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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.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Mickey - Wow! He certainly was a 'tough old bird'.

After my father died, my sister interviewed (with a tape recorder) one of his sisters and a brother together. While the end result was hilariously entertaining, it contained little historically useful information. Each time one would say anything, the other would burst in with, "That's a lie!", and provide a completely different version. - Sandy

It takes tough people to survive tough times. I was a child during the depression and well remember how terrible it was. Like your dad, the survivors went on to be the "Greatest Generation". That is not surprising.

Great piece, our parents surely did have tough times; I only heard about how tough my Father's was after he died at 44..my Mother was very secretive about her life, except for times she would blurt out horrors & then never let us ask anything later..she died when I was 20..her sisters were just as tight-lipped...I think the interviewing is great way to sustain family history, but also think it is good for the Elders to know we appreciate their lives..Thanks for sharing..Holy mackeral (sp), I am the Elder....

So many stories of the hardships of life from that generation. It always amazes me how their descriptions are mostly matter of fact statements with no bitterness, just acceptance of the way it was. My husband was a Holocaust survivor, and he too, spoke of his own experiences with acceptance. I suppose there is no choice but to accept. It makes me wonder how today's generation could handle a small dose of those times.

Great story! Thanks! It's a reminder that we can get through today's hard economic times.

In many ways they were "America's Greatest Generation."

I guess that's why union were formed and now some want to abolish them. I guess we'll have to re-live 'the good old times" to appreciate them...

Enjoyed your story very much, Mickey.

Your dad had "The Right Stuff" all right.

I also agree with lola. If I had known then that they were "The good old days" I would have enjoyed them more!

Great story, Mickey! My husband's father had a very similar story. Your father is an amazing man and bless you for interviewing him and finding out all those details. Wish I'd done that too.

I don't know how people like him had the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other to move through day after day of difficulty. As has already been said by other folks here, your dad was part of "America's Greatest Generation". He's a veteran, therefore a national hero, and he definitely had what it took to do the impossible--he had "The Right Stuff." We'd love to hear more....

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