It was the only time I ever saw my grandmother cry. She was standing by the
dirt road that passed our farm, wiping her eyes with a corner of her apron. This was alarming to me as a little boy. I went running barefoot to see what was the matter. It turned out that those tears of hers were tears of joy. She could see the Rural Electrification Administration light poles coming down the road toward our house. We were going to have electricity! We were going to enter the modern age!
There was no disgrace in those Depression years in living on a farm
without electric power. In the year of my birth, 1934, electricity had reached only about one American farm in ten. Nobody we knew had electric lights, except for Uncle John, Clerk of the Court at the county seat, who lived in town. Nobody had indoor plumbing either. If you wanted a drink of water, you got it from a drinking gourd that hung beside the hand pump on the porch. The "bathroom" was in the backyard, a pungent outhouse, or, at night, a "slop jar" under the bed. Bathing was accomplished in a galvanized tub set out beside the kitchen door. On laundry day, my grandmother used a hoe handle to stir a steaming mess of underwear and overalls and lye soap in a big black pot over an outdoor fire. When electricity finally arrived, our first use of it was to light a bare electric bulb my Father rigged to hang over the kitchen table. The second was to power a water pump, so that my grandmother could do the laundry indoors in the sink.
We were not unaware of the marvels of the modern world that were
changing people's lives in the cities. I remember seeing a color photograph of
Times Square, a calendar illustration, that seemed impossibly glamorous, all
tall buildings and taxicabs and hurrying people in hats and coats and ties -- not
a farm animal or an unpaved plot of ground anywhere to be seen. A relative
actually took the train to the 1939 World's Fair in New York and came back with
fabulous stories to tell, and a bronze Trylon and Perisphere paperweight as a
gift for me. We knew about the odyssey of science; we just weren't part of it.