The Colors Of ChildhoodFebruary 2, 2023
By Tom Poland
I haven’t seen the old homeplace in a while. Not my homeplace, mind you, my childhood friend’s. That would be Sweetie Boy, he of the sweet temperament that spurred Granddad to nickname him. His Christian name is Jessie Lee Elam, and we spent many a day adventuring on the family farm beholding the colors of childhood.
The clock spins wildly now, and I find myself back in the 1960s when each summer day amounted to an adventure. In fresh air beneath the Southern sun, Sweetie and I had our own Disneyworld of pastures and ponds, breams and baseball, and woods and wasps. Yes, wasps.
Come evenings, Sweetie and I would sit in the back of Granddad’s jalopy. As we clanged past yellow bitter weeds, we eyed old wrecks in the pasture with respect. It was a battleground, as you’ll see. During the day, we caught bluegills, dined on tomato-red persimmons, and swam in blue ponds, sometimes khaki from soil summer rains washed into water.
Most mornings I awoke up to the aroma of toasted white bread drenched with melting chunks of churned butter. Homemade strawberry jam topped all that butter and bread. (No store-bought margarine for my grandmother. She churned her own butter.) Red, yellow, and white—it made for a colorful start to a wonderful day. The days ahead held color too, red-varnished cane poles, red-and-white bobbers, green mats of algae that betrayed snakes’ serpentine wanderings, glittering jelly-like clumps of frog eggs, and Granddad’s white homemade wooden boat with ever-present black moccasins beneath it.
That battlefield of junked wrecks and worn out vehicles? Granddad, a veteran of the Great Depression, didn’t throw things away. “Keep something seven years, and you’ll find another use for it.” He said that often. He kept his old tractors, farm implements, and all manner of scrap metal in a pasture to the side of Sweetie’s home. We found another use for his wreckage. War. All that red-rusting metal gave red wasps places to build waxy papery nests, which we clobbered with white flint rocks. Running for our life when a boiling ball of mad wasps shot out? It ranks as one of the greatest thrills of childhood. We risked pain, and we got stung. A bit of tobacco fixed that.
Those mythic days of childhood meant day-bright swims in ponds and starlight rides through darkening green pastures come sundown. Along the dark edge of woods, we watched lightning bugs glimmer. Once the sun would set, we’d sit on the porch of Sweetie’s home and share stories as we looked out over old truck tires painted white and turned into flowerpots red with geraniums.
Each day sparkled with colors and evenings did too. Memories of drives through pastures about lightning bug time please me still. We played in pastures with their fertile fragrance and lowing cattle. We watched the distant line of dark trees, and gazed upon fishponds smooth as glass. We listened to bullfrogs’ song and watched fireflies light up green clumps of rushes.
It’s all gone now.
Yesteryear and its ferocious appetite for change banished the places where the colors of childhood bonded a couple of young fellas. Sweetie’s old homeplace sits empty, my grandparents’ home burned, and the years brought change like nothing we’d seen. A lot of static I’ll call it has crackled since our days of fishponds and wasp nests, but Sweetie and I remain friends still, if no longer childhood adventurists.
We made a pact, Sweetie and I. When that roll is called up yonder and the first of us goes home, the other will carry his brother to his final resting place. We never talked about that as boys, but the deal was in the making back when the colors of childhood bonded us.
Georgia native Tom Poland writes a weekly column about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and culture and speaks frequently to groups in the South. Governor Henry McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon Tom, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, stating, “His work is exceptional to the state.” Poland’s work appears in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers throughout the South.
Visit Tom’s website at www.tompoland.net
Email him at [email protected]