Full Circle: 1930s sparked changes; Brothers’ paths diverged as war approached

Published 10:14 am Friday, April 24, 2015

The decade of the 1930s changed everyone’s realities, no more so than for my father Gene McLaughlin and his older brother Don. By then both were students at the University of Minnesota eagerly working towards a degree which they knew would provide them endless opportunities. But, as World War II approached, it became necessary for the McLaughlins to have a serious family meeting in which the decision was made to have Don stay on in school because he was closer to graduation. However, a younger and deeply disappointed Gene was asked to come home.

Eugene McLaughlin

Eugene McLaughlin

Just as the boys thought, a diploma did change Don’s life for he proceeded to have a distinguished career as a U.S. Army intelligence officer serving throughout Europe and Asia, eventually accompanying Gen. Douglas MacArthur on his triumphant journey to Tokyo for the signing of the surrender of Japan. Later, Don became one of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign managers, hobnobbing with such notables as Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, John Mitchell, Ronald Reagan, Dwight E. Eisenhower and, of course, the new president himself!

Of course, Don having been the chosen one who was to go on to a star studded life meant that Gene’s responsibility was to return to Austin and dutifully take his place beside his father in managing the Square Deal Grocery. If Dad ever regretted his college career being cut short (and the missed chances for a more glamorous life), I never heard him mention it.

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Thus Dad began what was to become his lifetime role as manager of a Midwestern grocery store. One of my favorite stories from the Depression/WWII period happened one day while he was at work in the store. Dad was manning one of the two check-outs when a lady slowly and painfully approached. On her arm was a heavily loaded shopping basket. Groaning under the weight of it, she plopped it on the counter.

Dad was shocked, barely recognizing her as a regular customer. She looked nothing like her normal self, her appearance being one of abject misery. A pasty, gray pallor had spread across the swollen puffiness of what had once been recognizable cheekbones, now retaining little of their former feminine contours. And her lips looked as though a stronghold of stinging bees had attacked them. In all respects the woman standing before Dad bore a striking resemblance to the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Don McLaughlin

Don McLaughlin

Her bloated arms and hands proceeded to remove from her basket seven cakes of Baker’s Yeast which she placed with great effort onto the marble counter, accompanied by an audible anguished sigh. Alarmed at her distressing state, Gene (always a master of diplomacy), delicately inquired as to her health. Gazing at him through puffy, bloodshot eyes, she proceeded to tell this tale.

On the radio she had heard President Franklin Roosevelt express his deep concern over the poor nutrition many Americans were getting as a result of the hard times. At great length he asserted everyone’s need for good nourishment and proceeded to outline numerous ways in which those needs could be met. One piece of especially sage advice was that one cake of yeast eaten daily would provide the necessary amount of Vitamin B a person needed each day.

To be sure, this woman was nothing if not a true public-spirited citizen. Taking her President’s concern and nutritional know-how to heart, she followed his instructions implicitly. No one, but no one, would outdo her in the loyal American contest! For days the woman had consumed the obligatory cake of yeast, and with the setting of each sun, she felt worse. In a voice full of defeat, she stood before my dad confessing in a plaintive voice her sincere doubts as to how much longer she could carry on this patriotic practice.

Being a compassionate — and curious — man, Dad paused for a moment to contemplate just how complicated the job of a grocer could be. Honestly, folks had no idea the problems he was faced with! Then breaking out of his reverie, he decided to doggedly probe further into the details of her plight. He suggested the two of them delve even deeper by scrutinizing FDR’s health plan together. As the woman began revealing her daily routine, everything seemed to jibe. Yes, indeed, it seemed perfectly clear she was following the President’s plan not only faithfully, but also faultlessly.

Dad suddenly felt an overwhelming responsibility for his customer’s health. To be sure, the perplexity of it was frustrating as he was unable to find any answer to her dismaying condition, yet he persevered. Until, that is, he more fully explored the word “cake.” Then instantly, with the clarity of a tinkling bell, Gene grasped where her daily activities had gone amiss.

The despairing — and distressingly distended — damsel had each day been consuming not the one ounce cakes of Brewer’s Yeast, but rather the one pound cakes!

Keener grew up in Austin, moved away for 58 years but later returned to town. Keener published her memoir, “Potato In A Rice Bowl,” in 2010 to outline her experiences living in Japan in the 1960s while her husband was in the military. Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing pggyknr@yahoo.com. Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”