Living an old saying

Published 5:52 pm Tuesday, November 6, 2018

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The 20th century saw a population shift in the United States that changed the country from agrarian to urban. As agriculture modernized, fewer people could do more work on more acres of land. As a result, fewer people were needed down on the farm.

Meanwhile, industry boomed, especially during and immediately after World War II. That created a labor demand.

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Farm boys left the farm and sought their fortune — or at least their security — in the city.

It seems to have been during the early part of that migration, probably the 1930s, that one of our most popular cultural phrases was coined:

“You can take a boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”

For good or bad, the phrase seemed to have followed me around, and two deaths in the family recently brought back memories of just how true the phrase is.

My brother Philip, who died in late August, remained on the farm when I headed off to Ferrum, which back then was a junior college. Those were the days when your phone calls home were made once a week, from a pay phone in a wooden phone booth down the hall in the dormitory.

Just before Thanksgiving, I called home and my mother asked if there was anything special I’d like to eat. Somewhat in jest, I told her I would love to have some barbecued raccoon, a wild game treat at we enjoyed several times a year. While I was thumbing my way out of the mountains for the Thanksgiving break, Philip was hunting down a fat raccoon. When I got to Smithfield, it had been shot, cleaned and delivered to my mother, who cooked it for Thanksgiving — along with a turkey, of course. It wasn’t exactly the fatted calf for the prodigal son, but it was a nice gesture for a homesick country kid.

A few years later, I was serving Uncle Sam as a Navy yeoman stationed in the Pentagon. There was nothing glamorous about my time in the Navy — just a yeoman doing what yeomen do.

I met and got to know a young lieutenant, Al Ryder, who was a submariner doing a shoreside hitch in the Pentagon. We hunted together occasionally out in the mountains, managed to wrap a canoe around a rock at Little Falls shooting rapids in the Potomac, and basically hit it off pretty well.

About that time, my sister Betty had graduated from James Madison and was student teaching in Northern Virginia. She and I both had strong ties back here in Smithfield, so Anne and I invited her over one evening to enjoy a fried squirrel dinner, the bounty of a recent trip home.

I mentioned it to Al, and he said he loved squirrel as well. “Why don’t you come over? We have plenty,” I told him.

He did and he and Betty were introduced. They left together that evening, began dating and about four years later were married here at Benn’s United Methodist Church.

Betty died decades ago of breast cancer, and Albert died just a couple of weeks ago, but he and I joked many times over the years about the squirrel dinner that brought them together. It was country come to Northern Virginia.

After I came back to Smithfield to work at the paper, I was attending a Virginia Press Association event and during lunch sat next to John Leard, who was then the editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch and press association president. He wanted to know why I had chosen to come back to Smithfield rather than look for work at a larger paper. For some reason, I didn’t give him an “I love community newspapers” answer. Instead, I said it was because I was only a short drive from a dove field and a short walk from a squirrel tree.

It wasn’t the literal truth, but it was truthful. I just never could shake the country dust from my shoes.