Some folks might describe my boyhood as one of deprivation or, even reaching lower, to the level of being deplorable. The home I grew up in lacked central heating, had no air conditioning, featured minimal insulation, and during my early years, found Momma laboring over a wood-burning stove to prepare meals or can garden goods that figured so prominently in our daily diet for many months in the year. We had no television, only an ancient cabinet radio. The family budget was such that two magazine subscriptions — Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post — along with a daily newspaper had to suffice on the literary front.
We had a telephone but it was on a four-party line, and casual conversation was verboten. Besides, two elderly ladies were all too anxious to enjoy pretty much any conversation they could “tune in” to by picking up their phone. In short we were, although I didn’t realize the fact until I went off to college, poor or very nearly so. Not impoverished — we always had plenty of food on the table and some new clothes at the beginning of each school year — but definitely well along towards the lower end of the economic scale.
Material possessions and mighty slim bank accounts notwithstanding, my family was blessed in many ways. We ate wonderfully well thanks to growing and putting up our own food, raising chickens and hogs, having a small apple orchard, and enjoying nature’s ample bounty from frequent hunting and fishing excursions. We had dependable and congenial neighbors, a close-knit church family, and our own extended family living nearby in the small community. The prevailing philosophy of “make do with what you’ve got” served us and countless others wonderfully well.
For a boy who absolutely reveled in all aspects of the outdoor experience, the fact that small game hunting was almost at the doorstep, a river holding plenty of catfish and small fish suitable for cooking whole in a pan only a few hundred yards away, and trout streams within hard walking or easy biking distance was a distinct blessing. Looking back and discarding any and all economic considerations while doing so, I have to reckon mine was a wonderful childhood.
In that regard, in addition to the blessings already mentioned were numerous other less obvious benefits not of a material sort. Family sessions picking black walnut meats while listening to Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gunsmoke, or The Lone Ranger on the radio punctuated winter evenings. We enjoyed musical fare aplenty from that same vintage cabinet radio thanks to The Louisiana Hayride on KWKH out of Shreveport, The Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s venerable WSM, and The Wayne Raney Show on WCKY in Cincinnati.
All three stations featured what Raney often described as “50,000 watts of pure power,” and at night they could be picked up over much of the eastern United States. Then we had our capacious front porch ideally suited for warm weather gatherings to string and break beans, peel apples for canning or drying, shell peas, and hear and watch the antics of a pair of screech owls or more likely a series of pairs that nested in a nearby white oak year after year. We could just sit and rock while watching lightning bugs and listening to the rising and falling crescendo of nature’s noise as frogs peeped in search of a mate or a mighty hallelujah chorus of katydids sawed away on their leg fiddles.
In retrospect, the biggest blessing of all featured the combination of rain and the old home’s tin roof. For pure restfulness and peace of mind, rain and tin form an unrivaled duo. They produce a soothing and eminently satisfying sort of music no philharmonic orchestra and no mighty choir of uplifted voices can quite match. I’ve often mused, usually while listening in placid enchantment, about just how comforting the sounds of raindrop pattering are. To me, the only sound comparable is that of a purling, murmuring mountain stream in some backcountry campsite while being comfortably ensconced in a sleeping bag. As for other creature comforts associated with our senses, comparisons might be made to a flickering, toasty fire or the inner satisfaction to be derived from a hot bowl of hearty soup, amply buttressed by a crunchy chunk of bread, on a cold winter’s day.
On more than one occasion I’ve wondered about why the folks who offer soothing sounds for sleepy time — waves ceaselessly progressing and receding on some sandy shore, the whisper of gentle breezes setting wind chimes to tinkling, or birdsong on a spring morn — don’t record rain performing its delightful dance on tin. In all likelihood, such recordings of what are known as sleep sounds or white noise exist, but if so I’ve never encountered them. While plenty of offerings of rain falling can be found, none in my experience takes the step that makes falling rain the epitome of peace and well-being — contact with a tin roof.
That porch at my boyhood home, along with one of a quite similar size and nature at the dwelling of my paternal grandparents, was a favorite gathering spot of an evening not only for my parents, my siblings, and me but for portions of the extended family. In the summer months, such settings were a regular part of our day-to-day existence, and often they were accompanied by cooling evening showers that occurred with considerable regularity.
When that happened, you could count on some family member commenting, soon after the patter of raindrops commenced, on how enjoyable the sound was. Grandpa Joe, a wizened old fellow who was a storehouse of folksy wisdom with a knack for getting to the heart of matters, probably summed it up best. “My,” he would say, “just listen to the rain on the roof. Ain’t it fine.”
Tin roofs and Grandpa go far beyond such communal settings in my personal memory because during the course of my boyhood I enjoyed untold scores of days on his porch when it was raining and just the two of us were present. Somehow the setting, far from being one for “rainy day blues,” meant pure delight. Sure, the situation was one that meant we couldn’t do things such as work in his expansive garden, fish in the river running in front of his home, or simply plunder around outdoors as old men and young boys are wont to do. On the other hand, it brought out the best in Grandpa Joe as a teller of tales. And make no doubt about it, my paternal grandfather was a highly gifted, and to me at least completely mesmerizing, raconteur.
In his company, with the magical interaction of rain and a tin roof as a backdrop, I was transported to a different world, one long gone from reality and yet become real once more through his words. We walked vicariously amidst vast groves of the American chestnut before the deadly blight accidentally imported from Asia devastated this monarch of Eastern forests. We hunted squirrels feeding on the trees’ mast in those same groves, and they were so plentiful a fellow could kill a dozen in just an hour or two.
We relived Grandpa’s frightening experience with a “painter” (cougar) he killed with a shotgun at point-blank range when it attacked family livestock during the early years of his manhood. He shared memories of hog-killing time when free-ranging swine had fattened to perfection on chestnut mast, a soft snow so deep you could spot where a rabbit was from a hole emanating a bit of smoke from the cottontail’s breath, hard times when snowbird pie made from trapped birds — he called juncos snowbirds — was a feast, his battle with a mighty fish hooked on a trotline so big he couldn’t get it in the boat, and much more. In the background to his almost whispering voice and occasional soft chuckle, rain and tin often provided punctuation.
While indulging in nostalgia and a lifelong love affair with rain and tin roofs, I do have to vent a wee bit. As an inveterate reader and great lover of song, time and again I’ve encountered mention of rainfall with the word rhythm. Invariably the songster or writer gets it wrong. Rainfall isn’t rhythmic. It is constant only in its inconstancy, changeless yet ever changing, or, in a word, arrhythmic. Had it striven for precision, the hit song of yesteryear by The Cascades wouldn’t have carried the title Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain. Instead, it would have been something along the lines of Listen to the Constant Change of the Rain.
For many, rain evokes immediate thoughts of gloom, depression, or low spirits. Throughout my life I’ve been something of a contrarian, and here’s a situation where that certainly is the case. Rain sends my spirits soaring, at least when I think of it in conjunction with tin roofs. It evokes great gladness, not a sense of sadness. The only sadness is when the rain ceases and the instrument of tin it has been playing so sweetly grows silent. The concluding words of the Julie Roberts song, Rain on a Tin Roof, get it just right. “It’s a melody of passion raging on. And then it’s gone. And then it’s gone. Then it’s gone.” Only then does the sadness come.
Jim Casada is a full-time writer and the author or editor of dozens of books. His most recent works include A Smoky Mountain Boyhood, Fishing for Chickens: A Food Memoir, along with the forthcoming (May 2023) Celebrating Southern Appalachian Food.