“Wish I could move my family, live up on Highway 10, where the beavers chew on sycamores and the neighbors are your friends.” Highway 10 by Dan Garber
Once upon a time here in the wooded hills of Eastern Oklahoma the word neighbor had special meaning. But that was before the days of moon shots and divided highways. Before speed became of the essence and everyone was in a hurry to make it to the local discount store. Before Tahlequah became a Mecca for canoeists and rafters, and highway 10 wasn’t as dangerous as an impact area.
Your neighbor was a strange duck, and they all seemed to be cut from the same bolt of cloth. He not only came by with his help when some catastrophe struck, but he also showed up to help with the celebration of any event that you deemed important. He would sit in church with you listening to the message, or he could pull a cork with you with equal aplomb.
He came by during the long evenings of summer and gossiped with your parents about the going on’s in the community of which we all were a part, while his kids chased lightning bugs and dodged bull bats with you in the long shadows.
If you took sick, your neighbor could always find time from his own busy schedule of hoeing corn or the many chores that go with living on a farm to check on your health. If your sickness lingered, your neighbor also took his turn sitting up with the patient, giving medicines and plenty of TLC. He was a good guy, your neighbor.
If your family suffered a death, your neighbor didn’t just come by with the usual flowers and the old “call me if you need me” before hurrying off on a sojourn of his own. He helped prepare the body for burial, opened and closed the grave and generally made himself handy around the place. He was also the first if called upon to heap praises on the newly departed, even if it was only a “I’ll say this for old Claude, he was a good ol’ boy.”
The neighbor showed up early on the chilly mornings during hog killing time. He had with him his favorite butcher knife and whetstone and he knew just how hot the water should be to ensure you a good scald. He could trim hams and shoulders, and he could look at a hog and tell you how much meat you would have that winter.
Your neighbor didn’t count his visits nor did he wait for an invitation to dinner. Many times I’ve been sent out to catch a couple of fryers just because the neighboring family showed up. While I was chasing fryers, Mama was going through her canned goods, looking for that jar of green beans that was so pretty or that half-pint of strawberry jam that had that special clarity. Now it seems that if we have unexpected company, we head for the Colonel’s for a bucket of his extra crispy.
If your house was destroyed by fire, as ours was back in ’53, nobody asked about insurance, there wasn’t any. Neighbors just went quietly about the community gathering clothing for five growing kids without the benefit of any money changing hands.
Sunday was sort of a Roman Holiday at the community of Briggs back during the 50’s. The grown ups sat and talked while the littler children played about their feet. The bigger boys flirted with the older girls while some of us might have sneaked off to take a swim in our birthday suits, flashing and frolicking like young seals in our exuberance.
Today we don’t wait for our neighbors to come for a visit. In fact, many of us leave the house in fear that very thing might happen.
We hurry through the day to get on the road ahead of traffic to go nowhere and to do nothing when we get there. We join a caravan of cars, cussing and calling the other drivers imbeciles for slowing down the traffic in our lane. We hermetically seal ourselves in our own vehicles, insulated and air conditioned against our neighbors while the latest tunes waft from our stereos. Nobody comes aborrowin’ anymore. No one can find the time from the everyday rush to sit a spell and whittle. Night time finds us down at Ned’s where we might find escape from the misery that is eating us alive, or we sit and stare at the boob tube.
We don’t have hog killings anymore because we find it simpler to drive down to the supermarket. The discount center is a short drive away so we don’t borrow a cup of sugar anymore and not many people even know what a framing square is, so there’s no reason to borrow one of those from your neighbor.
If things get too tough we can take a valium and make another appointment with the shrink.
The thought makes me sad that we don’t need neighbors anymore, because we all need to be needed.
Written by R.L. Briggs on July 20, 1996