In the 1940s, even by Eastern Shore standards, Girdletree was small. Nobody knew where the name had come from, but its mention elicited guffaws in other parts of Worcester County. The best way to characterize Girdletree, it was said, was that it had two of everything and a lot of nothing.
In those days, Girdletree was a couple of churches and general stores and a gas pump astride two-lane Route 10 as it meandered from Snow Hill to Pocomoke City on its way to the Virginia state line. Several miles to the east was Chincoteague Bay famous for its wild ponies and black ducks; follow the setting sun and you'd be looking at the Chesapeake Bay, teaming with crabs, clams and oysters.
The "two of everything" label stemmed from a religious division that was Girdletree's most telling feature. Like bookends on either end of town stood the First Baptist Church and the United Methodist congregation -- the first, a rather austere grayish structure, the latter, more elaborate and white with imposing twin steeples.
Belonging to one or the other meant more than where you went on Sunday morning. It also determined which general store you patronized and with whom you socialized. If you were Baptist, you headed for Mose Hudson's for provisions and sundries; it was Painey Pilchard's if you were Methodist.
Only three places in town were neutral territory: Granville Jones's barbershop, where corn liquor was consumed from bottles inside paper bags and off-color jokes were told for the umpteenth time; the two-room school; and the tiny post office.
The town division began, it was said, when the Methodists raided the Baptist Church and threw its organ in a creek. The Baptists allegedly retaliated by setting fire to the Methodist steeples. No one seemed to remember the cause for these unchristian acts. Some blamed a Methodist girl for taking up with a Baptist. Open hostilities had ceased by the time I was growing up in Girdletree in the '40s.
The town's denizens were hard-scrabble farmers who fished and crabbed in the off-season. They were almost all poor whites except for one black family headed by a formidable matron named Aunt Sadie. She and her brood lived on the other side of the tracks in a tiny, weathered house. The place always seemed enveloped in a fragrant smell of baking biscuits and Aunt Sadie's specialty, fried pies.
My early years were spent with my grandmother on her subsistence farm on the outskirts of Girdletree. The war was on with its rationing, but we churned butter, collected eggs and ate whatever was in season. Exotic foods such as bananas and oranges were largely unavailable then on the Eastern Shore.
My grandmother was frugal. We had no such thing as garbage collection. Ashes from the coal heater and excess grease from the wood-fired cook stove were saved for making soap. Waste from the "slop jar" (no indoor plumbing then) was spread on the rose bushes. They bloomed gloriously. Empty feed sacks bearing the likenesses of pigs, cows and chickens were washed, cut and stitched into undergarments and nightshirts.
We had no TV, cinema or video games, but we had the radio and a wind-up record player in the parlor on which I played scratchy World War I-era songs. The musty trunks in the attic were filled with Victorian clothes, including my grandmother's wedding dress and my grandfather's cutaway.
We had no such thing as spare time. I ate, slept, went to school, did chores and went to church on Sunday. Even rocking on the front porch wasn't an idle time for my grandmother; it was time for "fancy work," darning and a bit of gossip.
On a hot summer day a few weeks ago, feeling both native son and stranger, I visited Girdletree for the first time in 45 years.
Nothing was recognizable except the two churches, still gray and still white, staring at each other from opposite ends of town. What had been Mose Hudson's general store was now an antique shop. I browsed its modest display and recognized the kind of objects that we had used every day -- wooden laundry washboards, kerosene lamps, small iceboxes and milk bottles.
Two cartons contained a jumble of old postcards and photographs. One faded photo was a class picture of the Girdletree first through third grades with the date 1945. I saw the familiar face of Mrs. Dickerson. She had taught my father when he was a second-grader during World War I, and I was in her first-grade class in 1945. There I was, in the second row of scrubbed faces, smiling. One front tooth was missing.
The young woman minding the shop asked me where I was from and looked puzzled when I smiled and said, "Girdletree."
The "good old days" may not have been as rosy as we see them now, through lenses of nostalgia. In fact, they were not the least bit rosy at their core, with segregation, poverty and ignorance stifling us all in different ways. Still, I cannot help but long for those simpler times past in a small place.
-- Sam Oglesby