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From Yesterday to Today: Chasing After the American Dream

For those who have never read an article in this series, allow me to give you a quick summation of how this works. You join me on my front porch (figuratively speaking, of course). I’ll hand you a lemonade or a cup of hot chocolate, depending on the weather, and then we will all take a trip, in my personal time machine, back to the 50’s and 60’s, to another front porch, attached to the home I grew up in, 4022 North 18th, Tacoma, Washington.

Have a seat! Get comfortable! Since it’s winter, here’s your hot chocolate.

Shall we travel?

$12,000 brand new

$12,000 brand new

1953

My father dropped out of high school as a sophomore, back in Charles City, Iowa. He did so in order to find part-time work during the Great Depression. It was pretty common to do so during that economic disaster.

He then joined the Army in 1941, served until 1945, married my mother, and they moved to Tacoma, Washington in 1948 in search of, my best guess, the American Dream i.e. a home, a decent job, white-picket fence, good advancement. He had no skills. He had no training. What he did have, however, was one hell of a strong work ethic and determination.

My mother was a high school graduate, and in 1941 she was a single mother. She had no training. She had no skills. She worked as a welder in a shipyard during the war, to feed her tiny daughter and to help her parents with the bills. What she did have, however, was a strong work ethic and determination.

When they arrived in Tacoma, after the war, they found an upstairs apartment rental and there they lived while they found jobs and established some roots. They adopted me in 1949. Within a year they had rented a house, a small two-bedroom bungalow in a growing neighborhood, populated by similar war rejects and Midwest transplants. My dad found a job as a manual laborer for a sand & gravel company, and my mom found a job working for a department store downtown. I have no idea what either of them made per hour; it couldn’t have been much more than whatever minimum wage was at that time; but it was enough for them to pay for a down-payment on a home to purchase, price $12,000, in 1953.

And there I lived for the next twenty years!

A hard-working man

A hard-working man

Economic Status

We were lower middle-class! Maybe middle-class if you stretched the definition just a bit. We had enough money for food. We had enough money to keep the car repaired and filled with gas. My clothes always had patches on them. If the family needed extra money for extra expenses, Mom and Dad would work overtime. It was an odd weekend when both of them were home both days; more often than not one of them was putting in an extra shift because, well, we always needed money for some necessity.

They never owned a new car, my folks. For Christmas, each year, Dad would get a loan from the bank for a couple hundred bucks, to pay for Christmas presents, and then he would spend the next eleven months paying off the loan. Repairs to the home were done by Dad and any neighbors who would drop by to help out, something that happened more times than I can remember.

Evenings were spent watching television. On weekends we would pile into the car and go for drives, maybe pick up an ice cream cone at the A & W for a treat. There was no extravagance. There was no abundance, but there was a home, a car, and the proverbial white picket fence. There was, in truth, no chance for advancement for my mother or my father.

And I wonder, now, seventy years later, if they felt like they had attained the American Dream? I wonder if they felt they still had miles to go? I wonder if they felt they still had things to gather before they could be satisfied? And I wonder if they were beginning to feel the ungodly weight of knowing that that was as good as it was ever going to be for them, economically-speaking?

The hopes and dreams of the Holland family!

The hopes and dreams of the Holland family!

1960

They were trapped by the time the Sixties arrived. I wonder if they felt that way. They had their home. They had jobs. And they had the bills to show for it all, their little slice of the American Dream. As long as they had their health their jobs were secure, and as long as they had their jobs, their home was secure. Simple as that, no hedging on that bet, keep working, keep possessing, all is well in Tacoma.

Every once in awhile a special problem would arise, big repair here, unforeseen emergency there, and extra money was needed, and extra shifts were worked, a constant balancing act, keep those balls in the air, three, four at once, the juggler in total concentration, so far so good, no room for error.

Paid for private education for their kids, those hard-working people did, grade school, high school, an added drain on the finances, but they always found a way, and then 1966 arrived, and by God, their son was going to be the first Holland to go to college, private college, extra expense, and they found a way - somehow, they found a way, with the extra work shifts piling up, and their bodies slowing down, and I wonder how they felt about the American Dream by that time.

Or, was it this simple, that their son, Billy, was their American Dream?

1969

By 1969 the inevitable was playing out in that brick post-war home. Mom had equilibrium problems, and her full-time employment was cut back to part-time. Dad, back problems, shoulder problems, foreseeable for sure for a physical laborer, and then the one thing they knew could not happen happened, the one thing which could turn the American Dream upside down and scramble it on the floor of life – Dad had a heart attack and died.

Keep moving forward, I was always taught that, and that’s what we did, by God. I got a full-time job while I finished my last year of college. The bills got paid. Dad had had the foresight to pay for life-insurance, and that helped. His Teamsters benefits helped as well. We were able to keep the house, get the bills paid, hustling every step of the way to stay one step ahead of the creditors and those who would take that American Dream away from us.

Mom remarried five years after that. I got a job after college, good-paying job, and bought my first property by the age of twenty-three, my first home by twenty-seven, and twelve homes since then, my American Dream a constantly shifting array of addresses and cars and big-screen televisions.

The Thing Is

Take a moment to consider all that I told you. My parents, late-twenties in age, without any skills, without education, and without any job training, found work in a new state and within five years had purchased a home. They paid for that home, paid for improvements, paid for cars, and paid for private education for their children. I don’t know if they ever attained the American Dream, but they sure as hell took a good run at it with the skills and determination they possessed.

About twenty-five years later I was able to purchase a home. Wages were good, jobs were plentiful, and prices were reasonable when it was my turn to start chasing the American Dream.

Can you imagine that happening in 2020? The homes in our neighborhood, where we currently live, are selling for over $300,000, and this is a middle-class neighborhood at best. How can a young married couple, at least one of them shouldering college debt, ever expect to pay for the down-payment for a home like that?

Do kids today even have an American Dream?

Do kids today even dare to dream?

Have the increasingly tough odds at success crushed their spirit?

That home I grew up in, purchased in 1953 for $12,000, recently sold in 2020 for $400,000.

I don’t have answers to those questions, but I do wonder. I see so many young adults depressed and lost, seemingly lacking hope for the future, and it’s hard, you know, really hard to tell them everything will be all right. I can’t find the words to assure them that the economy is working for them, that all they have to do is work hard, want it bad enough, and it will appear.

Like I said, I don’t have any answers, but I’ve got a boatload of questions.

Thanks for joining me on this little journey back in time. I hope you didn’t suffer from any time-travel whiplash. Until next time, have a good life and please, do all things with love.

2020 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

Comments

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 22, 2021:

Thank you Nithya! I can't imagine the same opportunities today for a middle class family. The cost of living is simply too high.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 22, 2021:

Chitrangada Sharan, thank you! It did seem like a simpler time, and it did seem like people were content. I hope it wasn't an illusion! :)

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on January 21, 2021:

Today the cost of living has skyrocketed, and buying necessities has become expensive. The American dream has become tougher to chase and the journey even more difficult. Your parents worked hard and did their best to provide for their family with great love and determination. Thank you for sharing these memories with us.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

I will always believe in the value of hard work and determination, Bill. I'm not sure I see as much of it today as I did thirty years ago, but maybe I'm not looking close enough.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Peg, thanks for your thoughts. I'm afraid the "Can Do" generation is shrinking. I'm not sure the skills you mention have been passed down to many. The young couple across the street didn't know how to jump their car battery the other day. I thought they were joking at first but nope, they had no clue.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Linda, I am in total agreement with your summary. Thank you for it. Let's hope modern society finds a way to provide hope for the lower 90%.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

MG you, in turn, have raised some fascinating questions, and I thank you for them. Socialism vs capitalism....that argument rages as we speak in this country. I do believe some manner of compromise must occur; perhaps a new system as yet undefined and unnamed.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 21, 2021:

This is such an insightful and heartfelt post. I am deeply touched to read about your parents and your growing up years. Parents do everything they can, within and beyond their capacity, for the good upbringing of their children. Reminds me of my own parents.

Those were wonderful days, when people were content, with whatever they had or achieved. Times have changed now.

Thank you for sharing this inspiring article.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Denise, I'm afraid if things do turn around, you and I won't be around long enough to see it. As you well know, mammoth changes take decades in this country. Still, it's a good goal for the U.S.

Blessings always

bill

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on January 21, 2021:

Very interesting family story, Bill. You bring up some valid questions about attaining the American Dream, whatever that means today. For our parents generation I do think a home, jobs, family, and education were the goals. Today these seemingly obvious things seem not so attainable. The price of a home and an education alone are out of reach of many. So perhaps the American Dream is changing for this generation? I do know, however, that hard work and determination can open doors and create opportunity. Have a great day, Bill.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Ruby, what your parents did seems unbelievable today, but back then it was close to the norm, large families, back-breaking work....those days may be gone for most.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Alrighty then, KC! Thanks for your opinion. I'll be buying up homes very soon then.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Manatita, you speak so many truths here, my friend. Let's hope wisdom prevails, and hope finds a comfortable reality with a soft landing, eh?

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Very true, Linda! So very true! I can't imagine going through life without motivation and a desire to better myself, but it is true of millions of young adults and teens.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

All very true, Pamela. I suspect an immigrant from Nigeria would view the American Dream quite differently from a kid growing up in L.A.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

Eric, yes, your wife knows all about this Dream. I suspect many immigrants would echo her vision of America.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 21, 2021:

I love your positive message at the end of your comment, Dora! Effort plus good attitude will take anyone further than not trying and a refusal to try.

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on January 21, 2021:

Your parents are a fine example in their pursuit of the American dream. I love that they started with nothing and built their family around hard work, sacrifice and ingenuity. The house prices in your area are astounding. We have those neighborhoods here, too.

In Texas, affordable housing can be found if you're willing to look around and put in a little work. In our case, we did without many of the extras (like air conditioning, finished walls and a complete kitchen for a while.) We did a lot of the interior work ourselves and did without some comforts. It wasn't easy but the end result paid off.

I believe a lot of skills have been lost in the generational shift from working with our hands to working in technology. People can still make a decent living and support their families if they're not afraid to sweat a little or get their hands dirty.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 20, 2021:

You’ve written a thought-provoking article, Bill. Though modern society has some important advantages compared to earlier ones, I think it also has disadvantages. Thank you for sharing your family’s story.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 20, 2021:

I think it's a very thoughtful article and one can read it a number of times and still relish it. You have painted a wonderful picture but at the same time raised many questions. Nobody has been able to define what that American dream is and if after so many decades that dream is turning sour then something is wrong somewhere. Could it be a ill of the capitalistic society and how does it compare with the socialist world where housing is guaranteed and free from the State. But there is a downside as there is no freedom political or otherwise and I have a question is this freedom more important than to struggle in life?

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 20, 2021:

My dad quit high school too and joined the Air Force at the time of the Korean War. While stationed here in California, he met and married my mom and I was born 9 months after that. I agree with the Carb Diva, too many have given up on the work ethic when they see that dishonesty and theft get some farther ahead than honesty and hard work. I taught my children the work ethic but I worry for their children and their children's children. Something needs to turn this around.

Blessings,

Denise

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on January 20, 2021:

Your story made me wonder how my mother and father raised 12 children on a watermelon farm in Indiana? It's true prices were cheap and people were contented with less. Your story will ring true with many in that era, if they needed or wanted something extra they worked harder to achieve it. I enjoyed the cup of hot chocolate. Thank you.

KC McGee from Where I belong on January 20, 2021:

Now that marxism in is control, in a short time that house will be worth $12,000 again.

manatita44 from london on January 20, 2021:

I've felt for a long time that house prices are too expensive. It also has consequences. Gentrification forces the poorer folks to move out of the city and commute for long hours. They also flat-share more, which exposes them to health risks and even more so with Covid-19.

Of course, you and I know that most countries run a system which is driven by capitalism and greed. I read so much about food wastage in America, but many are dying in other countries, while in America itself, like here too, the homeless go hungry.

You were asking about an answer to all this. I only talk socialism and justice where necessary, as the message of Yoga philosophy, is that it is Hearts, which must change. It is an inner not an outer thing.

Small steps are Mindfulness in schools; more morals and ethics - Confucius style - a strong sense of right and wrong. An emphasis on prayer, Love, gratitude and self-giving, such as was highlighted by the President and the young poet Laureate today.

It's a start. In Sri Chinmoy's philosophy, God will also send great souls to serve in the political arena. Perhaps another Emerson, Jefferson and so forth. Quien Sabes? Peace.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on January 20, 2021:

Bill, I believe that your parents and mine were content--they worked hard (that work ethic that you and I grew up with), and were rewarded with that American Dream. It was attainable. Today? There is such an extreme divide between the have's and the have-not's. But it's not just the disparity in earning. That work ethic is on shaky ground too. Some have it, but too many have given up. And, that's the saddest part of all.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 20, 2021:

You have provided great insight into your childhood, Bill. I don't really know what the American Dream is, other than an overused word. I don't think many young people think about achieving the American dream, but I could be wrong.

House prices are so high these days and while wages are better for certain careers they are not better for everyone. I think we still keep on trying, Bill. You article gives us many things to think about.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 20, 2021:

Wonderful what amazing parents we had. I was left wanting but never needing. My wife the immigrant has made it. She definitely had the American dream.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 20, 2021:

Touched by your memories of family and country in past years. The American dream seems farther away than it has ever been, not only because of economics, but also because honesty and hard work are not always rewarded liked they used to be. Still there's no excuse for not trying and because the right attitude helps us rearrange our priorities. Enjoyable read!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 20, 2021:

John, thank you for sharing part of your story. I pray things change; I don't know what it will take to overhaul this economic system we are mired in, but I know overhaul is needed.

Thanks my friend!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 20, 2021:

Thank you Umesh!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 20, 2021:

The American Dream, and in my case The Australian Dream, seem to be things of the past that our parents, and then us, aspired to and managed to achieve. I doubt it is still attainable for most. My father and grandfather built our (at least “my”) first home. I never owned my own home until I took voluntary early retirement from the Railway Department at about 36 years of age, but have owned four more homes since then.

Only one of my four children have managed to own their own home, my daughter, but only after her husband was retired from the army due to PTSD and receiving a payout. Now with the huge cost of rentals, as well as purchase prices, it is almost impossible for most young people to ever save enough for a deposit on a new home.

Thank you for writing this.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 20, 2021:

Very engrossing and well presented. Thanks.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 20, 2021:

Heidi, it's been a remarkable change we have seen. Just remarkable, and if we live a couple more decades, we are going to be in awe of the changes we will see. Pull up a chair and get comfortable. It's going to be one hell of a show, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 20, 2021:

Ann, I do believe we were lucky to have grown up when we did. It seems to me it was the last decade when most people had a fair shot at being successful.

I'm sorry to hear about your daughter and he husband. Talk about terrible timing, but I agree with you, if they are hard workers and determined, they will find a way sooner rather than later.

Thank you for your kind words. Standards and work ethic? Thanks to my parents, my friend!

bill

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 20, 2021:

Peggy, I truly don't have an answer for it all. It seems to me the cards are stacked against the middle class, and heaven help the poor.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 20, 2021:

Hmm. I don't know where to start on an American Dream discussion. But I will agree that the American Dream from when we were younger isn't today's American Dream.

You have to wonder do people even want or need that American Dream? I'm going to say that many younger people don't. Heck, many don't have cars or driver's licenses. That's stunning to me. That was right of passage for our generation. It means freedom and convenience for me. But if you're working from home, do you need it?

The times they are a-changing for sure. Pass the hot chocolate, please.

Ann Carr from SW England on January 20, 2021:

What a lovely insight into your parents and your own growing up time. I would say they achieved a great deal - the American Dream if you like. You obviously studied and worked hard to get there too, thanks to your parents teaching the values of such things.

It is hard these days; here too, the prices of houses have rocketed, even in the areas that used to be cheaper. One of my daughters is working hard, along with her husband, to give their children all they can and were almost at the stage of buying a house when - you've guessed it - along came Covid. Jobs not guaranteed, finances a bit wobbly.... Such a shame and it was as though her dream was shattered. I keep saying that it will happen some day soon, when things get better and it probably will but it's hard. The thing is, they have determination and a good work ethic, so they will survive and they will achieve what they set their hearts on. The children are all happy as sandboys and are growing into lovely people. To me, that means everything.

We're lucky to have grown up in the 50s and 60s aren't we? Lots of jobs etc and reasonable prices. And the music, and..... I loved it all!

Sorry, I've rambled on a bit, but I'm blaming that on you because your article got me thinking and my thoughts just tumbled onto the screen!

This series of yours is superb, as are all your others. It amazes me that you produce so much work without letting your standards slip one jot - but then, you have the determination and the right work ethic, don't you? Well done, bill!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 20, 2021:

Inflation over the years has outpaced what many people can now earn to achieve the proverbial American dream of homeownership, a car, etc. If your parents were starting out today, they would face a much harder hill to climb to achieve what they did back in the 50s. That is sad. I am astounded at the prices of homes today as compared to the past. The same with cars and even a hamburger or a loaf of bread.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on January 20, 2021:

Happy Wednesday to you, Rosina, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Blessings to you always!

Rosina S Khan on January 20, 2021:

Thanks for the ride back in time in the 50s and 60s, demonstrating to us what could have been possible American dreams. Even if they worked very hard, we can never be sure if they attained the dream. That was interesting to know. Yes, let's do all things with love. Happy Wednesday to you, Bill.

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