By Bill Shepard
“Blessings on thee little man, barefoot boy with cheeks of tan.” Some will recognize the lines as those written by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1982). The poem, Barefoot Boy, has become of favorite of mine since the days of my childhood. Perhaps the reason being that I identified with the barefoot boy. I like to believe that the poet captured the hearts and minds of poetry lovers in several generations leading up to the present one.
In the days of my youth, the Coca-Cola Company located on Pearl Street in Darlington, gave calendars at the beginning of each year. One year the picture on the front of the calendar was that of a barefoot boy, on his way to a fishing hole. The legs on his overalls were turned up to his knees, on his head was a worn and frayed straw hat, and he carried in his hand a can of fishing worms. Over his shoulder was a crooked cane fishing pole, and I believe a little dog followed at his side. Under the picture were the words from Whittier’s poem. Oh, how I wish I had kept one of those calendars! The picture and the lines from the poet’s pen captured my mind.
I could identify with the picture easily enough. Growing up on the mill village in Darlington during the early years of the Great Depression, children were left to themselves to make their own entertainment. There were on televisions to watch, nor fancy telephones where one could sit and travel the world over. Few families could own a radio and play toys were homemade. We made up the games we played and the things we played with. On short winter days, night came early and there wasn’t much time for fun. Most children had chores to do; there was firewood to cut for fuel in the large wood burning stoves, and black coal and fat pine kindling for fires in the big open fireplaces. There was always homework to be done by lamplight in many of the mill houses. I remember the change it brought to our little three-room house when Dad had electricity run to our house. Ah, to be a boy again and relive some of those moments of sheer ecstasy!
In summer, when school was out, was the time that this writer became the barefoot boy. Whittier could have been looking at me when he wrote his poem, and the artist who did the picture had to have seen me on my way to Swift Creek where I spent many hours of my childhood sitting on its banks. A spool of black flax line, a nickel’s worth of fish hooks, some sinkers (buckshot), a cork or two, and a crooked cane fishing pole purchased at the “Old Barn” on North Main Street was all that was needed for a summer’s recreation. More lines from Whittier’s poem:
“Oh, for boyhood’s time of June
Crowding years in one brief moon.
I was rich in flowers and trees,
Hummingbirds and honeybees.
Ah, that thou couldst know thy joy
Ere it passes, barefoot boy”
When I first became a teacher, more than fifty years ago, I encouraged my students to memorize lines of poetry and for Barefoot Boy I offered an “A” in reading to any student who memorized the first ten lines of the poem. I have met a few of my former students, now old folk, who in conversation would quote those lines for me. In a recent article, the editor added a picture of a barefoot boy. It stirred up a lot of memories and the complimentary note was flattering. Thanks, Jana!
Note: The first ten lines…memorize them, and get an A!
“Blessings on thee little man,
Barefoot Boy, with cheeks of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And they merry whistled tunes;
With they red lips, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through they town brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart, I give thee joy,
I was once a barefoot boy!”
Poetry readers should find and read this poem.
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. Signed copies of Mr. Shepard’s books “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised” are available for purchase at the News and Press office. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week.