Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Remembering the Past

Recently I went by the cemetery in the rural community where I grew up. I visited old friends and relatives there who have outrun me to that piece of sacred ground where when I die I will lie down to rest in the company of so many I have loved. I went by a piece of property a few hundred yards up the road, to where my wife, Hilda, and I had attended grades one through six in a two-room school house. Then I drove seven miles south to an abandoned school house in Repton and stood on the stage in the auditorium where Hilda and I received our high school diplomas in 1948. I pensively called to mind how things were in those days.

Growing up in rural Conecuh County, Alabama, during the Great Depression, we were required by tradition to respect certain persons and professions even before we learned by experience that they deserved respect.

Respect was automatically due the elderly. We never called an elderly person by their first names unless we used one of the prefixes "Mr.", "Miss" or "Mrs.". It became obvious to me later that age does not necessarily confer wisdom, but my parents required universal respect for the elderly without regard for wisdom, race, or station in life. We spoke courteously to older people, and we were careful to respond with "Yes ma'am" and "Yes sir". I once got a memorable spanking from my father for speaking disrespectfully to an elderly black man.

The clergy who came to our community were highly respected, even by people who seldom or never attended church. Most of our clergy were fairly well educated. They spoke good English. They were placed first in line for dinner on the grounds, and in our homes dishes of food were passed to the clergy first. I learned to enjoy wings, necks and other odd pieces of fried chicken because the preacher and his wife and the elderly got first choice.

School teachers were highly respected persons. If a teacher decided that a student required punishment at school, the decision was never questioned at home. In fact, it was reinforced by the punishment being repeated at home. I feared the embarrassment of getting a whipping at school, but I feared even more the certain whipping I would get at home for having been punished at school. No one spoke ill of school teachers. We believed these people were the link to a better future for our children

The only doctors we knew were Dr. Cain in Burnt Corn and Dr. Carter in Repton. We looked up to these people, whose faces we saw only upon the occasions of birth, death, and serious illness. The doctors were among the few people who owned automobiles. When we heard a car coming down the graveled road, other than at mail time, we assumed that it was Dr. Carter on the way to attend some person who was ill. Dr. Carter attended my birth in 1930 and treated me for whooping cough during the first year of my life, but I did not see him again as a patient until I broke my arm playing baseball when I was in the tenth grade. We created and repeated myths about the special powers of Dr. Carter. He drove like a demon and was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Although my brother went to a dentist once when we were growing up, I did not visit a dentist until I was grown.

I never saw a lawyer until I was a grown man. Our simple society did not require their services. We probably would have respected law enforcement people if there had been any in our world. Our laws of living together were taught at home, school and church, and they were enforced by these same institutions. I heard that there was a jail at Evergreen (twenty miles away) but I never did see it. I never knew anyone who had been in jail or in a court of law, except to serve as a juror.

I am not sure that the good old days were as good as we remember them to have been. But being an octogenarian confers on one the tendency and the license to fantasize about the virtues of the past. I am sure that having respect for clergy, teachers, doctors, and the elderly would not solve all of the problems in our complicated society, but I do believe it would help. I understand how we tend to "airbrush" the harsh realities from our remembered picture of the past. None of us want to return to a world without electricity, in-door plumbing, paved roads, and automobiles; or return to inadequate health care, and poverty, but we would love to recover some of the simplicity of those times. I am not so naive as to think a return to the good old days is either possible or preferable, but learning and teaching respect would improve the quality of individual, family and community life in any age.