BAREFOOT BOYS WITH CHEEKS OF TAN – THAT’S US!

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Long ago, I wrote this after watching happy kids in a documentary on Africa. It speaks to what I am writing about today.

Barefoot

I sat and cursed so long
the shoes I did not own
that I grew no calluses
nor corns to cushion me.

And thus I could not run
the race of life with those
who have trod through life
exposed, unshod and free.

If you want to feel sorry for Depression-Era children of the rural south, be my guest. Qr you can read “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” by James Agee, with dozens of stark black and white photographs by Walker Evans.  The book is considered a masterpiece, and it is rare, but most good libraries should have a copy.
However, be warned that what follows on the same subject is NOT about any sadness, and there are no photographs, although we will cover a bit of the same territory.

A funny thing happens each time I re-visit my early life, either through talks with family or friends, or in the pages of my written work.  I view those times as days of coping, but wouldn’t trade them for yours. And I recently shared similar feelings with a friend from my hometown area – Liberty County, Georgia.  A perceptive and  enlightened author, Margie Love De Loach has written extensively and lovingly about the people and history of her hometown area in and near the place about which I have written so often. In particular, she has published in local presses and in local newspapers many articles about her family in words so similar to my own that we have begun to share.

We became acquainted after she came upon some of my writings about the Coastal Georgia of my youth.  Her family has resided in and near Liberty County, Georgia, for many generations, and she has written extensively about her family of the past and present times.

Recently, she wrote about the hardships she and her family endured back in the 1930s and 40s, but she never wrote of those times with sorrow or regret.
In our recent correspondence, we agreed that her experiences paralleled mine, and that we were both proud of our families and appreciative of our early years
on those small farms in rural Georgia.

She was one of ten children in a tenant-farming family in Georgia.  She wrote of her father setting aside portions of her money earned by picking cotton to buy her school supplies. Her mother made most of the clothes for the girls, often from flour sack material.

Margie ended one essay by emphasizing how much she loved her family and how she had become stronger and better by having lived her simpler life. She seldom felt deprived, recalling the small rewards of homemade candy and swimming in the local creek.  She says that having to work in the cotton and tobacco fields to help the family, especially in her high school years, was a tough but rewarding experience she would wish for everyone, but she knows that those small but beautiful memories are not viewed by everyone today in the same way. Most of all, she says over and over, is the love she felt all through those years for every member of her family – a love that has grown stronger in retrospect.

I know exactly what she means. After writing about my early life and times for a good while now, and realizing the dangers of looking back to search for those “Good Old Days” (which may not have been all that good) I realize that my simple, hard working, rural farm beginnings produced something beautiful and wonderful for me to hold to and reflect upon all my days.

I have thought about whether or not my memories hold true when filtered through time and the reality of later degrees of comfort.  You see, although I lived those times on a series of small and poorly producing farms, I have few regrets.  I first realized my feelings while producing, over a couple of years, a series of poems I intended to provide as a way of sharing my early childhood with my children and grandchildren.

While I am speaking of misunderstandings, I would like to remove a small bit of confusion over this habit we poor children of the south had of going barefoot!  The simplest explanation for us today would be that we were too poor to buy shoes, or that we were perhaps not so poor but merely frugal, and had to save our shoes for church on Sundays.

I can describe the looks of travelers, especially the women, from the north on their way to Florida who would gaze with such distaste at our naked and often dirty feet. They would hustle their own kids back into their Buicks and Lincolns and implore their husbands to leave.

BUT – if there were things that poor kids enjoyed in summer months when out of school, going barefoot was at the top of the list!  We couldn’t wait.  From the first medium warm day until the first frost, we went barefoot!

Quickly, the bottoms of our feet would harden against all but the sharpest piece of glass or the sturdiest of thorns.  We dealt with minor cuts by ignoring them, and seldom did any of us die from lockjaw.

In the cotton fields, when chopping (hoeing the accumulated grass and weeds from around the cotton plants) or picking in the hot fields, we had to step from bits of shade to bits of shade, and once in a while we just yelled “Ouch!”

On every other Saturday, if we had okra or peanuts to sell, and had to accompany adults, we would reluctantly put on the dreaded shoes (which felt too small and cramped our feet) and walked to town. But we didn’t enjoy the walk!

In my own experience, I walked happily barefoot through blackberry patches, waded shallow rivers and creeks and I hitched mules and followed plows all through the summer.  To me, barefoot was the true definition of FREEDOM!

Certainly, anyone in San Francisco today would look back upon the young children of the rural South in the 1930s and fear that they were living anything BUT the good old days. In fact, I have heard many from around here call those kids, “Rednecks”
and worse. I’ve never heard them referred to as “Children of the South.”

I ask those who preach “exploitation: ” Exactly how were we harmed by being poor and rural and Southern in difficult times? Those who have studied and written on the matter find that we can drive a nail, rip or crosscut with a handsaw, plant a seed, and entertain ourselves and each other with the simplest of toys and tools.  We can be alone without being lonely, and we dearly appreciate the modest amount of savings we have managed to accumulate through many years.  We bend to pick up coins in the street and we move to the right when approaching others on the sidewalk.  We pay our bills first and live on what is left over…and we REMEMBER the past and our long and winding paths to the present.

An early life without some material goods, without things that others have, and an early introduction into the world of manual labor, does not mean that one will become an heroic or all-conquering adult, but I think that overall it has been a grand thing for me.

Although we must set goals and we probably should check once in a while to measure progress, there are more reasons to enjoy the journey. A group of young boys in cotton fields of the 1930s, for example, worked with hoes to weed the land, but they got to go bare-foot while doing it! They got pure, ice-cold well or spring water at the end of the row.  They got fried chicken for a noon meal and an hour in the shade of a front porch before going back to the blistering fields.

Evenings after their labors, they got to sit around together on the back porch, their dirty feet soaking in “foot tubs,” and think and talk about just about everything a guy can think of – like the Moon and the stars and the five pound catfish caught in the Canoochee River last Saturday.

Those same boys got to ride a school bus, after they had risen early to start the fires and cut the firewood, milk the cow and feed the mules, pigs and chickens.

On some Saturdays, they got to walk Indian trails into town, to sell the Okra they had grown for the purpose, and maybe have enough for a Western, a new Charlie Chan  movie and The Three Stooges.

Some Saturdays, they got to go down to the creek to swim or catch a few small perch or catfish.

They got to do all those wonderful things that most of us today do not, in our wildest dreams, GET to do!

PAYBACK

A thorn in the heel
and I feel not like
liking to walk
barefoot in Spring
where Blackberry
limbs make things
like trek in the sun
on un-worn grass
no pleasure at all.
The taller the weed
the sweeter the need
to forage ahead of
the foot and point
out what implanted
thorns are all about.

– Charles Brady

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