Last week I mentioned a day in 1966 when my brother Frank phoned me on Okinawa and asked me to “pick up a little something” for him. But when I realized the “little something” cost more than $2,000 I told Frank it was too steep for me.
“Huh,” he said. “Doesn’t seem like much. How are you doing?”
I always chuckle when I tell somebody what Frank said when I told him I was barely making $5,000.
“Well, that’s not bad. That’s about what I make.”
Trouble is, I was talking about $5,000 a year and he was talking about $5,000 a week. Needless to say, after we got done laughing, he no longer expected me to saunter out and slap down $2,000 on the things he needed.
You know what that goes to prove, Johnny? When it comes to money, a lot depends on your point of view.
Actually, it’s too bad Frank didn’t call when I was stationed in Karachi. Back then I could have told him I was making twenty-four hundred a month. Which I was - in rupees though - at 6.721 rupees to the dollar.
Which comes to $357.09. Out of that I paid our cook 100 rupees a month, which if you do the math comes to $14.88. And he was considered overpaid. The going rate was 35 rupees, but then he was working for a rich American. Ho! Ho! Ho!
Well, I was – compared to people who averaged $5.21 a month.
Another thing I mentioned last week was that a loaf of bread, a quart of milk, or a pack of cigarettes cost just 12 cents in 1938 when I was six. You’d think that with prices like that people would smoke two or three at a time, but my oldest brother Billy was always so broke he had to roll his own. Bill and Frank, each working sixty hours a week in a small local factory, brought home just $72 a month between them.
People remember the hard times, I think. Doesn’t necessarily turn them into cheapskates, but it does affect the way they eye waste. Dwight Eisenhower rolled his own cigarettes back in 1916 when they were a buck a carton. Maybe that’s why he didn’t spend our tax money like water while he was President.
Anyway, 16 of those 72 green ones Bill and Frank earned each month went to rent, and the rest had to feed and clothe a family of four. Which no doubt explains why Mom almost had a heart attack over one of my typical childhood screwups.
I’m not sure how old I was, but I know I hadn’t started school yet. One day, a friend and I decided to go to the candy store up the street and buy some candy. I went in the house to get some money from Mom, but remembering she was at a neighbor’s house I went into a heavy metal box in the bedroom, supplied myself with what looked like plenty of money to me, and off we went.
The candy store guy was very nice, but he didn’t take buttons.
Back at the house, I tried another strategy – Mom’s pocketbook. That worked. I took the smallest coin I could find, a dime. This time the candy store man loaded up a small paper bag with sweet riches. The kid next door hadn’t gone with me, so I wandered home alone, filling my gut all the way. And Mom, God bless her, forgave me when I got there – but had a good cry over it.
Why? That dime was supposed to have gone for 10 cents worth of store cheese (American cheese), which together with some inexpensive boiled macaroni was to have fed the four of us. A dime was dime in those days.
But not always... Every couple of months a blind violinist would find his way to the top of a set of some steps that led down to our backyard from that of our landlord, who lived a street above us. About forty years old and thin as a wraith, the violinist would sit up there playing his haunting melodies, ones I wish I could remember.
And every time Mom heard him she sent me up to him with... You got it. A dime.
Says a lot about the old folks, doesn’t it?
Ah yes, money. Take a man’s measure in the dollar bills he’s given away and you have his true value.
I found a dollar bill once - in 1940. Found it sitting right in the gutter where I was looking for discarded cigarette packs, which had real tin tinfoil in them. We used to roll the foil into balls and sell them at a scrap yard. I was walking along the curb looking for empty packs and there it was – all green and beautiful. I could hardly believe my eyes, and the kid next door almost had a heart attack when I picked it up. He had walked right by it!
What did I do with it? Gave it to Mom, of course. That kind of serious money was not for kids.
You know when money becomes serious? When it stands between having or not having your family with you. It happened to me on Okinawa. There was no base housing for low ranking NCO’s. The only way I could get Lolly and the kids over there with me was to find a rental house – an impossible task on a small, overcrowded island, especially because it had to be an approved, typhoon proof house.
Having almost given up after six months of daily searching, I just happened to do a favor for someone. It led to a mysterious midnight ride out in the country, where I was introduced to an old Okinawan who had a house to sell – for cash. I was grateful, but broken hearted. There was no way I could buy a house. But then I heard the price. Could I maybe swing that much on a personal loan?
Soon Lolly, I, and kids were together in a hillside house with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bath, view of the Pacific, concrete walls, six inch thick concrete roof, and heavy wooden storm shutters that could withstand a typhoon. Which was good because we sat shuttered up through 18 of them during our thirty months there.
And what did that palace cost me? A big old $1,500. No, I didn’t leave any zeroes off that number. And I sold it for $3,700!
Ah yes, money. You know the happiest “money memory” I have? Happened in 1949. Pop Johnson, my stepfather, and the hardest working man I have ever known, came home from work one Christmas and opened his pay envelope while I happened to be there.
“Look, Liz,” he told Mom. “A twenty dollar bonus!”
Then the brand new bills slid apart. “Hey! Forty dollars!
It happened three more times – a $100 Christmas bonus!
I’ve never seen two more joyful faces.
That insight into what a few dollars can mean in the lives of people has guided me every day since my childhood.
Money is nothing. People are everything.