Note: A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
My parents were children of the Great Depression. Dad was born in 1923, Mom in 1928, so they spent a big chunk of their youths going through that bad time.
My paternal grandfather was a Ford mechanic, and in those days, folks needed to keep those Tin Lizzies and Model As running, so while he didn’t exactly get rich, he always kept food on his family’s table and a roof over their heads. My maternal grandfather was a farmer and part-time carpenter, and as my Mom was fond of pointing out years later, as a farm family, they may not have always had much money, but they always had plenty to eat.
At this later stage in my life, I can readily understand how growing up during the Roosevelt Depression indelibly marked the children of that generation; “make it work, make do, or do without” was their motto, and many of them – my folks included – never outgrew that early inculcation.
But boy howdy, when I was a young kid, there were times when I found that ingrained parsimony frustrating.
This One Time…
When I was emancipated from high school, I bailed. Not that my childhood home wasn’t a pleasant place – it was – and not that my parents weren’t wonderful, kind people who made my childhood a joy – they were. But I was eighteen, possessor of a high school diploma, a job selling guns and fishing tackle at the Woolco in Cedar Falls and seized with the desire for independence. So, I took a cheap apartment in Cedar Falls, on the wrong side of the river, in the cheap neighborhood known as North Cedar. For the top half of an old house, I paid the princely sum of $125 a month and one-third of the utilities.
One morning, on a day off, the car radio informed me of a bad hailstorm that had moved through Allamakee County the day before. Having nothing to do, I made the drive home to see if the Old Man needed any help cleaning up.
I arrived to find the Old Man on the roof of the house, tossing down broken branches from the big hackberry tree that grew next to the house. “Roof OK?” I called up to him.
“Roof is fine,” he replied, as parsimonious with words as he was with funds. “Look at the car.”
Dad’s old blue Chevy station wagon was a mess. While the house had been sheltered by the big hackberry, the car was in the open, and had taken the brunt of the hail. The roof was pounded full of dents, the windshield was broken and caved in, and the hood had been pounded down to the point where it was actually bent over the engine.
As I stood looking at the car, the Old Man came up behind me. “The insurance guy was here yesterday. Car’s totaled.”
“So, you’ll have to junk it and get another car, then,” I said.
“Nope. Come on, you can help me.” He led me into the big shed and workshop. “Went to town yesterday and bought this.” “This” was a new windshield.
Turned out (I shouldn’t have been surprised) that the Old Man knew how to replace a car windshield. We did so, then removed the hood from the car, laid it upside down on the grass, and used a sledgehammer and a maul to pound it more or less back into shape. When reinstalled, it worked – it opened, closed, and latched, more or less as intended.
When the insurance company check for the supposedly totaled Chevy arrived, the Old Man banked it and drove the car for another three years. It looked funny but worked fine, and that was all he cared about.
In those days I was fond of saying of the Old Man that if he got hold of a nickel, it was a prisoner. Occasionally I would even remark that he could squeeze a nickel so hard that the Indian would end up riding the buffalo.
Mind you he was parsimonious but not cheap. Us kids never lacked for anything we needed, even if the Old Man himself used the same fishing pole for fifty years. When Mom was working, she always had a newer, more reliable car, but the Old Man bragged for years about the car he bought in 1968 for twenty-five dollars and drove for ten years until the rust holes in the floorboards grew so large as to be truly alarming. But while the Old Man spent as little as he could on his own vehicles, he never stinted on maintaining them; he did almost all the work himself (I remember the first thing he did with that $25 car was to rip out the engine and replace rings, bearings and oil pump) and took good and scrupulous care of them; as a result, his cars tended to last a long time.
Far from his Depression-era youth, the Old Man’s frugal ways and ironclad work ethic actually resulted in his being fairly well-off in his later years, although his ways didn’t change much as far as his own person. The last photo I have of the Old Man, a couple of months before he died, was at my grandson’s birthday; Dad was 94 and he was wearing a horrible old brown nylon quilted vest. He had bought that vest at some point in the late Fifties. It had seen better days. At one point the collar was somehow torn off; the Old Man sewed it back on with monofilament fishing line, sealed the seam with epoxy cement and continued wearing the vest. When a family member gave him a new vest as a gift, as we all tried to do, he would wear it once or twice, complain that it itched or didn’t fit right, give it away and go back to his favorite.
When he died, my siblings and I were unable to find the vest. We’re all of the opinion that he somehow managed to take it with him.
But for Mom, nothing was too much. On one trip into town, Mom picked up a perfume bottle, sniffed it, remarked that she liked it – but then looked at the eighty-dollar price tag and put it back. Later that day, after they’d been home a while, she went into the bedroom to find the perfume bottle on her nightstand. She never did figure out when the Old Man snuck back to the cosmetics counter and bought it.
So, frugal, yes; parsimonious, yes; cheap, sure, but only with himself. The Old Man understood and appreciated the value of generosity, but the circle of people who saw that side of him was very small.
It was some time before I realized how much of those attitudes he passed on.
And Then This Happened:
During the first months of my independent life, the Old Man’s teachings really sunk in, as I was the poorest young guy since an ancestor of mine named Cynwrig walked barefoot a hundred miles, through knee-deep snow, uphill, all the way to Stonehenge to study astronomy.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned apartment.
After I’d been in the place for a few weeks, there appeared in my life a girl, who interested me enough to invite her over for dinner, which I proposed to cook myself. With some apprehension, she accepted, and arrived at the appointed time to find the apartment full of cooking smells.
“It smells good,” she said after I’d taken her coat.
“Good, because it’s ready.” I motioned towards one of the two chairs at the tiny kitchen table. “Sit down, I’ll dish it up.”
She looked at her plate with some apprehension. “What is this?”
“Rabbit,” I said. “Just got ‘er last night. Fried potatoes, asparagus.”
“Didn’t you work yesterday? When did you have time to go hunting?”
“I didn’t. Got ‘er in the back yard with my wrist rocket and a steel ball bearing. The asparagus, now I picked that this morning in the ditch out towards the county access.”
“What about the potatoes?”
A sudden mental image flashed through my mind, of my neighbor suddenly discovering some empty spots in his vegetable garden. “Oh, uh, well, I had those around.”
In fact, at that time, due largely to my slightly-over-minimum-wage job, feeding myself frequently required various nocturnal subterfuges, but that’s probably a story for another time. Suffice it to say that the dinner was a success, enough so that we ended up having breakfast together, as well.
At the time I was driving an old pickup I had bought from a farmer south of town, having wheedled him down to a hundred and fifty bucks for the old beast. Rust was a problem on vehicles in those years, especially in Iowa, where the road departments battled snow and ice on the roads with rock salt and plenty of it.
The pickup’s tailgate was badly rusted. I toured local salvage yards – both of them – only to discover that a replacement tailgate that was not equally rusted would cost as much as the truck itself had. The pack of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells I called my friends noted that my solution was… novel. That solution led to me receiving a number of questions along these lines:
“Why do you have both Reagan/Bush and Mondale/Ferraro stickers on your truck?”
“Because my tailgate is rusted out, a roll of duck-tape costs a buck, but they’re giving away bumper stickers for nothing!”
As time went on, I remembered more and more of the Old Man’s teaching. I was in my thirties before I owned a truck that cost more than five hundred bucks. In my Army years, when Uncle Sam had me careering around the country, I always did “do it yourself” moves, as everything I owned in the world fit in the back of my pickup with my dog on the front seat beside me. Since the Army paid for DITY moves a pretty good percentage of what a commercial move would have cost, I ended up pocketing some pretty good checks in so doing.
I’ve worked very hard throughout my life to achieve a certain level of financial comfort and now, in the run-up to my sixtieth birthday, Mrs. Animal and I are… comfortable. Once the Colorado house is sold and the Alaska house duly paid off, we’ll be even more comfortable. But that doesn’t mean we don’t watch the flow of cash.
A good part of achieving that status, of course, was due to the lessons of the Old Man. Don’t be wasteful; save up and pay cash, you don’t always need the latest and greatest, take care of your possessions and make them last. We routinely get over a quarter-million miles out of vehicles. We enjoy traveling and the occasional restaurant meal, but we plan for these things, pay in advance and are not profligate. And, yes, we treasure the ability to show generosity towards our family and people we care about.
It’s a good lesson, even if we didn’t have to live through a Great Depression to learn it.