Many Americans cracked after four to six weeks of stay-at-home orders as the nation was caught unawares by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Four to six weeks.

The collapse of social distancing surely left our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents spinning in their graves.

They were the Greatest Generation, these stalwart Americans who endured more than 10 years of the Great Depression and who freed the world from murderous tyrants in World War II which followed.

Their numbers are dwindling, but those who lived through those harrowing times can tell Americans today a thing or two about deprivation and sacrifice.

Purcell’s Ralph Wall – he’s Uncle Ralph to those who know and love him – was a youngster during World War II as the war effort helped the nation shrug off the Great Depression.

“Everything was rationed,” he recalled. 

The shortages included meat, sugar, shoes, gas and tires, among other items.

They could only be purchased if one had ration stamps. And those stamps were treasured currency.

Wall remembers hearing adults talk about a prominent Purcell citizen who dealt in ration stamps on the black market.

“That was the scuttlebutt,” he said. 

Wall didn’t wear shoes very much in the summer, but his parents saved ration stamps and would buy him new shoes before school started in the fall.

The rule of thumb was buy 1/2 to a full size larger and, with luck, he wouldn’t outgrow them before school let out the following spring.

You never knew what you would find on the shelves when you went into a grocery store.

“You might get sugar and you might not get sugar,” he said.

It was the same with fresh meat.

Wall still has a World War II ration book.

As it turned out, one of the “real heroes” of World War II was Spam, which had been around since the middle of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The Hormel product had a gelatin coating which had to be washed off before the canned processed pork could be used.

Through Lend-Lease, the United States sent tons of Spam to the United Kingdom and Russia.

Both countries were at war with Nazi Germany by 1938 and there was strict rationing for civilians.

“They called it ‘Roosevelt sausage,’” Wall said of the export.

The rationing in England didn’t end until 1954 – nine years after the end of World War II.

During the war, three movie theaters thrived on Main Street. The Canadian Theatre was the most elegant with balcony and ground floor seating and concession stands on both levels.

Wall remembers the theatre also hosted regular war bond sales.

Downtown Purcell was often packed Saturday night with sailors on liberty from the gunnery base at Norman.

With shortages on the store shelves, most Americans did the patriotic thing and raised their own food.

Victory gardens were promoted by the government.

The Walls lived on Polk Street and their victory garden – they called it their survival garden – covered 1-1/2 acres.

In addition to vegetables, the garden included several fruit trees.

“Mom canned everything,” he said, adding she also made her own lye soap.

The family also raised pigs and at the first cold spell, they would kill one or two hogs. They didn’t have electricity, so they used a sugar cure mix to preserve the meat.

They got their news from Movietone and Pathe Newsreels at the movies.

There was also a man who would hawk Daily Oklahoman newspapers on Main Street.

Mail was delivered twice a day and so were groceries.

Wall’s father got him a job at a grocery store across from the Canadian Theatre.

All of Wall’s underwear and pajamas were sewn from printed feed sacks by his mother.

“Times were tough but you didn’t know it was tough,” he said.

Wall attended the old North School and later Mary Simpson School.

After graduating high school, he went to Oklahoma A&M and enlisted in the Army after college.

He served in the 3rd Armored Division and was stationed in Germany from 1959-62.

“I liked my time in the Army,” he said.

He is the last member of his platoon still living.

He’s lived through hardship and prosperity and everything in between.

So from that perspective, what’s his opinion of Americans crying about how social distancing infringes on their liberty after four to six weeks?

“They are all wimps.”   

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