Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rich Little Poor Kids

We were poorer than I knew as a child. Part of the reason for that ignorance was that we lived in a poor neighborhood where all the other families were poor. My father pieced our house together using scrap lumber salvaged from the railroad box car repair shop, hauling the varying sized pieces of lumber home on his two-wheeled push cart, dumping it out for the three boys to sort, remove the nails, and pile in neat stacks. The house came together over a period of years, primarily in two 12 ft. by 36 ft. sections, not unlike the smaller mobile homes of our day. Eventually the two halves were brought together forming a six-room house consisting of three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchen, each roughly 12 ft. by 12 ft. The final touch was a basement, laboriously dug by hand after the upper structure was in place. The persistent wetness of the heavy clay soil around the house rendered the basement too damp for habitation but not unsuitable for storing things that would gradually succumb to the humid environment and the concomitant mold and mildew.

It was only when I began to attend Jr. High School, and then later High School that I became aware of our poverty. Up until that time those who attended our neighborhood school were in the same economic class as our family. We dressed alike, lived in cobbled together houses or houses that the years had rendered obsolete in style and run down in appearance, walked to school or rode bicycles pieced together from the parts of several discarded bikes, rode in family cars that were a decade or more behind the times. Most of our families had been on welfare; some still were. Our fathers had worked for the WPA. Nearly everyone raised a garden so we ate regular meals but they were short on animal protein, long on beans and cornbread. We were poor but we hardly knew it.

But we were rich, too. The neighborhood in which I grew up was on the edge of town. That meant that fields that were less than a block from our house were “owned” by us. In winter when snow covered the bent over corn stalks, left from the previous year’s crop, we could hunt rabbits  that had burrowed into those corn stalk tents, or build snow forts and wage massive day-long battles. In springtime we could fly our kites over the fields without fear of entangling the strings in electrical wires. Before the crops were put in and after they were harvested in the fall, we tramped out base paths for a ball diamond and played from morning to night.

A quarter of a mile to the west, along the railroad track a small stream provided hours of wet fun, catching crawdads, seining small fish, building dams to divert the stream, and exploring the hobo camps along the stream and the railroad tracks.

The street on which we lived was not, for many years, paved with anything; every rainstorm turned it into a mire of slippery clay. Unwary drivers who attempted to turn the corner north of our house would invariably be knocking on our door seeking the assistance of my Dad and his three strong boys to push them out of the ditch. I don’t recall us every refusing to pull on our boots and assist the unfortunate (or repeatedly foolish) driver.

But the unpaved street provided the perfect venue for our weekly “Road Bowl” football games. At first our “football” consisted of an old bicycle tire, folded back and forth into as small a bundle as we could achieve and then tied with bailing twine. Of course it was a very unsuitable “ball”, dangerous to catch, even more dangerous if it found you looking the other way and hit you in the head. We were delighted when our oldest brother, who had just begun to work at part-time jobs, purchased a genuine football. Playing with a real ball sacrificed some of the grit and glory of the Road Bowl games, but it probably also accounts for the fact that all of us survived into adulthood.

Perhaps the greatest goods our poor neighborhood bestowed upon us was darkness and night-time stillness. Not only had paved roads not arrived in our area of town, neither had public lighting. But we had lights by the thousands. Fireflies filled our summer evenings and filled the fruit jars in which we held them captive until the following morning. Even more, the night sky, undimmed by earthly lights, shown down on our part of town with a brightness not even imagined in the “richer” parts of town, totally unknown in most places today. I recall evenings spent lying in a wheelbarrow, with my feet resting on the handles of the barrow, gazing at the glory above me. The singing of insects seemed to be an appropriate accompaniment to the majesty of the skies. And though an occasional train rumbled and tooted its way past our neighborhood, or an automobile broke the silence, much of the evening was quiet enough to hear the cornstalks snapping as they grew on hot summer nights. There were mosquitoes but you could hear them coming and be prepared to eradicate them.

It is hard to decide if we were poor little rich kids or rich little poor kids. I think I like the latter. There is no doubt in my mind that growing up poor has imprinted itself upon my adult life in ways that have kept me from achieving all that I might have done. But likewise, the poverty of my early life has enriched just about everything I’ve done since, either by making me grateful for the good things I now enjoy or by giving me insights and empathy for those who live in poverty today.

I don’t want to romanticize poverty. Not all poverty is as benign as that in which I grew up. Much of the poverty in the world today resists all attempts at eradicating or ameliorating it. Too many children, raised in the poverty of our large cities, in our rusted out mining towns, or our perpetually poor rural areas, both north and south, live in fear of their lives and wonder where their next meal will come from or where they will spend the next night. There are no Sunday “Road Bowl” games to enjoy, no fire fly filled fields to roam over, no beautiful night sky visible to them.  They are poor little poor kids.

There is little that the average American can do to assist those enduring such poverty. We know they exist but we lack access to them, expertise in providing for them what they need, and resources adequate to the task of lifting them from poverty. Long ago, in the late 1930s and 1940s, our nation made a decision that we had an obligation to provide paths to success for all of our citizens. An array of government programs were initiated to meet those needs. While they were not perfect, and while they did not eradicate all inequality and poverty, they nonetheless lifted millions of our nation’s poor through good employment opportunities, granting employees the right to form unions and bargain for their rights, improving wages by regularly increasing the minimum wage employers are required to pay, and by providing educational opportunities on a scale never before known in human history.

Sadly, a large portion of our population has lost faith in these government programs that have helped so many. Without offering anything in their place other than the cruelly inadequate suggestion that “anybody can succeed who gets a job and stays with it,” they attempt to dismantle the “safety nets” that have served us so well for the last three-quarters of a century. They obstruct our President’s attempts to provide basic healthcare to all our citizens, rich or poor. They draw their purses to their breasts and say, “No new taxes!” In fact they insist on reducing taxes and thus reducing the aid available for the poor.

It is important for those who still remember the poverty they endured to have empathy for those still living in such conditions. It is important for those who never experienced poverty to find it within themselves to help their fellow human beings. We can’t light the night skies for those living in the poverty of our large cities, and we have poisoned the habitat of the firefly in many of our rural communities, but we must not extinguish the only hope that those living in poverty have, the hope that their fellow human beings will not forget that they exist; will not callously refuse the aid they so desperately need, aid that can best be provided by the tried and true programs instituted in the New Deal and the years that have followed.

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