How a helping hand made all the difference. “Hard Choice,” by Erwin A. Thompson

Hard Choice #1: Combining Wheat

Being short of money was nothing new for Ruth and me in 1948 when the last of our three children was born. Our first choice of course was to have food on the table, clothes on the children, gasoline in the car, and parts for the car when it broke down.

Really, we lived pretty good. Our family never went hungry or ragged. We had gasoline to get to work or visit Ruth’s folks when she felt the need.

Deciding how to spend our time was a hard choice. We lived on Evergreen Heights, the property owned by my Aunts Emma and Amelia. We were morally obligated to do what we could to keep the place going. It should have been a full time job. But we had to make enough money to live. I worked at Union Electric as a gas laborer for about a dollar an hour.

And then…as we were painfully deciding which of these things we would tackle on Saturday morning, Ruth’s mother Grace Johnston called. Her husband Court was combining oats. No help available. Could I possibly come up and help? We went.

This, the background. Grace and Court Johnston were great people! They would have done the same for us.

Hard Choice #2: Stretching $60

My brother, Ralph, was a really good machinist and welder. Fixing our broken tools and making things out of metal was not only a pleasant hobby, but a real help to survive. Ralph had the gauges and other things to make an acetylene welding unit.

We needed the tanks. Goulds was selling a set of miniature tanks for sixty dollars. These tanks held half as much as the regular size, and cost as much to fill. But so far as we knew we’d have to rent the regular ones. If we kept the tank more than a certain period, we were charged “demurrage.” This could run into real money. The little ones we’d own and keep however long it took to use the gas they held.

Finally, I accumulated the needed sixty dollars, and stood three steps from the door of the Gould store when I met Court Johnston, my father-in-law. He hated to ask me, but he was just getting ready to thresh wheat. Flat broke. Did I have any money I could let him have?

Well, I had sixty dollars. And of course I gave it to him.

The next day I happened to be working with Ray Niday, who was doing some welding for the U. E. Company. We were good friends, and I told him my story.

He asked why was I going to get the little tanks when I could get the regular sized ones up at the moving warehouse for the same price and the same deal!

When I got my money back, that is what I did. That was sixty years ago. Hard telling the money we saved on the refills. I don’t know what the little ones would be worth, now, but my interest in the big ones is over three hundred dollars. I can sell it to whoever I want, give it to my son or anything I want.

The three steps I didn’t make outside the store made all the difference. Not only was Court able to scrape by until harvest, but the big tanks served me well for sixty years!

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  1. I got my first lesson in gas welding, from my father (Erwin’s son), using the gas in those tanks. He thought it’d be a good idea for me to try it and learn the basics before my first semester making Metal Sculpture as a Fine Art major at college. It was maybe in 1991. I never knew the history of my Grandpa’s basement welding set up until now. Amazing what a different three steps can make, even all these years later.

  2. Janean,

    Thanks for this great comment. I’m copying Pop. It gives added dimension–a sense of continuity through the generations. I recall the sculptures you made with the help of that welder. Here’s another set of writing you could do as a little project–childhood memories that fit into the larger picture. That’d be a good addition to the Thompson Family Story Project.


  3. What great stories from you, Erwin! You never fail to give us great perspectives on history. I suspect my farming family members had such but they are lost to future generations. Thank goodness you are recording yours and passing them on, sparking even more stories like Janean’s.
    Fondly, Arletta

  4. Dear Arletta,

    Thanks so much for your comment. Perhaps the stories from your farming family are being told through you–through your life and your trilogy.


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