These days it's all about the germs. Germs are bad. Germs will make you sick. It's like some sort of anti-gem rebellion. Children aren't allowed to get dirty let alone work, but are instructed to wash their hands relentlessly. We didn't have germs back then. Seldom has anyone even heard the quip, "A peck o' dirt before you die." It's an old adage meaning that each of us will have eaten a peck of dirt (4 pecks = 1 bushel) by the end of our life.
Way back when, we worked outside - in the fields, in the barn, in the garden, in the woods. We worked and we got dirty. Dirty with dirt. Our muscles were the tools used to do that work. We swung hammers, axes, and hoes. We dug holes, furrows and roots. And we pulled weeds, ropes, and levers. We were the machines that technology has replaced. Able hands and a strong back were valued assets.
A noontime dinner was the norm back then. The "hands" would make their way to the house and wash up before dinner. But it wasn't for fear of germs. No, it was because it is rude not to before sitting at the table and offending the cook(s) could be a recipe for going hungry. Come noontime, the men would make thier way towards the back porch. A few would light up a cigarette and pull up a bucket to sit on if the old wooden bench was occupied. One by one, they had their turn at the laundry sink or the garden hose with a bar of soap sitting on the rail of the picket fence. Those who used the hose for washing were careful to point it out toward the pasture next to the house while washing and when finished, either handed it off directly or set it in Mama's petunias. Every man here has a wife or mother who has trained him to do just that, and it's no different at someone else's house. It was usually pretty quiet at first - nobody in a real hurry to talk. It might start with "Here ya go Pete." Then after a few minutes, there might be a comment like, "Those birds don't seem to care at all about us imposters coming in," to which a couple of the fellas might respond with a nod or single syllable.
Pretty soon, Mama would poke her head out the screen door and announce, "Hope you brought your appetites. It'll be ready in about five more minutes." One by one, the cigarettes are snubbed. A remark about it smelling good enough to eat is heard, and though not new or even very funny, earns a chuckle and a reply in agreement. Within moments, Mama's back at the door cryin', "Come 'n get it," as she props the screen open with a brick that sits at the ready for that sole purpose.
"Go ahead Morris. Find you a seat," Pa invites. Morris being the eldest garners a certain amount of respect. The others file in after him in order of age and rank, Pa bringing up the tail being his own home. Nothing needs to be said. Each man knows his place. One of the young men wouldn't dare try to enter before Morris. Showing respect is a respectable act in itself. They all politely mill around until Pa finds his way to one end of the table, then the others take their seats. Morris is at the other end, is asked to say the blessing and obliges with honor.
"Amen. Now don't be bashful. Dig in." At the very words hands begin reaching for dishes of hearty nourishment.
"It smells delicious Margaret," Wendle comments.
"Strawberry jam is my favorite, Mrs. Arnold," Porter pipes up. These and other such compliments are made in Mama's direction. After a few minutes of the only sounds being that of the utensils connecting with plates, words become audible.
"You did a nice job on that fence where the elk broke through. Looks like new."
"Most of it is, the buggers. They tore up that lower section pretty good, but the grass sure came on nice where they made their highway through."
"Yea, I always thought it was too bad you can't teach 'em how to use a gate."
"Can you pass the green beans please?" Porter requests of Wendle who's on his left.
Pa directing him, "Now only eat what you're worth," with a grin on his face.
Porter being quick, "What's for desert?"
Laughs come from all around and Wendle in his slow and easy manner says, "Grady over there's gotta few years on ya and still bucks more bales."
Porter in defense responds, "Yea but he's built like an angus bull an's as stubborn as a mule." At which Grady looks up smiling, "Hey, how'd I get into this? I'm just over here eating what I'm worth. I'd take another biscuit please."
The mood being light and words in jest, Morris recollects, "I remember when I could eat like I had a hollow leg. My momma would put extra spuds in my soup sometimes just tryin' to fill me up." Such talk continues until the plates begin to empty and Pa says, "Well, you fellas keep eatin'. I'm savin' room for peach cobbler."
Mama having cleared a few of the empty dishes brings a stack of smaller plates and spoons. "Pete brought these peaches by yesterday so I thought what better way to use them." Porter and Grady by now are the only two still eating and hurry to finish so they can share in their part of the cobbler.
"Are they the ones from that tree in your side yard Pete?" Wendle asks.
"That's a pretty good tree. Seems like every year it's got a bumper crop hangin' on it."
"Yea, Judy dumps her wash water out there. She claims it likes the flavor of dirty laundry. It always does better than the one down by the barn."
The plates of cobbler are passed and the spoon for the fresh whipped cream is passed from hand to hand.
"Margaret if you keep feeding me, I'm gonna have to borrow that shade tree out front and take a nap. Then Ed here 'll fire me."
"Thank you Wendle."
Easy conversation flows as the cobbler disappears and dishes are stacked and cleared.
"Well, I s'pose we should get back at 'er." Pa and the others rise with another round of gratitude payed to Mama. And they file back out to get their hands dirty once more. The young trying to prove they are worth their salt, and the old trying to prove they are still productive. Being a good hand was a source of pride. It was a healthy and honest way. I can't for the life of me understand why the young people today seem to abhor such a life. The way I see it, they would be far better off to seek it out. Maybe I'm just gaining ground on Morris's end of the line in reflecting years past. Who's to say.