We had it rough as kids — even if we didn’t know it at the time. While the neighbor kids had Lucky Charms, Cocoa Crisps, or Sugar Smacks, we ate surplus oatmeal, rice, or cornmeal, and biscuits for breakfast.
Old Town, Maine — “Thanks to parishioners at the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord, hundreds of area children will now have not only gifts to rush to on Christmas morning, but coats to keep them warm when they walk outside.”
As I read the Bangor Daily News article, “Christmas giving program at Old Town Parish collects and assembles nearly 300 packages for area children," I was reminded of my humble childhood growing up in Old Town.
Because my stepfather was a carpenter, or construction laborer that drank too much, we moved around a lot, but Old Town was “home.”
My sisters and brother still live in the Old Town, Alton, Milford, and Greenbush area. Though I haven’t lived in the area since I joined the Army in 1974 after high school, when I come home, it is to the Old Town area.
Mama’s Beans & Biscuits
Image of Baked Beans by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Let me tell you something, biscuits toasted on the kitchen woodstove, slathered with surplus butter and peanut butter, are excellent. What’s more, mama’s beans and biscuits were a filling breakfast as well.
It even warmed your britches during the wait outside for the school bus. You knew better than to wait inside and chance missing the bus and getting your butt tore up with mama’s wooden spoon or bedroom slipper if it was handier.
I did learn not to eat beans before school after being embarrassed by the kids and teachers alike. My teacher’s nickname for me, for a while, was fart-muffin. It provided the other kids much amusement. Even I had to giggle a little when she called me that.
When the other kids got cold cuts and cheese sandwiches on real bread for lunch with a Twinkie for dessert, we had tuna, or Potted Meat, and peanut butter and jelly on biscuits. My mom would cut up onions and boiled eggs to stretch the meat a little further. Maybe it wasn’t a glamorous lunch, but we weren’t hungry.
But when my crush called me “tuna breath,” I learned to pack a toothbrush with my lunch. Thank God, by high school, they had hot lunches and discounts for the underprivileged, which by then we had figured out we were.
Being Poor Provides Valuable Lessons
We didn’t know we were poor when we were young. There were always lots of gifts under the Christmas tree. Mostly clothes were timely gifts because the two shirts, two pairs of jeans, three pairs of socks, and three underwear we got to start school were wearing thin.
In Maine, when the potato harvest came, we often had two weeks off from school to bring in the crop. Although we only got $.50 for a 55-gallon barrel back then, it helped buy school clothes.
There were a few toys under the tree as well, mostly from the Salvation Army, Knights of Columbus, or other charities. We thought Santa Claus was that Salvation Army guy outside W. T. Grant’s and F. W. Woolworth’s, and in a way, he was, indirectly. I am always thankful to the Salvation Army and the volunteers who work there.
I remember one year; we lived in New Jersey because my stepfather had gotten a construction job there while it was still warm enough for outside work. He got a bonus from the construction company and borrowed some money from one of his brothers, and off we went to Maine for Christmas.
My sister and her husband had a small house with three little kids, but they always made room for us whenever we showed up on their doorstep.
We had a beat-up old car that ran pretty well, but we piled the presents, clothes for a few days, mom, dad, and four kids into it and took off on what is typically an 11 or 12-hour drive — on a “wing and a prayer” and my dad’s small Christmas bonus.
Someone probably should have checked the weather. Not far along our way, we ran into the biggest blizzard to hit the northeast in decades. It wasn’t too bad until we got into Massachusetts; we were still about six hours away from Old Town, Maine.
The Car Broke Down
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, on a highway overpass, the car gave up. Its valiant effort in the snow and cold gave in to a frozen gas line. My dad called a wrecker, the wrecker called the Salvation Army, and they found a home for us for the night.
Those beautiful people took our whole family into their home just days before Christmas, with presents under the tree and warmth in their hearts.
When we awoke in the morning, they cooked us eggs and bacon with real toast and butter, even though you could tell they were not well to do —it was a breakfast we rarely had at home.
That’s one reason I will never pass by a red barrel without putting something in there, even if it’s my last dollar.
Continuing up the Road
Oh yeah, you’d think that would be enough adventure for a half-day trip, but you’d be wrong. On I-495, the snow was coming down sideways, our car slid into another vehicle, and the driver just waved at my dad with a bit of a grimace and kept going.
We crossed the big bridge into Maine, always a welcome sight with the sign that proclaims, “Welcome to Maine; The Way Life Should Be.”
Granted, it was still a four-hour drive to Old Town, in good weather, but our hearts warmed a little seeing that sign. As I remember, we all cheered, knowing we were in Maine.
You can get one of these T-shirts here. These come in five colors, Navy blue, Cranberry, Asphalt, Royal Blue, Dark Heather, and are available in men, women, and youth sizes.
Disappointment & Delays
However, when we got to the Maine Turnpike, the toll collector said the Turnpike was closed, and we should take Route One. In the summertime, route one is the scenic route.
There isn’t much to see there in the winter with blinding snow, and it just winds through every small town along the way, with local traffic and traffic lights to slow you down.
Since all travelers got diverted to route one, the traffic was horrendous. We spent hours in Kennebunkport, stalled in traffic. Once again, the Salvation Army and Kiwanis troops were out there in the cold, ladling hot soup, cocoa, and coffee into paper cups and handing out sodas.
That was probably not an intelligent move. Although it was gladly accepted, there were no public facilities open, and most drivers, including my dad, would not pull off for us to use it if there were.
After what seemed like several hours and soda bottles we refilled with urine, we got moving once again. Almost 50 hours after starting our usual 12-hour trip, we made it to my sister’s Christmas morning.
I have rarely seen a more welcome sight in my life than my sister waiting just inside the door. Christmas presents were secondary to the hugs and being in a warm house with family.
Every time I see one of those memes on Facebook about, we survived drinking from the garden hose, no safety belts, etc. I think back to my childhood and nod my head vigorously.
I was asked by the Reading Harbor Foundation to write my story. This is the introduction to that book.
"Despite living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, more than 45 million people in America fall below the poverty line. Struggling to make ends meet, these individuals are familiar faces. You see them on the street, in the news, on TV, outside your house, on your way to work… They are your neighbors, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, and possibly even family. You may have even experienced a similar situation."
If you’re interested in reading my story and the rest of the stories in Escaping Poverty, it is available on Amazon.
Although my childhood had its struggles, I believe it drove me to succeed. No, I’m not a millionaire; in fact, I’m a few hundred thousand short of that designation. However, I did spend 28 years in the Army defending the liberties we enjoy. Plus, I have what I need and enough to help others when I can.
Nothing feels as good as passing those sad faces outside McDonald’s, going in and ordering five extra big breakfasts, and handing off the bag when I come out. You should try it. It will put a little more pep in your step and maybe motivate you to write a story about how rough you had it.
When you see a volunteer by the red Salvation Army barrel, give what you can.