I write this on a cloudy, warm, and sultry day in Southport, N.C., sitting on the porch of Robert C. Ruark’s boyhood home, now the Robert Ruark Inn. Heavy thunder rumbles overhead, and fat raindrops tap the leaves of the magnolia tree only a few feet away, the one he described in his classic novel, “The Old Man and the Boy.”
It was brutally hot three hours ago, so the War Department and I retreated to our room. I told her, “We’re gonna go out on the porch in a little while, so I can write while it rains.”
“You think it’ll rain?”
“It has to. I need to write a column here in this house, on the porch, while it rains.”
I think old Bobby Ruark made it rain for me, because he knows.
Oddly, at the same time rain began to fall at three in the afternoon, the cicadas quit singing and allowed the chorus to be taken over by frogs. It’s a refreshing change that makes it feel even cooler as the temperature drops.
This is a town of history and porches. We’ve discussed porches here in these columns, something dreadfully lacking in today’s modern architecture of primarily ugly brick boxes lacking character and stacked straight up on small, almost claustrophobic lots.
It’s kinda funny thinking about this old porch, because only a couple of days ago porches popped into my mind while I was getting ready to leave on this trip. I didn’t want to show up at Mr. Ruark’s house with a scraggly neck and my barber was gone on vacation.
Our new town (we moved a few months ago) has a few shops, so I dropped by the oldest barber pole in town. It had a good online rating, so I figured I’d go in, wait my turn while reading a Field and Stream, or at least a gun magazine, then get my turn.
Cars were haphazardly parked in an appropriate gravel lot. I found a space for Big Bertha, my dually, and went inside. Some kind of modern annoying country rap crap music nearly blasted me back out the door. It was as hot on the inside as it was in the parking lot, because their air conditioning was on the fritz. Six people sweltered in chairs, staring at their phones. There was no banter, no stories, and no magazines.
I backed out the door and sprinted to the truck.
With the AC cranked to high, I drove to another shop not far away. There were six…stylists…inside the blessedly cool shop and the waiting area was empty. One of the customers stepped from the nearest chair and paid out.
When it was clear, I approached the receptionist under a head of bright blue hair. Before she spoke, she had to check her cell phone.
I gave her my best smile.
“I’d like to get a haircut.”
I bit back my first response.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Didn’t know one was necessary.”
“I’m sorry. We’re completely booked.”
“There’s an empty chair right there. See, the…hair stylist is just checking her phone.”
“She has an appointment scheduled in fifteen minutes.”
I pointed at my thinning hair.
“Bet she can do it in ten.”
“Would you like to make an appointment for later?”
“I’ll schedule it online.”
“That’s the ticket!”
On the way to the next barbershop where I finally got my neck shaved, I wished I could simply drive back in time to Uncle Willy’s house in Chicota, Texas, where he cut hair on the porch while friends and kinfolk gathered in the shade to tell stories and talk about whatever subject popped up.
Then I could maybe read a magazine, and listen, and slow down.
That was Ruark’s time here in Southport. A time with no cell phones. No internet. No social media.
It was a time when you walked or drove down to the country store, or in the case here, to the Whittling Tree, to get your local news. Back then you looked someone in the eye when you talked to them, so you knew when they were serious or kidding. If you had a political discussion, it was cordial.
I guess those days are gone for good.
The rain is heavier now, streaming from the roof, while a damp breeze makes it a pleasure to sit on the porch in this quiet street. I count six porches from where I sit. The War Department is in a rocker beside me, reading “The Old Man and the Boy.” I envy her that first time experience.
A glass of Bombay sits at hand, hopefully calling up Bobby’s ghost here on his grandparents’ porch. This is a decade’s long dream to stay in this wonderful old house, in the same room the Boy lived in before eventually growing up to become a world-renowned author and eventually sparking a fire in another youngster to become an author in his own right.
I’m 65 now, with several grandkids of my own, living a dream that began with the publication of my first novel back in 2011. So tilting this sweating glass, I thank Ruark, the man I never met, for the past 31 years as a writer.
It’s a good day.