SHANTIES

This past spring, on a trip to the coast, my wife and I decided to forgo the speed and ease of interstate travel for the interest factor of backroad pig trails. Despite the black water rivers and swamps cutting the land, vast fields and pastures seemed to overtake the two-lane road. Where there were homes, yards were at a minimum…except where pecan tree lined drives led to two story homes featuring circular drives, wrap around porches and columns. Mostly of the homes peaking my interest were small, broken down and square, four room homes dating from share cropping days or possibly earlier. The shanties sat on small square parcels of land and would be surrounded by towering corn stalks, tobacco or cotton by late summer. Known for rice and indigo during our colonial period and cotton during antebellum times, I guess land was too precious to allow for large plots of land to be used for recreational purposes…especially when there was little time for recreation. “Early thirty to dark thirty” days would soon be upon the farm workers of this coastal city and the surrounding area just as it had been decades ago…or may be centuries.

As I drove through the land I imagined poor whites and poorer blacks inhabiting the old share cropper’s shanties, battling each other for a life as “casual” farm laborers, having given up on the pursuit of jobs in the city. An elderly black woman stepped out of one of the tar paper houses, its broken-down front porch resembling the sway back of an overused plow horse. She was dressed as her ancestors dressed, a brightly colored scarf wrapped around her head and a long-sleeved print dress above what appeared to be bare feet. As I breezed past I almost asked out loud, “I wonder what tales she could tell?” While the journey was interesting, I became somber and introspective.

Tar paper and graying, slab wood shacks occasionally dotted the landscape around my childhood home. There was an abandoned and overgrown shack next to my house used as a clubhouse of sorts by my best friends and me. The younger me never thought about what it or these other broken-down homes represented. Our clubhouse was just a place to discuss girls, sneak smokes and talk about whatever preteens talk about…until our parents found out. I didn’t understand share cropping, tenant farming or farming on the lien back then. People bound to the land living from harvest season to harvest season, praying to pay off their crop lien or having a large enough share to put a bit of money away for the future. Hoping to buy a small piece of heaven of their own.

A friend of color told me of an ancestor of his born into slavery. Working as a tenant farmer on the same expanse of land he had toiled on before his own day of jubilee. Scrimping and saving until he could buy his own parcel of land. Clearing the land with his four children and wife, milling his own lumber and building his own four room palace. I’m positive he felt it was a palace. Filling it with hope and joy, twelve kids worth, growing his own work force and I hope expanding his little piece of heaven. There must be a tribute of some sort, especially when one considers the road blocks thrown in front of former slaves. Perseverance, persistence and a lot of patience I would suggest paid off in the long run.

As I’ve written before, my grandparents began their married life as farmers on the lien but they had several safety nets; family, the textile mills and they were white. Their dream included sixty acres and putting a child through college. Maybe there is hope instead of sorrow and the American Dream still exists. Hard work may in fact pay off.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

AN OLD FARMHOUSE PORCH

I was looking through old photographs from my youth when I realized I don’t have any photographs of my grandparent’s old home place. It also registered, I really don’t need the photographs. Their home, and memories of the man and woman who resided there, are forever etched in my mind.

I can see the house sitting on top of a hill, flanked by an old pecan tree meant for climbing and a tall pine tree meant for little except surviving nature’s many lightning strikes. The building itself was not special or unusual, just a white clapboard structure with ugly hip roofs…and lightning rods on every corner with a matching weather vane in the center. Like dozens of other farm houses found in the area and thousands in the South, it was just a square farmhouse with a kitchen and dining room attached away from the main living area as if by afterthought…or to keep the stove from heating up the rest of the house during this non-air conditioned period. The high ceilings held thousands of memories, especially in the kitchen and dining area, where everyone seemed to congregate when not congregating on the front porch.

An author I am reading, Rick Bragg, wrote, “They say the kitchen is the heart of the house, but I believe the {front}porch is its soul.” I agree and wish I had thought to say it first. This simple passage launched me down a road through fertile fields of memories as soon as I read it.

The porch of my grandparents was not screened or lighted, nor did it have a fan to blow away the heat, humidity or the mosquitos. Oddly I don’t remember the heat, humidity or mosquitos on the front porch of my youth as I do on the front porch of my adulthood. I remember July and August to be hotter than forty kinds of hell inside of the house… but for some reason…the porch was a cool oasis. Facing east toward the rising sun, the southern exposure was blocked by thick and tangled privet hedge gone wild and crepe myrtles.

I remember so much…and yet I’m sure I don’t remember enough. Watching lightning bugs in the late evenings, flashing their equivalent of “Hi, I’m a Sagittarius, what sign are you?” I remember friends and family gathering on its worn boards; sitting on metal rockers and a matching glider or leaning, elbows resting upon the plain concrete columns. They talked about their day, told stories and probably more than a few lies, their conversations punctuated by occasional outbursts of laughter.

PawPaw’s brothers and sisters came from a hill on one side and the small valley on the other, meeting in the middle on my grandparent’s front porch. For some reason the men tended to congregate to the eastern side of the porch leaving the women to “gossip” on the southern side. I remember Grandma Griffin, PawPaw’s mother, ever the lady, spitting her Peach Snuff covertly into a handkerchief rather than into the privet. My Uncle Claude, a deaf mute, sitting on the porch with hands flying, his questions answered and statements translated by my grandmother’s or mother’s flying hands. Aunt Joyce “spooning” on the front steps with soon to be Uncle Bo, their hands together with fingers intertwined. Playing two-man baseball games with Uncle Olin on the grass in front of the porch, the front steps marking first base.

Some evening gatherings combined work with pleasure. After a day gathering produce, the ladies of the homes might meet to shell butter beans or pop green beans, preparing them for their short trip to the local school and the cannery housed there. Later in my life, summer phone calls to my grandmother would include how many green beans or soup mix cans had been processed for the week. Later, as winter turned the gardens brown, my visits home would net those same cans so I might share in the previous summer’s bounty.

The porch was always a welcome place, except for the few salesmen who happened by, selling a vacuum cleaner, encyclopedias or this century’s greatest kitchen appliance. My grandmother was always courteous when she dismissed them, modelling the Golden Rule…except once. An overly pushy vacuum salesman made the mistake of following her to the door and blocking it with his foot as he completed his sale’s spill. He paid for his troubles with a face full of broom and was sent running back to the safety of his old green Chevrolet.

During the heat of the afternoons my brother and I, along with our cousins, might find a bit of a reprieve on the porch when August heat and humidity was at its highest. Make up games were our favorites, although for some reason the telling of ghost stories ranked high. The crepe myrtles might become a ship’s mast or a fort’s guard tower, while the thick privet became a jungle where we might have looked for Tarzan and Cheetah. I remember practicing my tuck and roll, jumping off the front steps and landing ala Alan Ladd in “Airborne.” We certainly had great imaginations back then. Even when the old house lay empty we used to porch as our play house until it was finally torn down, disappearing from our vision but not our memory.

I have a front porch though much smaller than the one from my youth. As my wife and I have tried to unclutter and renovate the rooms inside of our home, the porch has become more cluttered…and not with the memories I would wish. My goal for 2017 is to unclutter the clutter, replace some banisters and repaint. My biggest goal is to just sit on it and enjoy the evening cooling, watch cars passing on the road below, enjoy a cigar…if Linda’s incessant harping hasn’t caused me to quit, and of course appreciate the Jack Daniels that goes with the cigar. I would guess my biggest enjoyment will come from sitting with Gran-Momi Linda watching the grandbabies play. Watch? Not likely.

When I die, if I find my way to heaven, I hope my heaven will involve a big front porch. I would hope without the heat, humidity and mosquitos…unless I’m not in heaven. Hopefully I will find family and friends, catching up and retelling stories from long ago.

Rick Bragg, “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South.”

If you enjoyed this story you might be interested in Don Miller’s book, PATHWAYS, or other books about life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

SALAMANDERS AND FIREFLIES

Salamanders and Fireflies

In the fall of 1987, my wife and I would make the decision to leave the relative ease of a condo for “the country” and a hundred plus year old farmhouse that had been the possession of James Copeland. A retired Methodist minister, Mr. Copeland had bought “The Brammlet Place” in 1956 and along with his “Good Baptist Brethren” had begun a renovation of sorts to the old farmhouse that had sat empty for a decades. Renovation might be stretching what they did. They did add electricity, heat and a bathroom with running water.

One of the challenges of our little “place in the sun” was our water system. Located in the woods, across a wide stream and about a football field’s length from the back of our house was our well. Well not a well exactly, it was a cistern consisting of a brick dyke built into the ground where a spring found its way to the surface from under a very old oak tree. Mr. Copeland and his good Baptist brethren had constructed the system and placed a water tank and pump inside of a brick pump house on top of it all. Smooth river rock had been placed in the bottom of the cistern along with a pot that the pump nozzle sat in. The cistern itself was covered by corrugated metal sheets placed on top of the dyke.

Mr. Copeland bragged about how sweet and pure the water was but we still had to get a chemical analysis to prove it. Just as soon as we had uncovered the well, the young chemist who had been sent to collect water samples exclaimed, “Oh I can tell your water is okay.” I asked if he had undergone some type of divine enlightenment and he explained that we had salamanders. “Salamanders won’t live in anything but good water,” he said as he knowingly nodded his head. I could not help but point out that I was concerned what the salamanders might be adding to the water. The young man assured me that it was okay because the government standards allowed for a certain amount of salamander pooh without it effecting how potable the water was. I guess that is no worse than the allowable amounts of rodent fecal matter in hot dogs and the little red and black amphibians were so cute…and great to fish with.

While being interesting and a conversation starter, the water system was as high maintenance and contrary as Mary, Mary of nursery rhyme fame. If the power went off, the pump had to be primed. For those of you who have no clue, primed meant that water had to be poured down a pipe into the pump to create suction and I kept a pitcher full of water available for just that possibility. It was very inconvenient and a bit scary if it took place in the middle of the night. We have bears and coyotes along with bobcats and “painters.” A painter is a local term for the mountain lions or panthers that live in the area. I have only seen one bobcat and heard one panther. After hearing the panther, I have decided that I only want to see them in photographs. When you are walking down to the cistern in the middle of the night one might imagine that the area around the stream and cistern might be inhabited by ghost, spirts and haints. Hummmmm, vampires, werewolves, zombies and a T Rex might inhabit the area also.

Late one evening, after a spring thunderstorm had knocked off our power just long enough for the pump to lose its prime, I made the trip down to the spring and began the process to prime it. As I bent over and tried to concentrate on the process rather than my fears, I felt rather than saw that I had company. When I looked up I beheld an eerie sight as fireflies began to come out of their winter hideaways and blink their little message “Come here! I am ready for you to find me. It is time for us to propagate the species.” Not very romantic but we are talking about fireflies. What was eerie was that they had risen no higher than three feet off of the ground and were all blinking in sequence with each other. I was amazed and just a bit fearful.

Twenty-eight years later they still make their appearance in early May but I’ve never seen their group emergence since that night. A once in a lifetime occurrence? If it was, it was worth it. We have since done some of our own renovations that included a new underground well. While it needed to have been done it was not replaced on purpose but because a storm had put a huge oak down on the well house. SPLAT! My pump now is just outside my house, one hundred feet below ground. I don’t mind not having to prime the pump but I do miss the fireflies and the salamanders.

Image Tsuneaki Hiramatsu, photograph of flirting fireflies during mating season outside Niimi, in Japan’s Okayama prefecture