We took our pay in candlelight dinners

WE were flatland Texans migrated in the bitter winter of '63 to the exhilarating heights of the Colorado Rockies. The scenery was overwhelming, but job opportunities were underwhelming, so economically the pickin's were slim. But Jerry and I had been depression babies and had learned from our respective parents the knack of finding abundance in the middle of poverty. Fortunately we didn't have government guidelines telling us we were ``living below the poverty level.''

And we had a lot of savvy in the fun game of creative survival (without government aid). It was an exciting life of make-do, do-it-yourself, or do-without.

For instance, we made a practice of swooping in on volume food sales -- such as frozen TV dinners, four for a dollar. And since we had a teensy-tiny refrigerator, we couldn't fit all our bargain booty in the minuscule freezer except by shucking off the boxes and jamming in the anonymous foil-covered trays. Every meal was potluck, as we grabbed four unidentified silvery objects out of the freezer and popped them in the oven. And there were many loud wails from our two girls when the unveiled trays revealed four of their least-liked choices! (Not to worry. They usually didn't like 'em when they made their own selection.) So each meal was an adventure and we all got our meat and veggies.

My husband was in the construction business and often accepted ``things'' in lieu of money for part or all of his pay for services rendered. Once he was paid off with a handgun. Later he swapped it for an airplane propeller which he needed in repairing a Piper Cub he had bought cheap after its owner wrecked it. When he sold the rebuilt plane, he netted a scant $90 in profit (after months of hard work), but it chalked up one more hilarious anecdote to tell the grandkids. How many people ever rebuilt an a irplane, section by section, in their living room?

The art of bartering and swapping was an intrinsic part of our game plan. Several times we did some renovating of rental property in exchange for lowered rent payments. I reckon I'll never forget the time we undertook to rework the messed-up plumbing in a resort cabin. It seems every renter had done some innovative tinkering with that amazing maze of copper and galvanized tubes; and the resulting Rube Goldberg of tortuously intertwined pipes and joints resulted in water coming out of the tub faucet when

you turned the handle at the sink, and vice versa! We never did fully tame those hostile conduits, but we got good at knowing which faucet to turn for the desired result.

And then there was the remodeling work Jerry did for the Brook Forest Lodge (just over the hill from our A-frame chalet). For weeks afterward we took our pay in candlelit dinners in the rustic lodge dining room, basking in the glow of flickering flames from the native-stone fireplace.

One of my hobbies fitted right in with our swap-shopping plot. It happens that I paint (mostly portraits). Would you believe that I paid for my baby partly with a painting? The Dallas obstetrician who delivered my daughter was willing to accept a portrait of his son in lieu of half his fee -- one of my better trades. Inspired by the success of that transaction, I swapped paintings for wig stylings, for my daughter's ballet lessons, for plumbing services, and, as the Madison Avenue boys say, ``much more. ''

Now I figure we had a leg up on most folks setting out to enjoy poverty, as we had picked the dandiest of all places to be poor in -- Evergreen, Colo., the self-styled ``blue spruce capital of the world.'' It was peopled by mountain folk who worked -- and worked -- and worked. Some had two or three jobs or part-time businesses. Most of us had to earn our living in Denver, requiring a breathtaking 80-mile round trip daily -- up and down a winding, dangerous (but utterly gorgeous) canyon highway.

We trekked Denverward daily in a caravan of fuel-efficient little Volkswagens, four-wheel-drive Jeeps, and assorted car pools. Yes, it was breathtaking -- both because of the menace of the ice-glazed roller-coaster road and because of the awesome grandeur of the ever-changing mountain views. Just think -- flatlanders save up all year to come up and ogle the post-card scenes we thrilled to every day!

Most of our fellow mountaineers were just eking out a living, as we were. A lot of us lived in unfinished A-frames we were building ourselves. Jerry taught our 14-year-old Lane how to solder joints so she could help install the plumbing. She was an apt student and later caused pandemonium in the school when she stunned the class with a ``show-and-tell'' demonstration of pipe soldering, complete with live blowtorch. She didn't know it was against the fire code to have live flame in the classroom.

Evergreen has everything -- excellent modern schools, a top-notch volunteer fire department, ambulance squad and Alpine Rescue Team, and snow nine months out of the year. The local PTA, Kiwanis Club, and Chamber of Commerce keep community spirit fervent with wonderful family-oriented activities, such as the annual Ice Carnival, Fishing Derby, and ``Stars of Tomorrow'' student talent show. (One year our little Michelle took second prize in the junior-level ``Stars'' competition.)

Now back in Texas, our heart's in the highlands. Maybe we weren't rich in money or worldly goods, but we felt rich in opportunities to use our God-given abilities to care for our own loved ones and help supply our neighbors' needs as well.

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