Maryland and Virginia are adjacent states on the map, and they are side by side in my soul. I grew up in both places, if I ever did.
Maryland and Virginia have some similarities. For example, a good number of people in Maryland had secessionist sympathies during the Civil War (what Virginians would call The War Between the States) and Virginia of course was the main battleground in defending the Confederacy.
Some of that secessionist stuff still seemed to be around when I was a kid, but not quite as deeply felt in Maryland as in Virginia. The latter was full of “Hell no, we ain’t forgettin'” and “Save your Confederate money, the South will rise again” bumper stickers.
I think there was some sympathy for George Wallace in Maryland when he ran for president. He felt that the state was important enough to campaign there. It was in Laurel where he was gunned down by a lunatic named Arthur Bremer.
I was born in Baltimore, but was still in diapers I think when my parents up and moved the family to Roanoke. It was known in those times as “The Star City of the South” because of its man-made astral structure on Mill Mountain.
I think Roanoke was a good place to grow up, although I think the men probably drank too much. Our Dads hung out at places like Shirley’s and Howell’s.
Those bars were like relígious sanctuaries, Holy of Holies, where I was rarely taken. Somehow, I must have been in them once or twice because I recall the shuffleboard.
Also sacrosanct in my early adolescent mind was the high schoolers cruising up and down Willamson Road on weekend nights.. One day, I thought, I’ll be one of them.
It was not to be. My parents up and moved us back to Baltimore when I was 13. I’ve lived a couple of places overseas and moved around the U.S., but that move was th biggest culture shock I have ever experienced.
I was in the 7th grade, just feeling my oats. In my mind, my budding football career had just gone up in the smoke of the exhaust coming from our car heading up I-81 to Maryland.
The truth is that I was played on the worst 6th grade team in the city’s sandlot league. And I was the worst player, derogatorily known as “Seabees” because of the T-shirt garnered from my uncle which I wore to practice. It’s a shame such a hallowed naval institution had to be associated with my gridiron skills.
The biggest shock to my system was my the sudden issue of ethnicity which was flung at me once I began school across the street at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. Baltimore schools had numbers and this one’s was 239.
I never could get up that old school spirit singing our fight song, even though it was to the tune of the one they use at the University of Michigan. I just couldn’t get sappy about “dear 239″.
What was dear to me there at first was my physical safety. Compared to Breckinridge in Roanoke, named after a local historical military figure, Franklin was a combat zone.
It had fence topped with barbed wire all around the school grounds, which were dominated by concrete and portables. It was more of a concentration camp than a school to me.
It wasn’t long after I got there that a group of boys jumped me in the playground. I have always been a terrible pugilist and mostly a pacifist, but somehow I managed to slug my way out of the melee.
I knew the school was tough when I noticed some older boys with D.A.’s and leather jackets walking around. And they were the school hallway monitors! What year was I in?, I thought.
As I said though, it was the variety of people of racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin that gave me a concussion. I just had never been around so many different types of people before.
My Roanoke neighborhood was lily white. Our ‘hood was next to the black district, but never did the twain meet, accept for an occasional kamikaze biker who would whiz down Wayne Street just asking for hoots and howls from us kids.
I think Roanoke was a little slow about integrating. In the six weeks I spent at Breckinridge in the 7th grade, there were three black kids in the whole school. The truth is, I don’t recall them making any kind of impact whatsoever on feelings there.
One of my first mental disturbances was roll call, hearing the unusual names spout forth from the teacher. And sitting next to a Polish girl. Poland seemed like this mysterious land out of a book.
My classmates weren’t particularly endeared to this boy from the South. In addition to testing me in the playground, they mocked me in class.
One light-skinned black kid during a group session looked at me and asked,”Am I white or black?” Hmmm, was this gonna be on the exam? I knew I had teacher blood in me when all I could think of is why this boy wasn’t staying on task.
Then came the day in gym class when I was truly baptized into racial harmony, immersion style. This particular day we were wrestling.
The gym teacher looked at me and said,”Timmy, you wrestle Tyrone.” I looked over at this African American kid.
Now coming from segregated Roanoke, you can imagine the emotional deconstruct I had to go through. My life was changed forever.