Burton on the Bay:

Vantage Points

A porch remains the best place to watch the world go by ...

Guess what's coming back?

I've always wanted -- but never gotten -- a house with a widow's watch or widow's walk. But in my current home on Stoney Creek in North County and few previous houses, I've enjoyed a consolation prize.

As a boy, I was fascinated by widow's watches, the decks atop coastal houses where the wife of a seafarer could scan the sea for a first glimpse of the returning windjammer carrying husband or son. Some "watches" also had "walks."

They intrigued me; still do. How nice it would be high up with a great view of the water and other surroundings. Something like being perched on the fly bridge or, better still, the tuna tower of a fishing craft. Or even better, a crow's nest of the Coast Guard's Eagle, one of the best of the Tall Ships, with a mast that can put a sailor nearly 200 feet into the sky.

Maybe I'm like an eagle -- the eagle bird -- or perhaps an osprey; I like a place with a view. Only trouble is they are birds, and they fly. As regular readers know, I'm not much for flying, so perhaps I'm more like a mountain sheep. Considering my age and grayish white beard, mountain goat might be more appropriate.

I've never had one of those widow's vantage points, though for a few months when I first came to Baltimore to join the Sun in 1956, I took up residence in a seventh floor apartment of a building. But for the most part my homes have had porches. A porch was always the first thing I looked for when checking a place to rent or buy.

A porch is a delight, a playback to earlier times when people had more time, were more sociable (or was it more curious?) and didn't live in air-conditioned abodes.

My brother John, an associate professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, told me the most satisfying news. Porches are coming back. He should know. He; Barbara B. Brown -- also of the U of U; and Anne L. Sweeney of the University of Georgia are conducting a study of porches past, present and future.


Front Row Seating

The news also excites brother John, who like me and sisters Ticy, Lorna and Ruth were raised on a porch in our little brown bungalow in rural New England.

Back then, people used porches for what they were intended for. To sit and watch the world go by. Times were tough, there wasn't much, shall we say "formal," recreation available, but Ruth and I would sit on the porch and monitor the road late on Sunday afternoons. And play a game.

She would have Fords and I would have Chevies, and we'd keep score. She got a point for each Ford, I'd get one for a Chevy. Back then, you could instantly identify a model, for there weren't that many different ones. It was a nip and tuck battle as Fords and Chevies were equally popular in rural new England.

Little did we realize that the cars we were counting played a major role in the downfall of porches, piazzas or verandahs as they were also commonly referred to. In the Depression, not every family could afford a motor vehicle. During World War II, gasoline was rationed -- at one time it was briefly down to one and a half gallons a week -- so traffic really wasn't traffic.

But once the Great Depression and the war were history, just about every family had a car (not many pickups yet), and porches lost out. In many families, the space on land normally occupied by a porch was used for a garage to house the family jalopy.

Also, as traffic got heavy, porches of houses too close to the road got the fumes and the noise. In addition, more motor vehicles on the rural roads passing the porches meant fewer people walking by -- and greeting passersby was one of the primary delights in porch sitting.

Not infrequently pedestrians would more than wave or offer a verbal greeting; they would stop by for a short visit in the evening. Any social life was welcomed in the county. Gossip spread.

Our mother Mildred Burton was a great porch sitter in evenings when household duties and chores were completed. Often, all the kids would be with her on the porch that ran the entire length of the front of the house perhaps 30 feet from the road.

The house was sold in the early '90s. but the porch, though not used much any more, is still there.

Front porches have been around for about 150 years, starting in Europe, then coming here, primarily east of the Mississippi.

Many memories linger on porches. Sister Ruth as a teen-ager sometimes wished the porch away, for whenever a family member was out, the porch light was always left on. When a boyfriend brought her home, there was no sneaking a goodnight kiss: there was no way that light could be turned off from the outside, the front door would have to be opened to click the switch - and when that door was opened, she was expected to come inside.

No air conditioning back then, and on hot summer nights I sometimes slept on the porch. We'd sit on the porch in evenings at election time to watch the victory auto parades after the ballots were counted in the village. Horns would honk, passersby would shout, firecrackers would pop, a loudspeaker would blare the news the town and state had gone Republican again, for rural America except in the South was pretty much GOP. The celebrants pretty much overlooked the nights that Roosevelt had won again.

It was from his front porch that old man Squires, a crusty, staunch Republican, gleefully told me one April afternoon while I was home on leave from the Navy before heading to the Pacific that Roosevelt had just died. He heard it on the radio and immediately took to the porch so he could break the news. I never spoke to him again; our commander in chief was popular among the young whether in the country or city. To most of us, he was the only president we could remember.

Sociologists like brother John might tell us the return of the porch represents the cyclical nature of fashion, the popularity of neo-Victorian architecture and nostalgia for the good ol' days. But I say it's just plain common sense. A porch remains the best place to watch the world go by.

Bill Burton invites you to send him your pictures and memories of porch living for an upcoming story and promises a prize to the one whose porch he most wants to visit. Send to Porches for Bill, c/o New Bay Times, P.O. Box 358, Deale, MD, 20751.

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VolumeVI Number 33
August 20-26, 1998
New Bay Times

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