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Adam’s Apples – Front porches

By James Mack Adams

Looking at all the world’s problems and the constant squabbling among its leaders, I have concluded that what is needed now are more front porches. Forget the diplomats. Cancel the formal meetings. Discard the talking points. Leave the entourage behind. Get the heads of state together on the front porch on a balmy summer evening.  serve them a cold pitcher of lemonade and a plateful of homemade brownies and let them just talk about stuff. It wouldn’t hurt. We’ve tried most everything else. We can call it ‘front-porch diplomacy.’

At the time of this writing, President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un are looking for an appropriate location for their future possible meeting. Perhaps they should consider a front porch.

The front porch is an important slice of Americana. At one time it was considered the family’s outdoor living room. It was where family members gathered after a busy work day to escape the heat of the house and spend some quality time together. While children played in the front yard, adults sat on the porch and discussed family matters. Neighbors walking by were invited to come up on the porch and ‘set’ a spell. The front porch promoted a sense of community, neighborliness, and a chance to commune with Mother Nature.

As a child, one reason I enjoyed visiting my grandparents on Sundays during the summer was the fact they had front porches. The house my paternal grandparents owned near Norton, Virginia, had a wrap-around porch that could seat several people comfortably. A collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins often gathered at my grandparents on Sundays to enjoy a huge home-cooked meal that included more desserts than are on the menu of the average restaurant. Afterwards, everyone gathered on the porch and in the front yard for more family time. It was at such a family gathering on the front porch of an aunt’s house that I had my first, and last, chew of tobacco. Yuck!  Sick, sick, sick! But, that’s another story.

Then everything changed. Television and conditioned air brought the family indoors. Family gatherings on the front porch were replaced by technology. In many newer homes, front porches have been replaced by huge two-car garages that cover at least three quarters of the front of the house. Front porches are now called decks and have been relocated to the side or back of the house. Households have become more isolated. It is not unusual for people to live on a street for years without meeting their neighbors. I have heard people around my age talk about an earlier time when they knew who lived in every house on their street.   

When I returned to my Northeast Tennessee roots and settled in Erwin a few years ago, I was impressed by the variety in the architecture of the houses in town. I was also pleased to see that so many of the homes have front porches. This is such a welcome difference after living parts of my life in cookie-cutter worlds of housing developments, apartments, duplexes, and condos. Once again, I can now enjoy my front porch. That is where I do some of my best thinking.

The word ‘porch’ is said to derive from the Latin word ‘porticus’ and the Greek word ‘Portico.’  Covered and shaded entryways of some sort have been a part of building architecture throughout human history.

It is also written that the decline of the American front porch began in the late 1930s, just preceding World War II. One cause is said to be the automobile. The early autos were notorious for being noisy and for emitting foul-smelling exhaust fumes. That made it less pleasant for some urban dwellers to sit on the front porch at times.

There were other technological and social forces that contributed to the decline of the front porch. We have already mentioned television and air conditioning. Demanding careers and busy lifestyles have taken a bite out of our leisure time and therefore our porch-sitting time. But, take heart dear reader. It is said the front porch is making a comeback. Nostalgia may win out in the end. At least I hope such will be the case.

This column is now ready to file. My work here is done. I think I will retire to my front porch with a cold drink and just ‘set’ for a spell … and think about stuff.