Friday, September 28, 2007

Thought for Food

I heard today that this year, for the first time in the history of the earth, as many people live in urban areas as live in rural areas. What does that mean ? Well for one thing, it means that the human population of the earth is being fed by 50% or less of that population. That's pretty meaningful.For most of the history of our particular species it took about 100% ot the world's population to feed itself. Indeed, most years it took about 100% of the population to feed 95% of that population, because a lot of folks starved to death or died of malnutrition.Indeed there is still some of that around today.

What has caused this migration from farm life to the city ? Boredom. If you have ever spent any amount of time on a farm, you know that your excitement is pretty limited.I was watching some T.V. show about ancient warriors, wondering what could possess someone to take a sword and hack someone else with it, at the very real risk of they themselves becoming a hackee. I think it was boredom. These people all lived on farms ,which were so boring that they made a concious decision that the risk of dying in battle was worth not having to do the same mundane chores every day from sun up to sun down.

My own family appear to have been subsistence farmers for well over 300 years until the turn of the last century. At that point, my Grandfather moved to town, but always kept rural land and thereby still qualified as a farmer to some extent,. My brother anbd I are the first Porters in our direct line who did not have to do morning farm chores.Even my father had to milk a cow each morning while he was growing up. The children of my brother and I are the first Porters EVER not to have to spend signifigant time on a farm, as Clay and I put in a couple of weeks every summer at our mother's father's place outside of beautiful Shamrock, Texas. And what a delight it was.

We'd board a train for an 8-10 hour train ride from Houston's Union Station, now a ball park, up to Childress, Texas, with it's seperate waiting rooms for "whites and colored". We often sat in the colored waiting room because no one was ever in there and it got us away from the adults.From Childress, my Grandfather would drive us to Shamrock, past the Red River, which I never saw any water in (My mother said that it was a mile wide and an inch deep). My Grandfather would drive us along in his 1959 green Chevy station wagon, his left elbow dangling out of the window,his right hand constantly hitting the cigarette lighter to light up one of his endless streams of Camels. He seldom talked, and then it was only to complain about things or berate Democrats.I always thought that the reason he was so cranky was because he lived on a farm. He and my Grandmother had bought the place to retire and so that my Uncle Gaston could raise cattle and have a legacy.I never saw my Grandfather pick up any kind of a farming implement in his life, with the exception of a hoe which he used to kill the rattlesnake that almost bit me, as I chased down a softball under some cactus. he had been an Oil Field supervisor for Standard Oil and was as out of place on that farm as a Presbyterian in Hell.

My introduction to farming was tough because ,unlike the previous 300 years of Porters, I had known somehing better, or at least more exciting. My house had air onditioning, it had a television set. when I got bored I could hop on my bike and ride up to the store and hang out, or ride over to see a friend.My days on my Grandfather's farm were made up mostly of sitting on his screened in front porch, trying to catch a breeze and watching my Grandfather listen to the radio and read the Wall Street Journal, stopping every now and then to damn someone or other or drop a cigarette butt in the large Orange High-C can that he kept next to his easy chair. If I really got bored, I'd take a walk. I'd walk up the hill past the old abandoned car and house and into the fields where I could pick plums and apricots. Sometimes I'd try to walk around the whole farm which was 640 acres.I had to walk on dirt roads that neved ended, or at least I never got to the end. The place was a mile square. Traffic was so light that you could see my fotprints in the road for a couple of days, until the Panhandle winds shifted the red sands.

At least at night I could sit by the old family radio in the living room and tune in baseball games from all over the Midwest.That really was fun.The radios in Houston only seemed to get Houston stations. Up there, I got stations from Tennesse to Colorado.It was pretty cool. My father indulged my love of baseball by getting my grandfather a month's subscription to the Houston Post, brought by the mailman (RFD) a couple of days late, but much appreciated. Once during the trip my mother would go grocery shopping and let my brother and I go into the news stand downtown and get a dollar's worth of stuff each (in those days comic books were only .12 or, at most .25 for the annuals so a buck went a long way). This would keep us entertained for one afternoon and then the boredom would set back in.

My grandfather had a Jack Russell Terrier named Skipper.We lived inside the fence that went around the house. He had lots of room to run, still, he could not go out the front gate. He probably would have eaten the chickens.People on farms are sensitive about such things. But if Skipper had not been the world's dumbest dog, he could have easily gotten out. That dog could jump higher from a standstill than any mammal that has ever lived on this earth. From a standing position the dog could spring well over six feet into the air. The fence was maybe four feet tall, but it never crossed Skipper's mind to jump the fence. He would just bound up and down, for hours at a time, looking over the fence and yipping. Then again, maybe he was scared of the chickens, I was, nasty little things.

I recall asking my father, who VERY seldom joined us on our "vacation" to the Panhandle, what it was that was so damned unattractive about farm life. It was the monotony he said, as well as the genuinely hard work. My father had grown up in cotton country in west Texas, where he assured me that cotton grew very low to the ground. Picking it or chopping it was back breaking work, in a boiling hot son. The most famous cotton story of our family involved my Uncle Earl. By the time I knew my Uncle Earl he was a very short, stout middle aged man. He looked like Fred Mertz would have looked if Fred had had black hair combed sttraight back.I never saw him without a cigarette and only rarely saw him without a beer. He lived with my Aunt Evelyn, whom he had married twice and divorced once.She was almost a duplicate of him, except that her voice was much deeper. The kind of voice my father always referred to as "whiskey tenor". Earl and Evelyn were childless and lived in a small house over on the southesat side of Houston with a blind canary named Chico.Chico may have some Guiness record as the world's longest surviving canary.

Uncle Earl was a restless soul, as anyone married to Aunt Evelyn would have been.He could not sleep on weekends and always ate breakfast at the Dot Coffee Shop. After breakfast, at about 6:30, he would sometimes drive out to our house with a giant sack of graperfruit or a case of Pepsi. I always thought that was odd. He'd come in for awhile and smoke while we tried to wake up.He was a pretty funny guy, second only to my Uncle Mike in the story telling department, and actually unparraleled when it came ot telling stories about the Porter brother childhood days in Colorado City. Which, according to the stories, were made up mostly of dice games and moonshine runs. This particular story was not told by him though,it was told about him.

Having run into a dry spell, gambling wise, My Uncle Earl, in his middle to later teen years decided to reform and make money through honest labor. He went to my Grandfather, a former Judge and pillar of the Disciples of Christ Church, and confessed that he had not done what had been expected of him, and wanted to do better. My grandfather, knowing only to well the story of the Prodigal Son, since he had seven of them himself, decided to buy my Uncle Earl a cotton sack and take him out to a farm where he knew that Earl could get on as a cotton picker.Earl was thrilled, and one imagines the pride and hope of that drive out to the cotton fields, with my Grandfather thinking that all his work and prayer over Earl had not been in vain.

As it happened, my Graandfather had a couple of rental properties, that he subsequently lost during the depression,and he had to check on them before driving into town to his Insurance office. So after running his errands, he steered back to town and was going down the main thoroughfare when he noticed someone who looked like Earl wandering down Main Street, with a big smile on his face. Sure enough, it was Earl. He'd managed to sell his sack to another picker and catch a ride in time to beat the old man back into town. When confronted with the fact that he had said he needed money, Earl was able to reply that he had some now, from the sack he'd sold.

Earl never laughed very hard at that story. All of the Porter brothers lived with a secret collective shame that they had let their parents down from a behavioral stand point. My mother always blamed it on the strictness with which they were raised. Things were so tight that when each boy got just a little freedom, he would run wild. My Aunt Ella always blamed it on their hometown, which she once described to me as containing more reprobates per square mile than anyplace west of the Mississippi.My dad always downplayed it, explaing that all of these things happened ove a thirty year period, it was not like they were all in trouble on a daily basis. Tellingly, no one ever suggested that any of the stories were an exageration.

Looking back, I know what I blamed it on. They were the first generation to fully break away from the farm. They found other things in life to do that were interesting and wild. Just like the Prodigal did, when he went away to the "Far country" and spent all he had on women and wine.In Roman times they'd have forged a sword and gone off to war.In west Texas, they just made do with what was available, which happened to be dice and gin.I never blamed the Prodigal, and I don't blame them. You would not either, if you'd had to summer in Shamrock, Texas every August.


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