As a kid growing up in Southeastern Kentucky I had no idea we were poor. Our home was modest, but warm, and we had electricity in every room. I knew my buddy down the road was poor, because we often sat in his living room facing a blazing stove; our faces red and hot while our backs remained cold and clammy. With no television, we wiled away the time with near-interesting conversation while watching a family of chickens through the cracks in the floor.
Even though it was the mid 1970’s we had an outhouse, as did most of the folks around us. A few years earlier, during a spurt of unparalleled progress , my father had hired a well drilled so we would no longer have to walk to my grandparents’ home and draw water into a bucket. The water from the well made its’ way into the kitchen through the faucet of a combination kitchen cabinet and sink ordered from Sears and Roebuck, but it would be several years before modern plumbing would migrate to other areas of our home.
Even our outhouse helped me to hold onto the premise that we were somehow “better off” than most other folks. Unlike those of our neighbors, ours was painted white. Actually the boards were already white when my father removed them from an old building scheduled for demolition, but they held their color nicely and added a touch of sophistication to an otherwise utilitarian design. Inside was dark, but it seemed always the perfect atmosphere for conducting the business at hand. The seat was a large, thick board with two circular holes cut by hand. The difficulty of cutting holes through heavy hardwood without modern tools caused these boards to be salvaged time and again for use in newer facilities. Outhouses were regularly built and re-built, but the seat board was always maintained. The boards were, unfortunately, one-size-fits-all and many country children had recurring nightmares of falling into the pit; never to be seen again. My mother must have known this, so she had my father make me a smaller overlay seat from a section of plywood. Always the decorator, Mom covered the wood with a section of white vinyl floorcovering, which kept it clean but still sufficiently cold enough to take ones’ breath when used during the winter months. This little seat hung on a nail and was deployed as needed. Outhouses helped most children to learn control of their bodily functions. With most located a good distance from the main dwelling a midnight trip through wet grass, while maintaining a vigilant lookout for spooks and axe murderers, was enough to teach self-control without much parental input. By the time most of us were five or six years old our parents could simply say, “time to use the toilet!”, and we would dutifully fall into line. Sub-freezing temperatures helped me to understand why bears hibernate through the winter. I was pretty sure they had once visited an outhouse on a cold winter night and just said, “to heck with that”, and upon return to the den just slept until the seat would be warmer.
Another staple of an underprivileged childhood was trips to the Railway Salvage Store. These stores were treasure troves of unlabeled and dented cans, bulk items, and various other generic wares. In my little mind the term salvage conjured up images that all this stuff must have come from wrecked trains. Having spent my entire life less than 100 feet from the main Southern Railway Line, I had seen a few train wrecks and I understood that trains carried most everything. So, I never could understand what happened to the good stuff. I had seen everything from fine kitchen appliances to new cars salvaged from overturned trains, but none of that stuff ever made it to the store. I imagined these trains were different from the ones that passed my house every 15 minutes, shaking dishes from the cupboard and pictures from the walls. Maybe they were simply black and white with no markings, save for the word “Train” on both sides of the engine. Yeah, that had to be it! Somewhere there were generic trains that carried all the stuff sold in these stores. While eating potted meat or catfood, I could never quite tell the difference without labels, I watched diligently for one of these generic trains. I later surmised they only came through late at night, which accounted for so many wrecks and so much damaged merchandise.
It was during one of these trips to the Salvage Store that I did something rare – I made a purchase with my own money. It was to be only the first of a lifetime of stupid consumer decisions and would play greatly into my later purchases of overpriced Tech Stocks and Country Stores.
My Mom was planning a Fishing Picnic. She had learned years earlier that my father would go just about anywhere if the trip included fishing. All of our picnic outings were to old roadbeds ending in Lake Cumberland. We only visited relatives who lived near creeks or streams, and our one Florida vacation consisted of me playing in sand in the front yard of a rented house trailer while my Dad fished in nearby lakes and canals. Yes, I had seen the ocean! We drove by a little section of it to reach the “good fishing”.
Anyway, while Mom was rummaging through the mounds of unlabeled cans, I decided to add a little something to our picnic supplies. In the back corner of the salvage store was a large stack of boxed napkins. As with everything else, the boxes were white with bold black lettering and no pictures. But these boxes contained an exhilarating phrase; “Individually Wrapped”. In a life filled with bulk beans, bulk toilet paper, and most anything that could be sold in bulk, theses words had special meaning. The fact that something was so well made as to be wrapped individually was in itself a thing of beauty. My heart raced as I contemplated all the possibilities. I could stow a few of these napkins in my military surplus backpack, a few more could be placed in Dad’s tacklebox, and still more could be carried neatly in Mom’s purse. After gorging ourselves on home-fried chicken and cans of mystery food we could reach into our packs, remove the napkins, unwrap them gently, and remove all traces of food from our hands and faces. After all, the box said Large Sanitary Napkins – Super absorbent. I imagined that merely touching them to our lips would suck away all the grease and they were “Pleasantly Scented”. It would be like cleaning our faces and splashing on Aqua Velva all at the same time! Wow! Mom was going to be proud of me!
Smiling broadly, I placed my quarter into the hand of the checkout girl, who gave me a puzzled look. I guessed she know very little about picnics and chicken grease. With my purchase complete, I yelled across the store to Mom and returned to the confines of our 1968 Plymouth.
Upon her return to the car, Mom never seemed quite as enthused with my napkin purchase as I imagined she would be. When I told her of the intended use she smiled strangely and said, “yeah, those will come in handy”.
I could never figure out how mom lost the entire box before the picnic. It’s difficult to lose things in a four-room house with one closet, but she somehow managed. When I brought the subject up at the picnic she snapped back sternly, “ I looked everywhere for them, now shut up and eat your ‘catfoo…er’… potted meat!”
Looking back over my life I remember my father saying often, “there is nothing wrong with being poor, except that is awfully unhandy”. It is a fitting testament indeed that thanks to the hard work of both my parents, I always thought he was talking about the neighbors.