One day in the 1930s, when I was about six or seven years old, I went with my father to the produce market where he purchased the fruits and vegetables that he sold door-to-door from his truck. I had always been told that we were "poor," but I didn't really understand what that meant. We always had food to eat, our hand-me-down clothes were kept clean, and we made our own toys out of whatever was available. We never ate out and were always admonished to "clean your plates, as children elsewhere are starving."
While at market this day, one of the merchants approached and asked if I wanted to earn some money. My father nodded his approval and I was taken by truck to a nearby railroad yard where fruits and vegetables were being unloaded from freight cars. I was lifted into one of the cars and a man in the car began handing me large watermelons. My small knees buckled as I turned and handed the melons to a man standing below, who put them into a nearby truck.
In the distance, I noticed a group of about 25 people, standing patiently, and watching, with baskets over their arms. Pretty soon, by accident, I dropped a watermelon and it split into numerous pieces. Four or five of the people rushed over and began to fill their baskets with the watermelon pieces. This happened three or four more times.
When we finished with the watermelons, we began unloading hampers of green beans. Pretty soon, one dropped and beans spilled all over the ground. This time, all the people rushed over and began filling their baskets as quickly as they could. I watched this and thought to myself, "these people must be really be hungry." When the unloading was done, I looked around and saw other freight cars holding various kinds of fresh produce, and groups of people near each one waiting for the "accident" that would help them put food on their tables.
I was taken back to the market where my father was waiting for me. The merchant who hired me approached, grinned at me and asked if I was ready to be paid. Eagerly, I awaited my first "salary." He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket, put them back, pulled out some change, and then handed me 10 cents. Small as I was, I felt disappointed, as I could have earned more for my four hours of work by collecting empty Coke bottles and turning them in for pennies (a common practice at that time).
As we prepared to drive away, I looked up at my father, and with tears in my young eyes, I said, "Daddy, we're not poor; now I know what poor really is: all those people pushing to get to the spilled beans and watermelons."
"Yes," he replied, "there are a lot of hungry people with no jobs who have to get food any way they can. We're in a depression and times are hard."
What did I learn from this? I learned from my father that I should pay myself first and save a portion of everything I earn; to save not just for what I want, but for what I might need; to not spend what I don't have - but to wait until I can afford it whatever it is. I learned that before agreeing to work, I should know what I will be paid, to determine if my time and labor will be best spent in this endeavor. Finally, I leaned that there are times when anyone, including me, might need help, and, recognizing this, when others need help, I must step forward if I am able and be the helper.
Story collected for the Ohio Department of Aging Great Depression Stories Project 2009.
(Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
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