Dad’s dying words echo today

Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review

My father died 43 years ago next month at age 83. On the day of his death, the doctor called to say that Dad had little time left. I called my brother and my mom, neither of whom made it in time. When I arrived, I sat for a time on the edge of his hospital bed. Finally, I squeezed his hand, and he awakened. He looked at me, taking a few moments to become oriented. Then he said, “I never had to ask you two boys for anything.” A long moment passed before he added, “And I don’t owe anybody anything.” With those last words Dad had, in his own way, balanced the books and reached closure.

My father was part of the proud, strong, self-reliant 19th century generations whose sweat and values made this country great. He said a man’s first responsibility was to those dependent upon him, but thrift came next. He earned enough to bring us through the soul-searing Great Depression, a time when angry, unemployed men milled around government buildings demanding work—not a handout—and were given public WPA (Work Project Administration) jobs so they could buy food and clothing for their families. Still, half of the people eligible for FDR’s “relief” program were too proud to take it.

To Dad, financial success meant having more coming in than going out, and he saved more money from every paycheck. Like so many others, he paid cash or didn’t buy—expect for the home mortgage. But purchasing on the “the installment plan” gradually became more popular and then snowballed into the monster it is today.

Now credit card companies mail out billions of pre-approved applications each year while advertisers promote instant gratification beyond our means as a way of life. Indeed, not to charge, charge, charge things we mostly don’t need has become downright unpatriotic and un-American, especially during this Christmas—oops, Holiday?—season. Our children are groomed from the earliest age to play their vital consumer role.

We have as a people come to live in a false economy built on debt. The average household carries $8,500 in credit card debt while overall household debt stands at $9.8 trillion. Almost two million people a year declare bankruptcy. Our $8 trillion national debt is another all too familiar and tragic story.

No matter how powerful our nation, the enormous debt overhang of its populace, mainly, and the nation itself will in time crush us all.

I’m glad Dad isn’t alive to see how far our people and their country have careened away from the path of common sense thrift in just over 40 years.