I don't believe in frettin' and grievin'
Why mess around with strife?
I never was cut out to step and strut out.
Give me the simple life.
Some find it pleasant dining on pheasant.
Those things roll off my knife;
Just serve me tomatoes, and mashed potatoes;
Give me the simple life.
In 1970, the new head of programming at CBS, Fred Silverman, decided that the network needed to update its image and began a three year "rural purge" of what was considered country programming. Though still popular at the time, the network cancelled Lassie, the Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry R.F.D., Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Jim Nabors Show, the Ed Sullivan Show and Hee Haw. The programs were replaced by shows with more contemporary, urban settings.
At the time, I had no idea why my favorite programs were no longer on television, but I was heartbroken. Sadly, there's been a growing cultural divide between rural and urban/suburban America, ever since. With media centers located within large urban areas, reflecting the opinions and culture of urban America, the only vehicle left for communicating the shared values and concerns of those living in rural America, has been country music and the stations that play it.
Two years ago, Rick and I walked the property of what was soon to be our cottage in rural, western Pennsylvania with our future neighbors, an elderly man in torn, soil and grass stained coveralls and his two equally tatty, forty-something sons, assessing the health of a half-dozen eastern hemlocks that towered over the nearly hundred-year-old, single story dwelling. Anyone that drove by the cottage on that sunny April day, and saw us all standing there, staring upward, shielding our eyes from the sun, would surely have been able to discern the city-people from the country-folk.
It seemed we stood there forever, squinting and listening, with emphasis on listening. The conversation ran in fits and starts between the father and his sons, none of whom seemed able to clearly enunciate their words. When my gaze shifted away from the treetops to focus on the source of the muttering, I noticed the characteristic bulge in the side of each cheek, indicating the presence of chewing tobacco and confirming that the dark liquid inside the quart-sized milk jugs they appeared to swig from, was not iced-tea as I'd originally thought, but tobacco juice.
It occurred to me, that the trio before me were a hybrid of Newhart’s handyman-brothers, Larry, Darryl and Darryl, and Hooterville’s Monroe brothers.
After determining which trees represented a danger to the cottage, our neighbors helpfully pointed out other areas of concern - the long overgrown briar patch which had ceased producing flowers half a century before, the old goldfish pond which we agreed should be filled, various groundhog dens and their resident groundhogs, the carpet of moss which was creeping ever closer to our kitchen wall, strangling what little grass grew under the shade of the ancient trees, and the location of the well, also overgrown with brush and briars.
Satisfied that we'd been fairly warned about any potential problems outdoors, we moved inside, cramming ourselves into the utility cubby which housed the pump and hot water tank controls, as well as a water filter and pressure regulator. There was another long and jumbled discussion about the new pump, and instructions were given regarding the winterization of the pipes. I heard mention of words like anti-freeze and heat-tape, and warnings of pipes bursting and burned-out heating elements.
I slid backwards into the kitchen and out of the hallway, away from the assembled group. I hoped that Rick was following the discussion, and making mental note of everything that was being said, because I certainly wasn't. I silently reminded myself that the city-man I married held an engineering degree from the University of Michigan.
When at last they'd left, Rick shook his head as though trying to dislodge some particle of foreign matter from his hair, a gesture that intimated that he too had some difficulty understanding the trios mumbling discourse. I said nothing. We locked up the cottage and took one last look around before heading back to Pittsburgh and then on to California.
As we backed out of the drive, over the soft, moist needle-strew earth, a last waft of cool pine scented air billowed in through the car window. I took a deep breath to capture the memory. The cottage and its grounds were an oasis of serenity, but in spite of the peaceful atmosphere, I felt a bit uneasy as we drove back up the mountain and into the daylight. I hadn't changed my mind about buying the cottage, but conceded to myself that there was something about simple country living, that intimidated me.
We did eventually discuss at length, the prognostications of "Larry, his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl,” and decided that we were going to need their help, at least initially. After living amongst the masses in southern California, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to own our own little piece of country-quiet, no matter how primitive. As far as the natives were concerned, we’d just have to try a little harder to understand the local lingo. After all, we’d lived in Europe, South America, and San Diego - we’d deal with it.
“The Cottage” is located at the very bottom of a woodsy hollow that was carved through the middle of a rocky mountainside, by the course of a swiftly running stream. It's flanked on one side by Mill Creek, aptly named for the mill that sat at it's mouth a hundred years ago or so, and the road, created from the former creek bed years after the water changed its course.
When giving visitors directions from the main road, four miles away, we tell them to turn right at the four corners where they'll see a sign for Utica in the cornfield. Follow the winding road, down past the deer processing plant, a twelve by twenty wooden shack, and the bait farm, continuing just until they come to the one lane bridge at Waterloo Road. We're the first and only drive on the right past the bridge.
There's a large, carved wooden sign alongside the road, that was erected by my aunt and uncle that says, The Cottage, built in 1918 by Walter Lyons. If not for the reflective disks Rick affixed to the sign, most people would miss the drive completely, finding themselves in downtown Utica, a few yards beyond our property.
Utica consists of a grade school, a post office, a fire station and a general store, Jamie's Cupboard, that might pass for Mr. Drucker’s store in Pixley. The Cupboard carries one of everything you might need to get by, one can of beans, one bottle of ketchup, one box of detergent, one box of diapers (not one box of each size, but one random box) and so on. The first time I went inside, I looked everywhere for the pickle barrel, but failed to find one.
The only area of the store that offers patrons a selection, is inside the cooler where you may find a small offering of various kinds of soda pop and flavored waters. There's a basket filled with penny candy and a freezer packed with ice cream confections like Bomb Pops, Push-Ups and Popsicles. The store has been a favorite walking destination for the kids in the family on hot summer days, eager for a chance to spend what little pocket change they might have.
The only other man-made feature in Utica, worth making note of, is the community park at the center of town, which has the requisite swing set and jungle gym, a black-topped basketball court and a mini-golf course. Golf balls and putters are tucked up under a rafter supporting the picnic table pavilion. No fee is required to play. Just remember to replace the equipment when you’re done.
On Sunday afternoons throughout the year, the locals gather at the hall next to the Volunteer Fire Department garage, for a shared supper. The proceeds go to the fire department and other civic improvements. Once a year, they hold a Gun Auction and Dinner, and a Bluegrass Festival, both of which attract folks from neighboring towns.
My Uncle, an attorney working in Pittsburgh, made a name for himself in town a few years back, when he helped the locals reclaim their one and only fire engine, which had been appropriated by a neighboring village. I'm not sure of the details, but I know the residents of Utica felt indebted to Al and so, made a point of watching over the cottage while it sat empty through the winter months, and then after my aunt's death, when Al stopped making his weekend visits.
The first few months we occupied the cottage, Rick made several trips to our neighbor’s door, a short walk down the road. They were always anxious to help, and we learned quite a bit by watching and listening carefully.
One Friday, we pulled into the drive, to find an enormous hemlock resting across the roof of our shed. How it managed to land there without flattening the structure, remains a mystery. We used the fallen tree as an excuse to buy a chainsaw. It was Rick’s birthday, so I thought, what the heck, let’s splurge!
Removing the tree from the shed roof, took great skill and ingenuity. We were thrilled and relieved when we accomplished the task, just the two of us, without loss of life or limb. We asked our neighbors if they’d be inclined to remove the downed tree from the property, and they referred us to a friend of the family that used such wood in an outdoor funace. We were told, that he’d be by to ‘pick it up’ sometime in the near future. He never showed, and the fallen hemlock became a permanent fixture on the east end of the property, just off the drive.
Eighteen months later, we had a visit from Darryl, who’d been working away from home. He found me playing with the dogs in our spacious side-yard, and asked if his friend had swung by to pick up that fallen tree. I told him he hadn’t. He looked at me sideways, his lazy eye trailing off, and asked in a somewhat incredulous tone, if I was certain. After all, he was sure he’d been told the tree was gone, and he didn’t see it when he drove by. I assurred him again that the tree was still lying there, absent needles and covered in vines. This time it was his turn to shake his head in confusion.
We talked a minute or two longer, and I walked him to his truck, stroked his dog through the truck window and sent him on his way. As I turned to walk back up the drive to the cottage, I glanced over to where the fallen tree was put to rest, and to my shock, found it missing. That huge, tree was gone! I ran to tell Rick.
I can only imagine what fun Larry, Darryl and Darryl must have had laughing at the city gal that failed to notice the absence of a fallen, forty foot tree from her front lawn. On our part, Rick and I learned a lesson. When country-folk say they’re going to do something, they mean it, in their own time, and in their own way.
I still feel badly that those wholesome, homespun television shows failed to make the cut into the 1970s, and I’m not sure I buy the excuse that the decision to cut them was solely based upon changing demographics and advertising dollars. Hooterville, Pixley and Mayberry may be gone, but the folks that lived there, and others like them that share their culture and values, are still around, living in other small rural communities across the United States.
You can take my word for it!
A cottage small is all I'm after,
Not one that's spacious and wide.
A house that rings with joy and laughter
And the ones you love inside.
Some like the high road, I like the low road,
Free from care and strife.
Sounds corny and seedy, but yes indeed-y;
Give me the simple life.
Give Me The Simple Life was written by Harry Ruby/Rube Bloom