The persistent rain we’ve experienced this May has made the ground too soggy for outdoor work and driven us indoors. When I last reported our total rainfall for the month in my last (May 19) website post, we had received 7.11 inches. Our 30-year average for the entire month is about 3.78 inches. Well, it’s been three days since I gave you that report and our current total rainfall amount has increased to 8.74 inches with more rain in the forecast for today and the rest of the month. At our current pace, we could easily top ten inches of rainfall by the end of the month. If the actual amount of rain we’ve received hasn’t made life dreary enough, the lack of remaining indoor work to do has made it downright boring.
Despite the rain and fog, I have been spending more time on our front porch enjoying the beauty of our mountain view in quiet contemplation. Yesterday afternoon, I had the pleasure of watching a distant thunderstorm develop and drift towards us. I could clearly see the sweeping path of the heavy downpour as it crept north down our valley and obscured my view of the mountains and hills in its path. Knowing how far away and high those peaks are made it possible for me to know how fast it was approaching and how high the cloud deck was. This is one of the old observational skills I learned growing up on our family dairy farm that still gives me pleasure today.
That scene brought my wandering thoughts back to a new song by Blake Shelton that is rising up the Country music charts and that I really appreciate, “I Lived It.” In the song, Blake recounts a number of traditional living experiences that he allegedly experienced growing up, such as riding in the back of his Grandfather’s truck, having his Uncle put tobacco on yellow jacket stings, and his mother putting 100,000 miles on a Sears box fan to cool the house. These images are so forgotten today that, as he sings…
Oh, you think I’m talking crazy
In a different language you might not understand.
Oh, that’s alright
That’s just the kind of life that made me what I am.
Just takin’ my mind on a visit
Back in time ‘cause I miss it.
You wouldn’t know how to love it like I love it
Unless you lived it.
And man, I lived it.
I like to sing that chorus with him when I hear the song, because that sentiment means a great deal to me. The only unfortunate aspect of the song is that I sincerely doubt that Blake Shelton is old enough to have actually lived it. The song’s lyrics were not written by him, and I bet that the actual authors are considerably older. I often tell Barb that, although I can really appreciate the sentiments of many of today’s popular Country hits (especially Dirt, Back At Momma’s, I Hold On, Automatic, and How I’ll Always Be), I realize that they represent more ‘image’ than ‘substance’ to the artists that sing them. Most of the artists that sing the songs I just listed, with the notable exception of Tim McGraw, are far too young and too many generations removed from that lifestyle to have actually lived the experiences they extoll in their songs. In fact, I have noted many “inconsistencies” in them.
For example, in the song, Heartbeat, Carrie Underwood sings about a quiet dance with her lover deep in the wilderness. In describing the setting, she sings, “…I love the way you look in a firefly glow,” and “…a cricket choir in the background, underneath a harvest moon.” If you’ve truly spent time in a rural environment, you would know that the fireflies ‘glow’ in the early summer months (June, in our area), but the ‘harvest moon’ typically occurs in mid-to-late September, and sometimes in early October. The lyrics evoke a warm, romantic ‘country’ image that works for the spirit of the song, but lack substance in reality. It may sound nitpicky of me to point that out, but anyone who truly ‘lived’ in and understood that environment, as I did, would cringe at that, just as a skilled singer would cringe at a missed note. When I see the lavish and ostentatious lifestyle that today’s young Country artists live, it doesn’t make it easy for me to imagine them growing up the way I did.
When I think back more than 40 years ago to my childhood on our family owned and operated dairy farm, I can recall many traditional lifestyle experiences, most of which were long outdated to many of my own peers. I can also recall riding around in the back of our flatbed pickup truck holding onto nothing but a headboard, but I also remember…
- hanging laundry on our clothesline to dry,
- ‘rolling’ glazing putty for my Grandfather to use in replacing a window pane,
- heating soap stone blocks in our wood/cook stove to wrap in towels and place under the covers of a bed in an upstairs, unheated bedroom to warm it up before going to sleep,
- using an outhouse at my grandparent’s camp and when staying with a babysitter who lived in a house without running water or electricity,
- milking cows by hand for days when the electricity was out,
- mowing a three-acre hayfield by hand using a scythe (I still use one today),
- picking rocks out of a freshly plowed field on a raw, dank spring day,
- being told by my first grade teach not to use my left hand to write because it was, “the devil’s work,”
- raking fall leaves into black plastic bags and placing them around the foundation of our house as insulation against the winter (trust me, it never worked as well as we hoped it would),
- swimming in a natural pond to cool off in the summer,
- riding in a horse-drawn sleigh before Christmas to sing carols to the shut-ins in our village,
- listening to stories told by a Great Uncle who was born just after the end of the Civil War,
- watching a Great Aunt demonstrate how a spinning wheel and hand-operated wooden loom were used,
- helping shear a neighbor’s sheep and cut the horns off our own heifers,
- earning $2.50 per seven-day week of work for doing my farm chores,
- having only one station to watch on a black and white TV (at least it was a solid-state TV in my later childhood—if you know what that means),
- collecting maple sap in galvanized buckets in an attempt to boil our own syrup (which we failed to perfect),
- being given the town cemetery keys to open and lock the entrance gate each day during the snow-free months,
- trying (often unsuccessfully) to ride our cows,
- laying on warm, dry hay in the hayloft of our barn on rainy days,
- fishing in the Connecticut River to stock our swimming pond (to keep the mosquitoes down),
- driving a circa 1955 John Deere B tractor with a flywheel on the side (I’ll bet you have no idea what that is or what it was used for),
- attending school in a classroom that housed two grades at the same time,
- going to visit a neighboring farm so my father could “see a man about a horse,” even though we always ended up acquiring something else in trade,
- going to the town (open burning) dump less than once per month and often returning with something someone else had thrown away, but would be useful to us,
- drinking our own unprocessed cow milk dipped daily out of the bulk tank,
- splitting wood on a sunny, below-zero winter day because the wood was easier to split when the moisture in it was frozen,
- and hand-churning milk into butter.
Although I have a list of traditional life experiences that could turn Blake Shelton’s song into a novel, I could tell you many more. What I remember most about these experiences was how the people I would meet during my college and later professional working years would find it hard to believe that I actually lived them. Our parents had told us we were not to aspire to live as we did and that I would have to go to college, get an education, and make a living in the outside world like everyone else. They told us there was no future in farming, so we could not expect to inherit the farm. That farm is now lost to time, and like so many other farm children during my era, we moved on to find our way in the modern society. What I did not realize when making that transition was how the stories and memories of my childhood upbringing would be treated by my peers, most of whom were generations removed from any farm experiences.
I attended a college in Hartford, Connecticut (a big city to me) with students who were the children of professional families that were well ‘above my station,’ as we used to say. One of my freshman classmates was Jack Klugman’s daughter, who was driven to and from campus weekly in her father’s limousine. Although I never met her and she transferred out later in our freshman year, I and a couple of my friends, would run out and sit on the hood of the limousine while the driver went in the dorm to collect her luggage, until he returned to chase us off.
Most of my college friends found my experiences funny or ‘quaint’ in a pitiful sense. I had never used an escalator in my life, and my first awkward attempt at a shopping mall was a source of great amusement to my new college friends. I used many rural mountain terms that my classmates did not understand but were just second nature to me. I also learned quite early on that my baseball cap was not proper attire for a college student. For all appearances, I felt as though I was fresh off the cast of Green Acres. I remember one particularly aloof student asking me if I needed a visa to attend school in Connecticut. I quickly became very conscious of my manner of speaking and the memories I discussed. I became ashamed of my rural upbringing and sought to distance myself from it any way that I could. I knew that those experiences and mannerisms would not help me connect with my peers, and I had no choice but to change if I was going to find any acceptance or success in the outside world. Even though I was from rural New Hampshire, my experiences transitioning to the outside world make it easy for me to understand how native West Virginians feel about the perceptions that outsiders have of them. You see, I lived that, too.
When I ‘discovered’ West Virginia in 2006, I felt a sense of great relief. I always felt ‘out of place’ living in modern society during my professional career. I always told Barb (my wife) that the way we lived didn’t seem ‘real’ to me and that the suit I wore to work felt like a costume I had to wear to play a part in the professional world. My exposure to other ‘professionals’ I met and worked with in the course of doing my job taught me that they lived by very different values than I internalized from my childhood upbringing. Although we moved many times during my career, I never found a place that felt like a home to me—that is, until I discovered West Virginia. That’s why we chose to retire here. In West Virginia, my childhood experiences are typical, the way I used to talk is understood, and I can dress as I did growing up on the farm and not feel conscientious about my appearance. For once in my long, lost life, I can feel like I belong, even if I’m still a ‘come-here’ to many of the natives.
Actually, I find that some natives I’ve come to know actually have a hard time believing I once had a professional career and lived in or near cities. I remember meeting one elderly man from Hampshire County, WV when I was living in our home in New Creek, WV. He was a former farmer, and I was sharing with him some of my long-hidden childhood farm experiences. He asked me where I was from, so I told him I was from New Hampshire–although, as a native New Hampshirite, I tend to say the name so casually that it sounds like I’m really saying Ne’ Hampshire. At any rate, he misheard what I said and, based on his first impression that I was a native West Virginian, he asked me if I grew up somewhere near Romney, which is the seat of Hampshire County, WV. I snickered with appreciation at his question, and I told him, no, I grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire. My clarification only appeared to confuse him further. After taking a second to figure out how to politely respond, he leaned closer to me and said in a soft, fatherly tone, “son, you really need to get your story straight. Everyone here knows that Charles Town (WV) is in Jefferson County, not Hampshire County.” I was overjoyed that he could be so convinced I was a native West Virginian that he completely misunderstood my attempts to explain that I was actually from the State of New Hampshire. I’ve felt truly at home here in my adoptive state ever since. It is, to me, a home where the lifestyle I lived during my childhood can be a source of honor, rather than shame. That’s also why I proudly sing the chorus to “I Lived It” whenever I hear it play on the radio, even if I think that Blake Shelton probably didn’t. It is also why I strive, to the best of my ability, to relive it today at Peeper Pond Farm.