How It Used to Be

When I was a kid, I didn’t know we were poor. I lived in rural East Texas, in the Piney Woods, and I had it made, as a kid. Mostly.

We lived in a frame house that was built by my Dad not too long after I was born. I guess this was around 1955. I found out years later that Dad borrowed $5000 to buy the materials to build the house. It was heated by a butane heater on the living-room end of the house – there was no other heat, other than an ancient portable electric bathroom heater. So it stayed pretty cold in the bedrooms in the winter. There was no A/C at all.

The ‘hot water heater’ (yes, I know, that’s redundant – but that’s what we call them to this day) was actually in a separate building called the ‘wash house’. It took a while for the water to get hot when you turned on the faucet. The shower was in the wash house, too, if you wanted a shower instead of a tub bath.

We usually had a dog around the house; some of them were allowed in the house. This was one way to stay warm in bed in the wintertime; my dog slept with me, except that one time when he got sprayed by a skunk.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, Dad bought six acres of land down a blacktop road further away from town, and had the house moved to that location. He had a well dug, and put in a Ruthberry water pump. I learned all about shallow-well pumps and foot valves.

I used to lay in bed at night and listen to the rats chewing on the wood studs in the wall. This never bothered me, it was just the way it was – I never actually saw any of them. One time Dad tried to kill them off by burning sulfur under the house in a bucket while we evacuated. I can’t remember if it worked on the rats, but it surely ran us out.

I remember coffee cans that opened with a key that twisted a ribbon of metal off the outside of the can to make the lid. I remember when they invented the little tabs in the lids on cereal boxes so that you can re-close them. And I remember when ice cream was vanilla, chocolate, or Neapolitan. Chip choices were Fritos, Corn Chips, and Potato Chips. Cereal choices were Cheerios, Rice Crispy’s and Puffed Rice. Popcorn was popped in a pot on the stove. This was long before microwave ovens. Mom had an allowance of $20 to buy a week’s groceries. Plastic was not all that common – ketchup bottles broke if you dropped them.

We had a black and white TV that had tubes in it. We got channels 3, 6, 7 and 12 – usually. I usually got sent out to ‘turn the antenna’ if reception was bad. Dad frequently had to drive to town in the evenings to replace bulbs; you could go into a 7-11 store and plug bulbs into a tester to see if they were bad; and buy replacements. We also had a radio with tubes in it – which I dropped, once. And I think my sister had a monaural record player. We didn’t know what ‘stereo’ was. The ‘remote’ had not been invented. There were NO phones that were not connected by a wire to the wall. There were no phones in your room – ‘the’ phone was in a central location in the living room.

For a telephone, we were on a party line. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it meant that several families were on a single phone line; each family had their own ring. If you needed to make a call, you picked up the receiver and listened to see if anybody was on the line. If not, you made your call. If it was in use, you hung up – or were supposed to, anyway. It was considered bad manners to listen in. There were SIX families on our party line. We had one neighbor named Alberta, a wizened little old black lady who was sweet as could be, but who would often tie up the line for hours gossiping with her friends. She was just lonely, and nobody ever came to see her; but it was frustrating if you needed to make a call and she was on the line. Which was usually.

That was the state of technology where we lived, in the early ‘60’s when I was 9 or 10, give or take.

We had six acres of land of our own, but fences were not much of a hindrance for kids back then. My playground was pretty much anywhere I could get to. Since the nearest neighbor was a mile or more away, it was never an issue. I covered a lot of ground on my bicycle. I used to go swimming in a pond about half a mile from the house; it was fun, but you had to watch for snakes. It was also where, for the only time in my life, I was dumb enough to try to walk on a frozen pond, and fell in. I knew the terrain and the woods, and I climbed a lot of trees. If I’d ever come up missing, they’d never have found me.

There were no other kids within range for me to play with. My family did not attend church. So, at least in the summertime, I was pretty solitary. From my perspective, this was not a bad thing; I enjoyed being able to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do that I could come up with. I learned to love to read, an addiction I have to this day.

I had a Daisy BB gun, and I probably poured 20 pounds of BBs through it over a few summers there. When I was 13, I graduated to a .22. It was part of the uniform to carry an Old Timer or Case pocket knife which invariably wore a hole in my jeans.

My Dad was a welder by trade, and he had a small shop where he was always tinkering around with something or other; sometimes work for other people, and sometimes on his own projects. My teenage years were filled with experiences learning about troubleshooting junk equipment, such as old lawnmowers. We had various lawnmowers over the years, and NONE of them had ANY safety equipment; I was expected to be smart enough to A) wear boots and bluejeans when mowing, B) not run over anything that would hurt me, and C) not stick anything I wanted to keep under the deck. You had to kill it by using a screwdriver to short out the spark plug. You only get this wrong once. I remember that mower ran really well, too – modern engines seem watered down, somehow.

Now that I think about it, I learned a lot about safety. The world is a dangerous place – I learned early how to not hurt myself; usually by near-misses. For instance, when throwing gasoline on a fire to burn brush, if the morning is cool, the fumes will roll invisibly across the ground. If you don’t hurry up with the match, it is fairly easy to be inside the burn radius, which can be plumb exciting. I also learned the hard way to always cut away from yourself with a knife, and I’ve still got the scar on my left thumb to prove it. Funny, I don’t even remember which knife I did that with.

Footnote: we did not go to the doctor every time we got sick or hurt ourselves. If we could stop the bleeding, we stayed home. If the fever was less than 104, we stayed home. On the other hand, maintenance like glasses and dental work were routinely handled. It’s just that we didn’t see the need to go to the doctor for anything trivial.

Whenever Dad was home, he was usually working on something, and I was expected to help him do it. Things I could do myself, I was expected to do. I was mowing the yard with a push mower when I was nine years old, for instance. I didn’t mind the work, but I hated the boredom. I learned to run a tiller when I was not much older than that. I learned to drive a tractor and run a bush hog or a plow. These are called ‘chores’; and while I didn’t like them much then, I realize now how valuable that experience was at establishing a work ethic and learning responsibility, not to mention no small amount of know-how.

We had a Model C Farm-All Harvester International tractor that was always on life support. I could work on anything with a gasoline engine – usually successfully. Dad never had any problem with letting me try; he never assumed I couldn’t do it because of my age. This was a blessing that I didn’t recognize at the time – I got a lot of experience, younger than most folk do. Shucks, I learned to weld when I was 12 years old. I welded up my own set of monkey bars, designed to look like a little oil derrick, made out of sucker rod.

All in all, I can’t complain about my childhood. Like anybody, I did things routinely that it would scare me to death to see my own kids (or grandkids) do. Considering how much time I spent alone, I have never been especially socially apt, but thinking back on it, I wouldn’t have changed much. I’d have been happier if my parents didn’t smoke, and if Dad didn’t drink; but that’s about it. I can’t really complain.

I’ve enjoyed spending a few minutes looking back. I hope you enjoyed looking over my shoulder.


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3 Responses to How It Used to Be

  1. J says:

    Very interesting. I don’t think I ever heard the one about you falling through the ice.

    Also makes me sad for the generations after yours. Seems like the more technology advances the softer and more reliant upon it we become. If a something breaks, most people don’t even consider fixing it themselves. There are specialists for things like that. No need to go learning how to do something for yourself.

    Good stuff, Pop. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love it when you post stuff like this. Indeed – thanks for sharing!

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