Reflections on being of the last generation to grow up truly Southern
I was born two days after the Civil War. Or so it seemed.
If you really counted the years, there were 75, but if you looked at the things that mattered, there were more things that had not changed than had.
True, in the 1940's nobody in Benson owned slaves. But that was also true in the 1840's. Johnston County had only a few slave owners. The farmers there didn't need them; they had children.
It will save a lot of explanation as we go along if I tell you who I am so that you will know whose eyes you are seeing this through. I am a Holmes from Benson, North Carolina, a designation that carries little weight anywhere else and matters not at all to anyone else. It's not like saying, "I am a Lee, one of the Virginia Lee's." It is a designation with no social or economic weight. However, it was a very important fact to me when I was growing up.
It meant that I was a part of a large extended family and a part of a long tradition. The fact that I was "Ed Holmes's boy" gave me a good reputation long before I had a chance to earn it. Being a Holmes also carried with it certain responsibilities, constantly reinforced by the fact that I was related to a large part of the population of Benson and my family was known by most of the rest of it. If I did something I shouldn't have, the news was usually home before I was.
The Holmes's, like most of the other families around Benson, had been around since before the Revolutionary War. That in itself was not a matter of great distinction. It just meant that we didn't move much. There was not a DAR chapter in Benson.
My grandfather and grandmother, James Edison and Maimie Holmes, had ten children in a masterpiece of planned parenthood. The children were born about two years apart and were alternately male and female. There were Milton, Beattie, Ed (my father), Kate, Ray, Mabel, Bobby, Anne, Howard and Jean. Enough children to work the farm if my grandaddy hadn't lost the farm.
Ed Holmes married Espy Upchurch in 1936. The groom looked suave in his "ice cream" suit and the bride stunning in her street length dress and hat. He was twenty-five, and she was fifteen. As you will see in the next paragraph, they did not have to get married for the what might be the obvious reason. They did, I'm sure, have reasons of their own.
I came into the world in the first month of the last year of the third decade -- January, 1939 -- on the tail end of the depression and just before World War II. I arrived some time before the doctor did, so my grandmother delivered me. Having had ten children, one more was no big problem.
The doctor came in a little later, looked me over, had a cup of coffee and went back home. So far as he was concerned, everything was in order. A new citizen had been born, an old one would die. Benson's population didn't change.
In fact, aside from the absence of slaves and some mechanical inventions such as automobiles and radios, there was not much in Benson that would have disturbed a visitor from the antebellum south.
I grew up in a culture where there was still a definition of "gentleman," and -- strangely enough -- it didn't have anything to do with money. I learned from the time I was in kneepants what it did have to do with. A gentleman, for instance, did not wear his hat in the house (although an exception was made for my grandfather who was totally bald). A gentleman told the truth. A gentleman remembered his manners around ladies and his elders, which is the reason that you can still hear an 80-year-old southern male say "Yes, ma'am" to an 80-year-old southern female.
I also learned at an early age that it was possible to be too fastidious a gentleman. I was about twelve when I was allowed to go to Preacher Calcoat's summer camp. The summer camp was simply a week set aside on his farm when about thirty kids moved in to play and do Bible study. All of the others were from Preacher Calcoat's Presbyterian church in Broadway, North Carolina. I was the only outsider, and Preacher Calcoat, a farmer-preacher known for speaking sternly to both his congregants and his mules, decided to break the ice early by introducing me to the group.
I was, he told the group, the son of members of his former church, an outstanding young man, and full of manners. "Why," he said, "This young man even bows when he's introduced to somebody." With a single speech, Preacher Calcoat insured that I remained an outsider for the rest of the week.
While bowing might have been considered somewhat extreme in some quarters, especially in a place like Broadway which had neither city limits nor sidewalks, the more basic manners applied. As did all the traditional relationships.
Outsiders like to characterize the south by the relationship between the races. Indeed, in the sixties racial relationships became the focal point of the south. However, to a white child growing up in the south -- and, I would imagine, to a black child -- this wasn't the only important relationship. It wasn't even the most important one.
Almost every social interaction was prescribed -- boys and girls, men and women, children and parents, students and teachers, even bootleggers and revenuers. It was all part of The Code.
There were two important things about The Code. A lot of it defied logic -- if you thought about it. Blacks, for instance, were not sufficiently clean to sit in the same restaurant with whites. However, the same blacks were excellent cooks and cleaners in all the best white homes. Southern girls -- and we will speak more about the flower of southern womanhood later -- were full of virtue and free from evil thoughts. This we believed even as we steamed up car windows parked behind road graders on the incipient I-95.
The second important point is that the first one didn't matter. Logic was not required. What was required was conformity. And everybody knew The Code. There were no questions about where we stood in any social situation. Benson, North Carolina had a social structure that functioned smoothly because it had been functioning the same way for over a hundred years.
This is probably one of the reasons for others accusing the south of being backward (not ignoring the fact that southern states always rank near the bottom in educational spending). While the rest of the country was busy changing, it didn't happen around Benson. We had no part in the Melting Pot. Benson had one Jew, Jake Greenthal who owned Greenthal's Clothing Store, and about a dozen Catholics -- two families, each of whom owned stores. The rest of the town, black and white, had roots that stretched back a hundred or two hundred years.
The Code was taught to us by our parents, by our teachers and by any adult who happened to catch us sassing our elders. I remember my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Dudley, lecturing us on how a gentleman treated a lady. He would, according to Mrs. Dudley, touch her only to assist her in getting into or out of an automobile or in ascending or descending the stairs. She declared that she was kissed by Mr. Dudley only after they were engaged. When Jimmy Capps wondered too loudly if it wasn't more difficult for him to finally kiss her than to have resisted before then, Mrs. Dudley sent him to the hall.
(One of the stranger punishments in Benson School was being sent to the hall. When Jimmy and I were caught talking by Mrs. Dudley, we were banished to the hall -- where we could continue our conversation without having to whisper.)
Good or bad, logical or not, The Code eliminated questions. And it eliminated identity crises. In fact, so far as I can remember, there was no difficulty determining who I was or who anybody else was. I was a Holmes. That carried with it certain connotations -- just as the names Johnson, Ryals, Wilson, Gilbert, and Woodall -- among others -- did.
To understand the connotations, you first have to understand the social divisions in a small, southern town. Unlike the places we saw in the movies, the basic divisions were not based on money. When you only have about two thousand people, you can't cut it too many ways.
The first division was between black and white. That was institutionalized and not given to any sort of interpretation. Whatever happened between a Benson black and a Benson white, each went back to his or her particular world afterwords.
The second division, the one that affected me most on a day to day basis, was between the "good people" and the other ones. I don't remember them ever being called "bad people." They just weren't "good people."
Among the others, the not-good people, there were also divisions, the lowest being "white trash," but that really didn't affect my family.
If you were born among the good people, rich or poor, there was a certain standard of behavior expected of you. You obeyed the law, paid your bills and generally lived up to the southern ideals of honor. The men did not get drunk publicly and the women did not have affairs that others found out about. The children were not vandals, and generally everybody respected everybody else, whether they liked them or not.
Strangely, the standard was not strained when it became more complicated. If, for instance, the wife was numbered among the good people, and the husband was not, people simply acted accordingly to each of them, and the children were given the benefit of the doubt.
Generally the system flowed so smoothly that no one even thought about it; we just lived according to it. There were, however, hiccoughs in the system.
In one case a young professional man married a pretty, talented young lady from another town, a town that evidently had a more obvious social structure than Benson. He brought his new bride to Benson, established his home, and went to work everyday while the women of position of the town unanimously ignored his wife.
I doubt that anyone remembers why they did that or even if they knew they were doing it. By the time I knew the family the woman had found a great deal of companionship in the bottle and had ceased to worry about the opinion of the women of the town.
There were also cases where good people did bad things, and the town had to decide exactly how to deal with it. Divorce, for instance, was not something that good people approved of. It happened, but the state made it difficult and the customs of the town made it unpopular. At the time, the only grounds for divorce were either adultery or a year's separation. In neither case was divorce an impulse decision.
Bankruptcies occurred, but infrequently. In fact, the only bankruptcy I remember in Benson was by the owner of a clothing store on Main Street. He sought protection from his creditors by filing bankruptcy and protection from the opinion of the townspeople by committing suicide.
Perhaps the most spectacular case of a good person transgressing the accepted standards was a friend of our family's that my father called "Uncle Dave." Uncle Dave was a preacher, and like most preachers who were not either Missionary Baptist or Methodist, he had a job during the week and preached on Sunday. He also visited the sick and distressed and officiated at funerals.
There was probably no one in Benson that Dad respected more. My father didn't drink or smoke and the only time that I ever heard him curse was when a car ran us off the road on 301. But he didn't care for piety as a form of expression. He was suspicious of people who made a lot of their religion or their goodness. However, Uncle Dave made nothing of his. He was simply good and he embodied his beliefs. That my father could respect.
Uncle Dave preached and served in Benson for years, since before I was born, working during the week, preaching on Sunday, and helping everybody he could. And every week during the summer he would chide Dad for playing baseball on Sunday afternoon. Uncle Dave believed in keeping the Sabbath day holy.
Then one day, Uncle Dave disappeared, taking a lady with him. I don't remember whether the lady was somebody's wife or was unattached, and I'm not sure that it would have mattered to most of the townspeople. The reactions went through Benson like waves.
First, there was astonishment. In Benson, gossip and bad news were instant. The Benson Review served to confirm such gossip as was fit to print, but -- being a weekly -- it never had any real news of real importance. In the case of Uncle Dave, the news was immediately all over town.
After the astonishment began to fade, the judges went to work. There were people, male and female, who began to describe a character flaw (and some of them had detected this flaw sometime back) that Uncle Dave had that led to such behavior.
And, finally, the judges rendered their opinion. By and large, they said that a person who was supposed to be very good had done a very bad thing and was now a bad person.
The thing that makes this incident most memorable was that, in the case of Uncle Dave, the system didn't hold. I remember my father being angry; he didn't listen to anyone criticizing Uncle Dave. The editor of the Review wrote an editorial questioning the Christianity of those who were so quick to condemn and so slow to show forgiveness.
Uncle Dave came back to Benson and to his wife and family, but his position was never the same. He could never preach again, nor was he held in the same esteem by most of the townspeople. By and large, we were quick to condemn, slow to forgive, and generally without understanding.
However, by the time I was old enough to understand our definitions of "good" and "bad," I also understood that reality in Benson came in several layers. There was, for instance, the wife of one of the officers of the Baptist Sunday School who was rumored to be an alcoholic. But no one, at least among those who would talk about it, had seen her drunk. So, for more than thirty years the rumor persisted, but judgment was withheld. Some years after her husband died and attitudes changed sufficiently, the lady entered a private facility for alcoholics to take the cure.
The same thing was true of sexual transgressions. So long as they were simply rumored and not substantiated they provided grist for the gossip mill but didn't change the participants' social standing. And, since divorce was frowned upon among the good people, it's very possible that those closest to the participants didn't spend too much energy gathering evidence.
It was a strange society, one full of contradictions. It was one where a Baptist deacon, an avowed teetotaler, could sell sugar by the pick-up truck load to farmers, knowing that it wasn't going to sweeten their coffee. It was one with a caste system that -- in some ways -- rivaled India's. There were fewer divisions, perhaps, but those that did exist were just as strong. And for more than a hundred years it had held against all change and progress, simply because change and progress had little impact on the way we live.
But stranger than the society itself was the fact that it was accepted without question and provided a code of behavior for everybody in it. It created an environment where people not only didn't lock their car doors, they didn't lock their front doors. There was, as I've mentioned, little divorce. There were few murders. There was violence, in the sense of brawls, but never among the good people. It was a system that sternly prohibited transgression.
(Before the end of the fifties, things had begun to change as it became easier to get to Benson from other places. The town had one policeman on duty at night, and there was little for him to do, so little that on the one night there was something to do, he missed it.
The back of Woodall's clothing store was across the alley from the front door of the police station. One night burglars, presumably from out of town, put a ladder up to the second-story window of Woodall's and systematically emptied the upstairs storage area. For the next several weeks the townspeople wondered how the policeman got back into the police station without tripping over the ladder.)
It was the system I was born into, just as my father and grandfather were. Growing up in it shaped many of the attitudes I hold today even though I have been to several places other than Benson and haven't lived there in fifty years. I still say, "Yes, Ma'am."