THE EVOCATIONS OF TWO QUARTERS AND A NICKEL
I walk often and far relative to most inhabitants of this town and probably elsewhere. I seldom encounter a prominent citizen unless he has been told by his doctor to walk or die soon, and I encounter a few less prominent people because they haven’t the wherewithal to purchase a vehicle, a rare handicap but a real one. And I usually walk with my head down instead of up. I can dream better looking at the sidewalk. Thus, I often find change, mostly pennies. The penny is of so little value that few want to exert the energy to pick it up. But sometimes I discover more than pennies. Recently I walked into a major find, two quarters and a nickel.
A day after the find, I walked with my daughter, a common occasion during which we compete finding lost change on the sidewalks, and I told her that I had picked up fifty-five cents, a score that topped by far her find for the week. Then it occurred to me what fifty-five cents would buy in the Thirties. “You know, “ I said, “fifty-five cents would have bought five loaves of bread and a candy bar, or ten bags of tobacco with roll-your-own-papers enough to do a smoker for a month, or five packs of cigarettes with five cents change. Also, for the wild and adventurous, three beers and a dime left for another pack of smokes. She was astonished to learn that a dime would once buy a loaf of bread or a pack of cigarettes.
Not only has the purchasing power of fifty-five cents changed but much else has changed unimaginably since the days I lived during the Twenties and Thirties on a hillside farm situated on top of Big Bend mountain, the mountain through which John Henry cut a tunnel and created a legend doing it. Years ago from the highest point of the farm, I hoed corn and cradled wheat in a field that gave view of a distant horizon of mountains and sky and a vast tract of river bottom created during eons by the abrasive flow and flooding of the Greenbrier River, whose roar I could hear as it cascaded over the rocky bed of Bacon’s Falls and in whose pristine waters I yearned to be immersed—as I hoed out weeds, fought gnats and endured the solar burn of the summer solstice. And whose roar also induced escapist dreams of victory in some competitive adventures in which fame, fortune and idolization by the literate and lovely were my rewards. I never realized my dream but I did realize the cooling and cleansing of the waters of the Greenbrier often during all of my teen years.
My baptism occurred during those escapes from field and forest when I got to the Greenbrier to dive into its depths to feel the warm and cool cross-currents and swim to the bottom with eyes open in search of what jewels nature had fashioned and hidden among its treasures in the current-cleansed belly of the river. Then, no bottles, cans or bags or numberless pieces of plastic and garbage fouled the river and thus aborted any spiritual feeling of the baptismal effect of diving into its deep and surfacing to what nature had wrought undefiled by the throw-away age.
Water, soil and sun were my trinity. Water then was available in potable status everywhere. There were springs near every field that was cultivated and there we went to get drink to compensate for labor’s sweat and the dehydration induced by the sun’s tax. Water was the drink of the day. Nothing except water quenched a thirst engendered from toil in field on a July’s midday. The adulteration of water with sugar, spices and strange chemicals by a profit-driven druggist came after many men no longer worked in field and forest. But they worked in offices where they in relative leisure, in the shade of brick, expropriated the labor of others to their own account and thus had no need of water unsweetened or for credit or mortgages. The surplus value of my grandfather’s labor, however, stayed with him and warmed his winter and did not leave as profit to be tallied by some corporate accountant in some distant city to the credit of Smith, Jones and Co.
My grandfather’s estate was meager. All he had to show for a lifetime of work was the land he cultivated, his tools, farm equipment, horses and other stock. He never had the capitalist’s advantage of expropriating the value of hired labor so he died a poor man after nearly a century of hard but satisfying labor from dawn to dark. His children faced with rocky acres and a lifetime of manual labor left for the city for white shirts, shorter hours, swivel chairs, desks—and debt..
The city with the prospect of riches and an easeful and sweatless life has lured farmers’ children to the city time out of mind. Today, the countryside population is crowding into cities worldwide and creating horrendous slums, a migration that has been going on for generations. Capitalism has produced prodigious wealth, the main lure of the city. But it has accrued mostly to the few and less to the many. But even the many have fabulous wealth relative to my grandfather’s estate.
But wealth induces permissiveness and willfulness. My grandfather depended upon himself, nature, neighbor and family. He had to talk and walk the strait and narrow. There was no alternative but a devastating collision with realty. Today, wealth spawns permissiveness and waywardness in all walks of life, because one can walk the primrose path knowing that the wages of sin can be mitigated and alleviated, if not avoided, by money and technology. Gluttony’s fat can be reduced by liposuction and a smoker’s abused heart can be replaced. Botox blurs blemishes.
Fifty-five cents has lost its value and humankind has diluted its values. Values have been subverted by wealth, that insuperable obstacle to entering the Kingdom. Capitalism is the culprit. Yet it is the darling of fundamentalists and evangelicals and everyone who has been enticed by its temptations. Wealth also seduces prudence and induces reckless hubris, evidence of which is this nation’s Iraqi adventure. Capitalism to the Third World is the Great Satan. And anyone who can rise above blind patriotism can envision the hungry billions with noses to the window on the West.