By Charles B. Martin, Sr. © 1985
Issue: March, 1985
Within the span of my memory (and this encompasses more years than I like to admit), I have watched the passing of many activities and traditions that once played an important part in our daily lives. And none among these has been a sadder loss than the rapidly disappearing art of good conversation. To me, it's a tragic irony that the more sophisticated our communication systems have become, the less we seem able to convey our thoughts and emotions to others.
While I realize no single factor brought on this situation, I still lay a lot of the blame to that insatiable devourer of time - television.
Now, before you start thinking that I'm condemning all TV, I will assure you I am not. There are a few programs I thoroughly enjoy. What I'm really lamenting is the negative effect it, along with other influences, has had on our former feelings of closeness and sharing.
The friendly gatherings that once were such a vibrant part of community life, have almost vanished. Neighbors no longer find the time to visit, nor do families while away the twilight hours chatting on the front porch or down at the general store as they did in bygone days. More and more they tend to retreat into the realm of make-believe and isolation made so readily available by the flip of a switch. To tell the truth, I find this addiction to television disgusting, but then, maybe I'm the one who is out of step. Nevertheless, I much prefer the company of interesting people to the superficial world of movie stars.
I still cherish the times when neighborhood gatherings were the primary source for news or just plain gossip. Seated around the feet of their elders, the young learned the lessons of life and of living. They thrilled to tales of conflict and sorrow and, on the other side of the coin, felt the deep emotional tug of love and dedication. Back in those days many folks were masters of the spoken word and could paint a vivid picture of the entire gamut of human emotions with their stories. The impact on a child was magnified a thousand times over when they had the opportunity to share dramatic experiences, through the tales of those more filled with years.
The inevitable arguments - and these covered every subject from the diameter of the moon to how much a certain spotted hog weighed - were the stimulus that often motivated fertile young minds to assimilate a store of knowledge. Also, the easy relaxed mood that permeated most of these "get-togethers" played an important role in directing their emotions toward the things in life that were really worthwhile. Why, when I was a kid, we thought nothing at all of walking a couple of miles to a neighbor's house to admire their newborn calf or litter of baby pigs.
Another thing that seems largely lost in the passing of time is the importance placed on what one felt in their heart. We seldom use this criterion for judging people's motives and actions today; instead, we tend to place more store on what they say. Conclusions reached this way can be totally misleading - how a person feels deep down is what should matter most. Looking back, I think it was these inner feelings that made us yearn to be a part of everybody's life - and being a part evidently came easy then. There was no such thing as a generation gap. Old and young alike found it perfectly natural to share each other's problems and dreams. We laughed with our neighbors when joy was their lot, or cried with them by the side of a loved one's grave.
It was this unexplainable sense of sharing that kept a helpful neighbor at the bedside of the sick and dying - or assured their vigil through the long and lonely nights, keeping watch over the casket of the dead. I'll tell you one thing, the old time funeral wake (especially if the departed had met an untimely or tragic end) was a sobering time for reflection and searching of the soul.
As you would expect, the result of this kind of closeness produced a generation of public spirited folks, the likes of which will probably never be duplicated. It abounded in the attitude of everybody, from the society matron to the town bum. It also provided the erring with a ready-made excuse for some of their misdeeds, once in awhile. One of the most graphic examples of which occurred to a friend of mine a few years ago.
Now, this friend, Jeter we'll call him, was a farmer by trade - one of the kindest souls you'd ever hope to meet and a pillar of the community. Though, to all appearances, he was a "tee-totaler" (there was never a hint that he might partake of the devil's brew), he did have in his employ at the time, a fellow who was renowned for his capacity for alcohol.
One morning, while working on some farm machinery out in the barn, Jeter discovered that he needed a new part to replace something that had broken. Not wanting to interrupt his work by personally doing this chore, he dispatched his helper, on foot, down to the corner garage to get the part. This errand should have been accomplished in about thirty minutes and it's understandable why Jeter was getting pretty impatient after more than two hours elapsed with no sight of his helper or the part. Then, just about the time Jeter was getting ready to go look for him, his helper made a wobbly appearance around the corner of the barn. His steps were completely uncoordinated, he would pitch forward for a step or two, lose his balance and run backward for about the same distance. At the same time his eyes seemed determined to focus independently in opposite directions. To ask what he had been up to would have been useless, his physical condition betrayed that fact. His explanation, however, was a classic study in public spiritedness.
"Boss," he exhaled, with breath strong enough to curl your toenails, "afore you ask, I want you to know why I'm in this here shape. Soon as I got down to the garage I run into them two wild boys uv old Bill Smith's and like you know, they ain't no recklesser kids in this county. Now they wuz just putting the finishin' touch to a tune up job on that hot rod they own and was braggin' somethin' fierce about how they was goin' to burn up the roads. This didn't bother me too much til I happened to notice that fifth of Old Widder-Maker they had stashed under the front seat. Now, I want you to put yourself in my place, it wouldn't be right a'tall to let them young fellers hit the road with that car and likker. I swear before the Lord, I done my dead level best to talk them out a drivin' and drinkin' at the same time but they wouldn't pay me no heed. Seeing as how they wouldn't listen a'tall, I done the same thing I know you'd have done under the circumstances I talked them into opening that bottle and then drunk nearly all of it myself. Why, this very minute, they might owe their lives to my quick thinking."
When Jeter recounted this tale to us he admitted he had done nothing to admonish his helper for his actions. After all, what can you say in the face of such self-confessed concern for one's fellow man?
And so life went from day to day, when we were growing up. Everybody tried to understand, whether confronted with the mediocre, or exhilarated by the sublime. And though I sometimes look to the young and envy their allotted years, I still count myself fortunate to have lived, at least a portion of my days in the era that I did - if for no other reason than the joy that is mine for having been a friend to some of the most colorful people that ever walked the earth.