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Tuesday March 17, 2009 Edition
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A View From The Front Porch

Tuesday March 17, 2009

By Larry Johnson

   As you’ve probably noticed, few modern houses have front porches. They may have a deck for their barbeque or hot tub and a landing platform for a set of stairs going out onto the lawn, but porches, for the most part, are nearly nonexistent.

   When I was a kid, porches were a functional and integral part of most houses. It was unthinkable to not have a place for summer entertainment. That’s right, a porch was the entertainment center and the gathering place for friends and relatives who just happened by on a Sunday afternoon or a warm, moonlit night.

    A recent short feature on National Public Radio was extolling the lost virtues of the front porch. It was definitely a trip down memory lane. We had a front porch, as did most of our neighbors, and it was a place where we spent our summers, where we spent our evenings, entertained our friends and where my father, the consummate raconteur, told endless stories about his youth and about our ancestors.

   Our house was a two-hundred-year old, fifteen room farmhouse and it had a front porch that ran from one end to the other. A number of Adirondack chairs were spread out along its entire length, but mostly we sat on its plank steps, facing the gravel road. From this perch we had a privileged view of the world that traveled by our house. We could see Camel’s Hump in the far distance and the sheep meadow and Otter creek in the foreground. It was a bucolic panorama punctuated by mother’s yellow rose bushes, ancient peony garden, crab apple tree and a giant white pine that may have been nearly as old as the house.  

   A porch was a place  where you sat still and the world came to you or by you and the world became a stage, moving past from left to right and from right to left. It was the place where I was sitting when I saw the horses run away with my Uncle George. That was a day of crisis in more ways than one. My Uncle’s back was broken when the wagon overturned. As a result, it ended his farming career. But it was also a pivotal moment in our farming operation. The horses were put out to pasture permanently and a new tractor took their place. We had moved into the 20th Century and everyone was more than a little ambivalent about it.

   There wasn’t a lot of traffic on our road. It was a gravel and mud highway with a narrow purpose and an abbreviated length. It was eight or nine miles long, running its crooked path as an extension of Middlebury’s Weybridge Street. Rte. 23, its official name, still bisects Weybridge Hill and Monument Farms and then it drops dangerously fast down Joe Brown’s Hill and into the valley along Otter Creek and Lemon Fair. It’s changed little in the past fifty or sixty years, except it is now paved and somewhat higher near the confluence of the Creek and the Fair, disallowing the annual flood that usually took place in March. The flooding was something I always looked forward to. The Thompson Hill School (Weybridge #2) would close, usually for several days, giving us all a brief vacation. The meadows and the swamp along the river would be covered with water and then ice. When the ice was hard and smooth, we could skate for miles.

   The front porch was a dais for many life affirming events and gentle humor was often the result. Our neighbor, Johnny Carpenter, often crossed our stage in his Model-T Ford and it was always an occasion for mirth. Johnny was a confirmed bachelor of modest means, somewhere in his fifties, sixties or seventies, it was hard to tell. He was, however, a true gentleman, and a man with a droll sense of humor. He never drove more than fifteen miles per hour and his passing always provoked a racing response from us kids. We would mount our balloon-tired bicycles and go out and race Johnny to our nearest neighbor, a half mile down the road. Even Bonnie, our Border collie, would join in the fun, and Johnny would go even slower, allowing us to win.

   There were two other actors that were always welcome on our stage. One was Buck the Bicycle Man. Buck, as I remember, was very tall and had a lantern jaw and high cheek bones. Where he had come from no one seemed to know, but his claim to being an American Indian was never challenged. He certainly had the look. Buck was unusual in several other ways. He was an itinerant barn artist, who traveled from farm-to-farm, painting large, pastoral murals. What was most unusual about Buck, however, was how he traveled. He rode a bicycle towed by a Siberian husky. On the back of the bicycle was a small wooden box where Buck kept his artist’s equipment. On the box was written in big, red letters “DANGER DYNAMITE”. The sign, he claimed, helped keep him from getting run over.

   Fred the Tractor Guy, a unique actor in his own right, was always welcome at our porch. His mode of transportation was an old tractor that he drove to Middlebury winter and summer to do his shopping. Fred was a poet with a “history”. If he saw us on our porch he would always stop and read to us his newest poem, usually exploring some dark and foreboding subject. Fred’s personal history was sketchy; he seldom talked about his past, but the rumor was circulated that he had once lived in Cuba, at the turn of the century, and that he had gotten involved in some dark and bloody conflict. Undoubtedly, the rumor was pure fiction but it made a wonderful story to scare children, and, I must admit, I was always a little afraid of Fred the Tractor Guy.

   The front porch was where we would sit on warm, summer nights and wait for the eight o’clock whippoorwill. Yes, that’s right; there was a whippoorwill we could set our clock by. Every night, during the summer, we kids would finish our chores, eat supper and then wait on the porch for the whipping of poor will. His sonorous call would last almost exactly an hour, and by then the curtain had fallen across our stage and it was time for bed.     

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