Rocket Ship Swing Sets and 4-H Gardens
Co-author: Clavia Ruth Wooton-Kee
This is a collaborative piece that I decided to do with my sister, Clavia Ruth Wooton-Kee. When I became a guest contributor to this blog, I jotted down different stories that I wanted to tell, knowing that most of my contributions to the topic of ethical eating would feature an Appalachian perspective and memories from my childhood. It is important for you to understand that my Appalachian perspective is just one of many diverse, Appalachian viewpoints. My sister’s 4-H garden nearly topped the list of stories I wanted to tell and I make no apologies if this fails to strike readers as a provocative, so-called “Appalachian” topic. As I thought about it, I realized that Ruth would be the best person to tell this story. It was her garden, after all. I also thought it would be fun to work together with Ruth on this, to develop this blog entry as a collaborative piece. I live in South Carolina and she lives in Texas, so we don’t get many opportunities to work together these days.
As kids, we had tons of shared experiences. Some were collaborations, such as when we competed in the pairs category in baton competitions. We were a good team—rarely having unison or toss height problems because there was an intuitive element to our twirling. We were also angels together in at least one church Christmas play. Those tinsel halos were itchy! When Ruth sold Girl Scout cookies, I helped her out by begging her customers to buy a box of Thin Mints. We were even in a beauty pageant together, which was weird and embarrassing enough (for me) to merit its own blog entry somewhere, someday. Probably the bulk of our “shared” experiences consisted of me following her around, trying to be her. I’m sure I drove her nuts, but most of the time she tolerated me. Ruth is five years older than me, so she hit all the milestones first. I would sit on her bed and watch her fix her hair and put on her makeup. This usually involved hot rollers, curling irons/brushes, and Aqua Net or White Rain hairspray. Ugh, I can still smell that stuff. It’s funny how the smell of hairspray can set off all kinds of memories. For me, it’s the smell of baton competitions and my bedroom growing up. I listened to Ruth’s music and it became my music. I also listened to her practice her saxophone solos over and over. She worked very hard, which paid off for her and made a huge impression on me. Between the mid 1980s and the late 1990s, we pretty much memorized the entire Beatles catalogue. Years before that, we had decorated our room in Duran Duran posters taken from teeny bopper magazines. Yes, we shared a room up until I was in about 3rd or 4th grade. Ruth was convinced that she was going to marry Simon LeBon—they had the same birthday, so it was going to be a match for the ages. “The Reflex” told us, “I’ll cross that bridge when I find it.” See, we lived across a bridge connecting our gravel road to the main road, US Highway 421, and we concocted the idea that Simon was going to find our bridge one day and come and get Ruth. After all these years, I still giggle about this. Many years later, we finally were able to see Duran Duran in concert together. I’ll never forget how amazing that was. We even ran into a couple of childhood friends, fellow Duranies, with seats near us! It was totally unplanned and serendipitous. For all of you Roger fans out there, you will be delighted to learn that when my sister recently took my eldest niece to a Duran Duran concert in Houston, he gave my niece one of his drumsticks! Nice guy!
The timeframe of Ruth’s 4-H garden also coincided with the heyday of our swing set time in the side yard. It was the summer of 1985 and I had recently turned six. My sister was 11, yet soon-to-be 12. My little brother was less than a year old. At that time, we lived in a trailer. It was silver and white and had belonged to my Grandma before it belonged to us. Ruth and I shared the bedroom on the far end. It had windows that rolled out to open. In good weather we rolled open the windows, cranked up our stereo, and played outside on the swing set. We listened to Tears for Fears, Wham, the Flashdance soundtrack, Paul Young, and of course, Duran Duran. It would take the entire story bandwidth for me to name all the music that we listened to. We also listened to the local radio station and called in to make requests. When we wanted to go old school we listened to Mom and Dad’s records. They had a vinyl collection that I’ll never forget: Dean Martin, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Bobbie Gentry, Procol Harum, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, Neil Young, Janis Joplin Live in Concert, and many more. The swing set was our rocket ship. When Ruth was in charge of playtime we were always astronauts going into space. Always astronauts. We had a pretty good soundtrack to get there, too. I laugh when I think back to it because science was always her thing, and even though she didn’t become an astronaut, she DID become a scientist, and she lives in Houston. Sometimes we played in the ditch behind the swing set and found fossils. We really found fossils, that part was not pretend. Some of the best times were when Dad grilled steaks while we listened to music blaring from the rolled-out trailer windows. His preferred method in those days included a couple of cinder blocks with a grill rack stretched across (he uses a fancier grill these days). We swung on our rocket ship of a swing set until the charcoal did its thing and the steaks were medium rare.
And with all these things in mind, here is Ruth’s story:
Gardening was not a pastime sport in my family. To be frank, I dreaded the late spring, summer, and early fall gardening months. It didn’t matter how busy Mom and Dad were, there was always a gardening task during those times. As a little kid, this meant hanging out in the “bottom,” a flat tract of land that was used as a gardening spot for the Wooton family gardens. The sight of bags and bags and bags of green beans made me whine endlessly, because that meant lots of stringing and breaking beans. I loved sewing beans in a cross-like pattern for hanging and drying, because that meant shucky beans would be in our future later in the winter! Aside from the promise of shucky beans in the winter, the rest of gardening was a continuous cycle of heat, bugs, and mess. As an adult, I realize how that sounds (ungrateful, lazy, etc.), but I really felt like all the other kids my age had a lot more fun NOT dealing with the garden.
I was a very reluctant bystander to the whole process, until I joined 4-H. My Dad strongly encouraged joining 4-H, and several of my friends loved 4-H camp. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but joining 4-H led to one of my biggest tween summertime activities, growing a garden.
Mom took me to the agriculture/4-H office to pick up my seeds from Melba Burch and Rufus Fugate. As I recall, we went straightaway to the bottom (garden), which was located near several other family members homes. Grandma (in her adorable oversized straw hat, garden dress with two front pockets, and her little garden hoe), Aunt Ruth, and Dad were already working. They had probably been working for at least an hour. They looked over my supplies and told me that my “little vegetables” would be the best ever! Wow— really? As a kid, I was surprised to be receiving those types of compliments!
I thought that I would be given a little spot (because I didn’t have that many seeds) and told to leave the real gardeners alone. Oh no! They quickly showed me how to plant squash and cucumber along the rest of the established plantings. Corn, beans, carrots (which didn’t grow very well) were planted later. I was confused because my planting was mixed in with theirs. They quickly explained that the 4-H people wouldn’t penalize me for mixing in my plants with theirs, because you rotate where crops are planted based on soil type and what was planted in previous years.
I am not sure that I had ever seen Mom, Dad, Aunt Ruth, and Grandma all so happy and jovial. They were telling stories about the old days and the time went quickly. Up until that day, stepping foot in the garden was kind of a no-no unless you were with an adult, which was still a bit stressful— the fear of snakes, bugs, or squashing produce was imprinted in my brain. However, there I was, raking, hoeing, digging, and planting alongside the pros.
I still limited my trips into the garden to when one of the grown-ups was with me, which wasn’t that big of a deal, because we were in the garden several times a week. My favorite memory of Grandma is from that summer. We were hoeing a row of plants (I can’t remember which, maybe tomatoes) and our hoes bumped and made a big “CLANK.” I thought “oh no, I’m in trouble now.” Grandma let out a big laugh and said, “Well, we will be working together in the garden next year!”
As the summer harvest came to an end, we prepared a fall raised bed garden. This was much smaller than the summer garden and was next to our house. We used horse poop that had been scooped into a pile and dried over the summer to use as fertilizer, which may have been the reason our mustard greens were so bountiful. My Mom, who is not one to be over zealous with picture taking, insisted that we gather up the crops and take pictures for my 4-H garden poster. We missed the cut-off to the entry for the State Fair, but I received a beautiful blue ribbon for my efforts. Truly, the blue ribbon was not just mine; it belonged to Grandma, Aunt Ruth, Mom, Dad, and me.
So, there you have it, a story about a point in our childhood that we decided to tell together. It is an Appalachian story, but it could have been set just about anywhere there was room for a garden, 80s music blaring through a stereo, and a collection of decently worn vinyl from my parents’ generation. Notably, Appalachian stories are also American stories and shouldn’t be catalogued as some exotic slice of poverty porn that only centers on stereotypical characters and situations. When Appalachian people tell their own stories, the simplistic narratives that outsiders have told about the region begin to look like the overblown pieces that some of them are. When what is unique melds with the shared we all are better for it and in more of a position to learn from one another. In fact, I cannot speak for all of Appalachia. I’m only sharing my little part of it with you, most of which comes from a place on Rockhouse Creek. US Highway 421 winds through it, and along that curvy road is a bridge to the left, which leads to the bulk of my childhood memories and my parents’ current home. I don’t want to romanticize it, though it’s tempting because it is a special place for me. Like with most places and most people, there were times that weren’t so great. In full disclosure, my favorite memory about the raised bed wasn’t working in the garden—my silly six-year-old self didn’t do much but follow people around, move some dirt, and heckle—it was eating big green bell peppers that Mom and I had just picked that didn’t even make it into the house. We hosed them off and ate them like apples on the swing set. It wasn’t a rocket ship on that occasion.
Importantly, I want my sister’s words and recollections to be credited, and I also want her to be credited for the intangible of being such a wonderful sister. My sister’s 4-H garden, which yielded some amazing and healthy vegetables, was just one of many ethical examples she set for me. A few years ago, I posted a cheesy birthday greeting to her on social media that said:
“The good Lord knew that I’d need a good role model, so he made sure that you were born first. Thanks for being the best.”
It is the truth.