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by George Lester
George Lester
Have you ever been desperately hungry? I don't mean missing lunch because of a busy schedule or running out of provisions on a camping trip. That is nothing compared to the kind of hunger I endured in the mid fifties. Try going weeks and sometimes even months with hardly enough nourishment to survive. I had no choice.

When I was working at the television station in El Dorado, Arkansas I decided to buy a new car. My old one was gasping its last breath. I sat down and carefully figured out my budget. With the salary I was receiving at the time I found that I could just barely make the payments on a 1956 Ford sedan. I chose the lowest price car available. It was a two-door, six cylinder model with standard shift and no back seat. There was a little platform in the back for carrying cargo. My uncle, a traveling salesman, had a similar car and that gave me the idea.

Later I was to learn that there was another practical reason for that type of automobile. I could carry everything I owned in it. If I couldn't carry it with me when I moved I didn't buy it. I found out that in the radio business one had to remain mobile.

I could handle the car payments with no problem until I lost the television job and had to take a sizable pay cut in radio. The judge had been brutal in setting my child support payments. It was now taking a larger percentage of my salary. After moving to Monroe. Louisiana I petitioned for a reduction because of my salary cut. My plea fell on deaf ears. With that problem added on to the cost of renting an apartment, car payments and other incidental expenses I had four dollars a week left for food. In those days money went a lot further but it still fell far short of being enough.

I learned quickly that eating at restaurants was totally out of the question. Even with cooking all my meals at home it stretched my meager allowance to the breaking point. Any kind of prepared food was out, no TV dinners, frozen entrees, frilly desserts, expensive cuts of meat, junk food or soda pop. I ended up surviving on dried beans, oatmeal and hog liver. If this sounds less than appetizing please understand it was either that or starve. I could get enough beans to last for days for thirty five cents. The oatmeal was about the same price and the hog liver was twenty five cents a pound, the cheapest meat I could find, and it was very nourishing.

At best this was a tough way to live but if any kind of emergency came up it was my food budget that suffered. I had to pay my rent and make my car payments. With my food allowance severely deprived I just hoped I wouldn't get so weak from hunger that I couldn't make it to work each day. There were times when I completely ran out of sustenance. I became desperate. One night I had nothing but mayonnaise for supper.

While lying awake at night with terrible hunger pangs I tried to figure out what I was going to do. A vision came to me of a big pile of empty pop bottles I had seen in the corner of a store room at the radio station. The next morning I gathered them up and took them to the grocery store. After redeeming the bottles I had about a dollar. I purchased a big box of oatmeal and some powdered milk. It wasn't exactly gourmet dining but it got me through the crisis.

I couldn't afford to buy gas for my car so I rode my bicycle to work and back to get past the tough times. With my lean diet and all that exercise my weight dwindled down to the danger level. My clothes hung on me like a sack. I must have looked like a ghost.

Another thing I had to give up was using a coin operated laundry. I couldn't afford the coins. In order to keep my clothes clean I had to soak them in my bathtub and agitate them with my bare hands inflicting detergent burns up to my elbows. I would then rinse them the same way and hang them out to air dry on a clothes line. Lucky for me, like my bicycle, I also had an iron from my better days. I sure couldn't have bought one during those trying times. I would have had to wear wrinkled shirts.

I have long since given up the habit but at that time I was a cigarette smoker. I believe they cost about twenty cents a pack. That amount would have bought several days serving of beans. It was a sobering thought and I had to get my priorities straight. I never was a heavy smoker but then I made a pack last even longer. My self imposed limit was five cigarettes a day. I would carefully watch the clock and anticipate my next smoke. When I finally did light up I savored every puff like a condemned man enjoying his last drag. Eventually, buying cigarettes became prohibitive. For a nickel I bought a package of cigarette papers and then gathered up all the butts left in the ash trays at work. It was a disgusting operation ripping the butts apart, dumping the tobacco out and then using it to roll my own. Smokers will go to any extremes to satisfy their all consuming habit.

Now and then one of my listeners would invite me to a family gathering. On one such occasion I remember arriving to the delightful sight of a picnic table laden with all kinds of delectable food. I tried to hide my eagerness but I probably didn't do a very good job of it. I'm sure everyone there knew that I hadn't had a decent meal in weeks as I returned again and again to fill my plate. As I thanked the nice people and left I was literally stuffed. It was a miserable kind of contentment, if you know what I mean.

Another time my church group was invited to take a cruise up and down the Ouachita River on a paddle boat owned by the ex governor of Louisiana. He lived there in Monroe and owned radio and television stations around the state. The outing was a wonderful adventure but what was even more wonderful was all the great food brought aboard by the church members. We dined in style as we paddled along the beautiful waters of the Ouachita.

When it was all over and the gang plank was dropped the entire entourage made their exit. As a lady was leaving she stopped to ask the captain if they should come back and help to dispose of all the leftover food. He told her not to worry about it because that was his job and he would take care of it. I made some excuse about wanting to stay behind and visit with the captain and look about the boat for awhile. As soon as the last person was out of sight I started gathering up as much food as I could to carry. I think it took me two trips to get it all. I feasted for days until the food started to spoil in my refrigerator.

Fortunately, I was soon to see better days but those trying times still haunt me even now. I cannot stand to see food wasted. When I witness a family throwing more food in the garbage each day than they eat it makes me cringe. A mother piling a three year old kid's plate with enough food for a linebacker strikes me as insane. Picky eaters test my patience. When someone shuns certain foods I wish they could have gone through what I endured back in those hungry days. Let them get hungry, really hungry. Then they will do what I did. They will devour anything that is shoved in front of them.

I remember a drama on television. It was about this fellow who was a fugitive from justice and he had gone days without food. He was mumbling under his breath about how hungry he was and that he had to get something to eat or he would soon die of hunger. All his money was gone so he walked into a grocery store and when no one was looking he grabbed a sandwich from the cooler and slipped it under his coat. He quickly ran to a dark alley to feast on his purloined treat. When he removed the wrapper he moaned, "Ham, I hate ham". He then tossed the sandwich into a garbage can an sauntered away.

Evidently the writer of that story had never been really hungry.
George Lester
Spunky Flat and Beyond - A Memoir >

May 1, 2007 column

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