When I think about all of the crazy things my brother and sister and I did just to make a few dollars when we were kids, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for teens this summer as they try to find jobs in what is supposed to be a very tight market. Money, to say the least, was a rare commodity when we were growing up, but you have to at least give us credit for trying.
Regardless of what the kids in my classroom believe, I didn’t grow up during the Great Depression. My folks, who did, were able to buy more than one pair of shoes a year for me, and my clothes weren’t sewn from flour sacks. But my family was far from affluent, and I think I grew up to appreciate money, or rather the scarcity of it around our house. We were an S&H Green Stamp household; we ate out of our garden, and we drove our cars until they were exhausted, let alone out of style. I have to admit that even a trip into Terre Haute to go to Kresge’s five-and-dime on Wabash Avenue or to Clinton to get a mug of root beer at the Dog-’n-Suds were, in my opinion, living large.
I eventually managed to make a few bucks when I was big enough to bale hay and feed livestock and hoe strawberries, but perhaps my first entrepreneurial venture was collecting and redeeming discarded glass soda pop bottles. I found a veritable goldmine in the ditches along the old County Line Road. I guess a lot of folks didn’t think the hassle of returning bottles to their local grocery store counter for 2 cents a pop was worth the trouble, so, as they sped down that humpbacked blacktop past our house, they tossed their Royal Crown or Bubble-Up or Grape Nehi bottles out of their car windows. I wholeheartedly encouraged their sloth.
Despite it sounding incredibly reckless in these times, my mother allowed me to walk or ride my bike along the road to look for the bottles; then, when I managed to hitch a ride into Rosedale with my grandparents or my aunt, I’d turn them into coin at Hickman’s IGA or Morgan’s Variety Store, often having as much as a dime to blow on gum, orange sherbet push-ups, or Zero candy bars.
It never occurred to me to be like John Rockefeller, who, by the age of 12, had saved $10, and then earned interest on the money when he loaned it to a neighboring farmer.
No sir, I wanted the immediate rush of the sugar high that only candy cigarettes and cherry Popsicles and kissable wax lips could provide.
My brother, John, and sister, Lora, were seekers of filthy lucre, too. Sis and I sold, or attempted to sell at our roadside stand, virtually anything we could find growing on our property. We set our battered card table up under the ancient burr oak that sat near the mouth of our driveway and tried to hawk, mostly without success, walnuts, hedge apples, bittersweet and buckeyes. Nothing proved very profitable, even though both of us worked hard at appearing pathetic and malnourished for the motorists who passed by.
We also attempted to sell live bait one summer, that venture coming in conjunction with our pest control management company. Since Mom was already making us pull the bagworms off our evergreen trees once a week, we simply dropped them into old pickle jars and set up shop with zero overhead. Needless to say, containers of squirming and mildly disgusting larvae hardly put us on easy street. I don’t think we sold a single worm.
Now, John was the real brains of the outfit when it came to making cash. He and my cousin, Roger, who lived across the road, spent much of their spare time carefully drawing up moneymaking plans, including the gleaning of neighboring fields for ear corn in the late fall. In those days, farmers often didn’t harvest until the weather turned cold, and since the old cornpickers left a lot of corn in the fields, John and Rog were there in snotty-nosed, frozen-fingered readiness to walk the rows while they strained under the weight of their filling burlap sacks. They’d then trudge their booty into town to sell the corn at the old elevator there.
“I think we made about $2 a truckload,” John told me with a smile last week as he remembered how much time and effort he had invested in the venture.
Gleaning corn was not, however, the high point of my big brother’s financially formative years. He and Roger moved seamlessly into the earthworm business. Believing that my sister and I had simply failed to offer an attractive enough product, they latched onto the idea that earthworms would sell like hotcakes to the hordes of bait-needy fisherman who just happened to cruise past our house. The duo went to work digging in dozens of places around the yard, pulling worms from the soil by the dozens for immediate transfer into old, dirt-filled washer drums they’d salvaged from the dump. There wasn’t a manure pile, fence row or flower bed around that they hadn’t had their hands in, and in just a matter of days, the two “Earthworm Kings” believed they were about to realize fabulous profits! While the earthworms grew and prospered, the pair meandered through toy catalogs. Then, disaster struck.
The young Carnegies were crushed, not by an abnormally low bait market, but by the forces of nature. Within days, most of the worms had simply disappeared. John and Rog never imagined that worms were capable of pulling a Steve McQueen, wriggling up and over the tub walls like escaping POWs. To add insult to injury, the worms that hadn’t made it to freedom, drowned when the tubs filled with water during a heavy rain shower.
Not easily deterred, the two then went into the mink-trapping business. My grandfather, who seemed to have been born in a Jack London novel, trapped muskrats all over our area, even in tiny Spring Creek, just up the road. John and Roger, lacking transportation, believed that minks undoubtedly thrived in the drainage ditch that ran across from our place. Despite the patience of Job, they snared only a few crawdads and a leech before they eventually gave up on that enterprise, too.
I could go on. My sister thought her pop bottle cap pot holders would be wildly popular, and I believed financial rewards would be mine when I got my revolutionary ant-vacuuming system worked out (ant farms were a rage then and I would have a ready supply). My mom caught me walking out the back door with our vacuum cleaner and an extension cord before that plan could come to fruition.
The three of us kids eventually grew up, got real jobs, found our niches in life, and settled into comfortable and busy lives. None of us have made it rich, but we’ve never gone hungry either. We loved growing up when we did, and where we did, and we remember our nutty schemes with grins on our faces.
But I’ll tell you this: If ant farms ever make a comeback, I’m going to be ready …
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com for information about book signings and speaking opportunities.