I grew up in an extremely rural background in Illinois. The homestead on which I grew up was bordered on three sides by mixed forest and sat along a gravel road. My father had a job in a factory, but our family was largely subsistent; we lived off the land and what it provided for us.
When I was young, we raised chickens and rabbits; when I was older, we got into some low-scale farming with some hogs. Throughout my time at home, hunting, trapping, fishing, and large-scale gardening were facts of life.
The song Screen Door appears on Uncle Tupelo's 1990 album No Depression, on which it appears as the twelfth track; the song also appears on their 2001 career retrospective 89/93.
Our days were pretty much full of activity of some sort. Many mornings, daybreak would find me on a boat on a river, pulling in a trot line or a hoop net hopefully loaded with fish. The middle of the day might find me weeding the garden. The middle of the afternoon usually was the time for a nap for my father and older siblings, but I would usually spend the time reading a book. Then we'd take out a fresh set of lines and put them in the river. The winter months would see the fishing and gardening replaced with hunting and trapping.
Our entertainment would usually come in the late evening, when we would listen to music and enjoy the first hours of darkness. This was particularly memorable in the summer, when the cool air would come down upon us after a hot day.
We listened to a lot of different music over the years. Early in my life, we had a record player and we listened to a lot of the older things that my parents had on record: The Beatles, The Supremes, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Roy Orbison, and so many others. Later, my parents purchased a compact disc player and gradually went through the process of replacing some of their more worn albums, but they still play those old records.
So many cool evenings went by listening to those voices coming out of the slightly tinny speakers. I would lay on my back on the cool grass and listen to them sing for hours with the stars above me. I'd sit up on occasion to stretch and yawn and take a drink of iced tea that had sat out in the sun.
The lyrics of the song simultaneously describe the isolation and kinship of living in a small town, using the idea of a screen door as a metaphor for the permeable "wall" that often exists around small towns. People can see through the screen door, but they only let in the things that they want to let in.
People were always stopping by our house. It had this almost oasis-like quality about it; you could simply be yourself and not worry about retribution. We would leave our front door unlocked and people would come in and eat food and sometimes sleep there when we were away. We would regularly come home to find three or four people who didn't live there enjoying a meal.
We were isolated, but we were part of a community. Elderly people or sick people nearby never had to worry about having fresh meat or vegetables or baked goods; such food would always find its way onto their front step without a word being spoken. One year, the nearby town was wiped out after the floods; the children of the town woke on Christmas morning to find a rocking horse under their tree or in the yard waiting for them.
For much of the time I was growing up, we even shared a phone line with the neighbors in a system known as the party line. The telephone would ring in all of our houses and when you picked up the phone, you would often hear a conversation that your neighbor was involved in. It led to an intimacy with those living near you that is somehow lost today.
Yet inside the metaphorical screen door is a community of people that care for each other a great deal; a group of people with an indescribable kinship and common bond that ties them together.
I regularly ate foods that you simply cannot find in restaurants anywhere: squirrel, a wide variety of forest mushrooms, opossum, dandelion greens, spoonbill, and boar were all parts of the diet. I have no guess what the nutritional value of such things are, but I remember the smell of fresh greens and mushrooms and finely steamed squirrel.
One of the major social activities was something called a wild game feed, which would be held at someone's house about every three months. The only foods permitted there were vegetables grown in someone's garden or meats that had been hunted or trapped. The food would be served buffet style and quite often you would find yourself alternating bites of whitetail deer with tastes of opossum or squirrel. The mixture of tastes and aromas was utterly unforgettable.
The screen door is both a bond and a barrier; both a blessing and a damnation. The lyrics of the song capture this duality in a way that strikes to the heart of anyone who has lived in a small town and been inside the screen door.
A large chunk of my childhood was spent without shoes. Few things were as nice as running across thick grass in the morning without any shoes on, with the dampness of the morning dew covering the bottom of your feet.
I would often do garden work barefooted, running a hose from the water pump to the garden and building small trenches along the vegetables, building a complex series of dams and canals for the water to flow through, and just enjoying pushing my hands and feet into the mud. The carbon dioxide-heavy feel of the garden air and the trickling of the spring-fed fresh water pouring along in front of me are what the happy memories of my life are made of.
Even more appropriately, the song consists of only three very basic chords, making the song playable by guitar novices; its musical simplicity ties in with the theme of the song.
Now that I live in a (relatively) much larger town, I have lost a great deal of touch with this way of life. There is a great deal of opportunity in my current environment that I didn't have when I was at home; ideas and technologies and conveniences abound here, while life goes on much the same there. I've tried to go back, but something just isn't the same.
I guess I am finally outside the screen door.