by Ulmer Speed
Hard work and love of God and family pretty much identified the Southerner when I was growing up. Everybody worked hard. I learned that the older women cooked meals and cleaned house and everybody else worked in the fields. I learned that men didnít wear short pants, women wore dresses, and family mattered. Work ethic was taught by example reinforced with a ďwhuppinĒ for a chore forgotten. Codes of dress and acceptable behavior were learned by listening through a window left carelessly open. I heard things like, ďDid you see that slut wearing pants at BTU (Baptist Training Union) last Wednesday? If she doesnít respect herself at least she could respect her family.Ē I learned from sitting quietly next to an adult discussion on the porch Ė- always plant butter beans on Good Friday, donít plow a wet field, and never, ever, draw to an inside straight. And other things I just knew.
Intuitively, I knew that eating outside would not appeal to Southern farm folk. Unlike today, rural Southerners ate their meals inside the house then went outside to cool off. After dinner they usually sought the shade under the extended eave of the front porch to escape the heat of the kitchen and to avoid the merciless sun. With luck they enjoyed the occasional breeze and maybe a nap until the urgency of their chores dragged them back to work. Sometimes in the evenings after supper they lingered on the porch to listen to the night sounds of crickets and katydids and whip-poor-wills, and to the giggles and screams of delight from kids playing chase or hide-and-seek in the darkness of the front yard. The fireflies signaled bedtime when they stopped their courtship flickering, calling forth creatures that needed the night to hide their wanderings as they searched for food and mates.
Visitors and friends sitting in these open-air living rooms enjoyed the attention and generosity that Southerners insistently provided, making Southern Hospitality a standard of graciousness and an integral part of American culture.
We had a front and back porch at our house in Sandflat, Missíippi. Our front porch faced the main road but there was little to see. Those who worked in town left before daylight so I missed seeing them go by the house. I did get to see, though, the man who went to town every other day to sell vegetables out of his wagon. He was really, really, old and his wagon had to be the biggest wagon in the whole wide world. It was so big that he used two huge oxen to pull it. At the time I was convinced that he used the oxen because his wagon was so big and because he loaded it so heavy. But now Iíd guess that the old farmer just didnít know how to drive a car. Since we lived about half way between the old man's house and town he passed by our house about daybreak. His wagon overflowed with vegetables. Corn, new potatoes, turnip and mustard greens, beans, and peas were picked from his garden late yesterday evening so they would still be fresh when he got them to the housewives in town before they started dinner for their families.
This mid-day meal was a moderate affair with meat, boiled vegetables, corn bread, and of course, iced tea. Country women, who usually cooked for both town workers and field hands, prepared three big meals every day, starting with a huge breakfast. This first meal of the day consisted of smokehouse bacon, fresh eggs, churned butter, hand-made biscuits, and thick molasses to sop. Then there was the big dinner at noon. Supper, an even bigger affair than dinner, came at the end of the day. The workers who had left before daylight carrying only a sack lunch came home needing a big meal. They were hungry.
The dogs barked to let us know when the old man went by our house. We kids jumped up from the breakfast table and ran out to the road with the pretense of keeping the dogs from biting the oxen. But we liked looking at those big ole bulls, which werenít really bulls at all; but they didnít know it and neither did us kids. The oxen didnít pay any attention to the dogs anyhow. They just plodded along re-chewing their breakfast cud and staring at us with their big liquid eyes like they really didnít understand what all the fuss was about. Iím sure they didnít think of themselves as special. We kids thought they were wonderful.
Then there was the road grader, which came by the house about once a month to scrape the road. Mama said that the county supervisor sent the grader to scrape so the road would be slippery when it rained. There was no way to prove her wrong because in the summer it rained at least once a week. So when the road grader scraped the road, it would rain, the red clay road became slick and some hapless driver invariably ended up in the ditch right in front of our house. Mama distrusted government and viewed anything it did with a degree of suspicion. Still does.
Maybe twice a year an old man would drive slowly down the road hauling a big magnet suspended close to the ground from the back of his truck to pick up nails and other scrap iron. I had always thought that he did this to get stuff out of the road so people wouldnít have flat tires but, thinking back, he could have been collecting metal for the war effort.
The mailman came every day but I never got to see him. We were already out in the fields when he came by.
My job was to carry cold water to the field hands since I wasnít big enough to do much else. The field hands werenít hired hands, mind you, they were just uncles, cousins, and sometimes an aunt or two. And the water wasnít really cold either but it was wet and thatís what counted. They could have drunk from one of the branches that went through our ninety acres but I suppose they had to have something for me to do. I could stand on our back porch and draw water up from the well that we had dug for ourselves. Sometimes the well needed cleaning out and they let me go down the well standing in the bucket. I took a carbide lamp to see by and a spade to clean out the soft dirt that had caved in from the sides and put it into the bucket so the bigger kids could pull it up and dump it. I felt it was an honor to be trusted with cleaning out the well and I never thought of the danger.
The two-gallon bucket held more water than I could draw up but I only needed a half-bucket to fill the gallon mayonnaise jar we used to carry water to the fields. Although the water came out of the well cool, it was not so cool after I lugged it over to the forty-acre cut, clean on the other side of our farm. Holding the jar in my arms, up against my belly, didnít do a lot for keeping the water cool either.
When I drew water to take to the field, I would also draw bath water for later that evening. Iíd fill that ten gallon tin wash tub half full and drag it over to the side of the porch so it would catch the sun all evening. By the time we were ready for our baths in the evening the water was somewhat warm.
Often, we gathered on the porch to recount experiences of growing up, and laugh and tease. We still do. Genteel conversation and neighborhood gossip shared on the porch filled the time between meals and work and sleep for the Southern farm family. That sharing time bonded us. Revelation of family feuds, stories of wayward wives and husbands, and never-before mentioned secrets not meant for the ears of five-year-olds provided material for future generations of storytellers, writers, poets, and songwriters. The legacy of the Southern storyteller documents our past and enriches our songs, our literature and our lives.
The author is Mr. Ellis Ulmer Speed, a 1970 engineering graduate of Mississippi State University. He current works for the Defense Technology Security Administration in Arlington, Virginia.
His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2002, Ulmer Speed, All Rights Reserved