As a child I did not grasp that we were lower middle class or that some considered us to be poor. I grew faster than my parents could replace my clothes, and no matter the style my pants were usually “high-waters.” That came in handy, though, as we rode the school bus from the “crick.” Wading water and avoiding mud became necessary skills.
Shoes came from the Pic-Way store in Spring Hill where Dad could buy two pairs for $5. But sizes stopped at 12 at Pic-Way, and when my feet hit the 13 mark in ninth grade, I got my first pair of Converse. I felt like I had finally arrived!
We often shopped uptown which meant Charleston, usually along Capital Street. Uptown was not the same as over town. Over town meant Saint Albans with its K-Mart or Kroger store and one day “The Mall” that was constructed between the two. “The Mall” was not then or now a mall and eventually was tagged more appropriately as the “Saint Albans Shopping Center.” We also had Heck’s a couple of miles up Route 60. K-Mart and Heck’s offered sporting goods and Revell models, and what else did anyone need?
Mom learned of a store on Summers Street, one block west of Capital Street, that offered low-cost pants in size “extra skinny with long legs,” and though I sported strange color combinations after that my ankles were finally covered.
My favorite place uptown, next to the escalators in J C Penney’s, was the Sears store. Sears finally came clean with that catchy jingle in the 80’s which sums up our materialistic society, “Almost everything you wanted but didn’t get for Christmas is on sale now at Sears.”
From Dad’s chosen parking spot, we entered Sears from the rear of the store which took us past the nearest thing to heaven I’d ever encountered, the snack bar. One could stand and watch as the attendant completed her tasks.
Sears had an automated wiener roaster where heat lamps cooked the meat while the rollers turned the wieners for even browning on all sides. The aroma was to die for, and if that were not enough, the rich bouquet of hot roasting cashews combined to overpower any passerby.
My brothers and I watched as long as Mom and Dad let us stand there as we counted the tumbling wieners and picked our favorite. But those wieners were for someone else. We were at Sears for necessities like underwear and socks. Money did not grow on trees then or now. Mom loved those cashews, though, and once in a great while would find spare change to buy a small bag for us to enjoy on the ride home.
Growing up under a tight budget had its perks. I learned to earn money, save money and spend it wisely. My work ethic grew strong, and I jumped at opportunities to mow lawns. I did my best, and I discovered that happy customers become repeat customers. I worked hard at school, too, knowing that high school would end one day. What then? Would college be a possibility?
Dad took me to the National Bank of Commerce in 1976 to sign my name on a National Direct Student Loan, and like most Americans I plunged into debt. My grades in high school merited a tuition waver at the in-state school I chose, but books coupled with room and board nuked my savings from summer work at a shoe store.
And then Dad’s cancer diagnosis arrived. Nine months later he was gone. He left the amenities – medical bills, no life insurance, no savings, and a mortgage. His last words to me? “Son, I want you to finish school.” As the eldest son I shouldered heavy family needs on top the dream of college. Mom did not have a driver’s license much less employment prospects in those bleak days. But God provided what we needed as He always does. I don’t know how people who ignore Him make it in this world.
I hear much about white privilege today, like some magic source of funds poured into my account because of my skin color, but I can tell you that never happened. I had to reach inside and push myself with all I had. Unwilling to give up the dream of earning that degree, I accepted a job 30 miles from campus which began promptly at 3:30 A.M. snow, sleet or hail. I studied when I found the time, slept when I could, and trained myself to need less. I fell asleep in class quite often and a couple of times while driving. I am certain that I wore out several guardian angels in those days.
You know, now that I think about it, growing up like that was a privilege. A man never forgets his journey when he had to work for his own advancement.
I’d love to hear your story. What privileges did you enjoy on your road to adulthood?