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Kentucky by Heart: I didn’t go to kindergarten, but learned my life’s rules close to home

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at KyForward October 31, 2017

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Author Robert Fulghum got a lot of mileage out of his 1988 book, All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In it, he identified 16 “rules to live by” learned early in childhood and applied them to real-life situations, partly through a series of essays. For those practicing a “savor the moment and experiences” way of handling life—ones that inspire–Fulghum is a good mentor. At least, lots of people read his words.

His book got me thinking about, not kindergarten, but where and how I grew up and some lessons I learned early—and hopefully proved helpful later…like now.

The first years, until about age 9, I lived in the Grants Lick area in southern Campbell County. Then we moved a bit further north to the then-tiny town of Claryville, where Mom and Dad bought a three and a half-acre piece of property. It included a modest framed house, an unattached garage and a small barn, along with another building used for storage purposes.

Our place also had a tobacco base, and raising burley was truly a family affair. Being a part of that experience taught me a valuable principle: Real work is hard, isn’t always fun, but can pay off in the long run.

Raising tobacco is nearly year-round in scope. From sowing a tobacco bed to “stripping” the leaves to delivering the harvested crop to the warehouse for selling it, it’s hard to hide from what is required for making it a profitable enterprise. In fact, I frequently tried to hide from the process. How so? Well, I did things like leaving the field, barn, or stripping house to take unusually long bathroom breaks, or begged time off to take care of extra homework supposedly assigned that night.

But despite all the drudgery of “workin’ in tobacco” and other regular chores over those years, I learned a work ethic from my parents that has kept me going when talent (of which I’m sometimes limited) wasn’t enough. It helped when, in high school and college, for example, I did well because I was willing to do extra reading because I wasn’t good at comprehending lectures. Teachers might say today that I was not a good auditory learner.

To wit, my early years as a teacher were certainly not lucrative, so I took extra jobs to try to get ahead. I reinvented myself as a writer during and after my teaching career, requiring lots of work. The ethic to be productive remains today for me, and hopefully will stay a little longer.

Steve at Kindergarten age

Another lesson coming out of my Claryville time was to hold on to what you have, repair when needed, and avoid seeking a quick replacement. Though time proved little Stevie didn’t readily acquire it, my dad had the knack of fixing things that were worn or broke. That meant less costly calls to servicemen, and more money to put back for college expenses for my brother and me. Dad replaced bearings or fan belts on washers and dryers. He combined junked tractor parts and created, in effect, “new” tractors. He rebuilt our family garage with concrete blocks after the framed original one burned to the ground. He likely saved thousands of dollars in this way.

And even if my father could have afforded buying new items or hiring out work, I doubt that he would have. He saw value in conserving and recycling, but mostly he embraced the ethic of labor. Though I lack his handy ways, I still attempt to fix things (or ask friends’ help) and hold on to my possessions to get full value. Some might call it “being content with what we have.”

In Claryville, we learned that sharing with our neighbors is a good thing…and it ‘lightens the load for each of us.’ That happened as we traded work in the fields on our farms, and sometimes farm implements, with our neighbor up the road, Ted Woeste. If we grew too much produce (or it ripened all the same time), we gladly shared with our neighbors. They did likewise. I can remember many times when Uncle Maurice dropped off apples, beans or the like on our front porch while in the midst of his trucking business routes.

There were other things, too. I received rides to baseball games by the manager’s wife, Margie Craig, and my Uncle Kenny drove me to my summer maintenance job at Campbell County High School. We didn’t make a nuisance of ourselves, but we knew our neighbors were around to help, and we for them.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

I learned, too, that mealtime is a special time, and not just to eat. My brother and I were expected to be on time and all washed up with soap. Mom was a great cook, but just as important was the conversation we had. Frankly, my dad was a serious kind of guy while working around home and didn’t engage in a lot of talking. As a child, I craved those times he would talk more easily, and that usually occurred at supper time when things were more relaxed. It often brought a soothing sense of equilibrium to me, the feeling that I was part of something of value. I am saddened that in today’s American society, family members often seem to bounce around like pinballs and, armed with the ubiquitous microwave oven, fend for themselves instead of gathering as a functioning family ought.

I also came to realize while growing up in Claryville that we don’t need ‘things’ to give us joy, but a little imagination will do wonders. Although I did watch a little television as a youth, there were few electrical gadgets to hold me spellbound. Away from chores and the fields, I loved to play in the creek that bordered our land. I used a small cane pole with fishing worms on a hook to catch big minnows, and I captured crawdads in a can. I made paper boats and floated them on still waters.

I threw bare tobacco stalks like spears, hoping they’d stick upright in the muddy fields. Building small campfires was a weakness for me, though sometimes “little fires” became bigger ones. It was fun to throw strawberries while I was supposed to be picking them, and hickory nuts were tossed also, often into the creek. And hey, did you ever scoop up nightcrawlers after rain or catch lightning bugs in a jar and use it for a lamp at night?

It just took a bit of imagination to come up with such recreational activities. I never knew what an X-Box or a Nintendo was, and I didn’t feel like I was deprived in what was fun to do…except that I wanted more time to do those things.

I was taught to be for underdogs, do my part to make the community better, and to make my own decisions in choosing a life course. My parents seldom interfered and trusted me that I’d make right decisions after leaving their nest. Maybe it was the fact that Claryville’s teachings, they felt, were accepted wholeheartedly.

And though not all I learned in Claryville is good, what I’ve just shared are lessons I’ll likely never regret. That’s a good feeling to have, especially since I didn’t even attend kindergarten.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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