of, how I felt...
You talked to me about—but I don't want to put words in your mouth.
You're absolutely right, though. It was a, it was a time of great hope and it was a time when we thought we might really have a new world. And it was a time of the formation of the United Nations in San Francisco. I think that, that the feeling of hope was widespread and that the whole world felt that we could, we could start off on a new footing and that we could build peace, a real peace and a lasting peace, and security for peoples. Well, that didn't last very long, though. And, unfortunately, reality caught up with that hope, and so today we look around the world and we see all the terrible sadness and people hurting and children dying of hunger and, and people sleeping in the streets here, and people being hungry here, too. And, and so it's hard for me to feel a lot of hope right now, but yet I, I struggle for it. I do struggle for it.
I want to go back to what we were talking about in the very beginning of this interview, and I was asking you to try and put me back in 1937. I just want you to talk to me a little bit about that again, about what your family was going through in 1937. I've seen lots of news reels that say things were really getting better, and it was great, and the Depression was over. Was that what you were experiencing?
No, I don't think we—
We didn't experience the Depression being over at all in 1937.
** In 1937, I would have been thirteen years old and in, in probably the eight grade, I think, seventh or eighth grade. And we still had, had very little, and we were a large family, and I think we ate better. I do think we ate better than we had in those earlier years. But we had, there, there, there was really not much for poor people, and certainly in Napa with its layered kind of society, as I think I said, the "haves" and the "have-nots". There was a lot of social deprivation, too, and that was important to, to growing children. And to be not included, as happened both individually and as a group, to be not included— I remember when The Grapes of Wrath the movie came out, and we went to the movie together,
** at least my older brother and sister and I did. And I remember the hooting done by the, the audience. And we were so indignant, terribly indignant over that, because these were farmers' kids, ranchers' kids, and they were not deprived, and so they were making fun of the Joad family. And I think we felt a real kinship with the Joad family.
** I know I was, I remember I was a freshman in high school when, when John Steinbeck got the Pulitzer Prize for and I felt justified. I felt really glad about that and justified in how we all felt about, about . And I remember also that my sister Ginny, my younger sister, who was an avid reader as we all were, was not allowed to take that book out of the library, because they said she was too young. And my mother wrote and said, "You give her anything she wants." And so was an important kind of milestone, as a matter of fact, you know, in our family and certainly in my own life.
It's a milestone in the country, too. It was this real eye-opener for the nation, and the issue kind of—
Yes, that's true. Yes, it was.
I think there was a sense before that, that poor people were a little more invisible at that point in the, in the decade. Is that the way you, did you feel that way at all yourself?
That people, did I feel that people were, poor people were more invisible?
Yeah, or just overlooked.
Certainly overlooked. And yet I know in the larger cities there was a great deal of ferment and a great deal of struggle. I remember wishing that we lived in the city, wishing that we lived down in the Bay Area, particularly in San Francisco, because there was a lot of movement, and I always felt that we could find our place if, if that were the case, if we lived in the city rather than a small town that was based mainly on agriculture. And so I, I did really look forward to someday being able to break loose and moving to the city.
OK. I think we can cut. Thank you.
You're very welcome. Thank you.