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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

A Steady Job at $1.25 a Day

By Deb who blogs at Simple Not Easy

One trait I value in myself is resourcefulness. Part of this comes from a lifetime habit of frugality and "making-do." But the foundation of that comes from being raised by parents who survived the Great Depression by the skin of their teeth and never again spent a nickel without thinking about it for several hours.

In 1930, a Kilgore, Texas farmer drilling a new water well in his cow pasture accidentally tapped into one of the world's largest oil reservoirs. His discovery marked the beginning of the East Texas Oil Boom. The tiny town of Kilgore, population 200, grew to 10,000 almost overnight.

In 1931, my 27-year-old father gave up hard scrabble farming and went to work as a roughneck in Kilgore's newly discovered oil field. For men like my Dad the oil field provided a steady job at $1.25 a day when jobs of any kind were scarce, children were begging door to door and former bank presidents were selling fruit on the streets of New York City.

On that $1.25 a day, Dad supported nine people as best he could. There was him, my mother, my seven-year-old sister and my two-year-old brothers who were identical twins.

Then there was my mom's widowed father and her younger brother. And, last but not least, a friend of granddad's who was old and had no other place to go.

There was no place to live in Kilgore so a tent city sprang up along the banks of the sluggish Sabine River. Dad bought $2.00 worth of pine lumber. He and granddad built a 12 x 12 wooden floor, framed in walls and a pitched roof, added plank walls to the four foot level, and tacked wagon canvas over the entire structure.

At night, the chairs were hung on pegs, and "pats" (straw mattresses) were thrown on the floor. Curtains were pulled on wires to divide the space into "rooms" to afford some privacy.

Dad made a wood stove from a discarded oil barrel. Mother cooked and heated water on that stove. She washed their clothes in two tin washtubs, which they also used for bathing.

The table was two sawhorses with planks laid on top. This was taken apart after the meal was finished and the planks used as shelving.

They had only one change of clothing but mother's backbone was made entirely of grit and pride. No child in her care ever went dirty. Not only were the kids scrubbed but they had fresh clothes every day - boiled, scrubbed, starched and ironed with a "sad" iron heated on the stove, with a plank set between the backs of two chairs used as ironing board.

They had very little, but there were millions of Americans who would have been glad to have had what they had. They ate, even if it was beans, "taters,” biscuits, blackberries and paw-paws gathered in the woods.

Fishing in the Sabine River was more than a way to pass an idle afternoon. You could catch some big fish in that muddy, languorous stream as long as you were careful not to step on a gator sunning himself on the bank.

Possums and squirrels found their way into the stew pot along with the occasional raccoon, wild turkey and even a turtle or two. When you are really hungry most anything starts to look a lot like dinner.

My sister recalled that she and the boys were out playing "mud pies" one day when a local church group came around with apples for "deserving" children. Seeing my siblings' muddy hands and faces the church ladies pronounced them "dirty and undeserving.” No apple for them.

It was a memory which haunted her all her life. She probably would have forgotten a slap but that small act of smug, self-righteousness judgment wounded her so deeply she still felt its sting 70 years later.

Within a year or two, the folks had saved enough to buy a bit of land and Dad built a real house a few miles from Kilgore. They never prospered but they were financially comfortable in old age.

They were not demonstrative or affectionate parents. They raised the four of us to face hardship because it was all either of them had ever known. And while we may not have appreciated their Marine Corps approach to parenting then, we were grateful in the end, because we all needed the backbone they instilled in us.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

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


Wow Deb, what a story.
You mentioned your parents not being demonstrative or affectionate. In those days men were men and did not spend time "playing with the kids and being a super dad." Men worked and women did the house and kids thing. I had good parents but really never saw them hugging and kissing. I think that was frowned upon as too public. I also never heard them fight, if they did it was behind closed doors.

I totally agree you are what you are depending on your parents. Sadly, today, they just don't see the harm they are doing in an effort to have their kids "like them."

Loved every word, could have shed a tear with that ending...It is too trite to say we were better when we had little and had to scramble for that too..but remembering the struggles of our parents, never had grandparents, my sister and I often have great talks about life and how those "hard" times more of our parents than we had, even though we all love to get into the act..It does make us strong and only after you have lived through it can you really gain some empathy for those living through it today..Didn't mean that to sound preachy, hard times don't always mean lacking the finer things of life, sickness and constant worry trump Easter outfits and fine furniture, etc...Parents do the best they can for the most part and you really only learn that by stepping into that "routine" yourself...

Yes Joanne and Mary,

Even though they didn't have a happy marriage I never heard a raised voice the time I was growing up.

I think most people today would crumble under such circumstances, and while this was a hard period in their lives it was actually a step *up* from the farming/starving they'd been doing since they married in 1922.

They lived the last 20 years of their lives under a giant white oak tree that Dad had eaten his lunch under during those Kilgore days. My brother bought that land in the 1960s and built a home for the folks on it.

When that huge tree fell victim to the Texas drought and had to be cut last year it was like saying goodbye to them all over again.

I think those of us raised by that generation inherited some of their steel backbone, but it was tempered by the time we were raising our own children. I for one am grateful for it, but I worry that today's kids would be completely helpless in a real crisis.

I am a fairly new member of this wonderful community of elders. Not only do stories such as this touch and warm my heart, they tell me there were people worse off than my family was, it also tells me of the courage that was necessary to survive during this very difficult time. I was raised to be strong, to try harder and to always look forward; the stories shared here, lets me know the earlier generation 'back in the day' had strong backbones and a work ethic that included sharing with others. I wish my best friend was here to read these lovely and poignant shared remembrances. I like to think she is hovering over my shoulder and reading along with me, we used to share, "we were so poor..." stories that often brought tears and sometimes, "I thought we were the only family that did this or that."

What a true story. Being raised in the depression years made me aware of how one must use, eat, or save everything possible for one never knows what's around the corner. I tried to raise my boys under the same ethic, but sad to say, they are not raising their children in the same way. I feel they spoil them too much so they never have to face any hardships. I just hope this future generation will know how to lead our country, but I often wonder.

Loved and was moved by the well told story.

Wow, Deb what a wonderful tribute to your parents. My mother's family worked in the lumber camps of East Texas. My grandmother ran a boarding house and sewed shirts for the men in the camp. It was a hard life but they survived and taught their children how to make do with very little.

What a great story. You are such a good writer.

Parents and children today should read your story. People in our country don't know what real poverty is. I am so afraid that we are bringing up a society of wimps.

A great story told brilliantly. My parents had some tough times during the depression, but nothing like yours experienced.

A wonderful "telling" of your early life's story. We were cash poor, but had everything we needed. Now I know that all the cares were hidden from the children, so we didn't even know we were poor.

I was born in 1931 in a village called Anstey in Leicestershire,England, my father was and came from a long line of agricultural labourers. As far as I can make out and my experience as a child during WW2, he and his forbears long ago learned to exist without money. He was barely literate and innumerate having ceased any form of education at the age of 9.He did any work going, scavenging (clearing night soil from outside privvies},hedging and ditching in all weathers and grave digging. Food and medicine was never short,what he couldn't grow himself he gleaned or snared in the hedges,ditches and fields, the one commodity he could not produce was flour so he cleaned the mill floors,his payment being the 'overspill' he swept up.We both come from a very different world and when I look around today in an England I cannot either recognise or understand I feel sorry for those who are destined to witness the future.


I hope you are as proud of your father as I am of mine. Both were strong determined men, who gave us foundations we have been able to build on. My dad had a fourth-grade education, but he was severely dyslexic. He could write his name, otherwise he was illiterate.

You know what the difference is between our parents, born poor at the turn of the 20th century, and those who are poor today?

Their kind of "self-sufficient poverty", with its ceaseless work to put together shelter, stay clean and dry and fed, is not allowed any more.

It's illegal to live in a house built with "uncertified" lumber, with rooms smaller than x many square feet, with so many taps of hot and cold running water. Children each have to have their own room.

You aren't allowed to work yourself out of poverty any more. The kind of backbone we see as admirable in our parents' now results in children being taken away from their parents, and parents jailed for being vagrant and a public nuisance.

There are no two and three room houses with a spot of ground to raise a garden, a flock of chickens and a pig destined for bacon. It's against zoning laws to even build places like that.

"Starter" homes here run in the $400,000 category, and are on postage stamp lots with landscaping restrictions.

And yet we rail against the idle poor, many of whom would not be so, given a chance.

There was a time when "poor but honest" was something to be proud of, but we have allowed laws to be passed which trap millions in a cycle of poverty they can't escape and then we allow politicians to machine gun them at will, or do what amounts to the same thing. (Sorry I think this turned into a blog post, but the situation upsets me so deeply I can hardly express it.)

What excellent points you make Deb - in some ways it is harder to be poor today because it is almost impossible to find ways to have a 'sustainable' life - day old food in shops/restaurants is thrown out - not allowed to be given away etc - no room for chickens or vegie gardens -sewing machines are still available but material shops are almost non existent here.
I often wonder what our parents would think of how we live now - they would imagine we are all so rich! Of course we are in many ways - but much of it is purely on the surface!
Thanks for such a thought provoking stream of comments everyone.

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