Rope-a-Dopes 

The Clothesline War is tearing our nation apart

Life is good in America. Apparently, there are hardly any problems left to fix. I know—some of you are wondering, “Why would Jowers say that?” Well, I say it because American citizens are bickering over clotheslines. That’s right, clotheslines—ropes and plastic cords strung up between a couple of trees or posts and holding up America’s socks, shirts, pants and panties for all the world to see.

Clotheslines have got people worked up, and they’re choosing up sides. In the red corner, the long-fingernailed, window-shades-pulled-to-the-same-height types are trying to get clotheslines outlawed in their fancy neighborhoods. In the blue corner, the granola-eating, stamp-out-your-carbon-footprint planet-savers are starting up guerrilla clothesline-making businesses.

I need to pay more attention to the news. While I wasn’t looking, I guess we won both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. When I was building a tomato sandwich in the kitchen, we must’ve banished all the drunk drivers to the ice roads of Canada and jailed all the hot teachers who’ve been dating America’s middle schoolers. We must’ve pulled over all the tailgating truckers, cured heart disease, cancer and erectile dysfunction, and airlifted all the poor polar bears off their dinner-plate-sized slabs of ice, which of course were shrunk by global warming.

A couple weeks back, the Wall Street Journal reported a skirmish in the clothesline wars, out in Bend, Ore., in a neighborhood named Awbrey Butte. In this dustup, 55-year-old mother and part-time nurse Susan Taylor hung up her flannel sheets on a clothesline, immediately drawing the wrath and fury of neighbor and interior designer Joan Grundeman. Grundeman said that Taylor’s clothesline “bombards the senses,” and “can’t possibly increase property values and make people think this is a nice neighborhood.”

Jesus Gawd. It makes me swimmy-headed just knowing that there’s a woman—an interior-designing kind of woman—who thinks that a clothesline can bombard the senses. How bright could those sheets be? How loud could their flapping get? What bad things happen, what dark hallucinations come, what plagues and upheavals commence when Taylor’s flannel sheets wave at Grundeman? What powerful pharmaceuticals must Grundeman take to get through a thunderstorm?

Pardon me for saying so, but I imagine her dropping to the ground like a fainting goat at the first cymbal crash in “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

I freely admit: if I ran across a pinch-faced, clothesline-hating yard Nazi, that person and I surely would have an unfriendly conversation. Clotheslines are part of my humble cotton-mill-town heritage. I wouldn’t take any culturally biased lip from a McMansion dweller who spends her days matching the candles with the bath mats.

Back home in South Carolina, a few decades ago, we Jowerses and all the extended Grimes, Cleckley and Boyd families used our clotheslines every day. The Jowers clothesline was strung along three metal poles, which my daddy, Jabo Jowers, fabricated and welded together. I used the poles to practice chin-ups.

Two doors down, my mother’s sister Coot had a clothesline like ours. Next to her clothesline, though, was a slop bucket that held all her family leftovers until the slop man came by late in the afternoon and collected it for his pigs. The slop collection—with all its sound, color and fragrance—was something that just might bombard a person’s senses.

A quarter-mile up the road, my Aunt Bonnie had a fancy clothesline. It resembled a giant inverted umbrella, with rope run through ribs that rotated around a central pole. Bonnie’s clothesline wasn’t just for drying clothes. A boy could swing from the ribs and take a little merry-go-round ride.

Susie, Coot and Bonnie took the laundry off their clotheslines and took it straight to the ironing board. They ironed everything from the bed sheets to the boxer shorts and left the laundry pretty much sterilized. That crisp texture and clean smell folks remember from air-dried laundry didn’t come so much from the air and the sun—it came from the iron.

You modern-day, planet-saving clothesline users, listen to me: if you’re doing your laundry the old-fashioned way and sterilizing it with a hot iron, don’t get all high-and-mighty about how you’re saving the environment. The iron uses a lot of electricity. You’re doing your part to drown polar bears, just like the Hummer drivers and private-jet jockeys.

Meanwhile, up in Vermont, Michelle Baker has figured out how to make a buck off the “right-to-dry” movement. Baker owns and operates the Vermont Clothesline Company, which sells white rope and cedar poles that can be assembled into a real enough retro clothesline. They sell three clothesline rigs: a single pole with a pulley; an umbrella-like rig similar to my Aunt Bonnie’s; and a two-pole setup that resembles the original Jowers clothesline back in Burnettown, S.C. The Vermont Clotheslines range in price from about $100 to $200. You can find pictures and information at smartdrying.com.

Remember this, though, on your way to saving the planet: birds will poop on your laundry, dogs will steal anything that hangs close to the ground, windstorms will take your laundry far away from your house, and rainstorms will soak and sour all the things you left on your clothesline.

And finally, this: if you think you’re too fancy to have to endure looking at a neighbor’s clothesline, get over yourself for cryin’ out loud. You’re just not that special.

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