Front porch memories -- 06/14/02

I have always attempted (weather permitting) to fly the flag on various patriotic dates and holidays: Washington and Lincoln's birthdays (not "Presidents' Day"), Memorial Day, D-Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veteran's Day, etc.

This was a tradition I got from my father. Our house, a old Victorian, was on the crest of a steep hill and to avoid having too steep a grade our street was in a cut through the edge of that drop-off, even the next three or four houses on the very slight grade uphill of us were higher than street level, requiring a flight of steps to reach their yard level; you reached our house by climbing up steps... a full flight just to come level with our basement entrance and another flight to bring you up to yard level and to the short flight of four or five steps up to our wrap around porch (the porch began on the right side of our house -- as seen from the street -- and extended across the entire front of the house -- and was a double-decked porch -- there was a full width porch for our basement -- only the back half of our basement was truly below-ground) And, yes, that was a lot of steps to carry groceries up -- and to carry your bicycle up and down when you're eight or ten years old -- and to shovel in mid-Hudson Valley winters -- and to carry a push-reel lawn mower down in summers to mow the narrow grass verges on either side of the sidewalk.

The support columns on the upper porch were a lattice-work of yellow painted wood and the one in the middle had a bracket to which my father would attach a flag pole bearing a large American flag. (A 48-star flag, of course, Alaska and Hawaii not achieving statehood until the 1950's.) Dad flew the flag on every holiday and when Nancy and I bought our first house one of the first things I did was to buy a flag to fly from our front porch.

When I was a toddler a wooden baby-gate across the porch steps turned the porch into a large sheltered outdoor play area. (Of course the dangers of sunlight not being know then -- I have a babycare pamphlet my mother was given by the hospital when I was born that strongly urged exposing babies to as much sunlight as possible to avoid vitamin D deficiency problems -- I also spent a lot of time in the sunshine in our backyard.) There are black and white photographs of me and my parents and my great-aunt Ida on the porch. There were woven outdoor carpets (some scratchy fiber, jute perhaps?) on the porch that someone always had to dash out to roll up when summer thunderstorms came along (lest wind-blown rain get them wet)... and heavy wooden Adirondack chairs and a rocking chair and a small wicker table. How I loved that porch on rainy days! It might be raining, but I could still be outside... I would pretend I was on a ship at sea in a storm.

And summer nights... ah, summer nights, velvet-darkness, too hot to be indoors, but so refreshing to sit in the dark on the front porch, summer-night insect sounds, no traffic (not on a summer night in a residential neighborhood in the 1940's), sipping a glass of cold lemonade from a moisture-coated glass or perhaps a glass of our own home-made root beer (that spoiled me for years from being able to drink commercial root beer). Being able to sit up with the grown-ups... listening to the night sounds and breathing the fresh night breezes. We overlooked the confluence of the Rondout Creek and the Hudson River -- and the Hudson is a mile wide -- and could see the beacon of the lighthouse that stood at the entrance to the creek (which was wider than a lot of rivers I have encountered since) and some lights from the village of Rheinbeck on the opposite shore of the Hudson. One night I can remember hearing faintly the sound of revving automobile engines, so distant that they sounded more like the whining of large mosquitoes and my father explained that was the sound of stockcar engines from a race track across the river and how sounds could travel across a body of water so that we could still hear them despite the source being a couple of miles away. And then he described the race, clouds of dust being raised by the cars as they dashed around the dirt quarter-mile oval, one car passing another to take the lead, the crowd cheering. This was back in the days of radio and I -- who had never seen a race -- could see this race in my mind's eye just as I could see what the radio announcers and actors were describing as they "painted a word picture" of some action, could imagine this based on my father's description (and, amazingly enough, I don't think that my father had ever seen a car race outside of a motion picture.)

I have always loved front porches and can't imagine living in a house that doesn't have one. Our old neighborhood in Binghamton, NY (where Sean and Jennifer were born and where we lived until we moved to Rhode Island and where Adam spent his teenage years) was a very old-fashioned family neighborhood, tree-lined streets, small city-sized lots (six to an acre) with small front lawns, almost every house with a front porch... and people would sit on those porches in the summer time... On our block we would often have impromptu Friday night porch parties... Annie and Armond would be sitting on their front porch and they'd call out to another couple passing by and then there would be eight or ten people there and somebody would bring a couple of cold six packs and somebody else a bottle of wine and somebody else would bring a bag of chips and a container of dip... instant party... while the kids played in the front yards, running back and forth, playing tag or kick-the-can or hide-and-seek or chasing fireflies. I miss that atmosphere... Many of the houses in our neighborhood now have front porches but they sit on half-acre lots, forty or fifty feet back from the street, not fifteen or twenty, and there's only one third of the population density. Oh, it is a very nice neighborhood, and there's an annual block party and a Halloween costume parade for kids and an Easter egg hunt and a Christmas party, etc., the same kinds of things we would do in Binghamton, but it's not quite the same... maybe just because our kids are too old to join in those activities... but maybe also because those porches are really just architectural eye candy that people don't seem to use as other than decorations... and almost everyhouse has a deck in the back which is where the occupants would gather on a summer night when they didn't want to sit inside with their air-conditioning and home theatre systems.

Today is Flag Day. I put my flag up first thing this morning.

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