It was in October each year that my coal delivery business started to pick up. It was an all-day Saturday job for which my Uncle George Noon – married to my mother’s sister – paid me the equivalent of two dollars.
Uncle George owned and operated a small corner store offering canned and packaged food, a modest variety of cheeses, a good selection of vegetables and fruit – and coal.
The coal was stored in a huge backyard in mounds of various sizes and was sold by the “hundredweight” – which, if my memory holds true, was 112 pounds on an English weigh scale. Uncle George’s father – known to me as “granddad” – ran the Saturday coal yard. I was the delivery boy.
Most customers brought their own wheelbarrows, watched the scales as granddad weighed their coal, paid him in cash and rumbled off down the street. And, every Saturday, at least half-a-dozen elderly ladies or ageing men lacking their own wheelbarrows or being too old to handle a hundredweight of coal, would wander in to choose the size of coal they wanted – large lumps or “cobs.” Large lumps burn slower; smaller cobs burn brighter but disappear faster. Important decisions to be carefully made when coal fires are your only source of energy for warmth or cooking.
With decisions made, the coal would be sacked, placed in the company wheelbarrow – a four-wheeled brut – and I would clatter forth. Walking ahead would be the customer guiding me to their sometimes close sometimes blocks-away homes. There was no charge for delivery, and in the extremely harsh economic times of the 1930s, no tips for the delivery boy and, believe it or not, none expected.
At the end of the day, a meal would be shared with aunt, uncle and granddad – after the coal yard crew had scrubbed themselves clean. I would then trot home, my pay jingling in my pocket demanding to be spent. But, before I could launch myself to a Saturday night Tom Mix movie at “The Rex,” there had to be the equivalent of a fifty-cent deduction paid to my mother.
When I earned my first Saturday pay, I thought it a bit greedy and unfair that mother should chisel into my hard-earned cash. I was maybe 15 – a two-year coal delivery veteran – before I understood where my weekly fifty-cent contribution ended up. It was paid into a layaway plan down at the local co-op store. Mother always used the layaway plan to make sure Christmas was a decent celebration for her four children. Later she used it to buy family treats like radios and new clothes.
It was a simple system. You just paid a store to hold an object for you until you had enough saved to buy it outright. The reverse of the way we do things now where we take possession of goods and then decide if we can really afford them. And often discover when the bill arrives – we can’t.
It was pay as you go until emerging airlines started their seductive “fly now, pay later” campaign and the magic wands called credit cards provided immediate access to Ali Baba’s cave and treasures once available only to the cash-blessed rich.
The great slide into individual, family and government debt began then and continues to accelerate at alarming speed, encouraged by the bankers who make is so easy for us to spend beyond our means.
There was a time when we could look to government to take strong actions to halt the slide to ruin – or at least slow it down. But municipal, regional, provincial and federal governments long ago ceased to preach the benefits of a frugal way of life. Fearful of rejection if they deny their constituents what they know they can’t afford, they just raise – always “modestly” – taxes, to pay back loans made to buy goods and services we could live without.
In the early 1940s, American humorist Ethel Watts Mumford quipped: “In the midst of life we are in debt.” After a brief chuckle, we might sadly realize it is true – we are, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.
I don’t think my parents belonged to a miracle generation in the human parade. But I do believe they had a better approach to life, and that living without packing a burden of debt is far more conducive to family strength, well-being and general happiness than self-afflicted penury.