Reflecting on tough times allows one to appreciate good ones


Being broke was a good thing for me. When my wife and I were first married, all the money we had received for our wedding and all the savings we had gone into cheap, phony wood, furniture. We moved into a welfare development in Massachusetts, where our rent was $32.00 a month. I was in the service at that time and I was earning $64.00 a month. This $32.00 was half my income. Fortunately, our rent included the heat and electricity. After I paid the rent, I had $8.00 a week left over for food for two, gas for our car and auto insurance.  Heaven forbid my car would break down.

I used to bring food home from the ship I was on so we could eat but finally, I was able to be enrolled in the state of Massachusetts low income “surplus food” program. Once a month, my wife would drive our Volkswagen beetle (good gas mileage) to the distribution point and take everything they were offering. Everyone in the project would meet up on a grassy area between the apartment buildings and swap items that they didn’t want for something they wanted. It was like a Bangkok food bazaar. A can of Spam was worth its weight in gold back then. At least we would eat.

To make money I would also carpool to the base where my ship was. I had up to three riders for the trip. I think I charged $3.00 a day for the 90-mile round trip. We looked like a clown car, four grown men in uniform jammed into a Volkswagen beetle. Hey, it paid for my gas and then some.

There were other creative ways I had to earn money. When I would go on a cruise, I would run a “Slush Fund”. For those of you who don’t know what this is, I was a money lender. I would go “on the beach” and make myself available at a local bar.

The worst thing that can happen to a sailor on the beach is that he runs out of money before his liberty is over. That’s where I would come in. I would have them sign a note and loan them 10 for 3. What this meant was I would give you $10 and you would owe me $13 on payday.

I had one first class petty officer that had to give me all of his pay allotment every payday. Of course, then he was then broke and would have to come to me for more money. Seeing as we got paid the 1st and 15th of the month, this was a great money maker for me. I only got burned once doing this. The debtor got transferred before he paid me off. Oh well, I had made money off of them so I was still ahead.

When I was on a 6 month Mediterranean cruise, I would mail my fiancée (who later became my wife) my excess money. I didn’t want to keep too much money around lest it was stolen. This came to more money than the Navy paid me during that cruise.

Another money making scheme I made use of while I was in the Navy was to buy cigarettes for a dollar a carton when the ship I was on went to sea. We would cruise out past the 3-mile limit and they would open the ship’s store to sell “sea stores” cigarettes. A whole case of 60 cartons of cigarettes would cost me only $60.00. I know this was a lot of money, but back in port, I would then sell them for $4.00 a carton and make $240.00, a 300% profit.

That was the poorest I had ever been in my life. I was living without the benefit of my family nearby so I had no safety net and I had to do whatever it took, on my own, to survive, plus as an added responsibility I now had someone else relying on me for food and shelter. It was during this time I learned more about self-reliance and being frugal than I ever had in my life.

These lessons have served me well during my lifetime. Sure I never had the classic car I always wanted, but I found out I didn’t need it to be happy. I never had a motorcycle for that cross country trip which I had envisioned. This would have been fun but I don’t regret that it never happened. I live in a modest home, not the mansion I wanted, but really, how many rooms do you need to live in?

The things I achieved were much better than these. I managed to raise three wonderful children that I taught to be self-reliant and hopefully they are teaching their children the same lessons that I taught them. This has more value to me than all the things I wanted in my youth. I always said all I wanted out of life was a warm, dry place to sleep, clothes on my back and food to eat and I would be happy. I am happy.

Now some fifty plus years later, as I look back, I am amazed that my younger self was able to pull it off.

Norb is a writer from Lockport, New York.

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