Alabama

Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige

When I was a boy, my dad used to cut grass for our neighbors to make extra cash. He charged $7 to cut the front and back yards, edge the curb, run the weedeater, sweep the driveway, and trim up any stray growth among the hedges. When my older brother and I helped him, doing mostly the smaller tasks, he kept $5 for household expenses and gave us each $1. That sounds like a pittance, but in the early 1980s, a buck could buy a candy bar and a Coke, so I didn’t fuss. If I got out there and helped him with two or three yards, I was all good for the week.

Most of the neighbors who used him as their yard man were elderly and had known him since he was a teenager. My dad inherited his parents’ house after they passed away, so my brother and I grew up in the same house he did and among people who had known him (and his family) most of his life. That meant we were raised on that cusp between an older Southern sense of place, surrounded by generations of people who knew us, and a New South world of suburban ranch houses, dirt bikes, and MTV.

We came up at a time when a dollar still meant something, but so did having the high score on Galaga or Dig Dug at the neighborhood arcade. Neither of those would last long. As earlier generations had, I made my annual Christmas wish list from the Sears catalog, and I rode my bicycle when I wanted to get somewhere. Like our rural forebears, us kids left the sight of adults to have our fun, treading independently to our backwoods and vacant-lot “forts” and other hovels, where older boys smoked cigarettes and made their own rules. (Picture the opening scenes of The Outsiders when Dallas takes the deck of cards from the little boys in the weedy lot.) Having to stay inside, where we could be governed, was one of our punishments.

Yet, we differed starkly from those farming forebears— in that we had air-conditioning, television, and snack-packed goodies for our lunches. To find only oranges and apples in our Christmas stockings would have been a grave injustice, not a present. To own nothing more than two pair of overalls – one for Sunday, one for every other day – was unfathomable. To eat regular meals made from homegrown items and cooked over a wood fire . . .  People did that? Yes, they did. My maternal grandparents, who were born in 1907 and 1911, respectively, were among them.

But what did that mean to me? I was a kid whose milk came from a plastic jug, whose blue jeans came from a mall department store, and whose entertainment was piped onto a screen through a thick cable that allowed us to witness the gyrations of David Lee Roth and Cyndi Lauper. While I do remember the once-heralded Billy Graham Crusade taking over prime-time, I also remember not being happy about it since it interrupted the other shows. Bryl-creem was still a thing, but not all that popular among the younger crowd.

What makes sad, and what makes me miss those vestiges of the older bygone ways, is the closeness that we seem to have lost. The few societal connections left standing by cellphones having unlisted numbers were mowed down by the advent of privacy fences and the TV series To Catch a Predator. Now, we’ve been reduced to Facebook stalking and front-door security cameras to remind ourselves that the human race is still up and running. We’ve become people who roll up our car windows because  we’re frightened of carjackers and fresh air. As for me, I miss knowing folks in the grocery store by name and seeing kids on bikes flying up and down the street on a Saturday, just as much as I miss my grandmother’s cornbread, walks home from school with my friends, and having everything I needed paid for with a dollar that I earned working alongside my dad.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige” posts will be published regularly on Tuesday afternoons.

To read recent posts, click the date below:

February 26, 2019

February 19, 2019

February 12, 2019

February 5, 2019

January 29, 2019

January 22, 2019

Or to find and read earlier posts, click here for a full list.

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