When I was 16, life was good.  Everything was in order.  I had my last two years of high school planned, and I liked the plan.  I had a large circle of friends and was part of the “in-crowd” at my suburban high school in Columbus, Ohio.  I was at peace with my narrow, insulated, conservative world.  Then my parents ruined my life.  My dad got a big promotion at work, and we moved to Memphis.

Memphis might as well have been another planet.  It couldn’t have been more foreign if it had been Liverpool or Sydney or Johannesburg.  It was 1966, and the language, social interactions, and customs were so different that I was lost for a very long time.  I’ll never forget the first time a girl asked me if I would “carry her home.”  I stared at her for a long time before I finally understood and said, “No, but I’ll give you ride.”

When I was 8 or 9 years old, my parents took me on a driving trip out West.  The first Indian I ever saw was pumping gas at a filling station in Oklahoma.  My mother pointed him out and said, “That’s an Indian.”  I didn’t believe her.  I had grown up on television and the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy.  This guy couldn’t be an Indian because he wasn’t wearing paint or feathers.  I came home from that trip having learned that the West had changed.

When I moved to Memphis I was so callow that I assumed that the South had changed too, and that the KKK and the Old South had gone the way of painted Indians and the Old West.  The Klan had a big rally and marched down Main Street a week after we moved to town.  That was the first of many shocks I experienced in my two years in high school in Memphis.

I adapted, as teenagers do, but being a Yankee made me an outsider.  I was reminded of this and experienced it so often that I became an outsider.  I made new friends, and they were all outsiders too.

In just a few years, we were all hippies and radicals of various kinds.  We were Seekers of Truth.  These people are still my friends.  We are still outsiders, and we are still questioning authority and seeking the truth.

My friends from Columbus grew up to be respectable bourgeois conservatives.  They found their truth without looking for it or questioning it.  I found a different truth, and I’m still looking and questioning.  So, thanks Mom and Dad.  You made my life infinitely larger and more interesting by moving me to a foreign culture – even though you didn’t know you were doing it at the time.

Bob Bohanan

Bob Bohanan

Bob retired as the deputy director of the Jimmy Carter Library in 2008.  Since then he's been doing some writing and enjoying the good life in Decatur, Georgia.

  1. Bob: I did it the other way. Since birth I spent fourteen years in the early fifties in lowcountry South Carolina small towns plus every summer on the creek in Pawleys Island ~ a wonderful southern small town childhood. Then one morning in the middle of my adolescence, Dad announced that he had been promoted to New York City, and we moved from Summerville to Old Greenwich, Connecticut where upon he dawned a gray flannel suit and spent two hours a day commuting on the New Haven Railroad to Park Avenue. The dog almost died. It was 1952 in the mist of Brown v. The Board of Education. For two months Miss Johnson, a well-meaning blue-haired New England eighth grade teacher (never say “yes’em’ to me again), attempted to knock my southern dialect right out of me. One day, since I was from South Carolina, she asked me to get up and tell the boys and girls about segregation. Hell, I didn’t know squat about segregation and its political ramifications. I did know that I had several black friends back in the lowcountry with whom I played and my father, as a forester, worked with black loggers all the time. He actually spoke some Gullah. I can remember my reply to this day. I got up and said, “I don’t know about segregation, Miss Johnson, but I have lived in Old Greenwich for two months, and I have yet to see a Negro.” And sat down. They told this on me at a class reunion. I guess that I had made an impression on on my classmates as they remembered it too. I guess that was making a point as simple as it was.

    In the end, I, too, thank my parents for the move. But now I am back ~ back to enjoying the lowcountry of South Carolina once again. It was a long journey. There have been positive changes, and there have been many since my move in 1952. I am proud of “my South” for making them. I haven’t been back to Old Greenwich, but I suspect that change might, in essence, be harder for that beautiful up-scale village situated on Long Island Sound ~ but like Brigadoon, tucked away from reality connected only to the world by the New Haven Railroad.

  2. Robert Lamb

    Good point, Ross from Pawleys, good story, too, but bad spelling.
    That should be “donned” a suit and “in the midst of” Brown vs. etc.

    1. Oh, Bob, your red pen was out! Spelling – as they said at Old Greenwich School, “it was my weak southern public school upbringing.” Still is a problem. But to compensate, perhaps the southern upbringing in the southern tradition gave me somewhat of a writer’s soul. I hope so. I sincerely appreciate the help ~ especially “help” coming from the honors college of the University of South Carolina. I love English majors, and have four of them who have also climbed on my back often for my spelling deficiencies. By the way – I loved Striking Out!! Cheers.

  3. Bob Bohanan

    Bob Lamb’s red pen was a little faulty. He missed one. I used the archaic phrase “filling station,” but spelled it “filing station.” A retired history professor had to point that one out to me.

  4. Robert Lamb

    Anybody who loves Pawleys is all right in my book. Thanks, too, for the compliment.
    My first wife, now deceased, couldn’t spell a lick. Five years younger than I, she came through elementary school just as the “educators” were adopting the look-say method of teaching spelling. So much for “new and improved” education. I had learned phonetically how to spell and was at least able to look up anything I couldn’t spell. The look-say crowd was clueless when it came to dictionaries.
    Students today are pretty good spellers, in case you’re interested. The look-say method now lies moldering in the landfill of discredited teaching practices, along with the New Math and easily a dozen others. Today’s most frequent offender seems to be the misplaced modifier, to wit: “Cold and wet, the roaring fire beckoned me in from the storm.”

    1. More annoying to me is the false attribution of agency. “the roaring fire beckoned” is a fearsome image.

  5. Jon Sinton

    Great stuff, all.

    We moved from Nebraska to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1962. My mother, a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx, got one look at the segregated drinking fountains and restrooms and sank into a nine month depression. When the school year ended, she packed us up and told my dad we were going back to Lincoln and could be reached at his mother’s house.

    He found a job in Columbus, Ohio, coincidentally, Bob, and there began my suburban indoctrination in earnest. We went from a place, Oak Ridge, that hated blacks as a race but loved them as individuals to a place, Columbus, that loved the concept of the black race, but hated them as individuals.

  6. Robert Lamb

    Wow, this is an interesting thread. I suspect that the South, which I love and will not leave again willingly, is still toxic to many. But not to all, thank God. You ought to see how people stream to Columbia from all over the world to visit The Southern Studies Institute here at the University of South Carolina. They want to visit places like Tara and Charleston and to meet in person Blanche and Scarlett and Rhett and Scout for dinner on the grounds, and to find out, I guess, how to say “y’all” in Polish or whatever.

  7. Bob . . . . or paying money in Moreland, GA on the way to Florida to watch someone wrestle a dog painted green thinking it was a ‘gator in Louis Grizzard’s back yard, or spending money on I-95 while stopping by South of the Border. We could go on and on. :)

  8. Everybody’s an outsider. Migrants have the advantage of having a practical basis for feeling that way. It’s harder to figure out why you’re an outsider, if you’ve always been in the same place. Many a southerner has discovered that the problem is solved by leaving. Why southerners? Only because there seems to be more social pressure for people to stay home. In North Florida in the late seventies, it seemed to prompt a contrary response on the part of young black men who were determined that they were not going to be “forced to leave” to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

  9. Robert Lamb

    That’s the old Pathetic Fallacy, from the justly famous John Ruskin essay on art. I see a lot of it — and not just in the classroom.
    Another thing I see often is the Irrelevant Adjective: “He looked like he’d been run over by a blue truck.”

  10. Jon – I love that statement, “hated blacks as a race but loved them as individuals.” That describes my childhood in south Georgia. I heard so many mean statements and jokes about blacks from my family and friends and yet the ones we knew personally were loved. As an adult I have traveled other places in this country and seen much more prejudice than I experienced as a child. (please – no one correct my spelling or grammar – I was educated in the south, I can’t help it!)

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