Have we become a nation of wimps? Sure, we still have some self-reliant people, but are we as resilient as Americans were more than 100 years ago?
The other day, I was reading my great-grandfather’s memoirs. He died in the late 1930s. We never had the opportunity to meet, but fortunately, my grandmother persuaded him to record some of his most interesting experiences.
It was a different world for his generation. In 1858, Virgil Bruschi was born in the nearby foothill town of Coulterville. In those days, there was little government dependency. People had to learn self-supporting skills at an early age.
He began a variety of careers by working for his father, who was a Coulterville merchant. As a young boy, Bruschi walked 10 to 15 miles a day, delivering groceries with a burro. Occasionally, various scoundrels robbed him. Later, he worked in the Mother Lode gold mines.
When Bruschi was 16, his father wanted him to attend an institution of higher learning. In 1874, he enrolled in Santa Clara College. Bruschi majored in foreign languages and boasted that he could speak eight of them fluently. At the completion of his formal education, he returned to Coulterville.
In the late 1870s, Bodie was becoming a town of opportunity. Bruschi walked the entire 125 miles to get there. Dreaming of making their fortunes, hundreds of others made the same journey. He remarked that food was scarce and that a typical diet was sardines and crackers. Again, mining was his occupation, along with various services that supported this industry.
But Bruschi grew restless and decided to head for San Diego. He arrived in 1889 and claimed that times were “dull.” He was able to buy a store at 5th and J streets when “roads were dirt and sidewalks were wooden.”
The economy could be very challenging. There was no FDIC insurance. Bruschi lost $4,000 (a substantial sum at the time) when the Consolidated Bank went bankrupt. San Diego had a drought from 1889 to 1903. Most customers met hard times and couldn’t pay their bills. Bruschi helped them until he could no longer pay his own creditors. He was able to hold onto the empty store by working in the sheep and cattle business.
My great-grandfather’s next move was into politics. In 1916, he ran for the San Diego City Council and won by a wide margin. He held office for 12 years and was noted for his fair treatment of all constituents.
“He was a man of great courage and integrity,” my grandmother used to say. “Even when he was flat broke, he never declared bankruptcy and eventually paid everyone he owed.”
He died in his sleep while clutching a book about the early years of Coulterville.
After reading his papers, I had to ask myself: “Where are these people today? Have we lost sight of the individual self-reliance that made America a global leader?”
We still have Americans like Virgil Bruschi. But are there enough of them to get us through the tough times we face now and in the near future? Maybe we’ve become too dependent on a centralized government and the earning power of a few to provide for the basic needs of many.
Our trillions in debt and the entitlement bills we will leave for our children could be an unfortunate predictor. Perhaps the loss of individual autonomy is an unmitigated forecast of our eventual demise.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.