MANN TALK: The Gift of Poverty

by Perry Mann

A history professor who was never asked to give a commencement address, nevertheless, had a dream of what he would say to mark the occasion to the class of 2011, had he been asked. He dreamed that he would tell them that he wanted to talk to them about the graduation gift that their parents did not give them.


  “The present that you’ve been cheated of, members of the class of 2011, is poverty. Not so much the actuality of going hungry and worrying where the rent money is going to come from, but a living memory of such experiences.”


He would remind them that their grandparents passed from adolescence to adulthood during the Great Depression. “No matter how financially secure your grandfathers and grandmothers afterwards might have become, for the most part they still measured life against the mental template set in the 1930s.”


I am one of those fortunates who were not cheated of the gift of poverty. I didn’t ask for it; in fact, I wasn’t even aware that poverty was what I got. It just came to me inexplicably and almost overnight. I remember, however, the beginning of its coming.


When members of this generation read in the history books that in March of 1933 President Roosevelt declared a bank holiday, from which thousands of banks never opened their doors again, they have no conception of the scope of the reversal of fortunes resulting from that event. But, I remember well the morning of the holiday and of my father, who was a loan officer at the Security Bank and Trust Co., leaving for work and telling my mother that he would rather die than go to the bank that morning. He knew that his bank was insolvent and that  for him and millions of others the end of the great prosperity of the Roaring Twenties had come  and the  Great Depression, when the gift of poverty came willy-nilly to a third of this nation’s people, had begun.


My father did not need the gift of poverty; for he knew poverty from day one of his life until after World War I, when he left the farm and went to the city to seek his fortune. The lessons of poverty rather than an education helped him to rise to middle class status by 1929, when he and many others had to pay for their hubris and a misplaced faith and security in the miracles of capitalism and in the marvels of the city.


 The prosperity of the Twenties lured millions of youth to town but the Depression of the Thirties forced as many to return to the land and to their parents’ farms from which they had left with high hopes 20 years before. My father did not return; he toughed it out. But I went back to live much of my life with my grandparents, who by any tangible measure were poor. And it was there on that farm with them that I gained the gift of poverty, a gift that was many-sided.


First, I learned to work, work that was physical, needful and done out-of-doors under the sky and clouds with the sun and breeze. I learned just how much a person can do with muscle and sweat and how long he can endure laboring in a day. My grandfather’s day was 5:00 A. M. to 6:00 P.M.---earlier and later if exigencies arose--- and my grandmother’s an hour or more earlier and later and I was at their sides most of those hours.  I have put in 10 hours in the hay field in 95 degrees and spent a good part of those hours in a barn loft throwing back hay pitched to me from a wagon. When I hear a person who works in an air-conditioned office say that he has worked hard that day, I think of how watered down the word work has become.


 I learned the value of family, of a stable family, a predictable family and a family that worked together for survival. There was a division of labor: everyone had his or her work responsibilities. Monday for the women was wash day and Tuesday ironing day. I remember the blued sheets bright with sun at play with the wind  and the bib overalls hanging like scare-crows on the  clothesline and the next day grandmother or Aunt Sadie before the wood-fired cook stove ironing every item that hung on the clothesline with irons heated on the stove and touched to a waxed cloth for free sliding.


 For the women, every day was meal day. Three of them were prepared in winter from scratch or from what was canned, salted, buried or stored. There was no prepared foods and there was no refrigeration so each meal was from beginning. And what meals! It was around the table at breakfast, dinner and supper, winter and summer, that much of the joy of rural poverty was shared. It was there that the rewards of work materialized in the form of oatmeal with cream, fried ham and red-eye gravy, lard biscuits, applesauce, milk, butter, jellies and at dinner and supper green beans, tomatoes, fried potatoes, sausage,  cucumbers in cream,  corn-on-the-cob, corn bread and cakes and pies.


 My grandfather’s work was outside. He fed the stock and sharpened the hoes before he called to me to get up. We were in the fields or in the woods by 6:00 A.M. In summer it was plowing and hoeing corn; cutting, raking, shocking and hauling  hay;  cutting wheat with a cradle, shocking it and bringing in the sheaves to await the coming of the  thrashing machine, an occasion that was the  harvesting and social event of the season. An event when neighbors met at a designated household to thrash and then to have the noon meal. What a memorable combination of cheer and chaff!


In the fall and winter, it was getting in the wood without which there was no heat for fireplace or stove.  It was cleaning out fence corners, feeding the stock, bringing home the lambs, hunting the squirrel and rabbit and quail. And sitting before the fire in long dark evenings with roasting shins and shivering shoulders.

 I learned nature first hand. I never saw a bird new to me that I didn’t ask my grandfather the name of it. He had a name for all of them. The names were not as in the books but they were close. He called a phoebe a peewee and a killdeer a killdee and a towhee a cherree. Same for the trees. I hunted and fished and trapped. I had a dog that was at my side the minute I left the house and he stayed there until I went in. We roamed the woods together, spent afternoons digging in the earth and moving a ton of rocks to get at some holed-up varmint.


 I learned community and communal cooperation. When Arnold Epling came down with sickness in the fall and couldn’t get his winter wood in, the neighbors came one day and did it for him. I was one of them pulling one end of a crosscut saw. When Mrs. Houchin lay on her death bed my grandmother was there attending her when she took her last breath. I heard it. When hay was down and wet weather was threatening, neighbors came to get the hay up before the rain. Always when death or sickness befell a household, the neighbors were there. And when there were weddings and births and baptisms everyone around came to celebrate.


 I was sent by my family to help paint the church as its donation toward that project. On more than one occasion of death, I with my buddies Punk and Bob dug graves for the deceased at the church cemetery the old-fashioned way with pick and shovel and donated our labor to the family of the bereaved. And we were on the church grounds helping ourselves to fried chicken and potato salad on those days of all day preaching with dinner on the grounds.

 

 Once Uncle John Carden sent out a distress call: he had hay down and it was ready to put up and rain was imminent. Could someone come and help on the Fourth of July for a few hours?  Punk and I, who had planned a fishing foray for the day, were chosen to go. The few hours turned into nine hours. We didn’t finish getting in the hay until 3:30 P.M. But with 90 cents each for the work and a few hours left of the day, we went fishing anyway.


 The poverty I speak of was country poverty, not street poverty, not the pernicious kind of idleness on concrete. The poverty I remember and lived was that of no money. There was barter and trade but little exchange with cash. Some eggs and butter were sold. Creamed was skimmed and collected in a metal container and when full taken to the train station and sent off to Baltimore from where a check was cut and sent back to help pay the mortgage.


 The Great War II brought an end to it. The boys of the Depression by the millions left the farms and the cities; and in uniforms they became the Greatest Generation, or so they have been called. I never felt great, but I was there; and I am happy to say that I reaped the rewards of the gift of poverty.              


 Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. Born in Charleston, WV, in 1921, he lives in Hinton, WV.  

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