November 18, 2018

Government Cheese,
Aunt Ruth's Equities, And
That Virgil Caine Song

I remember the day my parents came home from town with a bunch of free food from the government. I was 12 years old. It was 1970. There were a couple big bricks of yellow cheese, and powdered milk, and white rice, and some other things I don't recollect. The cheese was pretty good, but the powdered milk wasn't.  

The food was for poor people. It was "welfare" food. I didn't like knowing that my parents were poor. 

We were poor because my stepfather had experienced a serious health setback. 

He didn't look or act sick to me. I saw him as a fit, hard-working Marine veteran. But he wasn't as fit as he looked because he went into the VA hospital for surgery. A couple weeks later he came home a different person. He was so pale and weak and helpless that  only with my mother's help could he get up the four steps into our house. He was only 39 years old. I remember it well. It was a shock to my senses.

My stepfather had been the manager of an industrial laundry in Syracuse, NY. But when he went into the hospital, the company let him go. I don't know exactly how long he was out of work but it was long enough to be an economic hardship. Thus, the government food.

I'm sure my parents didn't like taking that free government food. To my knowledge, they never did again. And I suspect that is how they came to sell Aunt Ruth's stocks.

Aunt Ruth was one of only two living relatives my stepfather had. She was his mother's sister and she lived in California. Aunt Ruth had no children. I met her once, when she came to visit some years earlier. She was a pleasant, white-haired, old lady. Aunt Ruth died a couple years before my stepfather went into the hospital. She left him some stocks in her will.

We started getting mail in big envelopes from different companies. They contained colorful photos and financial details. Marathon Oil and Phelps Dodge were two I remember. They were blue-chip stocks from long-established companies. Aunt Ruth had invested her money wisely.

Back in those times, the daily newspapers had a couple of pages reporting how each and every stock was doing. I was such a nerd back then that I made graphs and charted the daily progress of several stocks.

In time, my stepfather recovered and got back to work. I noticed that the information from the various stock companies stopped coming in the mail. I asked why. My stepfather told me he sold the stocks.

I've always thought that selling those stocks was like selling the seed corn. Between 1970 and 2011 (when my stepfather died) the average annual return on stocks was around 10%. One dollar in the stock market in 1970 grew to be worth around $50 in 2011.

In retrospect, selling Aunt Ruth's stocks might not have been the smartest thing to do, but it was the responsible thing to do. My stepfather had a family to support, and he was down on his luck. 

Unfortunately, my stepfather struggled with one serious health crisis after another for the rest of his days. Finances were always tight. My parents were always struggling to keep the bills paid. There were periods of time when the bill collectors called. Our phone service was shut off once for awhile. My parents would manage to save some money, and then another health and financial crisis would come.

My stepfather worked well past retirement age, because he had to. And when he died (my mother had died a few years earlier), his estate amounted to a small amount in a checking account, along with the contents of his house.

That's a sad story, but it's not an uncommon story, and it's not a bad story. In fact, it's actually a good story. That's because my stepfather was a remarkable example of a responsible man. He was a diligent and hard worker who sacrificed for his family. I can't recall him ever wasting money, or spending a lot of money on something special for himself. No boats, no fancy cars, no expensive hobbies, nothing like that—it was all about providing for those he loved. And, at times, I saw my parents being generous towards others with money they really couldn't afford to be generous with.

Life dealt my stepfather one cruel blow after another, but he took the blows and he fought back to the best of his ability. He did the best he could against difficult odds. I admire him greatly for the example he was to me.


That phrase, "selling the seed corn," got me to thinking about the song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The YouTube video below shows Levon Helm singing the song, while playing the drums. 

I can't play a musical instrument, and I can't sing, but Levon Helm can do both at once. It's a fine song and a remarkable performance by a very talented man.

So, anyway, there is a place in that song where Levon sings: "You can't raise the cane back up when it's in the feed."

I always thought those words had something to do with using up the seed corn. But I have recently learned that I have long misheard the lyrics.

He is actually singing: "You can't raise a Caine back up when it's in defeat." 

He is referring to Virgil Caine (who served on the Danville Train).


  1. Once again I have enjoyed very much reading this post. As one recent comment I read, your first calling is (my wording) probably writing, besides carpentry and horticulture. You are a true raconteur. I believe everybody has interesting stories to tell, but not everybody knows how to express in a way that demands attention or captivates interest. Not only that, you have learned the art of succintness. However, (there is always a little 'however') sometimes, the economy of your words leaves me begging for more information. For some reason, I am left wondering why your stepfather became ill. Was it because he was a Marine veteran or because of his work in the industrial laundry. It is especially heartwarming to learn that your stepfather was such a man of integrity and influenced you in positive ways. It is not common nowadays to hear such stories of stepparents. One other comment I would make is about your unusual affinity towards the usage of commas. Sometimes it should not be used, but most times it is not needed. If a sentence is unambiguous, then probably commas can be left out. It's only a small tiny comment for you to consider. Who knows, it may be part of your distinct writing style. There is always room for individuality. Also, English is my fourth language, and I don't pretend to be an expert at it.
    I thought it was hilarious about the misunderstood lyrics of that song. If a native English speaker like you can misunderstand lyrics, there is absolutely no hope for me.

    1. Hi Dorothy,

      Back when I wrote for The Taunton Press the editor told me I use too many commas. I am much too liberal when it comes to commas. I even speak with too many commas. Unfortunately, I don't have an editor to remove them for blog posts. I'll try to do better. :-)

      My stepfather survived military service with no serious problems and the laundry job was no problem either. His first surgery that I wrote about here was to have his gall bladder removed. I don't know if they botched it or what, but it was a serious situation. He was diabetic and nothing could regulate the sugar very well. It was all over the place and it took a slow but sure toll on his body. He slipped on ice and broke his leg when I was in high school. It took months to heal. Then one problem after another. Throat surgery. Eye problems. A foot infection that wouldn't heal. Eventual amputations. Diabetes is a brutal disease.

      THIS LINK will take you to a whole blog essay I wrote about my stepfather back in 2011. It is one of the most personal stories I have ever shared in my writings.

      Thanks for the comment. It's good to see you here.

    2. Thanks for the extra info, Herrick. I am very surprised they would remove gall bladder from anyone. I read somewhere that we can't live without gall bladder, unlike appendix. Yes, I do notice you speak with commas too, but that is ok with me.

  2. I never really listened to the words of this song. Actually a very down-to-earth song. So sorry your folks had a hard time, but as you said, your step-father was a responsible man, likely learned from another responsible man - his dad or even his mother or both. I know my granddad, our first responsible man on one side, learned from his good mother and God's words, as his own dad was a family-deserter and his step-dad was a family abuser. But, my great-grandmother was strong, much more than many women today would consider strong. She was the Christian and raised my granddad, hence my own dad and all of my brothers good responsible men. Again, thanks for your good words.

    1. Hi Sharon,

      I'm glad you have followed me to this new blog. I always appreciate your comments!

  3. Another thing you didn't mention explicitly, but I'm assuming, is that your stepfather didn't leave any debt to his children. That's huge considering all of the ups and downs your family experienced. Today I'm pretty sure most legacies will be ones of debt that will require inherited assets to be sold to pay off.

    1. Hi Ralph,

      There was some debt. A credit card. I didn't realize how high the balance was when I finally took over the finances. I asked the attorney what do I do about the credit card balance? He told me to tell them there was no money to pay it. So, that's what I did. Eventually they stopped calling me. And that was the conclusion of it. I suspect it happens a lot to the credit card companies. There were no inherited assets to speak of. Just the memories and the life lessons. That was good enough.

      I appreciate your comment.