Money as Omen and Memory

At the Ranger School, our public phone was more modern, but this one reminds me of 1963.

Old phone reminds me of the phone we had at the Ranger School in 1963, though ours had coin receptacles and a rotary dial.

Last winter, my younger brother, Bill, showed me a notebook I left at home over 50 years ago. It had two pages of expense entries from the summer of 1962, after graduating from high school, and from 1963, when I attended the New York State Ranger School, a forestry technician school in the western Adirondack Mountains of New York. Money spent: I wanted to see what the entries might tell.

During my high-school senior year, I couldn’t imagine ever having enough money for a car. But I wasn’t counting on an older brother, Bob, who was joining the Peace Corps. He agreed to sell me his 1955 Pontiac for $200, which I could pay off, interest free, over six months. I had a good job lined up after graduation, so the payments would be a piece of cake.

On July 10, I paid for a grease job and oil change: $4.25. Then there is a series of about $5 entries for gas (about $0.30 per gallon) from July 10 through July 15. I remember being hot for a classmate, I’ll call her Laura, who, together with a couple of girl friends, had summer jobs on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks. I drove up to see them and to show off my car. Laura was surprised by my visit and somewhat chilly. Oh well. Yet I genuinely enjoyed the woods and lakes, as well as the drive up and back. Two conclusions stood out: both Laura and road trips were cool, the former as in the absence of heat, and the latter as in really cool.

My first car looked like this one.

My first car looked like this one.

The final entry for 1962, on July 20, didn’t include a cost. Here it is:

“Demolished Car—not entire car—just the right side and back of car—I don’t know what it will cost to have it fixed.”

I remember the event. My good friend, Chuck, had quit high school in late winter to join the Marines, and he was coming home on his first leave. I picked him up at the bus terminal (maybe train station), but before taking him home, I wanted to show him what my little baby would do. We headed for a country road where I punched the accelerator.

My tires had only a little tread, and the road was wet from a recent rain. That surge of power soon pushed the Pontiac into a skid, and we careened across the road one way, then the other, and ended up in the ditch. Later we learned that the frame was bent and the car was totaled. It took me 6 months to pay off my brother, during which I had to beg rides to work and home. Chuck returned to the Marines. Laura returned home at the end of the summer, packed her bags and headed to college; 

My notebook laid dormant until August and September of the following year. By then I was mid-way through the forest technician program at the Ranger School.

In September I bought a pack of cigarettes: $0.25. The largest expense that month was a phone call to Barbara Greene, who married me in 1970. In 1963 we were friends, but I thought she was cute way back in 9th grade. We had a pay phone at the Ranger School, and if we were making a major call, we had to amass a tub of change. That took planning. On September 12, 1963, I called Barbara and spent $6.30. Today, neither of us remembers the call, but it must have been serious. It was surely planned, and it cost more than a tank of gasoline in the previous summer’s Pontiac.

They say money is the root of all evil, and that money isn’t everything. Okay, maybe. But in a modern market economy huge amounts of life are marked with money. Money attends life like fans and gear attend football games. Large numbers often signify a big game. But there are millions of sandlot games that draw only by a few friends, a few bicycles, and a cooler of cokes. Friends often cost very little, and bikes and cokes are cheap.

Life, not money, is what matters. In the summer of 1962, money (or a used car) didn’t buy love, and a foolish driver and his used car were soon parted,. But in 1963, an expensive phone call helped keep budding affection alive. Barbara and I now see that phone call as an omen of our marriage to come. 

Time always steals the vividness of the present moment and stuffs it into a memory that slowly fades. That’s life. Anything may revive that memory—an old ledger, as here, or maybe an old photo, or a chance remark by a family member. Whatever the trigger, once revived, these relics of the mind are often worth keeping, even if they were inexpensive.