Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A steady job at $1.25 a day

One trait I value in myself is a certain resourcefulness. Part of this comes from a lifetime habit of frugality and training in "making-do". I was raised by parents who survived the Great Depression quite successfully and never again spent a dime without thinking about it for several hours.

In 1930 a Kilgore Texas farmer accidentally tapped into the world's largest oil reservoir in his cow pasture. 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 Dad was able to get work as a roughneck in Kilgore's newly discovered oil field.

For men like my Dad, who was 26 years old, 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 NYC.

On that $1.25 a day Dad supported 12 people, as best he could. There was himself, my mother, my sister Ruby and my brothers, identical twins who were toddlers at the time. Then there was my Mom's father, who was 70 years old and had a heart condition, Mother's younger brother Lonnie, and one of Dad's brothers, his wife and two children. And, last but not least, a family friend who was old and had no place to go. The kids called him "Uncle Joe".

There was no housing in Kilgore. A tent city sprang up along the river banks. Dad bought $2.00 worth of lumber. He and the men in the family built a 12 x 12 wooden floor, and plank walls four feet high. They framed in a pitched roof with 2 x 4s and tacked wagon canvas over the entire structure. He made mother a stove from a discarded oil barrel. They had tin washtubs for washing clothes and bathing. Mother ironed with a "sad" iron, heated on the stove, using a plank set between the backs of two chairs as an ironing board. Twelve people lived in that 12 x 12 canvas-roofed shack.

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, bisquits made with water and what wild foods mother and the kids could gather 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 family stew pot, along with the occasional raccoon, wild turkey and even a big turtle or two. When you are really hungry most anything starts to look a lot like dinner. 

My sister Ruby recalled that she and the boys had been out making "mud pies" one day when a local church group came around with apples for "deserving" children. Seeing the childrens' muddy hands and faces the church ladies deemed them "undeserving" and they got no apple. It was a memory which haunted Ruby all of her life. She probably would have forgotten a slap but that small act of smug, self-righteousness judgement wounded her so deeply she could still feel its sting 70 years later.

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