Is my perspective unique? I don’t know, maybe it is. For one thing, unlike the large percentage of those who claim to be American, my roots in North America are deep, very deep. The last of my ancestors were in this country by 1840 at least and some go back thousands of years. I have no ties to an “old country” and my ancestors were all already here long before the huge influx of Italians, Poles and Jews that came in after the “Civil” War that wasn’t really a civil war, but was really a war to prevent the states that had decided they no longer wanted to be part of a union they believed to be corrupt from seceding. Well, not to prevent them from seceding - they had already seceded - but to force them back into the Union at the point of a bayonet. My ancestors didn’t come in through Ellis Island - they were already here long before Ellis Island became a holding station for would-be immigrants. There was no Statue of Liberty and there were few Catholics when my ancestors started coming to North America (some were already here.) Some of them came to America fleeing persecution in Germany by Catholics and their Lutheran progeny. One of my ancestors left Scotland after fighting with Bonnie Prince Charlie because his father was trying to force him to become a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) minister. He died in England but two of his sons moved to the new United States (one eventually settled in Nova Scotia.) Some may have come as indentures - I don’t know. I doubt that any of them were Cavaliers although some settled in Jamestown. None were particularly famous and none were connected that I know of. No, my ancestors were just simple people who came to America for a new life. Yes, some owned slaves - but so effing what?
I grew up in rural West Tennessee. No one in my immediate family had graduated from college although one of my great-grandfathers was a country doctor who had, and a great-uncle was a teacher. My father took some courses in agriculture using the GI Bill after serving in World War II. My mother worked in a bank as a young woman - and went back to the bank in her later years as her children started school. I went to a country school that went to tenth grade when I started school but dropped to eighth. Students from my elementary school went to one of several area high schools, some no doubt better than others. Tennessee schools were segregated with colored children going to colored schools with teachers who were products of the colored colleges. I was on the baseball team in high school but rarely played - I was a bench-warmer.
My parents bought their own farm when I was four years old. Previously, we lived in a little house next to my maternal grandparents and my father farmed with them. My mother did farm work as well, as did other farm women. (According to what she told me, she was driving a tractor in her father’s field when her future husband came to the field to measure it to make sure the cotton was within the allotment stipulated by one of the new government offices implemented by the Roosevelt administration.) We spent much of our time in the “cotton patch” hoeing and picking cotton, or rather my family did. I played on a pallet until I was old enough to use a hoe or pick my own row. I hoed and picked cotton until I graduated from high school and went off on my own into a new world. There were no television stations in range of us until I was in fifth or sixth grade. I occupied my time when I wasn’t hoeing or picking cotton, watering and feeding hogs, hauling hay, etc. by reading. I read books from the school library and from the “rolling library”, a truck operated by our county library from which the library shelves in the store up the road from us were stocked. You might say my reading was eclectic, although there were some authors who had little appeal for me, authors such as Dickens and Shakespeare. I was exposed to them in school but had no interest in reading them on my own. James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott held more appeal for me.
When I was about eight or nine, my mother did something that had a dramatic effect on my life. An encyclopedia salesman came by our house one day and she bought a set of World Books. I don’t recall how Daddy reacted; I doubt that he was happy about it when she told him what she’d done. That set of encyclopedias opened up a new world. I spent hours and hours looking up things of interest to me. I was fascinated by various things - hawks and falcons because we had them around - hawks sometimes caught our chickens - volcanoes and earthquakes although I wasn’t aware that we lived less than a hundred miles from one of the potentially powerful faultlines in the world. I learned a lot from World Book.
I got into it with my entire third-grade class and the teacher, who was my great-aunt by marriage. We got into a discussion about the “smoke trails” left by jet airplanes we saw flying over. Now, I knew the white trails, which were often called “contour trails,” were not smoke, they were frozen vapor from the engine exhaust. The entire class and the teacher insisted they were smoke. My dad flew B-24 Liberators with the Eighth Air Force in World War II and knew the trails were ice crystals. I finally blurted out “I’ll betcha a hunnert dollars!” My teacher said she would take that bet. She mentioned it to my mother. Well, guess what! I never got my hundred dollars though.
When I was nine years old, I started hunting, and when I say “hunting,” I mean carrying a gun and killing squirrels. Within a year or so, I was hunting by myself. Not many of my classmates came from hunting families even though we all lived in a rural area. My dad and his brothers were all hunters. They hunted squirrels, which were the first to come in season, then quail and rabbits when they came in season around Thanksgiving. There were no deer in the region at the time - the deer and bear had been killed off years before by hunters like David Crockett, who lived about 40 miles north of where I grew up before he went off to Texas and got himself killed at the Alamo. Crockett killed probably hundreds of bears. He killed one on my great-great grandfather’s place. He and other pioneer hunters went after bears because the meat could be cooked into oil and turned into bear grease, which was in demand by tanners and others who needed oils and lubricants. There weren’t any turkeys around either although they were native to the area, along with deer, elk and buffalo - even panthers, or catamounts as they were called in Tennessee. Deer started showing back up when I was in my later years in high school. Turkeys came back later, and coyotes have since come into the area. There are even panthers, which probably were never completely killed off since they are so exclusively. As I grew older, I became a rifle purist when it came to squirrels. I would only hunt with a .22 rather than a shotgun.
My contact with colored people, or Negroes, was somewhat limited since no colored families lived in our immediate area. I had played with some colored children when we lived at my grandparents and my parents picked cotton for some local farmers who had colored sharecroppers. Mother recorded in my baby book that I played with some colored children and a little black girl had kissed my cheek. I asked Mother if the color would rub off on me! I saw those children at the country store we patronized but lost contact with them when we moved five miles away and started patronizing a country store just up the road owned by a relative. There were fewer colored people in that area and I don’t recall seeing black children around the store. We sometimes had colored families pick cotton for us and there would be children, with whom I had some contact but I’d never see them again.
I was mildly interested in sports but as a participant, not a fan. I was out in the fields hunting when football was on TV and was usually on a tractor or following a row with a hoe during baseball season. I enjoyed playing baseball and also played basketball but wasn’t addicted to them. I had no favorite sports teams although a lot of my relatives and friends did. The St. Louis Cardinals were popular in our area. Memphis had the Chicks, who were a farm team, but no one I knew paid them any attention. I went out for basketball mainly because my aunt, who was only a few years older than me, had been a star and both of my parents had played. I wasn’t very good and mostly sat on the bench. I only made one basket in my entire basketball career. I was better at baseball but although I was on the team all the way through high school, I rarely played.
Other than working on the farm and going to school, my main activity was church. My mother sent me and my sister to Sunday School at our local Baptist Church when we were little then at age nine I trusted Jesus as my savior. Mother had started going to church herself several years before. She became a fixture at our church. I went to Sunday School and Training Union and to Vacation Bible School through eighth grade. Most of my fellow students in the classes were girls, girls I knew from infancy through high school. A few boys floated in and out over the years but most moved away. The girls, however, stayed. Looking back, I realize they were my closest friends although I didn’t think of them that way at the time. They all became fine women.
There were no Catholics or Jews in my neck of the woods. There may have been some families that had been Jews at some time in the far distant past but had converted to Christianity. There were a couple of Catholic churches in larger communities some 15-20 miles and there may have been a synagogue in a town about forty miles away but those two religions were mostly represented in Memphis, which had attracted Irish immigrants before the War Between the States and Jews around the turn of the Twentieth Century. There were no foreign immigrants and no Asians, not even any families with Japanese war brides. The only war brides I knew were a German woman who was our next-door neighbor for a time and my own aunt, a Frenchwoman who claimed to be a countess. She left my uncle while he was in Japan flying B-29s during the Korean War and married another officer, a ground-gripper, she met in the officer’s club. (She had conveniently left her daughter, my cousin, with my grandparents so she could play around.)
When I wasn’t working in the fields - which included driving a tractor after I was about thirteen - hunting or just hiking in the woods, I was reading. Unlike other kids who quit reading when television came along, I continued to read. I’d have a book in my lap while watching one of my favorite programs. I read in class at school. I was the only member of my eighth-grade class to get a whipping. One of my teachers caught me reading in her class, which may have been English since she taught English. She said she hated to do it because I was reading a novel written by one of her college professors. She whipped me in front of the entire class, which is how whippings were usually administered unless the culprit had done something warranting a visit to the principal’s office. I don’t remember if I went back to my book after I went back to my seat; I probably did. Speaking of English, I don’t know how I did it but I tested in the very top percentile for boys when I took the CEEB college entrance exams while in high school. I DETESTED English and wasn’t that fond of English literature but it somehow sank into my brain.
I grew up on a farm, a life foreign to most American boys and girls growing up in the fifties. We might not have had a neighborhood grocer or city park within walking distance, but we had acres and acres of fields and woods to explore. I once saw a snake swallowing another snake - which was still alive. I learned that nature is really quite cruel. Walt Disney presented a nonexistent world, not that I didn’t enjoy Disney movies and books. The Song of the South is one of my favorite movies of all time, and Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories are my fondest literary memories of my childhood. It’s too bad modern “wokeism” has made those movies and stories unavailable to today’s children (the books are in print but the movie has been banished to the vaults and will probably eventually be destroyed.) I also read books about kids growing up in New York high rises so I was aware of city life.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the road I grew up on was historical. Some of American history’s greatest figures traveled that road, including Alexander de Tocqueville, who traveled over the very roadbed in which my sister and I played. Andrew Jackson traveled that road, as did Nathan Bedford Forrest and Ulysess Grant and W.T. Sherman. Forrest fought one of his most famous battles only some ten miles from where I grew up, a battle that was only marked by a historical marker when I was growing up. There’s a park there now, and a little league ballfield on soil that was once fertilized by the blood of young men. We sometimes turned up arrowheads and other evidence of Indian activity. There was an old campground less than a mile from our house; I only remember going there one time when I was hunting with my father.
That was my life from my birth to age seventeen. Then everything changed in the airway at San Antonio Airport when I was first confronted by an Air Force training instructor.