Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bountiful Poverty


You know you live in a small town when the front-page news includes an announcement that Bob's Big Boy is coming to downtown. Don't know what a Bob's Big Boy is? It's a coffee-shop chain that considers itself an art form, using words like "dramatic," "striking," and even "breathtaking" to describe its architecture, which looks like this:

Its diner fare includes the "vintage" double-decker Big Boy burger, along with fried chicken, fried fish, fried steak, and the "classic" chili spaghetti. I can't wait to try that one.

Chili beans used to be a staple in my family's diet, not because of our ethnic background (my dad was from Oklahoma and my mom was from a Norwegian farm family), but because we were poor. In 1966, my parents had suddenly uprooted our family of five and plunked us down in a dinky travel trailer behind a little market on the edge of some sand dunes in the Mojave desert. They had no savings, but Dad had found a job in his trade that was just enough to support us.

We'd left almost all our belongings behind in our old home town. We three kids slept in sleeping bags. For entertainment we had a transistor radio and a deck of cards to fill the evenings with family games of gin rummy. A couple of times a month, a library bookmobile parked beside the little market. Mom's older brother and his family lived down the road, so a couple of times a week all 13 of us gathered there to watch TV. On Sundays we'd all hop into my uncle's World War II Army surplus Jeeps, with my cousins on little motorbikes, and we'd go out in the desert, "boondocking" as my uncle called it, exploring canyons, abandoned mines, traces of old homesteads, and searching for wildflowers in the spring.

Dried pinto beans were cheap and Mom bought them in bulk. She cooked big pots of them, sometimes just plain pintos and onions, and other times with chili and a little ground beef added. We ate many meals of beans with homemade white bread and fresh oranges for dessert. We hadn't had a stay-at-home mom in a long time and not a lot of homemade bread either, so it seemed like a treat. The fresh oranges were wonderful too.

Today I'm thankful for a child's spirit that saw, not the poverty, but the small pleasures that arose from it, and for my parents' ability to make do with what resources they had, even making it all seem bountiful and adventurous. There might have been times I felt deprived, having no privacy, having to adjust to the strange new desert world, but what I remember is goodness.

And the memories make me smile: discovering the desert in bloom, listening to the new band called The Monkees on the evening radio, the taste of butter melting on warm fresh bread, the joy of getting white go-go boots ... even hearing my father use the word "shit" for the first time, when he gathered the three of us kids to announce we were driving our mother crazy, and we were to stop it immediately if we didn't want her to leave us.

"If she says 'shit,'" he told us at the end of his speech, "you say, 'Where and how much?'" That was frightening and funny at the same time. One of us, I don't remember who, actually said that to her the next time she said "Shit!" and got back-handed for the literal interpretation of Dad's edict. But it became a legendary family joke, and I'm grateful for a child's sense of humor in what might have been a scary adult situation. The look on my father's face, when he was called to account for his child's smart-aleck behavior, was priceless.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

20 comments:

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Love it! And I remember Bob's Big Boy, too! ♥

Crafty Green Poet said...

there's something about chilli beans, we ate them all the time when I was in Malawi, largely because we didn't have much money (we weren't poor compared to Malawians of course, but were on a local salary). But the chilli beans never felt like poor food, I still love cooking them...

Monkey Man said...

Entertainment was so much simpler back then. Imagination was King (or Queen) and the outdoors always beckoned. Not so today with video games, on line communication and the entire plugged in texting, tweeting and celluar phone connection. Even 'Bob' was simpler. Great post, Chris.

TechnoBabe said...

When you are a kid you believe your family status is average. When I was very young we were very poor. It wasn't something we talked about. It just was. And we found things to do. No TV and no toys. I like the way you sum your post up with the belief that as a child you made do with was available.

The Bug said...

That boy sure does get around - in my hometown in NC he was Shoney's & here in Ohio he's Frisches. Same kind of food though (love the hot fudge cake - in fact this is one of my favorite memories. My mom woke me up so we could watch 7 Brides for 7 Brothers & then we went to Shoney's Big Boy for Hot Fudge Cake).

Our church used to have pinto bean dinners - served with cornbread & coleslaw. I just liked the beans (I liked my cornbread crumbled in a glass of milk with raisins in it.).

Good memories!

C.M. Jackson said...

beautiful sentiment--hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Woman in a Window said...

Honestly, Chris, it sounds wonderful. I'd take a life like that any day over going to the mall. Kinda makes me wish we were just a little harder off. Twisted, eh? (Just finished up my bowl of chili 'bout ten minutes ago:)

xo
erin

Scott said...

we have Big Boy franchizes in the midwest as well... LOVE them! Thank you once again for taking me to my happy place.

e said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you as well, Chris!

Andrew said...

Childhood memories have been a big part of my thoughtlife lately.

Lots of different things to chew on.

Gwei Mui said...

Great post, hope you have a fantastic Thanksgiving.

Titus said...

Bob's Big Boy looks like the America of my imagination.
And thank you for a post that uses the word 'boondocking'. I've always loved that word, whilst having no idea what it means. It must be in a song somewhere...
And the whole concept of desert. Of living in a country that has deserts!

Great post, Happy Thanksgiving!

Georgina Dollface said...

This was a lovely post. And as the masses of adults head out the door for that shopping holiday called Black Friday, this is such a great reminder that a child's happiness doesn't rely on having the biggest toy or the fanciest clothes. Happiness and joy can be found in so many of the little things we take for granted.
We don't have Black Friday up here in Canada, instead some people have started "Buy Nothing Day" as an antidote to the frenzied consumerism that gets unleashed after Thanksgiving and carries on until December 24. - G

Jess Mistress of Mischief said...

YAY Happy Thanksgiving

I was the most spoiled rotten kid ever coming from Grandparents (poor Tennessee farm/Detroit blue collar) family with parents who were lower middle class, my dad worked a respectable, hard-working, office type non-college graduate job. I was given so so much!

Gerry Snape said...

these Big Boy places look right up to date!...well we are all watching Mad Men over here!

Enchanted Oak said...

Thanks to the comment by Titus, I looked up "boondocks" and found this on Wiki: "The exact origin of the term boondocks is unclear. One common theory is that the word is an Americanized version of the Tagalog word bundok which refers to mountains. According to this theory, American soldiers serving in the Philippines during World War II coined the phrase, and passed in on to the British forces in the area. The phrase was meant to refer to areas of the Philippines where the enemy could successfully hide in the mountains and remain undetected by Allied forces."
Then I looked up the 1965 hit song "Down in the Boondocks" written & produced by Joe South and sung by Billy Joe Royal. It was playing on the radio the year we moved to the desert, and maybe it influenced my uncle's choice to describe riding around the desert in a Jeep as "boondocking." Here's a corny rendition of the song on YouTube:
Down in the Boondocks

Titus said...

Not just a great blog, an education!

Magpie said...

I love it when you share glimpses of your childhood with us...wonderful treasures. Isn't is funny how we can measure so much of our lives by what music we were listening to?

Pat transplanted to MN said...

The best part is not even knowing it was poverty, poor, etc Children's imaginations are to be cultivated, not over run by supervised play and video games, etc. like today! Think of all the good you gained!

Syd said...

I like the "shit" story. Growing up in a small town was an interesting experience. Everyone knew who I was so it was hard to get away with much. I was glad to flee to college. But the memories of being young there make me smile as well. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, Chris.

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