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Tuesday September 26, 2006 Edition
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A View From The Front Porch

Tuesday September 26, 2006

By Larry Johnson

    “The last days of summer, we count them one-by-one; the last days of summer, haven’t we had fun?”  These are the first two lines of a children’s poem that my father often recited to us three kids. Now whether it was one of his own---he wrote an entire book of children’s poems---or one he borrowed, I don’t remember and I can’t find the original. It really doesn’t matter because it poignantly depicts how I feel about this time of year. The days are growing shorter, the apples are getting redder and the nights are getting cooler.

This is my favorite time of year and it comes just before my least favorite time of year---winter. If memory serves me correctly, and I’m getting progressively suspicious that it may not be, this is the perfect weather for front porch sitting.

When I was young, the front porch was our late summer parlor after supper. We would sit on the front steps between mother’s yellow rose bushes and dad would tell us stories about “the good old days.” The front porch was also the perfect platform for watching our neighbors go by in their old cars, trucks and tractors. We would wave and they would wave back, and sometimes they would join us on the porch and discuss the weather, the hay crop or the price of milk---always too low.

The heavy-lifting season of haying was usually winding down---unless the weather had been wet and the season late--- and we’d probably been to the fair or field days with our calves, unless the haying hadn’t been finished in time; and most of the vegetables from mother’s garden had been canned or pickled and she would find time to sit with us on the porch and correct dad’s excessive use of hyperbole, as he told us stories from the distant past.

Often the stories would happen right before our very eyes. Vermont in the forties and fifties was a place of color and characters. There was Buck the Dog Man, who often went by on his bicycle as we sat on our porch. Buck claimed to be an Indian, and no one ever doubted his claim. He was very tall, dark and he rode a bicycle towed by a husky dog. Buck made his living as an artist. He was a natural with a paint brush, and many Addison County barns were canvasses for his genius.

We had other neighbors who were characters in their own right, such as Fred the Tractor Guy. Fred’s means of transportation was a Farm-all tractor which he drove once a week to town to buy his groceries. His past was shrouded in mystery and rumor, and it was whispered that he had once owned a sugar plantation in Cuba, sometime around the turn of the century. It was also rumored that he had gotten into trouble in that tropical haven, which explained his sudden appearance in our hometown. His present life was nearly as much a mystery as his past except for the fact that he was an ardent writer of poems. He and my father had much in common, on this level, and whenever Fred would park his tractor along the road in front of our porch, he and dad would exchange poems that they had written since their last meeting. We got to know Fred through his verse, and the romantic tenor of his work somewhat belied the rumors that were passed around behind his back.

Johnny C lived in Addison and was a skinny old man when I was just a toddler. I remember, not unpleasantly, that he smelled of tobacco and wood smoke. He drove an old Model-T Ford past our porch, on his way to Middlebury, for whatever private reasons he may have had; and when we saw him coming, we kids would often mount our bikes and pass him as he trundled slowly down our gravel road. It never seemed to bother him that we were faster on our balloon-tired bicycles than he was in his Model-T. He would smile and wave and continue on his way until we got tired of our game and cut him loose. What Johnny did for a living was always a mystery to everyone. He lived in an old shack beside route-17, with a broken-down cow barn in the background. He lived without running water, electricity or in-house companionship, although it was rumored that he had once been a “lady-killer” in his youth. One thing about Johnny we could always be sure of, however: On the third Sunday of every month, he would show up at our house just in time for dinner. No one ever invited him, as far as I know, but there was always an extra plate set for Johnny. I suspect that he had a regular dining schedule, at various houses around the county, and this may partly explain how he was able to survive without any ostensible source of income.

The “Governor” was a tramp and he was so regular in his visitations that one could almost predict the hour he would show up. Punctuality was a responsibility that he took seriously. He moved about the country with a regularity that would put the airlines of today to shame. Mother would look at the calendar and announce: “The Governor will be here tomorrow. We can expect him for lunch.” We kids always looked forward to his arrival. The Governor was very polite, well-mannered at the table and a story teller without equal. He had traveled this country from one end to the other many times, and the stories he told of distant and exotic places, early on inspired me to become a hobo. For better or worse, the times changed as I got older and Men of the Road, like the Governor, became a rare and near-extinct breed. I was forced to find a less romantic vocation. One year the Governor failed to show up at the appointed hour and we sadly realized that something important and exotic had gone out of our lives.

As summer neared its end and the katydids and the eight o’clock whippoorwill became louder and more persistent, the front porch became a bittersweet venue, a place that would soon give way to the living room and its oversized Round Oak woodstove. The soft-time of summer would soon transform itself into crisp nights and cooler days, and then the snows would come and the front porch would be no more until the peeper frogs announced a new spring and a possible summer of new adventures.


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