Tag Archives: summer

The Irresistible Power of Dirt

Betty and Harold Motte with their Uncle Mike Powers at Mimi and Da’s, late 1940’s.

We’re posing for a photo, probably on a Sunday since we have on shoes and socks. Da’s field behind us beckons where we loved digging for arrowheads. We found quite a few over those summers…

Even though I live in a condo I’ve been watching a lot of Home and Garden TV lately, admiring the way talented landscapers transform an ordinary lawn into a sunken garden complete with waterfall. I’m with them – no more mowing! But then my thoughts and memories began to wander back a few decades, to my childhood days of playing outside in the yard.

We didn’t have “lawns” in those days. Everybody had a front yard and a back yard, maybe a side yard too. Gardens were where you planted tomatoes and butter beans and some city yards had a little garden too, way at the back of their regular yard.

To a city kid raised in the middle of town, ordinary grass was what everybody had in their yard, unexciting, turned-brown-in-the-summer, plain grass. There might be a little square of bare dirt in an unpaved driveway or neighborhood park, but it was usually a puny little patch.

But on those summer occasions when my brother and I got to spend time at Mimi’s house, we had great expanses of exciting, inviting dirt. She did have some flower beds near the house which were strictly off-limits, but she also had something us city-dwellers didn’t have – a huge side yard and back yard full of mostly weed-free dirt.

The color of dirt can be quite varied here in the Pee Dee, ranging from blackish-brown just right to plant vegetables, to gooey yellow clay that seldom washed completely out of your clothes, to whitish-tan sandy stuff. Mimi’s dirt was medium brown, not gooey at all but sort of sandy.

Mimi’s dirt was just right for us little kids with long summer days to fill with exploration, excavation and other assorted outdoor fun. It didn’t make sticky tracks in the house, which was a good thing, considering that a favorite pastime was running in and out of the house with a brief pause in the kitchen for a drink of cool water.

There’s just something about the smell of dirt right before, during and after a summer rain shower. If it only sprinkled and didn’t pour, you got the full flavor of it. It drew you right outside to splash or stomp, if you could find the right size puddle.

You could make neat mud pies to serve to your companions – usually a kitten or an old doll baby in my case. Or if the dirt was just damp and not soppy wet, you could draw major house plans which would stay put on the ground for a while. Dry dirt was better for playing marbles, of course.

The texture of dirt was also interesting. Once the weather warmed up we went barefooted most of the time. That first feel of hot summer dirt on my bare feet was so luscious, so luxuriating, the grit between my toes was hardly noticeable. If we had to put on sandals for a ride to the store, we seldom washed our feet first. Why wash? They were just going to get dirty again soon. Sandals off, back to bare feet ASAP, that was our motto.

In examining the possibilities of dirt, we discovered that sandy dirt doesn’t stick together too well unless it’s just the right consistency and dampness. Even then, when it dries out it tends to fall apart. You needed to mix in a bit of granddaddy’s dirt to make good building material, such as for walls around a mud puddle to keep beetles or small turtles in, or to deepen the puddle for floating twig-boats and popsicle-stick barges.

Da’s field dirt was darker brown than Mimi’s yard dirt. A cross between sandy and loamy, the dirt in the plowed fields beyond the house was where granddaddy planted watermelons, or tobacco, or cotton. After his tractor made neat straight rows but before the seeds went in, that dirt was perfect for investigating and excavating.

We loved digging there for arrowheads. We found quite a few over those summers but for some strange reason Mimi and Da didn’t want us to make real arrows with them, just save them for “show and tell” at school later on. When not on one of our archeological digs, Da’s field was excellent for seeing how deep we could bury our feet, or shoveling up a bucket full for later use.

I haven’t gone barefooted in years but I believe my feet retain the memory! The closer summer gets, the more my toes seem to yearn for Mimi’s warm yards and Da’s fresh-plowed fields. I really have fond memories of most things about dirt, except the tin tub baths that Mimi insisted we take at night to remove it from our persons.

Summers were safe in the 1950’s

Timrod Park Swimming Pool, 1950’s… the scent of chloride, “thunk thunk” of the diving board and splashes of fun-loving swimmers. Summers were pretty safe for kids in search of fun in the late 1940’s and early 50’s Florence.

After school and on Saturday afternoons, pals could inhabit city streets without parents going nuts with worry. You could leave your unlocked house, ride your bike or roller skate along city streets, come home for a quick parent check, then go again.

Round up a few friends and you could play a game of hopscotch drawn on the sidewalks with bits of rock, play tag, pick-up-sticks, marbles or jacks.

If a neighbor had recently acquired a new wringer-washer, you could use the left-over packing crate for a handy jeep. A real find might be a sturdy refrigerator box — handy for two-man tanks. Gather up a few more kids and war games, cops and robbers or good old cowboys and Indians might occupy the territory from McQueen Street to Warley.

Some afternoons when usual buddies were occupied with other stuff, I liked to wander around town and eventually end up at the Library or Timrod Park. The interior of the block between McLeod Hospital and downtown made for interesting exploration. The hospital laundry with its open doorways, rising clouds of steam and swoosh, swoosh of the iron presses was an attraction.

Several straggly trees and bushes divided the interior of the block into parking sections, and narrow alleyways lead to Evans Street, Irby, Cheves or South Dargan. The back doors to Barringer Hardware or Waters Furniture Store accumulated piles of discarded pasteboard boxes and packing crates. Here was a great source of components for our make-shift jeeps, tanks and body armor. I made a mental note.

Nowadays the tarry smell of Pinesol triggers a mini-vision. One day as I was studiously avoiding the mud puddles between Dr. Stokes’ office building and McLeod on my shortcut to Kresses, an odd odor wafted by my nose. Looking toward the rear of stores along West Evans, I spotted workmen up on a flat-top roof, spreading out thick black tar. I slowed my pace to watch a bit, then took a wide detour around the roaring tar kettle surrounded by globs of cooling goo.

The Library was another destination of choice on summer afternoons. When it was too hot to continue outdoor games, the cool stacks encouraged “well-mannered” kids to browse and stay awhile. Over several years I graduated from the basement Children’s Department and the Bobbsey Twins mysteries up to the main floor and Sherlock Holmes, reading chapters at a time before I ever made it to the check-out counter.

I admire our new Library, of course, but there was an atmosphere of world-wide adventure in those old stacks that drew me back week after summer week. I’d leave with my limit, arms full of mystery and mayhem, one book propped open to read as I made my way home, one eye on the page and the other on my feet.

After my family’s move to Mohawk Drive, my path home lead through Timrod Park. Of course, reading about England, Timrod became London’s St. James Park, and Sherlock Holmes inspired a less than straight line of travel. I’d enter at the Coit Street edge, avoid the swing sets, sliding boards and Timrod School, then skirt the swimming pool with its scent of chloride, “thunk thunk” of the diving board and splashes of fun-loving swimmers.

As I meandered, I was peopling the park with 1890’s ladies and gentlemen, with perhaps a detective or two from Scotland Yard thrown in for good measure. The lifeguard’s whistle might be a London Bobby calling for reinforcements as he chased the bad guys through a cobbled street.

Continuing on, I would usually cut by the amphitheater and picnic tables and wind up my westward route at the rose garden. “London” bridge would take me across the “Thames” to weave my way in and out of shaggy oleander bushes, struggling to maintain my hold on all those books while climbing the steep path to Waters Avenue. I was only a block out from home.

Arrival home might mean present tense pots and pans to wash or potatoes to peel for supper, but by then I didn’t mind — another shortcut through the innards of a city block, another adventure at the Library or meander through Timrod Park was always coming up.