One of the greatest pleasures of a journalist's job is learning the life stories of folks who, at first glance, might seem quite ordinary. A little prodding, however, often reveals astounding tales of times gone by.
Last month, I was especially thrilled to spend time with four local centenarians (Leona Jenkins, Ola Risner, Lois Rodgers and Ruth Elliot) who reminded me how spoiled we Americans have become.
Ranging in age from 100 to 104, each of the women came from what we would consider today to be humble backgrounds. They didn't see it that way. They always had carefully mended hand-me-downs to wear, warm homes full of love and plenty of good food to eat and share with those less fortunate.
Leona's dad earned 50 cents a day with a horse-drawn thrashing machine to feed five children.
"I was perfectly happy," Leona said.
Each of the women grew up in the country in large families. Although electricity, indoor plumbing and automobiles were commonplace in cities, each of them can vividly recall their first encounters with such luxuries.
Ola Risner hid terrified behind a tree the first time she heard a "little, old hoopy car" making an awful racket on the gravel Oregon County road her family called home in about 1912.
Leona recalls seeing her first car in a parade, and even going for a ride in it.
"It was a touring car," Leona said. "My, that was something else."
Ruth, born in rural Mississippi, walked through a swamp to get to school.
Although there were six children in Lois's family, her father never saw a need to buy a car after he broke his arm cranking someone's Model T Ford. Instead, the family piled into a wagon every week to attend church. Trips to town for groceries where much rarer, partly because they needed few store-bought goods.
Household chores, such as baking bread or doing laundry, were all-day affairs to the women when they were young. Washing clothes required boiling water, first drawn from a creek, cistern or hand-dug well. Lois got her water from "the nearest tank," what we call a "pond."
When Leona related the effort she and her family went through to bring water to the house, she said, "My, my. That's altogether different than now. You can just turn on the spigot and have all the water you want."
On washday in Ruth's youth, three good-sized tubs lined the porch, with the women and girls doing most of the scrubbing on "rub-boards," while the men, with their stronger hands, wrung out the clothes to be hung on the line.
I have an old household hints book that was published just before Ola, Lois, Ruth and Leona were born. I keep it by my bedside to read when I run out of crypto-quotes to do.
The book, of course, was not meant to be comical, but it surely has brought many tears of laughter to my eyes. Consider this passage about vacuum cleaners in the chapter titled "Sweeping Day," for example:
"At present, this method of cleaning is somewhat expensive, and is confined to localities where electric or other power is available. It is to be hoped, however, that vacuum cleaning apparatus may be devised that can be run by cheap gasoline or alcohol motors at a price within the means of the average family. There is little doubt that some such means of cleaning will eventually take the place of the broom and carpet sweeper in ordinary households, and that thus the dust question will be finally and satisfactorily settled."
Perusing the pages the other night, I learned that 100 years ago, clotheslines were not left outside to decay in all sorts of weather. Properly tended to, a clothesline was hung outside only when needed, and then carefully coiled and stored. Twice a year, the line was submerged in boiling water to retain its usefulness.
Although I consider myself frugal, never having bought a new car or furniture, and darn few unused clothes, I must admit I have never bothered to take down my clothesline with the dry clothing. I consider clothesline cheap and disposable.
I suppose as a society we view many things now as disposable that were once painstakingly cared for, as it was a long ride to town to get another.
I once found a hammer behind a plaster and slat wall in a 100-year-old farmhouse I lived in. I assume it was dropped as the house was built. I have wondered often about the inconvenience that slip of the wrist cost the poor fella who dropped his hammer behind the wall.
We don't think much of trivial costs anymore it seems. With all the talk in the news recently about nearly 10 percent of Americans living in poverty, I wonder if our measure of poverty got skewed during our era of overindulgence in the 1980s, 1990s and first decade of this century.
Everything got super-sized during that 30-year span, from vehicles, to houses, appliances, televisions, entertainment systems and sofas. There also was an explosion of big-boy toys -- four-wheelers, motorcycles, all manner of trucks and a boatload of watercraft.
This does not even include all the technological gadgets, fast food and artificial everything now part of our everyday lives.
I asked Ola, Ruth, Leona and Lois when they were happiest in life. And, you know what? Their answers were nearly identical. They were happiest at home on the farm, surrounded by family. They worked hard -- very hard -- all day long, yet those were among the best years of their lives.
They had no iPods, Internet, cell phones, air-conditioning, satellite TV, microwave ovens, clothes dryers, jet skis, SUVs or X Boxes. I doubt if they even wished for them. It was my generation that did that.
After reminiscing this weekend about my delightful talks with these four lively ladies, I opened my e-mail this morning and read a headline bragging how one U.S. family of four has discovered ways to "survive on" $40,000 a year.
In the words of Leona, "My, oh my, how things have changed."