Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Depression Years

The Depression Years

Because my family had probably never even heard of the New York Stock Exchange, the events of October 1929 didn't mean a thing to us.  It took a while, but one of the first results of the incipient GREAT DEPRESSION was the virtual cessation of shipment of anything by rail.  Now, that got our attention. My father was "bumped" from his regular run by someone with more seniority and went on the "extra board." Soon he was on the "emergency board," where he went months without work.

With the milk from the cow and the meat from the yearly calf, eggs and fryers from the chickens, the annual pig's contribution of hams, pork chops, sausage, and everything but the squeal, and vegetables from the garden, we lasted for a while. Eventually, however, in what would now be termed a cash flow problem, they could no longer make the house payments and the bank reluctantly foreclosed.  THAT WAS NOT A HAPPY TIME.

Fortunately, one of my father's friends, a senior engineer on the railroad, Mr. Littrell, owned a truck farm on Petrollia Road and a house on 20th Street.  He kindly let us move into the house as part of a sharecropping arrangement in which we farmed for a share of the crops.  I sometimes read with amusement some millionaire athlete's quote, "we were poor but I didn't know it."  We were poor and we all knew it.  It didn't take a genius to comprehend that one pair of Thom McAnn shoes shared by three males was not luxury.  My brother dropped out of school about that time, either because he didn't have shoes or to bring in money from caddying at one of the golf courses.  I wore J.C. Penny's tennis shoes to school, but had to take them off as soon as I got home so they would "last.”   

The house on 20th Street was small even by the standards of that time.  The street was, and still is, unpaved; there were no houses across the street, just some bare ground and weeds and then the railroad tracks.  A couple of hundred yards to the right was the flour mill, a source of grain for your pigeons from the sweepings of the freight cars and occasional excitement when there was an explosion in the mill. 

Betty Cantrell, a beautiful girl who married a serviceman and moved to Oregon and later became a lawyer, law professor and influential Oregon legislator lived on the corner.  I confess, though, that I was more intrigued with the boy with six toes on each foot who lived two houses down the other direction.  He was amazed to learn that everyone didn't have six toes; all the men on his father's side of the family did.  He would have been proud if anyone could have told about polydactylism and eugenics.

Apparently Mr. Littrell had made some other arrangement for his farm the first summer we were there.  We (my father, a neighbor, and  I, and occasionally my brother) spent the entire summer in a tent on Lake Wichita fishing for a living.  We had more than five miles of "trot line" permanently in place.  Every evening we seined gizzard shad for bait and ran the trot line, taking off the fish and rebaiting the empty hooks.  We caught lots of fish, mostly catfish (including one sixty-four pounder), that we took into town to barter for other food.

In September, I reentered the real world.  The railroad tracks across the street were the demarcation line determining whether one went to Carrigan Elementary School or the more prestigious Stephen F. Austin.  Once again, much to my dismay, my mother prevailed -- this time on the administrators of Austin with the reasoned explanation that it was much closer -- and I began Third Grade there.  The school was better, two stories and squeaky  clean; the teachers were better, more interested in teaching than in keeping the little bastards under control; and the pupils were cleaner, better dressed and not nearly as tough (most of the Carrigan girls could have whupped most of the boys at Austin).

            However, there were some real tough boys who lived just across the tracks and they made my life miserable.  Most, if not all, of their fathers worked at the flour mill and they thought they owned the railroad tracks and all the spilled grain in the empty boxcars and beside the tracks.  There were more than a few confrontations when I attempted to get food for my pigeons or even walk along the tracks to my despised violin lessons.  "Here comes Little Albert with his violin" they would chant, and I would throw the damned fiddle down and come out swinging.  I don't remember ever clearly winning any of those fights, but eventually they began leaving me alone.  Only one of those kids graduated from High School and several of them ended up as alumni of State Pen rather than Penn State.

            My father was spending his days at Mr. Littrell's farm, getting it ready for spring planting.  That involved plowing up the remnants of the previous year's crops and harrowing the plowed ground, all done with a "Georgia Stock" and a mule. I spent most of my Saturdays there -- even working people took Sunday off, unless you worked for the Railroad (which my father was doing less of all the time).  I deviled my father into letting me learn how to plow.  That mule was something special; he knew I was a child and took every available advantage.  Half an hour before lunch and "quitting time" in the afternoon, he would begin his ploy.  When we reached the corner of the field nearest the barn, he would stop, waiting to be unhitched from the plow.  When, instead of that happening, he was whacked with the traces and told to "GO," he would groan and, oh so slowly, pull the plow up the right side of the field.  When we reached the corner and turned left, he would pick up speed.  By the time we got to the next corner, he was heading for the barn and going full bore.  I would be hanging onto the plow and trying, not always successfully, to keep it in the ground.  Rounding "Third Base" and heading for "Home," we would be almost flying.  If, when he stopped at the corner, I refused him again, he would turn his head and look me reproachfully right in the eye; occasionally he would even bray his displeasure. I learned a lot from that mule; he knew his job and did it well, but he didn't take any crap from anybody--especially from some snot-nosed, barefoot kid. 

The Littrell farm was a "truck farm"; we grew vegetables: green beans, blackeyed peas, English peas, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons and, worst of all, okra. There was lots of stoop labor in planting, weeding and harvesting the crops, but the okra had an added discomfort.  The hirsute okra pods are intensely irritating to human skin and the effects are compounded by heat and, especially, sweat.  Crawling down the rows as I picked the okra, I would occasionally wipe the sweat off my face.  That was a mistake; in a few minutes the wiped area began itching, and when you scratched it, it itched even more.  Next, you realized you had scratched your bare back (we didn't wear shirts while working in summer) and soon your back was on fire. The only salvation was a dip in the pond at the back of the farm.

The latter was a rarity in North Texas; it was deep, probably 40 feet, and crystal clear.  Its origin was a gravel pit, but I suspect they tapped an underground water source.  The water was cold, even in summer when the ambient temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  It also contained several huge large mouth bass that were always cruising around, creating an insurmountable challenge for me, but one my father surmounted. 
I caught several of their offspring on worms turned up by the plow (the fish went into the frying pan),  but my father figured it out.  He caught a grasshopper, impaled it on a fish hook, and,
without any weight, set it adrift on the surface of the pond, while lying on his belly so the fish couldn't seem him. It didn't drift far before one of those behemoths engulfed it and he hauled it ashore.  That was the first BIG BASS I ever saw; we didn't weigh it, but it was surely more than five pounds.

The Littrells lived on the front of the place, in a brick house and on a paved road.  They had electric lights and indoor plumbing but a well with a hand operated pump in the back yard.  That well produced the same cold liquid crystal present in the pond, far superior to the "store bought" water in the house.  I don't know what the Littrells did with their (major) share of the crops, but we took ours home and used it all.  We ate all we could fresh and my mother canned the rest (in a pressure cooker in "Bell Jars").  The black-eyed peas "didn't sell" so we ended up with several hundred jars of canned black-eyed peas. The rest of the year we had black-eyed peas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I got so sick of them, I wouldn't eat one for more than forty years, even on New Year’s Day when eating black-eyed peas is supposed to bring you luck in the upcoming year.

Those days were bad for all of us, but they must have been horrible for my mother. Probably for the first time in her life, she didn't have a cow, no room for a garden, and no pig pen (even though one would have fitted well into the ambience of the neighborhood).  With her boundless energy, she must have been terribly frustrated with so little to do.  Lacking all the "farm" products, we were forced to buy milk, eggs, bacon and such staples as flour, cornmeal, and even lard "on credit" at the nearby E. E. Wilson Grocery Store.

Even though it was dismal all the time, there were occasional low points that were even worse.  One that stands out in my memory was when we had to, in the Depression euphemism, "go on relief" and accept sacks of groceries from the Government.  It was the first and one of the few times I saw my father cry.   He was humiliated at having to accept charity when he was able, even eager, to work. 

Another salient low point was when my father's back "went out" while he was plowing.  Someone brought him home, screaming from the pain every time he was moved.  The Doctor diagnosed it as prostatitis; my mother was convinced it was a delayed attack of gonorrhea caught from some fancied French whore in Paris during World War I.  I suspect it was probably a slipped disk, but, whatever it was, it sure caused trouble.  Somebody had to keep up with the work on the farm or we were in REAL trouble.  My brother and I managed to take care of it until my father recovered sufficiently to resume his duties; my learning to plow paid off. 

The proudest I ever was of my father was an event that happened during that period.  Following the then-famous but now largely forgotten "March on Washington" by veterans of World War I, Congress passed a bill authorizing a "Bonus" to veterans of that war.  My father received several hundred dollars ($500 to $700 -- I don't remember the exact amount).  On receiving the Government check, he immediately marched to the grocery store, signed the check and handed it to Mr. Wilson, saying "I'd like to pay my bill."  We owed Mr. Wilson more than $300; how he "carried" us and numerous others when all the groceries were going out of the store and no money was coming in, I don't know, but I hope all his customers were as ethical as my father and that he died rich.

            Subsequent to the Bonus Check windfall, things gradually began to improve; but we weren't out of the woods by a long shot.  My father began to work more frequently on the railroad, so we stopped sharecropping the Littrell's farm.  My mother found a house for rent in a much better neighborhood (1207 Travis Street and across the street from the Public Library) for $30 a month.
With NO  regrets, we left the little house on 20th Street. More than forty years later, while driving through Wichita Falls, I left the Freeway and found 20th Street.  Nothing had changed: the street was still unpaved, no houses across the street, just the railroad tracks and the flour mill, and the house looked  exactly like it looked when we moved out of it. (I'd bet even money that the hole in the cheap wallboard wall that my brother Bill made with his fist in a moment of frustration is still there).  Our daughter, Elisa, said "Dad, why are we stopping here?"  When I answered "A long time ago, I lived here," she said "Now I understand why you work so hard.”  

            Every thing on Travis Street was much better.  We had a fenced (large) back yard with lots of room for chickens, but not for cows and pigs.  My sister Ruby, who could never stand to be
far from our mother (the two even shared my mother's last and her first  pregnancy)  bought a house at 1307 Austin Street, a block and a half away.  Ruby had, and until her death in her eighties, CLASS.  Where she found it, I don't know, but it was there.

There was a vacant lot next door, between us and the unoccupied 13th Street, that my mother quickly appropriated by right of imminent domain (a legal term meaning she occupied it
and defied anyone trying to take it away from her).  Once again she had a garden; all the vacant lot was soon productive, the parts of the backyard not devoted to chickens were not wasted. My father became a flower gardener, of all things.  His lawn was immaculate and his pansies, grown from seed, were legendary.  The chicken manure (we called it what it really was) no doubt contributed significantly to both gardens.  The Sahara-like vacant lot soon became a veritable Garden of Eden:  tomatoes,  bell peppers, green beans, English peas, onions, squash, even okra and, (ugh) black-eyed peas flourished. 

My mother was "back in business."  We never knew how many people were going to be at the large dining room table for any meal, but the more the better.  If my mother decided there were
too many for the available food, she would go into the back yard, throw out a little corn and say "Chick, chick, chickee."  Before those dumb fryers knew what was happening, she would grab one, wring its neck,  pick it, and have it in the frying pan before it quit quivering.

Somewhere along the line, our landlord, no doubt impressed with what my parents were doing with the place, offered to sell the house to them.  My father, burned and scarred by losing the
house on 26th Street, would not even discuss it.  Somehow, my resolute mother worked out a deal with the owner to buy the house for $1,000, no down payment and $30 a month -- the rent payment.  My father didn't learn for years that we were buying, not renting, the house.  I don't know what, if anything and probably nothing, my mother did for or with the owner to get that deal, but it certainly was well worthwhile for the Sparks family.

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