Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


Porch Tale      



Smart Old Men

by Ulmer Speed


As the long hot days of summer cooled into night we would sit on the front porch discussing what had to be done the next day.  After sweating like pigs out working in the fields all day, and then eating supper in a kitchen that surely rivaled Hades we were ready to relax and to plan.  (Hell was a dirty word, which young’ns couldn’t say.  We could say Hades in its place though.)  Well, Mama and Papa did most of the discussing and planning.  I mostly did the listening.  They didn’t go over what had been done, that was gone.  No reason to rehash something that might’ve gone better; can’t go back and correct it anyway, Papa would say.  

Besides, Papa had told Doug and me many a time that he knew everything so how could he have made a mistake.  And as far as we were concerned he really did know everything.  We knew better than to question whatever our grandpa said – heck, he was our mamas’ daddy.  Our mamas would have beaten us within an inch of our lives if we ever let on that we didn’t believe what their daddy had said.  Papa told me and Doug again about his knowing everything one evening as we sat out on the front porch while Mama and Aunt Flora washed the dishes.  Doug and me would have to sweep the kitchen floor later before Doug had to go home and I had to go to bed.  But for now us men were talking about things. 

Doug asked Papa how he knew everything.  Papa’s answer was that he was old, adding that old men knew everything.  “But what about old women,” I asked?  “Don’t they know anything?”  As soon as it was out of my mouth I knew that I should have let Doug asked that question. 

Papa stopped rocking and fixed me with a gaze that went through my skin and ribs and straight into my soul.  My heart froze – that’s where the soul is, in the heart.  Papa had told me that long ago.  “Boy,” Papa said, “I had hopes for you but I’ll be darn if you ain’t turning out to be as dumb as Doug is.”  Normally, I would have welcomed Papa’s praise at Doug’s expense but Doug was sitting right here on the porch between Papa and me.  I just knew that I was gonna have to fight Doug sooner or later for what Papa had said.     

“Papa,” Doug spoke up, “I ain’t dumb.  My teacher said that I’m doing real good in school.  I’ll be in the third grade come fall and James will only be in the firrst.”  Using only his lips Doug spit out the word first like it was dirty. 

“Your teacher a woman?” Papa asked.

“Yes sir,” Doug answered. 

“Well there you are,” Papa said and starting to rock again acting like the subject of women being smart was settled once and for all. 

“But she had to finish high school to teach,” Doug countered.  Not willing to let the dog lie.  “I don’t even know any men who finished high school,” Doug continued.  After all, his being passed on to the third grade was being questioned.  He had admitted to me that he was looking forward to being in Miss Thigpen’s third grade class because he thought she was the prettiest woman he had ever seen, after his mama and my mama of course.  He had told me that his brother Earl even thought the young Miss Thigpen was a pretty woman and Earl hated school.  Earl had even told his mama that the only reason he stayed in school was so he could look at girls. 

“What about the principal,” Papa asked?  “Is the principal a woman?” 

“No sir, Mr. Johnson is a real old man,” Doug stammered. 

“And is the President of the United States a woman?  Well, is he?  Answer me boy.” 

“No sir, I don’t think so,” Doug answered, finally realizing that he had bit off a bit too much by arguing with Papa.  

“And what about generals?  How many women generals does the Army have?”  Papa asked, now standing to hover over Doug. 

“I don’t know of any, Papa,” Doug said.  I don’t think Doug knew what a general was.  I know I didn’t.  Well I had heard of General Robert E. Lee but he was more like a god or at least an angel, who sat on the right hand of God. 

“In this family right here with James and you and your mamas, who decides when to plant?  What to plant?  When to plow?  And who decides to pick the crop and what store to sell it to so we can make money so we won’t starve.  Me, that’s who, an old man.  I even tell you how much corn to feed the mule Nellie.”  

 “Yes sir, Papa, but what about the stuff Mama and Aunt Mary do?  Doesn’t that count?” James asked, looking at me for help.  I avoided Doug’s pleading look and leaned back to count the stars in the Milky Way.  I figured I couldn’t get in trouble for miss-counting a star or two.  Doug, on the other hand, was trying to get himself out of the hole he was in by digging straight down. 

“Yes Doug you’re right.  I make all the decisions during the day about how to run the farm and the women folk cook my food, call me when its time to eat, and wash my dirty dishes while I sit out here on the porch in the cool of the night trying to teach their sons - my grandsons, about life.  For once you are right.  They are getting more done than I am.  Well, have you got anything else to say before I go in,” Papa asked continuing to hover over Doug?  Pleeease Doug, keep your mouth shut I silently begged.  But he didn’t. 

“Papa,” Doug asked, “If men run every thing and the President is a man, and all the generals in the Army are men, then does that mean they are the ones that started the war and sent our daddies off so they’d get killed?   Do you reckon, Papa that women would have sent our daddies off to die?  You know James and me won’t have a daddy for the rest of our lives.”  Papa didn’t answer.  He eased the front door shut leaving Doug and me on the front porch.   

“Doug,” I said, “you’re gonna get your butt beat clean off when Aunt Flora gets you home.  You know that?  Heck, if she can find a limb big enough, she might start beating you when she gets you out in the road.” 

“I know that.  But she won’t kill me.  She’ll even hug and kiss me when she’s through whupping me.

Our porch photo is of Wallow Lodge on Sapelo Island, Georgia.

The author is Mr. Ellis Ulmer Speed a retiree living on a fixed income in Nags Head, North Carolina.
His e-mail address is

© 2005, Ulmer Speed, All Rights Reserved