By Jug Varner
One thing I frequently hear from contemporaries is: “Things aren't like they used to be.” I usually respond with, “And perhaps they never were…at least, not exactly the way we remember them.” With each re-telling, our tales may get embroidered a bit.
My contention is: that the “Good Old Days” may in reality be “Good things we remember about Bad Times.” Somehow (for our mental health, I suppose) our memory tends to relegate the tough part of life mostly to its hidden recesses. “Time heals all wounds”…as they say…or, is that “wounds all heels?”
Anyhow, when an old geezer starts telling you stories of his days of yore, humor him by listening politely (or reading his article), will you? Just consider the source. Some of us still have good memory banks, while others don't remember much about the past (or the present, either).
While I am still reasonably sane, I will tell you some tales from my life experiences from time to time. Just in case you doubt my veracity, however, I do have a valid reference point. These incidents were included in a 400-page family history book I wrote in the early 80s, when I was 20 years saner than I am now.
“Hard times” was the name of the game when I was a kid. I'm sure there were a few folks somewhere in the country that were not as devastated by the 1930s' financial depression as were the average family I knew, but the percentage must have been miniscule. Most people were dirt poor, scratching for a living any way they could.
There were no child labor laws then. Kids worked on the farm, in family businesses, or at whatever odd jobs they could find, to help their family cope financially. In the process, we learned many of life's hard lessons at an early age.
My first job, age 9, was helping my sister deliver family made pies and donuts to grocery stores and restaurants. Then I hit the big time selling the local newspaper on the street for five cents a copy, and received a penny for each one sold. That didn't add up very fast because a lot of other kids were doing the same thing, and the bigger and older ones taught the beginners about “territory” and “competition.” But, not without a few fistfights. A penny could buy a lot of things then. A nickel would buy a hamburger, so a few pennies made a difference. I still pick them up when I see one on the street…despite the modern concept that it isn't worth the time it takes.
My parents opened a restaurant when I was 10. Actually, the word “restaurant” was too high-class to describe this simple Texas Café that we started on a “shoestring” (as they used to say, when shoestrings cost a nickel.) It was an old wooden building, circa 1900, located on the Courthouse square of our small Texas town. The kind you used to see in TV's “Gunsmoke.” A plus for us was that it also had a small living quarters attached. This new venture would be both home and business, and the main stay of our existence for the next six years. Each sibling worked along with our parents, eliminating the need for much hired help.
With 25% of the national population unemployed, every town had its share of itinerants looking for work and food. A few were professional bums (hobos, we called them), but they were the exceptions. Most wanderers were good folks merely down on their luck. We gave many of them free meals out the Café kitchen door, and actually hired a few for extra help. Wages were a dollar a day and meals. One could rent a room for 50-cents or less.
My starting job there (at no pay, of course) was errand boy, floor cleaner, and “pearl diver” — that was café lingo for dishwasher. I also pulled a small wagon loaded with iced pop, candy bars, fried pies, etc., and sold to workers in offices, garages, etc., for snacks. Food dispensing machines hadn't been invented. Then came working the counter and waiting tables, eventually learning to cook, then fry cook, and finally, running the night shift. With little time for homework, my grades suffered, but I paid attention in class, did well on tests, and didn't flunk any courses. I managed to take part in a few extra-curricular activities, including football, choir, drama, etc., but mostly I worked.
We were out of the restaurant business after my sophomore year when our friendly banker landlord didn't renew our lease. His bank built a high-rise office building on the site instead. I worked at other eateries for the $9 per 7-day week until I landed a “fun” job. Roller rinks were in their heyday, and I became a floor manager for the next two years. One Sunday afternoon, a local Army recruiter and frequent skater came in with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. None among us had ever heard of Pearl Harbor before then. “But, don't worry,” he said, “We will beat those little monkeys in about six weeks.” That was a typical naïve statement about 1941 world affairs.
Radio was a teenage staple, especially the music of the big bands era, and we all liked to dance. I memorized so many of the popular songs of the times that I can still recite some of the lyrics today. Every now and then, a song I haven't heard in years will pop into thought and I play it in my mind a few times until most or all of the words come back to me.
Dating didn't require a lot of money. Mainly we went to one of several hangouts near the college campus where they provided a “juke box” and a dance area for food service customers. Like the words of Glenn Miller's popular tune of the era, Juke Box Saturday Night, said…”While sipping up sodas we had a scheme, somebody else fed the record machine…”
No…things aren't like they used to be. Despite our hard times, we had a lot more in some ways than people have now — and most of it had nothing to do with money or materiality.