Latest News

July 7, 2023

There’s an old expression: “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” It doesn't make sense to many young Americans, partly because thanks to social media, they have no concept of personal privacy anymore, or of self-censoring before blurting out the first angry, ill-considered comment that comes to mind. But it also doesn’t make sense to them because most of them never hung their laundry on a clothesline in their backyard.

When and where I grew up, a clothesline in the yard was as much a given as a roof on the house or gravy on the potatoes. But frankly, the part about airing “dirty” laundry never made sense because no one would place dirty laundry on the line — the whole point was to place the freshly-washed and clean laundry on the clothesline so it would dry and be sanitized by the sun.

There were few secrets in a neighborhood where people put their underwear on a clothesline for the world to see, and whose houses had open windows with screens that kept out flies and mosquitoes, but also let the conversations inside be heard outside. Since we could get only three channels on the old black-and-white TV on a good day off the rooftop antenna, when TV was boring, one could just sit near a window and catch up on what the neighbors were saying.

And if they were on the phone, we could still keep up because in the days before the government monitored all our social media posts and taped our every call, most of us had “party lines” for phone service. That meant that several families in the neighborhood shared a line. Each family had a distinct ring so we knew whether to pick up officially or just pick up and listen in without saying anything. Party lines were much cheaper than private lines, so naturally, we had one.

In the summer, when it was too hot to sit indoors on an August night in Arkansas until well after sundown, most folks would take to the front porch. The porch usually had some chairs, a ceiling fan of some kind, and ideally a porch swing hung from the rafters or ceiling of the porch. If you were lucky, the porch was screened, but if not, there would be several flyswatters and everyone took turns swatting at flies and mosquitoes or wasps or yellow jackets. If insect repellent products like OFF! had been invented, we certainly couldn’t afford to buy them, and a flyswatter would last for several summers and usually was given for free at the hardware store when you bought some stuff. I don't think we ever had a flyswatter at my house that didn't remind us that we could buy lumber or tools at Duffy Hardware. And alI of our yardsticks (three-foot type) and twelve-inch rulers let us know that Lagrone Williams Hardware had paint and pots and pans.

As we sat on the front porch, it was a time to talk and hear stories about the “good ol’ days” from my relatives that didn’t seem all that good to me given the way they described the hardships of the Depression and World War II. We'd break out guitars and play music and hear the same old family stories that we'd all heard a thousand times before. In the sweltering hot nights of the summer, everyone who wasn't playing a musical instrument had to shell purple hull and black-eyed peas that had been bought that day from the back of a farmer's truck that would pass through the neighborhood selling peas by the bushel. Shelling peas made one's fingers turn purple so I hated shelling peas, and thus one of my many reasons for learning to play the guitar.

Sometimes the neighbors or relatives came to sit on the porch and sometimes when things were quiet on our porch, we just listened to what the neighbors were saying on theirs. Many nights, it was for sure better than TV.

The culture I grew up in created a sense of community, but also a sense of accountability. The openness of our lives with our laundry visible to God and all His creation and conversations being heard without the whiz bang electronic surveillance devices we would come to despise meant that we lived with our families, but within a neighborhood and community. And out of a combination of courtesy, old-fashioned manners and the need to survive by having neighbors we could count on, we didn't talk “ugly” about neighbors too much. There was a good chance they could hear us. That meant they’d never help us shell our peas again.

Also something to consider before hitting “send” on an angry, threatening tweet.

Leave a Comment

Note: Fields marked with an * are required.

Your Information
Your Comment
BBML accepted!

More Stories

Why Art and Music Are Essential in Schools

A blank book of pages

Comments 11-20 of 28

  • William Duryea

    07/07/2023 11:39 PM

    Thanks for the memory lane trip.
    Remember when family and friends would share the bounty from their gardens with each other?
    Then there was the canning of peaches, tomatos, beans etc. every, fun, fun...ugh!
    Or, how about how fearful people were of polio that mothers would make their children take afternoon naps.
    Good times and bad; we had them both.

  • Michelle Peck

    07/07/2023 09:36 PM

    Love this! My mom hung my dad’s “clean” underwear and sheets on the clothesline, there smell of fresh air on a summer night, we had a leased GTE phone with extra long cord and learned that unscrewing the mouth piece on the phone muted you so you could listen in on the party line convo! I would trade in the social media any day to go back to simpler times! People interacted, anxiety wasn’t a common word and we sure had fun. People didn’t have a ton of money but we were much happier.

  • Martha Miller

    07/07/2023 09:20 PM

    You are right on target. I'm 85 and remember those days well. They were called "The Good Old Days." Wish we could go back to them. At least, we could trust people back then; we were taught to tell the truth, be honest, decent, respectful, and caring. Nowadays, it seems that nobody even knows the meaning of these words. God Help Us.

  • Penny Wood

    07/07/2023 06:14 PM

    I grew up in a small farming community in southern N.J. and all that you described is the same as how I grew up. I also heard many times not to air my dirty laundry. But, I'm sure the lady on the other end of our party line heard a lot of crazy teenager talk.
    Much more relaxing times back then.

  • Gloria K. McClain

    07/07/2023 06:00 PM

    Love this article and so vividly represents the childhood of my youth --- in Nebraska. Quite frankly I do miss much of that experience - neighbors gathering in the evening on the porch just to visit. Most certainly many musicians in the family made the evening very joyful with guitars playing and singing was bound to happen. My Mom was talented and played an accordion but also a harmonica -combined the two instruments by an apparatus that held the harmonica to her mouth. ------ I also love the life I now have but something very special happened when families and friends gathered in the evenings to visit.

  • John Stewart

    07/07/2023 05:15 PM

    Well said..I would not have thought that even in Arkansas..not withstanding that.Lance Alworth was my hero growing up in Iowa as an aspiring HS FB player...."whiz bang" thanks haven't heard that for years

  • Lisa Pruitt

    07/07/2023 05:08 PM

    It seemed to be written from the heart. They are always writing stuff like this about the good old days but this one was different. It made me feel different. I especially liked the part about listening to what the neighbors were saying kind of secretly. Things were different back then. There was the bad stuff just the same as now but it also seemed like there was more HEART more humanness. Maybe all this technology and heavy drug use has really changed us all.

  • Justin Thompson

    07/07/2023 05:06 PM

    We shelled peas, husked corn, fished coins out of subway gratings and watched troop ships slide gracefully through the Narrows as they returned from the European theater. Even Brooklyn (NY) offered a peaceful time in America.

  • Sherry Glascock

    07/07/2023 04:56 PM

    I love this letter form you, it brings back to me all that I remember growing up in a town Marceline, MO. I have so many memories of fun times and I did not want to go inside at bed time but had to mind my MOM. She was little but mighty. Thank you for the memories just like mine.

  • Mary Ann Sniff

    07/07/2023 04:49 PM

    Your vivid descriptions of summertime in the South exactly mirror my experiences of growing up during the ‘50s in Searcy, AR. But you forgot to mention the lightning bugs. ??