Friday, 23 September 2011
A Tough Old Bird
By Mickey Rogers of This, That and the Other
I remember that day in the late 1980s when my father was about to be wheeled into the operating room. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m a tough old bird.”
He had certainly lived through tough times. From early childhood Dad had faced extreme poverty as well as a vicious father. By 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, he was an orphan.
Luckily, I interviewed my father a few years before his death. The following transcript details his efforts to survive during those long ago years.
QUESTION: As a young man during the 1930’s, were you basically on your own?
ANSWER: That’s right. I lost my dad on May 1st, 1931, and Mom on the 3rd of June 1933.
Q: Income wise, did your family do well when your father was alive?
A: The first I can remember, with Dad working at the coal mines, things were pretty nice until the 1930s when he started getting only three or four days a week. Later his work was cut to about two days a week. Finally it got to the point where he was lucky to get one day.
Q: After your mother died in 1933, where did you go?
A: I stayed with my brother. After my brother was married, he and his wife got into a fight. His wife wanted her sister to live with them but my brother didn’t like the idea. She then said that if her sister couldn’t live with them, then I would have to leave. So the next morning, I was gone. I went to the home of my cousin and asked if I could stay with him until I could find a job.
Q: About how old where you?
A: That was after Mother died, so I was about 15.
Q: What did you do after that?
A: I stayed there most of the winter and helped my cousin haul mine props. Then I went to Fairmont and started working on a dairy farm.
Q: How much money did you make?
A: $30 a month. I worked from four o’clock in the morning until eight or ten at night, seven days a week.
Q: Whenever a farm job ended, did you have difficulty finding another one?
A: Yeah, but there was one place I could go and that was back to my cousin’s home in Smithfield. I’d go back there and stay until I could find another job.
Q: Many people in the cities had little to eat. Did you ever have days in which you wondered from where the next meal was coming?
A: Yes. While going from one place to another trying to get a job, maybe I’d eat breakfast and then have no more food until late at night.
Q: Did you have many clothes?
A: I couldn’t afford extra clothing. All I had were the bare necessities.
Q: What did you do for fun and recreation?
A: I just worked and slept; there wasn’t any time to play ball or anything like that.
Q: You had to work seven days a week?
A: Yeah. Some of the farmers promised to give me Sunday afternoons off, but they always found something to keep me from leaving.
Q: Where did you usually sleep?
A: In most places, they had a little house out by itself. At one farm, however, I stayed in what was originally a corn crib.Q: How about the time you walked from Fairmont to Smithfield?
A: I had only 30 cents in my pocket. By two o’clock in the afternoon, I still hadn’t had anything to eat and I just couldn’t wait any longer. I went to this little store and asked the grocer what he could give me for thirty cents. He gave me a big slab of cheese, a quarter loaf of bread and I think he put in a couple cupcakes. Normally I didn’t like cheese, but I never tasted anything so good.
Q: You usually had to walk to get from one job to another?
A: I had to walk or hitchhike. Once I tried to ride a freight train, but I nearly killed myself getting off. I swore I’d never ride another one. I let go of that train and went end-over-end over the side of the tracks and into the cinders.
Q: Were any of the farmers unkind?
A: Well, three of the farmers treated me like a dog. All they were interested in was how much work they could get from me.
Dad survived the Great Depression, became a hero in World War II, learned a trade, married, had four children and made a decent living. Like Dad had said in the hospital, he was indeed a tough old bird. He had to be.
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]