It’s true, while growing up in my tiny little town of Wakenda Missouri, we didn’t have much. But, one thing is for certain…that no matter how far down the financial ladder you might find yourself you can always look around and see someone that’s just a little worse off than you are. Somebody you can point to and say, “At least I’m not like those poor unfortunate bastards.” There’s always going to be a gap to separate, ‘those poor’ people, and ‘us’, and it doesn’t matter how low on the totem pole ‘us’ happens to be.
What I can tell you about poverty is that it is something that you can’t understand by reading about it in some book. It means different things to different people. It’s personal, and it will affect everyone in a completely different way. You can’t know how you’ll handle it unless you’ve lived through it. We can sit here and talk about it all day and I can tell you about how poverty means letting your child lay in bed with a fever so high that you fear death might not be too far off. Yet, still not be able to get the medicine they need, outside those home remedies passed down from generation to generation. I can tell you tales, of how a 14-year-old boy leaves his home, family, and friends to try to find a better life somewhere else, because he believes there’s nothing for him if he remains. His realization that anything that could possibly happen to him somewhere else, good or bad, would still have to be better than his life fading into oblivion. I could try to explain to you that real poverty is feeding your children sugar sandwiches because there is no other food in the house. Real poverty means knowing that when you can afford them; beans, fried potatoes, and white gravy will go a long way to silence the cries of empty stomachs.
I can tell you these things and you will nod your head in agreement and maybe even say that you understand where I am coming from…but unless you have been there you probably have no idea what I am talking about.
So perhaps it’s time that I set the record straight and let you know just how poor my family really was.
“Man we were so poor… Lordy, Lordy… everyone should feel sorry for poor ole me.”
I had to do the chores for every house in town before I could go to bed at 3:00 in the morning. Then get up at 5 AM, walk twenty miles uphill to school and then another twenty miles uphill to get home at night…in four feet of snow…all year long…and barefoot. My parents forced me to wear flour sacks for clothes, eat worms for breakfast, and dirt for supper. I had to endure the humility of playing with second hand (or maybe third or fourth hand) toys. That is, of course, if I had any real toys at all and not just a stick and a dead frog named Pete. If you buy that then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
I know that nobody (if they are in their right mind that is) would ever admit to being poor. I guess we all believe that without the proper portfolio the poor will never cross into heaven. Like there’s some kind of doorman standing there at the gates taking cash bribes and sending straight to hell all those who can’t afford to pay.
Well I’ve never been accused of being the smartest person in the world so I’m not afraid to tell you that growing up in the small village of Wakenda we were poor, needy, poverty-stricken, destitute, lacking the means to obtain the comforts of life. In other words, we were those poor unfortunate bastards. My parents didn’t try to hide it. They never bowed their heads to anyone. That was my family, take us or leave us. The thing is that no matter how hard people would try to convince you otherwise nearly everyone in town was in the same boat. Of course there were those few that had a little more and usually when they wanted to impress their neighbors referred to us as ‘less fortunate’.
Come on now, let’s be honest and call a turd a turd when it smells like shit. We weren’t ‘less fortunate’, ‘economically deprived’, ‘underprivileged’, or ‘financially challenged’…we were poor…dirt poor…and I don’t see any shame in admitting that. As my father always said, “we didn’t even have a decent pot to piss in.”
As a child I often wondered why he would even consider using a pot when we had a perfectly good outhouse in the back yard. I suppose though a more compelling issue should have been the fact that my mother seemingly unconcerned that my father would use her cooking utensils for bathroom accessories, would always reply, “but what we never had, we never missed.” I understand what she was saying; that the important things in life come from the heart and mind and not from your pocketbook. Seriously though, here’s where I have to say “donkey-crapola on a stick.”
I can definitely tell you that when one of the other kids got something new…or even second hand for that matter, which to me was as good as new. I missed not getting it too. I missed it a lot. But did it kill me…NO. Did it make me stronger as a person…I believe so.
So what is the difference between poverty and being poor? Despair! Despair tells you that there is no hope of a change for the better. When you truly believe that there is no hope of change it sets its own limits to your dreams. That is the key. When you truly believe there is no hope of change.
My mother and father did the best with what they had. They never gave up hope. Here I am today to tell you that there is always hope. My parents knew it and made sure their kids understood that no matter how bad things are at the time there is always a way. Mom made everything she could from scratch. We raised chickens, canned our own fruits and vegetables, and my brothers, my father and I hunted for every imaginable creature that could walk, crawl, fly, swim, had fur, feathers or scales. As long as it had meat on its bones or fur we could sell, it was fair game.
Now I can’t say that I lived in total innocents or was completely unaware of what I have been told was my poor and wretched existence. I knew that we didn’t have much. I just truly never paid attention to it. Besides, there were things that I was able to take for granted. I knew that if I was hungry there was always just enough to eat. If I was thirsty there was always just enough to drink. If I was hurt there would be enough love and compassion and my mother would be there with a hug and a kiss. If I began to feel sorry for myself my father would be there with a swift kick in the ass to set me back on the right path.
Besides, the lack of tangent possessions only served as fodder to fuel my imagination. It’s what allowed me the ability to make a rifle from a stick, a hand grenade from a dirt clod or a spear from a dried weed. If there were things that I really couldn’t live without I would just walk along the roadside and pick up discarded soda pop or beer bottles, and return them for deposit. (That is until that nameless evil beer company from St. Louis stopped using long necked bottles and began using those short necked things that had no refund. That my friends was indeed a sad day for kids all over America.) Of course you’re assuming that in a village with a population of only 150, including dogs, cats, cows, pigs and chickens, there was anywhere to spend money anyway.
Of course, the bad thing about growing up poor was the side effects. They probably did ruin me for life….by teaching me not only good work ethic but also a healthy understanding of the value of money and a solid respect for sharing.
You know there is an old saying that the rich get everything they want so they don’t feel strongly about anything they have. In their eyes everything is replaceable. I don’t know anything about that, having never been on the rich side of town. That’s why the poor hang on so tightly when something does come along though. Because we had so little we knew how to squeeze a penny until ‘Ole Abe’ had tears running down his face.