Poverty and having to "make do." It CAN be done. Part Two

Thursday, April 16, 2015 5:49 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: We've been talking with Doc and his lifelong friend, Big Dave about growing up in poverty, and having to make do with very little in the way of food, clothes, money and other material goods. There was not only financial and material poverty, but also the poverty of family live and support, the poverty of emotional support and poverty of opportunity.

I've been interviewing Doc and Big Dave for three evenings, and will be publishing excerpts from our several hours of talking. 

Big Dave, you talked about your father being in and out of jail, and having bad health, and alcohol problems. How did that affect you growing up?

Big Dave: Well, you learn not to depend on nobody for nothing. The old man might promise to get you something say for your birthday or Christmas, and you learn not to get your hopes up. He mighta been lying, just BS'ing you, to get you to be quiet. Or, he mighta meant it at the time. You never can know. He mighta said he'd get you a present for Christmas because he had just got paid. 

But that didn't mean he'd get you anything. He mighta needed that money to pay back a loan. Or to pay the light bill. He mighta just drank that money away or smoked it up. Then when Christmas would roll around, you would half hope he'd a gotten you something, but you knew not to get your hopes up. 

If he'd remember to get you a Slim Jim or a candy bar, you'd done all right. Or, he mighta got drunk on Christmas eve and be somewhere else. or in jail. You never could tell. 

Mama would call the churches right before Christmas and try to get something for each of us. Sometimes that worked out pretty good. Sometimes not. Some years she waited too late and there wasn't nothin' left for us.  Sometimes the toys they gave needed batteries and we'd never have money for batteries, so we'd just use them the best we could.

We ain't never had a Christmas tree. We decorated a tree stump out back... 

Tondeleo: How about you, Doc? How did growing up poor affect you and your family?

Doc: I don't really know, Tondy, 'cause that is all we knew. We didn't know what it was like to have nice clothes, or new clothes. But it never crossed out minds to get brand new clothes. People at the church gave clothes to us, in big black plastic garbage bags. We got some stuff from the thrift shop. That's just where we figured clothes came from. We didn't even know about so many things that the rich kids had. They lived in a different world. Kind of a sissy world, if you ask me. But we learnt things they didn't learn.

Tondeleo: Things like what, Doc?

Doc: Well, we learnt not to cry every time we got hurt. We learnt that you could fall down and cut yourself and be bleeding, but that didn't mean you had to cry. That was a good thing.

Tondeleo: You didn't CRY? Why on earth not, Doc?

Doc: Well, the old man didn't like to hear cryin,' and said to save cryin' for somethin' bigger than a cut or bruise or a knot on your head. He said you could get hurt and not say or do nothin', and he did that all the time. You never knew if he was hurt. And he was right. You can get cut or hurt or whatever and not cry.

We learnt not to be picky about eatin'. Food don't have to taste good or be your favorite. Food ain't s'posed to be entertainin', food is fuel. If you're hungry, you'll eat it. Don't matter if it's so called good or not. We learnt to eat anything and everything, Tondy!

Big Dave: We learned how to fight. Rich kids didn't know how to fight, and as soon as they'd get hit, they'd bust into tears and start crying like babies! We learned to fight because we had older brothers who picked on us, neighbors, teenagers, everybody. So we had to defend ourselves. Fightin' aint somethin' you'd choose to learn when you're little, but it pays off when you get to school and people are makin' fun of you because you're poor. You can only take so much, and then you gotta do something about it. 

I remember the rich kids takin' karate lessons. They'd PAY  and go every week to a class where they wore pajama's and then played like they was fightin' in slow motion. We never put on pajamas to fight and I aint never been in a fight in slow motion.

The teachers and principals didn't agree with us given a whoopin' to some snooty rich kid, but ain't no one ever made fun of the teachers and principals. They was probably the ones makin' fun of poor kids when they was in school...

Doc: Yeah, and they was the ones gettin' beat up by us poor kids when they was makin' fun of us and laughin' at us. So when they grew up and got good jobs, they'd always take sides with the rich kids who was laughin' at us.

It ain't fair, but we learned how to not care about fair, 'cause fair ain't nothin' that's ever gonna happen to a poor person.

Tondeleo: Whatever did they laugh at you and mock you for?

Doc: How we looked, how we talked, how we dressed, where we lived. You name it. Our house was a shack compared to where they lived. But it was home, for us.

And, we couldn't go to a barber shop so mama cut our hair with scissors. She wasn't too bad at it, but the rich kids laughed at us for that. Same with our clothes. They was all hand me downs, and didn't fit too good. Either too big or too small. Sometimes they was a little smelly from the last person what owned 'em and sweated a lot. Or, maybe someone gave us jeans and they was woman or girl jeans but we didn't know the brand names, so we wore them anyway.

In gym class, it would be the underwear. I ain't wearin' no thrift shop underwear, so mama made our underwear outta old t shirts or pillow cases. She'd make 'em like shorts and put a draw string around the waist. That's the way they did it in the old days which is why underwear is called "drawers," but ain't no one at school was interested in that.

The girls don't wanna go out with someone what is poor or has homemade underwear. So we had to pick from other poor girls when we got interested in girls and all that goes with it, if you know what I mean.

Big Dave: I ain't never wanted to date some prissy girl anyway. I liked a girl who could hunt and fish and fight better than some cream puff rich girl who thought she'd get dirty if she let you touch her...and sometimes they would get dirty if I touched 'em!

Bein' poor, you learnt how to fix things instead of throwin' them away. If you couldn't fix something, you could learn how to use it broken or you could make something else out of it. That's how Doc got all his early guitars. Puttin' broken ones together...

Tondeleo:  It must have been hard to grow up poor...

Doc: Times was hard, and still are, but you're gonna grow up whether you are rich or poor. You got to learn how to laugh, too. We learned how to laugh at everything.

We were so poor, when we went to KFC we licked other peoples' fingers... you got to laugh at what problems you can't solve.

And  guess what, Tondy? We all made it! We ate, we fought, we cried a little bit, we made things, we fell in love with poor girls, got our hearts broke by them and probally broke a few hearts, and here we are!

Poverty and having to "make do." It CAN be done. Part One

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 11:00 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: One thing that impresses me about the poorer rural Americans I have met is their creativity. From the places the live, and the improvements they make to them, to their vehicles, their clothes, musical instruments, what they eat... everything.

Poor people want the same things as the rest of us, only they don't have the money available to just go out and buy the things they want. They want to have their own unique personal style, they want convenience items, they want to have fun... and they have to use their creativity in order to be able to do that. Also, they have to be able to not only use their imaginations to be able to pretend that what they have is what they really want. What got me started on this line of thought was when Doc and Big Dave were talking about their childhoods and some of the things they did and their parents did in order to make do...

Big Dave: Yeah, we didn't have much of anything when we was growin' up. Pop had bad health and couldn't work much. Mama did whatever she could to bring in a few dollars and most of that went to the light bill and rent... four of us kids to feed, We lived in Old Man Adams' yard, in the trailer back by the tool barn. He was good to us as far as understanding when rent was late. the 'lectric company wanted their money pretty much every month and sometimes let us pay late. 

If they cut us off, Pop would run a cord from Old Man Adams' workshop out to the trailer. We had a hose runnin' out to the trailer for our water.

We didn't have much time to play and not much of a mind to play. When your old man is drunk and hittin' mama and cussin' at you you don't want to play. You don't want to play when your belly's empty. We didn't have much fun and ain't nobody talked much about havin' fun, so we didn't miss it.

Doc: We was pretty much the same way. But we did have music in the house. Daddy and mama did like music. We didn't have nothin' to sing about, but we liked listenin' to country music and gospel and blues. 

Pop had a record player he got down to the dump and we got old scratched up records from the dump. We had to make up words alot 'cause the records was scratched and no good - that's why people threw 'em out. 

Same with instruments. Sometimes we found rusty harmonicas or bent up trumpets and stuff. A lot of broke up guitars - well I mean two or three a year. That's how I got started makin' guitars. I could take a neck off a broken guitar and put it on a wooden box or a tool box and cut a hole for the sound to come out. My fingers was never long so I had to learn how to sand the necks down so my hands could fit around them, and make the strings real low. I still do that. 

Big Dave: We did that. We made  drum sets outta dry wall mud buckets and empty paint cans. It sounded pretty good, if you did it right.

Tondeleo: How about food? What did you all do for food? 

Big Dave: Well, we hunted. Deer, rabbit, squirrels, possum, coon. Shot ducks, went fishin'. We did all right. We grew tomatoes, kale, corn, beans and all that. We ate ok.

Doc: We did the same thing. Plus, there's road kill like for deers mostly. If you come home an' there's a dead deer on the side of the road what wasn't there earlier, you know it's fresh enough to eat. Even if it's been there long enough to get stiff, that don't mean it's bad.

Tondeleo: Road kill... OK. Some people would find that disgusting, you know.

Big Dave: So that just makes it one less person tryin' to field dress a deer on the side of the road. More power to 'em.

Doc: I find bein' hungry disgustin'. If it's fresh, it ain't nothin' wrong with eatin; roadkill. At least you know it was healthy when it got hit.
Tondeleo: So how DO you know if it's been there long enough that it's bad? 

Doc: Fleas. If the fleas are still on it, then it's fresh enough to eat. If the fleas have left, you don't want to eat it. That's the way you tell.

Tondeleo: How about sweets, dessert, fun food?

Big Dave: We didn't really have fun food. We didn't really have fun, like I said. But in the summer, Mama would get a jar of dill pickles, and we'd get out a dill pickle and dip it in Kool Aid powder. That was pretty  good on a hot day.

Doc: We did that one, too. Also, this is funny. We never could afford ice cream. So mama would give us a couple of spoonfuls of Coffee Mate on a jar lid, and then a ice cube wrapped in a piece of newspaper. We'd dip that ice cube in the Coffee Mate and pretend it was ice cream! It was good enough for us and sometimes I still like it better than ice cream... it's cheaper, too.