I'm a child of the '60s and '70s. I come from a family of five. My mom raised us kids by herself. Four girls and me. My dad (who fathered three of us), a wealthy business man who lived elsewhere and spent more time deciding which house or boat or car he was going to buy than with us kids, never paid a dime of support. While we walked around in patched clothes and duct-taped shoes and our bellies growled, he lived a life of leisure moving between his houses, buying cars for cross-country road trips, and motoring the Gulf of Mexico in one of his pleasure boats.
Growing up we weren’t just poor, we were nearly penniless. My mom worked odd jobs when she could, here and there. She wasn’t an educated woman, but she tried and did what she could. During my childhood, that (mostly) meant cleaning rich people’s houses for less than half of minimum wage and sometimes a holiday bonus of $10 if we were fortunate.
What it was though was cash money. Cash money that (mostly) helped to keep a roof over our heads, if not always food in our bellies. My mom was too proud and stubborn to accept welfare or charity. I think she felt that if she couldn’t do it on her own, those things we didn’t have, even if it was food for our bellies, didn’t matter.
I thought it did though and even though I had older siblings who were gone as much as they were present, I felt it was my responsibility to help where I could. The first real job I remember working was when I was nine. My little sister helped sometimes, but mostly she just followed me around like little sisters do. My first job was easy: collecting soda bottles and junk other people discarded. The soda bottles went to the store for a refund on the deposit. The junk went to a neighbor who collected and fixed things. He paid cash money if I found something good, so I always looked for something good. His dimes and quarters were gold in my pocket.
By ten, my older siblings were out of the house and I was in the business of washing cars, raking lawns, washing windows and mowing grass when I could, and I remember being paid in quarters—when I got paid at all, because sometimes I just did things for free so I might get paid the next time. Those quarters, I took them to the store and bought a loaf of bread or a bag of flour when we had no food in the house to eat. Flour was something that was cheap and went far. (Mix flour with water and pour it in a skillet and you have an inexpensive pancake. A pancake that fills a belly.)
By twelve, after we moved from the city to the country, I worked with my mom at auction houses and flea markets on weekends, holidays and during the summer and sometimes as gardener’s helper. I loaded, packed and unpacked, fetched, did odd jobs for the auctioneer, my mom and others. At times, it was rather like my junk collecting business. My mom collected things, much bought in cheap, auctioned lots and sold as odds and ends at flea markets. Odds and ends that helped make the difference between having a roof and food, and not.
At fifteen, I got my driver’s license and drove around my mom’s old station wagon until I found work in a town a few miles away. I worked 20 – 30 hours a week until I graduated high school. Two things happened during high school that changed my life.
The first: My dad took a sudden interest in me and invited me down to the Gulf Coast to work for him. He was in the construction business and wanted to teach me the trade.
I suppose I should have been angry with him for all the lost years, but I wasn’t. I worked with him and his work crews the whole summer, doing roofing and siding. Long days in the unrelenting sun, up at five, quitting at sunset. But boy how we lived because when the sun got too hot to work outside--and it often did--we would go out to eat lunch at a restaurant. And when we came home in the evening, we came home to ready meals and plenty of drink all around. Weekends were events. Fishing rodeos. Road trips. Barbecues. It was a wild, rich life.
At the end of the summer, my dad gave me a 1970 Dodge truck, which he said was mine to keep as a bonus for the work I’d done. The truck though came with strings. He wanted me to stay and not return home to Wisconsin. Tempting as it was to stay, I couldn’t leave my mom and little sister behind.
I took the truck and drove the 960 miles home. A friend from my dad’s work crew went with me and we took turns driving. Getting the truck home meant I could get to work without taking the family car, and that let me work more hours.
The following summer, my dad invited me down to the Gulf Coast again. He said he’d bought me a car. A beautiful, black ’73 Ford thunderbird with a massive V8 engine—a classic car for the time (1982). It was any sixteen-year-old kid’s wet dream and it was mine too.
I worked with his crews doing roofing and siding, up at five, down at sunset. And we lived like kings. After the summer though, my dad again didn’t want to let me return home. He wanted me to stay and live with him. I couldn’t do that, but this time I was less worried about my mom than my little sister. I was the one who protected and watched out for her, and I’d already left her behind for two summers.
One morning, I went out for a drive and drove the 960 miles home. After that, I didn’t go back to the Gulf Coast. I stayed at home in Wisconsin and worked and went to school.
The second: During the early spring of my senior year, my mom moved away upstate with her new husband who she’d been dating and my little sister, leaving me to fend for myself. I lived with friends and others where I could until I graduated. Even though I was a straight-A honor student who loved biology, physics and calculus as much as computers, I had no prospects after high school. I spent the summer after high school living with friends and sometimes in my car and working whenever I could.
In the fall, with nowhere to live and no means, I joined the Air Force. Along with acing my SATs in high school, I’d also aced the ASVAB (the military aptitude test), scoring the highest the recruiters had even seen: 98’s and 99’s in every category tested. So the military seemed a rather logical path for me to take when the choice became either live in a car or do something else.
A few months after I signed up, I drove the 176 miles up to Green Bay to visit my mom and sister, and to deliver what few possessions I had, mainly my car. The dodge truck, they already had and were using as their primary means of transportation.
Although I was supposed to head off in the winter, I was able to delay until February. After boot camp, I attended the Defense Language Institute and specialty training in Intelligence that took me through my first 19 months in the military. From my paycheck, I sent home what I could to my mom (who was now divorced again). My first duty station was in Japan, so every few paychecks I also bought something I could send home. Things I knew my mother would love: fine china cups and plates, collectibles, and more. Everything my mother always liked from the auctions we worked together when I was a child, but much of which, I think, was later sold off little by little to pay for what was needed.
A problem with my mother was she didn’t know how to say no. If someone needed something, she gave what she could even if it sometimes meant going without herself. It was always like that though and even though I’ve helped pave my mother’s way for nearly all of my life, she still lived the meager life she always had before. Everything I gave her always seemed to be going out somewhere else, usually to one of my siblings who even when I helped pave their way still went to my mother for more to pay the rent or this or that bill or for airline tickets or to fix a car. I’ve always wondered where the takers thought the money came from—the money I sent my mom for her needs. Money enough to have bought houses and cars that is gone. Just gone.
More musings next time on the Board of Education and Crazy Things My Mom Said That I Believed.
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