While the adults focused on survival, we kids were left to fend for ourselves. And fend we did, with all of the ingenuity and zeal of childhood. For my friends and me, life was one grand adventure. The need to survive made growing up all the more exciting.
My friend Warren’s father worked for Ford and owned a car. While many businesses failed in Norfolk during the Depression, the Ford Motor Company held strong. Production dropped, but the plant remained open and continued to pay five dollars a day to the lucky workers on the assembly line. Of course, lucky back then meant endless hours, no bathroom breaks, sweltering summers, and long cold winters. But it also meant food on the table and a stable place to live. Warren had real toys, even lead soldiers. It didn’t matter, though. As far as I was concerned, I was the lucky one because Warren was pampered and sheltered, and I was free to run outside with my friends.
We roamed far and wide after school—only needing to make it home in time for dinner. Then, a quick bite and out the door again until the cannon blast from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard across the water that signaled nine o’clock curfew. My friends and I traipsed the cobblestones from the open-air excitement of Market Street to boxing matches at the Armory to the continuous stream of commerce at One Commercial Place, a building that sprawled from East Main down to the river. The ship channels had offices there along with blacksmiths and supply companies, and the stables were just down the street. People came and went on foot, on horse, in black Model T’s, in one big, continuous stream of activity.
Times being what they were, other than Warren, the rest of our parents weren’t going to waste hard-earned money on toys, so my friends and I invented our own games and made playthings out of virtually everything that surrounded us. We concocted rubber guns out of ripped up inner tubes, stretching the torn pieces tight over sticks, with a wooden clothespin strategically placed at the end as a trigger. The guns were serious weapons, leaving long, red welts. We loved to play cops and robbers, emulating the strangely romantic stories we heard about Al Capone, John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. Where the prior generation idolized cowboys and renegades like Jessie James, my friends and I looked up to gangsters. In a time when people were broke and the establishment had failed almost everyone, these men who robbed banks and set their own rules took on a heroic air. So instead of cowboys and Indians, we played gangster robbers and FBI agents, with the coveted role of the gangsters always going to the toughest kids.
Poverty may have robbed us of possessions, but it did not diminish our desire to roam. Of course, being poor meant that we had no means of transportation other than ourselves. We walked everywhere, traipsing all over the city. With no money for bicycles, we made scooters out of old two-by-four Coca-Cola crates. We’d nail the rollers from outgrown skates to the front and back of the crate and race them all over town.
With freedom, came a heightened awareness. Danger lined the streets, lurking in the shadows and the stairwells, always ready to make its move. I’d walk the tracks from time to time, picking up pieces of fallen coal to take home to fuel our stove. I had to be especially careful there. Hobos strolled along, trying to grab food off unsecured railway cars or hop aboard a train heading west, hoping that the change of scenery just might give them a change of luck. The railway police would beat anyone that they caught, so even the bums had to be cunning and tough.
Cuttings, shootings, and beatings happened often enough to keep everyone on their toes. Kids had to be careful, but we weren’t afraid in a random, unpredictable way. There was a code to the streets, a pecking order determined by your toughness and determination. Most of the violence happened when someone was standing up to protect his honor or what little possessions he had. Families stuck together. Neighbors did too. We knew where we were safe, and where we weren’t. And we never let down our guard, just in case.
Our knives were our prized possessions. Every boy had one, no matter how poor. We used them for everything—eating, playing, whittling, protection. When I wasn’t using my knife, I was sharpening it. Most of the time, I would just spit on an old brick and hone the blade against the moist surface. But sometimes I got lucky, winning or earning a good piece of sharpening stone. Then I was really something, the envy of all my buddies. At those prestigious times when I had my knife in one pocket and a shard of sharpening stone in the other, I felt as if I ruled the world.
No matter how tough the times, poverty couldn’t squelch the enthusiasm of youth. Everybody wanted to be daring and bold. Every boy wanted to test his strength and courage against the group. Besides cops and robbers, we’d throw hatchets at trees and rocks against telephone poles, working on our strength and our aim. And the aim came in handy in one of my favorite games—mumblety-peg. A group of scruffy boys would form a circle, shoving a stick into a central mound of dirt. Then everyone took out his knife and started the game. We would go around the circle, one boy setting the challenge by dropping the open knife from his hand, his knee, his forehead, anywhere. The object was to make sure that you did it hard enough and with just the right spin so that the blade would stick solidly into the ground. We kept going around the circle that way, everyone trying to push the level of skill forward, until one unlucky boy failed to stick his knife. When that happened, the rest of us all got to pound the stick once into the ground. Then, the loser had to pull the stick out and eat it, dirt and all.
We were young and poor. It took very little to keep us entertained.
Those of us who endured the Depression learned a great deal about how to survive through difficult times. It made many of the things that people tend to worry about much less frightening. If you lived with nothing, if you survived and even thrived in some ways, then you no longer have to spend your time and energy worrying about losing everything. Once you move past that fear, it’s much easier to take risks and make hard choices. And once you’re ready to do that, life gets a whole lot more interesting and meaningful to live.
Mine certainly did.