clotheslineWith all the friends who have come back into my life via Facebook, I am no longer amazed when another old buddy appears and brings a smile to my face. Just the other day, one more re-entered my life, although not by Internet, phone, reunion, or letter in the mail. Though it’s been decades since I even gave him a thought, it seems like we never missed a beat as I welcomed back my old friend, the clothesline.

The nearly teary reunion came about during a recent discussion with a neighbor concerning all things green and sustainable. She was preaching the virtues of her efforts to reduce her carbon footprint in various manners in and around the house. According to her, simply by installing a clothesline, she has decreased her home electric bill substantially. In her slightly puffed up, Earth Mother manner, she informed me that next to the refrigerator, the clothes dryer is the biggest “energy hog” in the modern home (truthfully, it sounded more like “energy hawg,” but I fought off a smile in light of the important subject at hand).

According to her research, statistics indicate that a clothes dryer accounts for about 10 percent of a family’s total energy footprint. This was news to me, as I don’t spend much time thinking about our gorgeous, accessory-laden new dryer’s kilowatt appetite. Besides, I am already saving money using the attic fan rather than running the AC.  A person can be expected to bear only so much. But, lest you think I am totally clueless to the vagaries of unbridled energy consumption, I will tell you I am vigilante-like in my efforts both at home and at the office to insure that all unnecessary lights are off and that no unused appliances, chargers, fans, and such are plugged into sockets.

Truthfully, my mania is driven with a less altruistic goal in mind than my neighbors, namely, saving our money for us. If the world is better off as a result, well that is just gravy.  Frankly, I still feel all tingly when I use the new energy-efficient appliances, what with water-saving features, controllable cycles, and whisper-quiet performances. I often pull up a chair next to the dryer while it thrums away, giving it the occasional pat or rub to convey my affection for its beauty and thrift. The mere thought of neglecting our captivating new dryer in favor of a mundane clothesline sends me into a sinkhole of consumer gloom.

Not that the clothesline doesn’t evoke some nostalgia for me. When I was a kid, clothes dryers were considered a luxury. The clothes would come out of the washer, go into the big wicker basket (with one gnawed-off handle, courtesy of our dog), then be carried to the clothesline for hanging in the fresh air and dazzling Georgia sun. Our clothesline was made of two big iron T-bars jammed into the red clay on a hill in our backyard. Standing sixty feet apart with three rubber-coated wires strung the length between the poles, these cast iron beauties were oxidized with a fine covering of rust that clothesline-1blended nicely with the background. Nearly every home in our town had a clothesline of either this T-bar style or the four-sided, revolving, inverted umbrella type. And because every yard had one, the clothesline was always at the ready for any neighborhood kids to commandeer when starting any game that required a safe zone, or “base.” Regardless of its design, it was darn near irresistible when laden with soggy bed sheets, dripping jeans, and Dad’s work shirts, and we wandered between them, playing hide-and-seek, or pretending that ghosts were touching us with clammy, long-dead hands.  Every laundry day we were lured by the siren song of sheets wafting in the wind or enticed by animated pants dancing in the breeze.

Like most things magical and wondrous, there was a downside to be sure. At my house those magical drying clothes could even be hazardous to your health. If we even strayed close to those damp dripping dungarees, our housekeeper Alberta Neal would bolt out of the house (like the troll coming out from under his bridge after the Three Billy Goats Gruff) as fast as her Rubenesque frame and the laws of inertia would allow. Wielding her broom out in front and cutting a wide swath at children’s’ fanny height, she would shout,

“Get yourselves away from those clean clothes! I just hung ‘em and havin’ you jump up and down and around will kick up the devil’s dust and I gonna have to wash ‘em again. And if I do that, some young folks is gonna’ gets a switch to they legs.”

I will tell you that there was nothing to create a greater sense of urgency for kids in our neighborhood than hearing Alberta utter any sentence that included the word “switch” or “flyswatter,” as we all knew that one or the other was very close to her hand and she was ambidextrous. She was the domestic equivalent to a hanging judge in our parts, and we would do anything to avoid going to that court! Now it must be pointed out that in those days, such corporal punishment was not only acceptable; it was a secret club-like agreement all parents and housekeepers automatically entered into upon birth of a child.  As kids, we knew that if we got in trouble with someone’s parent or maid, we could expect immediate discipline or censure and would be open to further repercussions in our own home later.

It was a form of double jeopardy, to be sure, but the ACLU was still in the future, so actual behavioral restrictions, limit setting, and consequences of one’s actions were still an accepted and functional part of the culture. My little fanny was popped quite often, and I seemed to avoid growing up an angry murderer. Anyway, after a short time-out from a game of tag to discuss the situation and our options (which were nada with Alberta fairly in a froth with broom at the ready), the “base” was relocated to a nearby bush or the dormant trash-burning drum. Soon the game was on again, safely away from both the drying clothes and housekeeper run ragged.

Alberta was a little less vigilant when the clothesline was empty, and we would often take the inactive clothespins off the line and use them to clip baseball cards to our bicycle spokes. This clever bit of mechanics would create a loud “rat-a-tat-tat” sound when pedaling at breakneck speed, fueling our daydreams of racecar driving and such. It was inevitable that Alberta would weary of hunting for clothespins on the various bikes to which they were attached, so one day she came into my room and handed me a new pack of the wooden clips from the Jitney Jungle and said,

“Y’all use these ones, and leave mines alone. I is SICK AND TIRED of huntin’ for my pins on yo’ cycles. I don’t have the energy and ain’t got the time.”

Taking a fat pinch of TOPS snuff and lodging it between her bottom lip and gold-capped front teeth, she then shuffled off to iron and watch Love of Life and Search for Tomorrow.

Far less humorous and infinitely creepier was an incident with the clothesline and the nearby swing set. One early spring morning, Alberta headed out the back door with the laundry basket filled with wet sheets and three-year-old me in tow.  It was our routine on laundry day that, weather permitting, I would swing on the swing set while she hung out the clothes. That way, she could keep an eye on me, give me an occasional push, and get the laundry on the line at the same time. Now, I was still at an age where I had to be “plopped” into the seat of the swing, as I wasn’t tall enough to actually climb up myself and stay balanced. Once properly “plopped” and “pushed,” Alberta went about her laundry business. It could not have been very long before I noticed something low in the grass straight ahead of me moving closer. Moments later I realized that the “something” was a very long snake. Inasmuch as our home was in a woodsy semi-rural area, I knew that snakes were bad news and to run away from them fast!  Trapped in my swing seat, I started squealing and kicking my chubby, dimpled, dangling legs, doing my darndest to run away. This might have been helpful if I were in a swimming pool or actually touching the ground, but as I was hanging in mid-air, it did nothing whatsoever to increase my distance from the snake. In fact, it very likely created a hypnotic, alluring effect, drawing the danger closer, like the flute artistry of a snake charmer.

Alberta quickly appeared from behind the sheets and started towards her screeching charge but pulled up short about halfway between the clothesline and me when she saw what was causing my distress. Let me tell you, if you think the scream of a three-year-old is loud, well, Alberta could shatter glass!

“LORD . . . LORD. . .ITS A SNAKE!” she screamed to no one in particular, backing up several paces away from the flailing, panicked child that was me.  It took her a few moments, but she gathered herself enough to then move closer and extract me from the swing as the snake continued its approach.

“Hold on my baby, jus hold on . . .” and, clutching me to her ample bosom, she made a wide path around the serpent and took me into the house.  She breathlessly got on the phone to call “Mr. Bill” (my dad) at his office about the snake, and not fifteen minutes later, Dad was home. He pulled an iron from his golf bag in the car trunk and beat that poor unsuspecting snake to death, although by then it was doing nothing more than sunning, blissfully unawares of its impending death by the business end of a sand wedge. I think about this every time I see that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Jem and Scout watch Atticus shoot a rabid dog as it wanders down the street. Some daddies have shotguns, and some daddies have golf clubs. In my situation, the sand wedge worked quite nicely.

Back in the present day, my non-global warming clothesline is presenting some different challenges. In our home laundry room, we installed the retractable four-line model. You attach the thing to one wall, and then stretch part of it across to the opposite wall. Visualize rolling out Saran wrap and you get the idea. When I first stretched the thing open, I was reminded of those wire and wooden devices used by elementary school teachers, into which they would place three pieces of chalk and then drag the device across the chalkboard, drawing long straight lines which would subsequently be used to teach cursive writing. I doubt they have those contraptions today. They probably just teach cursive texting to school kids. Why bother with cursive writing when we tossed out multiplication tables and flash cards?

Anyway, we installed this contraption so that we might dry out things like swimsuits, sweaters, and other articles we don’t want to toss in the dryer.  During the installation of the new clothesline, I swear the dryer looked at me askance, with its front-load eye gazing at the device as if to say, “That is never going to work!” I even think I heard it sigh.

The dryer may be right. So far, this modern clothesline is not carrying its weight, so to speak. It’s designed so that when you hang your first item on line one in the back, the weight of the item makes that row sag slightly while lines two through four tighten up.  That’s not so bad, but try adding something to line three, and line one adjusts upward, commencing some sort of laundry line high wire act. Adding several pieces to the point where the lines begin to fill is like playing “Whack-a-Mole” with clothing.  Add a dress shirt over here and ZOOM, up go the running shorts over there! Attach that wet hand towel over there and ZIP, down goes the dress shirt, while the running shorts quiver as they attempt to dangle somewhere in mid air. I add the final piece and turn away from the clothesline only to be WHACKED in the back of the head by a shirtsleeve sent flying.  The dryer titters and smirks.

But I believe that errant sleeve knocked some sense into my head: when laundry attacks, it is time to reconsider our options. Besides, the clothesline is beginning to make me seasick with all its up-and-down motion.  The more I use it the less I like it.  I may just go back to using my gorgeous new dryer and purchase a few carbon credits to offset any bad environmental karma.  Even though it drives up my power bill the electric dryer does have an advantage:  I don’t have to worry about snakes, brooms, or being assaulted by inanimate possessions.

Alberta would agree.

Jim Warren

Jim Warren

Jim Warren, a Marietta, GA resident, is a self-taught writer of essays and observational humor. He is currently working towards completion of his second book: Barefoot on Hot Asphalt. His first book of essays: Cowlicked! Rants, Remembrances, and Ruminations is available through, or by contacting the author.

  1. Darby Britto

    I will laugh again while I do loads of laundry Saturday.Nobody laughs doing laundry except for the people who have read your story.

  2. When I moved to my “new” house, I strung a clothesline on the back porch (screened) and had wonderfully scented laundry; I washed at a laundromat and hung clothes to dry at home for about a month till I acquired a washer and dryer. Clothes from the dryer do have advantages, but nothing beats “line-dried.” I miss ’em.

  3. Nothing out of the dryer comes anywhere close to feeling and smelling as fresh as what comes off the line. Hanging clothes on the line can be a joy.

    Nothing beats listening to the hawks squawking, the wrens singing and the hummingbirds zipping by as I hang out the clothes. And sheets off the line make the bed so inviting.

  4. This is a grand Southern detailed memory piece about such a universal subject…the clothes line. I grew up on Lkt. Mtn. where we had a long wire clothes line near enough to a woods that snakes might have slithered by. Our Northern neighbor had a T shaped line as in your picture and I always coveted that modernized style we never had!

  5. I laughed myself silly over the visions of Alberta and the clothes line in your backyard. We had “Fanny” and I swear my little brother could scare the bageezes out of her. He was 3 years old and always running away. I can still see her chasing him down the street in all of her “ampleness” and wondering which one would die first. My own clothes line is a bungee chord stretched between two trees. It works for hanging out hand laundry, but the clothes sure do a little hip-hop when I hang one too heavy on one end. I feel your “motion sickness.”

  6. Jim Warren

    Thanks for the nice comments. Just a note: the photos are stock and were added by this site.

  7. Jim,
    I can actually see the cotton goods flappin’ in the wind as you describe so beautifully a daily time-honored chore from our days growing up…I can vaguely remember Alberta, I believe…and Sunset Hills sure was covered up with snakes…couldn’t count how many we caught growing up there and in the pasture where the “outside nine” is now!
    My least fondest memories (and there are many) was dodging the darn things at night to keep from being decapitated during an intense game of “rabbits and dogs” or “hide and seek”…
    Thanks for keeping the memories of our youth alive…a good clothesline and it’s inherent stories rival those that evolved from “settin’ on the porch” and chattin’!

  8. Once again you have hit the nail on the head of my childhood memories. No Alberta here, just Aunt Ollie, who’s screams could break glass. Phyllis G. has a clothesline and I am sort of jealous…..sort of.

    Love your work.

  9. I always loved the smell of sheets from the clothes line….but dang they were itchy! Same with my dresses,shorts,underwear and shirts. I was using a clothes line when we lived on the farm for several years….God, in his wisdom, blew the clothes line and our house away! No more clothes lines for me!!!!
    Loved the story! Goodness you’re talented and you’re related to me! I know, just by marriage,but still related.

  10. Dear Jim,
    My mother refused to have a dryer, using the clothes line installed on our back porch. It’s great for drying sheets and other quick drying items, but does not like it when it rains, therefore the acquisition of an electric dryer when I took over her house. Now if only I could open more of the windows and go AC free. Several years ago when we had a clothes line in our Maryland home, I took the kites we had as decoration in the library home to wash–it was a beautiful array of color as they hung out to dry on the line. We need more of those wonderful clothes lines!

  11. LOVE IT! What a history you, laundry, & the clothes line have and what a beautiful tale in and out of history, connecting us to the modern day. It is a wonderful glimpse into to our past as the new generations have never laid eyes on the good ‘ole American clothes line… going green is nothing new… Alberta was ahead of her time!

  12. I’m laughing my butt off, ’cause I know and have experienced some of the same childhood things ..Too funny…I remember you telling stories to me about Alberta…..

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