NATIVE TEXAN The perfect porch cures a world of ills
And this old porch is just a long time
Of waiting and forgetting
And remembering the coming back
And not crying about the leaving. . .
From “This Old Porch,” by Lyle Lovett
My friend Kyle Childress, a Baptist preacher in Nacogdoches, got me to thinking about porches last week. Kyle and his wife Jane have lived for years in a leafy neighborhood near the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University, in an older red-brick house - a house with a porch.
That porch, he writes in a recent book of essays called Will Campbell, Preacher Man, “has become the major gathering place for any social occasion at our house, none more so than the churchwide Easter potluck, with kids and adults everywhere, food and laughter, a slamming screen door (‘You kids make up your minds - either in or out!’), and lots of conversation and stories among everyone lazily rocking back and forth in the rocking chairs and swing.”
Now and then someone will drop by the Childress house in the evening, knowing preacher Kyle is likely to be on the porch. The two of them catch up on the news, maybe share a story or two. Eventually the visitor will get around to talking about whatever it is that’s bothering him or her, whatever it is that prompted the porch visit.
“What I’ve learned is that conversation on the porch is important ministry,” Kyle writes. “If the caller comes to my study at the church for an appointment, it is called ‘counseling.’ But if someone drops by my porch and we sit in the rocking chairs, it is just two friends having a conversation. We’re visiting.”
I like the idea that porches are more than a venerable architectural feature on certain styles of houses. A bridge of sorts between the private sphere and the public, porches for a very long time performed a vital social function. Before TV and air conditioning, before we became addicted to staring at tiny glowing screens, they were outdoor living rooms connecting us to our community.
I know porches, although as something of an interlude I must confess in the presence of Pastor Kyle and everyone reading this column the porch memory that initially popped into my mind. The social function was, shall we say, questionable.
It’s a hot summer night, and we’re sleeping in the backyard - my brothers and I and our friend Charlie Makowski, who lives around the corner. Still running around in the dark long past bedtime, we happen to notice in a front yard down the street tiny points of light. We soon realize that Dale Lafon and Ricky Cheatham, guys we know, are sitting on the curb smoking. Gathering up all the dirt clods we can carry to the front yard, we start chunking toward the light. We can barely stifle fits of laughter as our grenades arc down out of the darkness and we hear their “What the ----?”
Once they figure out where the fusillade is coming from, they climb into Dale’s ’49 Chevy coupe, drive by slowly and let loose with clods, rocks, sticks, tossable two-by-fours - ammunition that strips leaves off our front-yard live oaks, lands with a bang on the front porch and clangs off the metal yard chair where every evening after work Dad sits and reads the afternoon Waco Times-Herald. The chair is one of several just outside the open windows of the front bedroom where, on this night, Uncle Clyde is sleeping. Has been sleeping, that is.
Our uncle was a traveling hardware salesman who sometimes spent the night with us when he came through Waco. He and Aunt Lola were denizens of the big city, Dallas, and as good as they were to us, they somehow made my brothers and me feel a bit like small-town yahoos. And now, here was proof.
Charlie got sent home, and Kenny, Steve and I had to sleep inside the house the rest of the hot night. The next morning Uncle Clyde got to survey the detritus of battle before he climbed into his Buick Roadmaster and headed up the Dallas Highway. I can see him shaking his head at our yahoo-ness.
“Wasn’t that great?” brother Ken recalled. Recalled just yesterday, as a matter of fact. And, yes, I agreed with him. Maybe that attitude explains why my friend Kyle became a pastor, and the Holley boys didn’t.
My sister-in-law Susan heard her husband reliving our long-ago misadventure and recalled a front-porch memory of her own. Her family, she said, was the first in East Bernard to own a TV. Like doves on a wire, neighbors unannounced gathered on the Peace front porch and peered through the living-room window to watch Roy Rogers and Gene Autry riding, warbling and shooting on the tiny black-and-white screen. Show over, they’d bid good evening to the Peaces inside the house and stroll back home.
Porches - from the Greek word “portico” -- have been around at least since the mid-1800s, when a prominent landscape gardener named Andrew Jackson Downing invented the design element to distinguish American houses from their English counterparts. In Texas, of course, porches became a vital feature because of the summer heat, and if you had a screened-in sleeping porch, so much the better.
Porches allowed us to get to know our neighbors, catch up on the latest gossip. Talking to folks who lived next door or down the street, people we might know only casually, we got a sense that we were in this together, that all was well. It was a message drastically different from the mayhem that TV evening-news touted, news we’d hear inside the house -- isolated and apart and ever more suspicious.
Philip Gulley, author of a book called Front Porch Tales, has lamented, only partially tongue-in-cheek, I suspect: “I believe all that is wrong with the world can be attributed to the shortage of front porches and the talks we had on them. Somewhere around 1950, builders left off the front porch to save money, and we’ve had nothing but problems ever since.”
Our little getaway in Marathon, christened The Wee House by a previous owner, has a front porch framed by four varnished cedar posts, and, yes, neighbors do stop by occasionally when we’re in town. With neither TV nor air-conditioning, we spend a lot of time on the porch - reading (books and our phones); listening to the sound of hummingbirds, a passing train; listening to the quiet.
Kyle Childress concludes his essay about porches with a quote from the social critic bell hooks. “A perfect porch,” she writes, “is the place where the soul can rest.”
Amen, I say from our Wee House front porch. And again I say, amen.