When We Were America
I beg the reader’s indulgence since this is in a large sense a personal communication more than a column for all. It will resonate with many, or some, so I post it anyway.
I am preparing to fly to Fredericksburg, Virginia, for the—God almighty—fifty-year high-school reunion of King George High School. Perhaps we all do it eventually, unless of course we don’t. It is a curious thing, I have learned at previous reunions, to meet after half a century people you last saw when they were seventeen. They seem so little changed.
There was nothing special about the class of 1964, or about King George High, except for those of us who were in it. Our yearbook looked like ten thousand others across America, portraits with acne removed in the photo lab, the basket ball team exactly like everybody else’s, the cheerleaders conventionally glorious, conventional adolescent good-byes in ball-point pen—but without misspelling or bad grammar.
We, largely rural kids of the small-town South, represented without knowing it a culture, an approach to existence, and a devastating principle: You can’t impose decency, honesty, good behavior, or responsibility. They are in the culture, or they are not. If they are, you don’t need laws, police, and supervison. If they are not, laws won’t much help. And this is why the US is over, at least as the country we knew.
The names in the yearbook are just names: Sonny, Rosie, Butch, Kenny, Joyce, Cecil, Ricky, Kit. Just names. But. But, but, but. With any of these people you could leave your keys in the car—we did—or the front door unlocked—we did. We had one cop in the country, Jay Powell, a state trooper, and he had little to do. The high school did not have metal detectors or police patrolling the halls. We had none of the behavior that now makes these things necessary. It wasn’t in the culture. We could have raped, killed, robbed, fathered countless illegitimate children like barnyard animals. We didn’t.
It wasn’t in the culture.
We were not obsessively law-abiding. It may be that a certain amount of beer, even a substantial amount, was consumed in contravention of the law. I may know somewhat of this, though I can’t swear to it.
Well, OK, I can swear to it. The statute of limitations has run. I remember my first encounter—don’t we all?—with the demonic grape. One summer night in my fifteenth year I and a carful of country youth went to the Blue Note, a black club somewhere on Highway 301, where clients would for a price buy grog for a nursing infant. The night was warm and humid, full of hormones and inexplicit promise, though not much judgement.
You probably remember that teen-age at-large-in-the-world feeling: lithe and loose, never having heard of “tired,” razor sharp on a long jump-shot, male, unsupervised, almost grown up, or at least close enough to make it worry. There is nothing better. It never comes again.
I had never drunk before, but wasn’t going to admit it, and so simulated the worldliness of a French rake. The others bought beer but I didn’t like the taste. I somehow got a bottle of a ghastly purple substance, later determined to be sloe gin. The others were showing off by chugging beers. So I too chugged…oh God. Oh God. Even now it hurts, a half century later. Perish forfend, a hangover so bad that I began to retch if I blinked. I was sure I was going to die. I hoped so.
And yet there was an innocence to it. It was a rite of passage, not a door to iniquity, and while we did ensozzle ourselves, we didn’t get into fights or do anything murderous, vicious, or shameful. It wasn’t in the culture.
So with our kinship with guns. The boys had them. They were mostly shotguns for deer hunting, .410s, over-and-unders, twelve gauges, and maybe a .22 Hornet for shooting varmints. If you have a field of soybeans, you don’t want whistle pigs eating them.
We were free in those days. I could walk out the main gate of Dahlgren with my Marlin .22 lever-action over my shoulder, and nobody blinked. The country store sold long-rifles (for the frightened epicenes of today, that’s ammunition) with no questions asked. There was no reason to ask questions. We didn’t shoot each other. Only savages unfit for civilization would do such a thing.
And we weren’t. It wasn’t in the culture. You don’t have to police people to keep them from doing what they aren’t going to do anyway.
There were memorable times. One frigid winter night me and this other fool—it was Rusty Reed, no relation as that would have represented too great a concentration of recessive genes—set out to shoot rats at the Colonial Beach dump. We were in my ’53 Chevy, with the lines of a satiated tick in two-tone dirt-brown. It ran on half its cylinders and remembered compression as an old man remembers the ardors of youth. But it was mine. To be on Route 301, empty of traffic, windshield gone in frost, unsupervised—it was heaven. No one knew or cared where we were. There was no reason to care.
Rusty had a twelve-gauge double-barrel with a few rounds and a .22 semi-auto rifle. I had my Marlin and a couple of boxes of long-rifles. It was colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra. No moon. We had that glorious sense, silly but not, of young males setting out into whatever came their way, unsupervised, free.
The dump was isolated, in man-high frozen brown scrub, a dirt road more hole than road leading to it. I turned off the headlights and began bucking along the road, frozen puddles crackling under the tires. A ’53 Chevy driven by a country teen-ager can go places that would have sent Rommel into a sanitarium.
Rusty wanted to catch the rats off-guard, so he got out with the twelve and sat on the right fender. We reached the dump. Rats squealed and cans clinked on the piled refuse. I turned on the lights.
Blam! Blam! Rusty let fly and fell off the fender with the recoil onto his head. It was absurd. It was wonderful.
And it was wild, I guess. It was assuredly unsupervised. It wasn’t irresponsible. That wasn’t in the culture.
We spent half our lives on the water, with no one watching us. We had heard rumors of life jackets, but couldn’t see their purpose.There was no damn-fool federal law saying we had to have a license certifying that we knew how to operate a canoe. Nobody ever drowned. We just weren’t real drownable. It would have taken three SEAL teams and a D9 Caterpillar to do it, and even with them the then odds would have been about even.
Sex had occurred to us, but didn’t occupy our thoughts except when we were awake. The girls were shapely, neither fat nor emaciated, without such signs of mental disturbance as anorexia and bulimia, which had not been invented. We were not sexually supervised. A large, emptyish county with lots of woods offered many places where a couple could park discreetly at night, and we did. Oh yes. In nearby Fredericksburg there was that old American standby, the drive-in theater, colloquially known as the Finger Bowl. We engaged in much experimentation, some sex, many happy memories, and few pregnancies. No rapes and, among the boys, no disrepect (as distinct from lust) for the girls. It wasn’t in the culture.
Again, an innocence. The boys watched their language around the girls, and vice versa. We weren’t gentlemanly, having no exposure to that sort of thing, didn’t wear spats, but neither were we toilet-mouthed. We just didn’t do that
Stray thought: One night I was somewhere with Fred Burrell. Being already a promising wise-acre, I scratched myself indelicately and said, “Damn. My Burrells ache.” To which he replied, “My Reed itches.” Smart-ass.
King George High School was I suppose typically American for the time. The teachers were not brilliant, but neither were they stupid. Brilliance was not needed. It was then thought that schools existed to impart knowledge. This could be done at the high-school level by following a syllabus and requiring that the students learn the material. It worked, to no one’s surprise, since it always had worked. Since the studentry were entirely white—my class, 1964 was the last such class—no reason existed for lowering academic standards.
Discipline was not rigid. It did not need to be. The country kids were more unpolished than rough. There was the class clown—I have no recollection of who that might have been—but clowning stopped well short of real misbehavior. Fights were very few. When one occurred, no one picked up a piece of rebar or kicked the guy who was down. These boys weren’t wussies. Viet Nam took a large bite. But there were things we just didn’t do.
No one would have thought of disobeying a teacher, much less shoving or threatening one. The result I think would have been instant and permanent expulsion, but it never happened—not because of fear, but because it wasn’t in the culture.
The word “motherfucker” was not the chief component of speech, even among groups of boys, and its use in school would have been thought inappropriate to people with opposable thumbs.
We didn”t know it, but we were what made lAmerica what it was, and isn’t.
Come graduation, we blew every whichaway, like dandelion puffs, and became all manner of things. “Rural” doesn’t mean stupid: There were physicists, engineers, and such like rabble. We were not shiftless, semi-literate, dependent, infantile, narcissistic, vulgar, spoiled, or whining.
It wasn’t in the culture.