I may be cheating a bit with this column, for loafering certainly isn’t unique to Appalachia. Indeed, you will likely find some form of loafering in just about every community the world over. It might be known by a different name, but after all, “what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”*
Since I was a girl, I can’t really say anything about loafering first-hand, but I can tell you what I surmised about it over the years from listening to Daddy talk and from studying what I saw if we drove past the store where the men gathered. Mirriam-Webster defines a loafer as “one that loafs: idler.” Basically, it means that someone is lazy; however, most of the men in our community earned their right to loafer, oddly enough, through the sweat of their brow. Loafering could actually be considered a synonym for today’s more refined term, “networking,” but such a term would be a little on the high brow side for those loafers in our community.
Loafering was a rite of passage. The day you went to the store with your dad or grandfather to loafer for the first time, you were no longer a boy tied to your mother’s apron strings. You had crossed that magical bridge into manhood and were entitled to all the benefits that came with the right to loafer. Daddy started loafering young as evidenced by the bare-chested young man in the picture who probably isn’t more than 16. That’s my daddy. Paw was there, too; he is the one sitting on the chair to the right of Daddy.
My daddy was an avid loafer and made no excuses for it. He would, in fact, announce to us, “I’m going up to the store to loafer for a while.” Daddy was not the only one who went to loafer when the demands of farming didn’t keep him home. Most of the men in the community did the same thing. Loafering was, and, I imagine, still is, a time honored tradition that has a set of purposes and a set of rules all its own. I doubt the men who gathered to loafer ever deliberately thought about either its purposes or rules, but they existed nonetheless as sort of an unspoken code. And almost all the men complied with this code, but as with most things in life, a few renegades refused to bow to the norm.
By rule, loafering was an afternoon activity. A few men ignored this rule and seemed to arrive early in the morning and stay through most of the afternoon, but this was the exception. In general, men worked hard all morning long, stopped for dinner (the mid-day meal), and then, if nothing was pressing, they would meet at the store. Inclement weather in the morning made for an exception to the afternoon loafering rule. In that case, the men would meet in the morning and stay until the weather cleared up enough to work the farm in the afternoon.
This rule reversed in the winter months when the cold weather made working outside in the morning almost suicidal. During those months, men loafered in the morning and “did up” the work in the afternoon. In addition, if seasonal work like putting up hay or working tobacco was pressing, loafering was out. It was a luxury that most men enjoyed only when appropriate. During these dawn to dusk farm days, the store had to depend on the old salts who could no longer work their farms and those few men who didn’t work at all.
Women were not allowed to loafer, at least I never knew of any who were. By rule, only the men gathered at the store to sit and talk, eat a pack of Nabs, have a soft drink (sometimes with peanuts in it), and maybe play a game of checkers or cards. Having women there would have cramped their style and taken away from the freedom inherent in visiting with the boys.
Loafering also served several purposes, most of them positive. First, it brought the community together. Men from all over Helton found their way to the central location of the store in the Helton “suburb” of Sturgills. Once there, they chewed the fat, but they also passed along news from each area of the community. Daddy would come home with news of the sick and those in need, of new babies and new cars, of accidents and deaths, of new jobs and lost jobs, of new neighbors and moving away neighbors, and of marriages and divorces. Loafering kept the community up to date on important happenings. (I realize this may sound a lot like gossiping, but for our purposes here, we will stick to the term “networking.”)
Loafering was good for the local economy. In fact, it probably kept the store at Sturgills in business for years. Because the men loafered there, they filled their trucks and cars up with gas there. They had all their vehicles inspected there each year. If milk or bread or any other small item was needed at home, it could be bought there. Sometimes it was common hardware items like nails or screws that someone needed. And of course, lots of Nabs, Vienna (pronounced “Vie-eennie”) sausages with crackers, moonpies, peanuts, and sodas were consumed during the course of the afternoon. If it weren’t for all the men who frequented the store each day, chances are it would have been unable to keep the doors open.
Loafering also played a subtle role in home life. Most people probably don’t realize this, but I firmly believe it did. Loafering gave the women an outlet for frustrations that went beyond loafering. Many women had spent the entire morning working outside with their husbands, had come in and put dinner on the table, and were just getting ready to wash up the dishes when their husbands would head out the door to go up to the store to loafer for a while.
Now, the women knew there was always work to be done if the men would just open their eyes to it, and so, at least in my family, the almost immediate response was something like, “Well, there you go again when you could be mowing the yard” (or trimming the shrubbery or hoeing the garden, or fixing the door latch, or any of a hundred other things). “Why do you have to go up to that ole store every day when I’m here still slaving away? You lazy ole dog!” By the time all the complaining was done, many of the heavier frustrations of the day had waned away. The men would go on to the store, and the women, for all their fussing, might or might not bust a gut working the afternoon away.
Loafering made for a better marriage. The women may have complained about the men’s loafering, but underneath it all, it was a godsend for them to be gone for a while. It is the rare couple who can spend time together 24/7. Everyone needs a break from each other, and loafering provided the perfect means for this to occur. The men were gone for a while, but not so long as to really get behind on anything. And while they were gone, the women didn’t have to deal with them. Their absence gave the women some alone time. They could let down for a bit themselves. Some stopped everything and sat down to watch their “stories” (soap operas), some might do something at the same time they watched like mend clothes or iron, and some used that afternoon time to call friends and neighbors on the telephone and catch up (network a.k.a. gossip). Some would read, and a few might take a short nap.
I think most communities had a central meeting place, usually a small store like the one at Sturgills where the men would meet. These places were often the heart of the community and hummed with activity. Our communities were better for having these places. Bonds formed, and neighbors became friends there. Laughs were exchanged, and the strains of hard work melted away. Loafering meant you had a place to go where you belonged and were comfortable.
I really think Mirriam-Webster’s definition should be expanded. Loafer should mean: “ a man who belongs to a community of hard laborers who come together to relax, network, and recover from the toils of their day. In small rural areas, loafering is considered a positive activity, a prize for work well done.” Now, doesn’t that sound so much better than “idler?”
*From Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare