Ask Rufus: Stories on a Southern Porch

June 23, 2018 10:03:08 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


It may be social media or just changing times, but sipping cool beverages and listening to grand stories while sitting on a porch on a hot summer day seems to be a relic of the past. 


As a child I was privileged, like most in the South, to have older relatives or family friends who loved telling stories, lubricated with a favorite libation, while enjoying the summer shade of a front porch. A lot of young people have no idea of the grand stories that are fading away or the life lessons often told with a far-off look followed by laughter. 


I recall the beverages of the front porch always being cool and refreshing. The adults had their libations as the children enjoyed Kool-Aid, sweet tea or a six-ounce Coke in a bottle. Of course, to snack on there were cheese straws, toasted pecans and tea cookies baked with a pecan in the middle. 


One of my favorite porches was at the old Billups home at 905 Main St. in Columbus. It was the first house I lived in, though I have no memory of living there as my parents built and moved to a new house when I was only 2.  


A few years after that my great-aunt and uncle Marcella Billups Richards and Dr. John D. Richards moved back to Columbus and the old home. Uncle John had retired after having been for many years a doctor in New York. 


As a child I spent many afternoons on the old home's front porch listening to Uncle John tell stories. He had been a physician whose patients included members of the Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Straus, Colt and Barrymore families, and he had been called to treat the injured survivors of the Titanic. His close friends Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus both were lost on the Titanic when Mr. Straus refused to enter a lifeboat before any other man and his wife refused to leave his side. Their story has been included in every Titanic movie, but Uncle John told it to me from first-person accounts he heard on the Carpathia when she arrived in New York with the survivors. His stories were spellbinding. 


I think my favorite story was an occurrence that took place at a hospital in New York City some 100 years ago. In the hospital, Dr. Richards had a first-floor office looking out on a park. Two nurses overheard some doctors discussing an unusual case. It turned out the patient suffered from a rare form of leprosy and it had taken the doctors a couple of weeks to make a diagnosis. One of the doctors commented: "That Dr. Richards thinks he is such a hot shot. Let's take the patient to his office for a consultation and see how long it takes him to realize what it is." 


The nurses then quickly hurried down to Dr. Richards' office and told him what was afoot. Richards took off his shoes, propped his sock feet on his desk and started reading a newspaper. Soon a knock came at the door. He responded "come in." The two doctor brought the patient in and Richards could see a crowd of doctors and nurses beginning to gather in the hall outside his door. 


The doctors said they had an unusual case they would like him to consult. Richards, never putting down the newspaper, said that would be fine. The doctors responded asking if he needed to put the paper down and make an examination. Richards said he first just needed to ask a few questions. 


After asking about 10 questions and with his head still buried in the newspaper, Richards said "well that narrows it down to only two or three things." He then put down the paper, squinted at the patient, put on his glasses, adjusted the glasses, and screamed "Oh my gosh! It's leprosy!" He quickly stood up, turned, jumped out of his office window and started running across the park in his sock feet. 


The two doctors and their rather unsettled patient then left the office, and as they passed through the wide-eyed crowd in the hallway, were heard to say, "That SOB is every bit as good as he claims to be." Oh what wonderful stories were told on that front porch. 


And not forgetting those important front porch sides, I can well remember the summer iced tea my grandmother would make. It was an old recipe from Whitehall. Start with a quart of unsweetened tea and add: "juice of six lemons, juice of two oranges, one pound of sugar (to taste). Just before serving add bottle of ginger ale." Often it would be made without the ginger ale. 


For the adults, the family recipe for mint juleps served at Whitehall, Snowdoun and Waverly was always popular. In 1939, Eudora Welty called it the Whitehall Mint Julep and said that to make it: "Dissolve sugar in water (at Waverly it was boiled to make a simple syrup). Bruise a mint leaf in a tablespoon of the sugar water then remove the leaf. Fill the silver goblet with crushed ice and add the tablespoon of mint and sugar water. Then fill the goblet with good bourbon. Put in a sprig of mint and let stand until the silver goblet is frosted and then serve rapidly." 


I still think it is hard to beat a great story and a cool drink on a summer porch. 


Its a "Southern Thing."

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]