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It Comes In Pretty Handy Around Here, Bub

It Comes In Pretty Handy Around Here, Bub


In “It's a Wonderful Life” – There is a part in the movie where George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is with his angel Clarence at the bar and he asks Clarence if he happens to have any money and Clarence replies no they don't have any need for money up in heaven. George then says “Well, it comes in pretty handy around here, bub.” When watching that part of the movie I always think about this time in my life.

I was a married Airman First Class stationed at Beale AFB in Marysville, California. As the summer of '70 was coming to an end, money was tight and we were living as frugally as we could. I watched other married airmen, who were having trouble making ends meet, start going into debt. I was determined not to do that. As I mentioned previously, the money situation made doing my own laundry mandatory. My pay was something like $120 a month and they gave us another $100, for food and rent, supposedly $60 was for rent and $40 for food. They would sent that $100 directly to your wife. I suppose they were afraid the GI's might otherwise spend it on gambling, booze, and hookers, like in the movies. The cost for me to eat on base was about two dollars a day. That would add up to about $60 for a month for one person. Of course if I lived in the barracks and ate in the mess hall the $40 would cover it. When Uncle Sam did the math, I suppose buying into the “two can live as cheap as one” philosophy, he decided the both of us could do it for the $40. So, that's what all us married folks got. Our rent with utilities was about $70 and we tried to spend less than $40 on food, not easy. We had a car payment of $50. Car insurance was about $10 or so a month and gas for the car another $10. We now were also paying $30 to the Air Force for Donna's hospital bill. That left less than $20 for everything else which included things like the phone, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, soap, shampoo, and laundromat costs. We really did not have any money to spare, in fact, we frequently did not even have enough to go around. If an extra expense came up, say, something like car maintenance or repair, needing to replace something around the house, or even something like birth control pills we were likely in the hole for the month. That usually meant we would be forced to spend even less on food. Neither of us had any experience cooking so we were learning together. I remember a few times having less than $10 left till the end of the month and we still had two weeks to go. One time we lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until the jelly ran out then just the peanut butter. Another time we did just rice and beans. One time when we only had a few bucks left we found frozen pot-pies on sale for something like 14 cents each at the commissary. We bought 30 of them, 1 for lunch and 1 for dinner for each of us, some bread, and a dozen eggs. After 9 or 10 days I could not even look at a pot-pie. I went back to the peanut butter. I didn't eat another pot-pie for at least 10 years after that.

Donna had been looking for work but there was not much of anything in the area. I needed the car to get to the base so the job had to be in town and probably within walking distance. There were few jobs at that time and employers were not inclined to hire wives of servicemen as they were well aware that we were only temporary residents and could be transferred out at any time. They were not interested in breaking in a new employee who might suddenly leave. While this was California, not Mississippi, people from New York City were still looked on as different, maybe not to be trusted. Marysville was a rural farming community. Net result: No job for you!

I found a way to eat on base for 10 cents. The snack bar near the flight-line had cash registers where each item on the menu had it's own key on the register. Toast was 5 cents. There was no key for either tomatoes or lettuce. So I would get 2 lettuce and tomato sandwiches on toast and most of the girls checking me out would only charge me for the toast on each sandwich because that was the only key on the cash register that applied. So I was getting two sandwiches for 10 cents. It didn't help Donna but it certainly did me. I can tell you I looked forward to those two lettuce and tomato sandwiches. I still eat them today.

We decided to dip into our meager savings, which was all of $40. We decided to take out a few bucks on weeks when needed. We discovered that the bank, Bank of America, had a charge if you did more that one withdrawal in a month. So I decided to just close the account and take all the money out since it looked like we were going to need it all before long. Well the bank wanted to charge us $5 to close the account. What? Never heard of that. So I asked what was the minimum amount I was required to keep in my account. I remember it being $2. I decided to withdraw everything except for the $2. It's now 47 years later and as far as I know the $2 is still there although I suspect they were able to close it due to inactivity and I suspect they also had the required extra $3. I never went back to that bank and I removed B of A from my Christmas card list. However, now that I have a little more money I seem to be on theirs....

We needed money. I found a job on base, open to just Military personnel. It was bagging groceries for tips at the base commissary. There were a few big tippers but the standard tip was 5 cents per bag. The hours were something like 1 to 4 or 5, depending on where in the month we were in relation to payday. If crowds were up we got to stay longer. When the number of shoppers dwindled, most of us would be let go and only the top guy and a couple of his friends would get to stay. You had to be able to bag at least as fast as the cashiers checked the groceries, and they were fast. So until you proved yourself you would be held out and only get to bag for smaller orders and low tippers. The guy in charge knew all the big tippers and he would almost always take them when he saw them coming through. He just worked the express lane until he saw a big tipper come through, then he would cut in front and take it. Your only chance for a big tip would be to happen on someone who was new to the base and also a big tipper. We were supposed to report back on each tip we got but I soon learned to fudge on the amount. Once I proved myself, which I did quickly, I worked non-stop, as did the others. We would pack the grocery bags, carry them to their car, collect the tip, and then run back to get in line for another customer. It was kind of good because you didn't have time to think about anything as the faster you worked the more you could make. On good days I'd generally make about 4 or 5 dollars. On payday sometimes $6+, but at the end of the month it would be more like 2 or 3 and you would be sent home early because of the lack of shoppers. I did this as many afternoons a week as I could. I was still working night shift on the flight-line, 11:30 till 8 AM and now was bagging groceries from 1 to 4 in the afternoon. I had about a 20 minute commute each way for both jobs. I basically had two four or six hour windows to eat, shower, sleep, do whatever needed doing at home, and visit with Donna. I was getting about 5 total hours of sleep but usually not all at once. Those days were really a blur and I felt beat much of the time.

Having little money our entertainment choices were limited. I don't ever remember going to the movies, or eating out, not even fast food. I remember going to the county fair once. We sometimes would drive up into the foothills and hike around or find a spot near the river to have a little picnic. On the weekends we would sometimes head down to Denio's Roseville Auction. It was an auction and a farmer's market and a flea market all rolled into one. Coming from urban New York it was different than anything we had experienced before. We sometimes got some produce and occasionally purchased some cheap thing like maybe some socks, but we mostly just walked around taking in the scene. Social activities were largely visiting with some of the other married airmen who were in the same boat as ourselves. We did occasionally buy some cheap red wine. That would be Red Mountain Wine, a gallon for just over dollar. As Donna would explain to those who visited, the first couple of glasses were a little rough but it got better after that...


As I had mentioned in a previous blog, Jimmy Stewart came around a couple of times while I was at Beale. I never got to meet him but he pretty much nailed that money thing: It sure does come in handy, especially if you ain't got it....   

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