By T.J. Morehouse
Posted August 21, 2020
In 1861 enough nonslaveholders hurled themselves into a prolonged bloodbath to enable a proudly proclaimed slave republic to sustain itself for four ghastly years. These “plain folks” suffered terrible casualties and privations on behalf of a social order that objectively oppressed them in a variety of well-known ways. Many contemporary Northerners and indeed even some Southerners, not to mention subsequent historians, expressed wonder at the nonslaveholders gullibility, ignorance, and docility. Slavery, it has long been asserted, had numbed the lower-class whites quite as much as it had ostensibly numbed the enslaved blacks. Southern abolitionists, for understandable reasons, became the bitterest proponents of this argument and railed in frustration at the nonslaveholders’ groveling before the aristocratic pretensions of the haughty planters.
Yet, we know very well that those nonslaveholders were touchy, proud people who hardly specialized in groveling and who were as quick as the planters to shed blood over questions of honor. We know also that they seized and maintained substantial political rights and were largely responsible for some of the most democratic state constitutions in the United States.(1)
The argument for their supine capitulation to an overbearing aristocracy reduces to the assertion that someone other than themselves ought to have been the judge of their own best interest—that they were incompetent to understand their own world and their place within it. Ever since Rousseau, those who believe themselves democrats but have difficulty accepting majority rule have been prone to square this ideological circle by claiming that the people have been duped and that their words and actions do not reflect their own inner will. Presumably, someone else is to be the guardian and agent of the people’s will. Those who argue in this manner, without meaning to be satirical, claim for themselves the honor of defending genuine democracy against the voters.
The nonslaveholders have always been prime candidates for such treatment. Ostensibly, they lived in an unreal world in which they could not understand who and what they really were. I do hope that I may be forgiven for treating this elitist cant as unworthy of attention. If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interest, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous encounter session in consciousness-raising.
The most attractive general interpretation of the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime has stressed the commitment of the white South to racial supremacy. This is, of course, an old argument—which is no reason to slight it, especially since George Frederickson has recently repackaged it so nicely as “Herrenvolk Democracy” and introduced considerably more sophistication into the discussion.(2) And, in fact, one would have to be mad to discount or to try to minimize the extraordinary power of racism as an ideological force for political and social cohesion. But there are at least two difficulties with the Herrenvolk thesis.
First, it is not at all obvious that the nonslaveholders took the equation of slavery and racial subordination for granted. If they had felt sufficient reason to oppose slavery on the grounds taken by men like Henry Ruffner, Cassius Clay, and Hinton Helper, the argument that slavery was indispensable to racial dictatorship would have appeared as dubious as it eventually proved to be. Yet, such questions could not even be discussed during the late antebellum decades outside certain privileged border-state sanctuaries. To be sure, the silence in the Lower South and in much of the Upper South as well can in part be attributed to a subtle and not-so-subtle reign of terror, as Clement Eaton has so forcefully demonstrated.(3) But, again, the nonslaveholders were not political and moral marshmallows. Their easy acquiescence in an enforced consensus itself requires an explanation that takes full account of their toughness, pride, and strong sense of being men with rights equal to those of the richest planter.
The second difficulty with the Herrenvolk thesis is that it bypasses the living history. Let us suppose that racism explains everything—that it is logically sufficient to explain the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime. We could not, therefore, conclude that other explanations were false or even inferior if, taken together, they could also account for that loyalty, with or without the factor of racism. On the contrary, the slaveholders and nonslaveholders were bound together by links firm enough to account for the political unity of the South; it was precisely the conjuncture of these economic, political, and cultural forces, including intense racism, that made secession and sustained warfare possible.
For the moment, we may bracket the question of the scope and depth of that loyalty. To speak of Southern unity is to recognize no more than that effective degree of consensus necessary to remove the slavery issue from antebellum Southern politics and necessary to drag most of the Southern Unionists, with whatever misgivings, down the secessionist road. If we can get that far, it will be possible to open the brackets and take full account of the bitter social divisions beneath the surface of white society, as well as the evidence presented by Roger Shugg and others of growing stratification and class conflict.(4) The problem is precisely to explain the impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity in the face of so many internal strains.
To begin with, it is essential to distinguish sharply between the yeomen of the plantation belt and those of the up-country. But to do so is not so simple once we move from model building to empirical verification. First, the categories changed over time. In a restless society with a moving frontier, a self-sufficient locality in one census year often became a staple-producing locality in the next. The up-country of the early days of Virginia or South Carolina passed into extensions of the plantation belt as new crops, techniques, and transport facilities were developed. Second, there was a large intermediate area. Winn Parish, Louisiana, for example, was a hotbed of unionist radicalism and opposition to secession and then to the Confederacy; later, it became a center for Populist and socialist movements and then gave us Huey and Earl Long. On the surface, it would seem to have been, in antebellum times, a nonslaveholding parish, par excellence. Yet, twenty-five percent of its population was black; one-third of the whites owned at least one slave; and firm ties existed with the plantation belt along with intense mutual hostility. (5)
Nevertheless, in such “plantation states” as Alabama and Mississippi we can identify large isolated enclaves, not exclusively up-country, which were only peripherally integrated into the slave economy. And here, we confront more than evidence of Morton Rothstein’s dual economy—as valuable as his insight is likely to prove. (6) We confront, rather, evidence of a dual society that did not simply follow the class lines dividing commercial from subsistence farmers. Farmers in these up-country counties resembled farmers in the interstices of the plantation belt in being nonslaveholders within the subsistence orbit of a more generally dual economy, but, beyond this first approximation, they might more profitably be understood as a distinct social class. The critical element in their social position was the geographic isolation, not of their particular farms, but of their locality as a whole. Hence, unlike the farmers of the plantation belt, they controlled the local political process and shaped a regional culture of their own. All available evidence attests to the distinctiveness and insularity of their culture. True, little comprehensive work has been done since the pioneering work of Frank Owsley and his protégés, but folklorists, musicologists, and anthropologists have been doing work that points toward the delineation of a discrete way of life.
In a variety of ways, the up-country made the slaveholders and especially the secessionist politicians nervous. Up-country farmers were not bashful about sneering at the aristocratic pretensions of the planters. In many instances, they took the plantation counties as a negative reference point for their own voting behavior. And many defiantly opposed extremist and anti-Union measures.
Yet, we might also note that some of these counties went for secession and many others split or tamely acquiesced. The fire-eating Albert Gallatin Brown built much of his power on such districts in Mississippi. (7) Moreover, those who try to correlate up-country districts with a specific behavior pattern have been driven to distraction by the apparent ideological inconsistencies, quite as much as by the methodological difficulties.
At issue is the limited concern of these quasi-autonomous social worlds with the great questions of Southern and national politics. We might, for example, wonder why some of the same up-country districts in Mississippi followed Brown into support of proslavery extremism and secession and yet ended by deserting the Confederate cause.
This apparent inconsistency was expressed less dramatically in more typical up-country counties of the Lower South, which moved from moderate Unionism to acceptance of secession and then to defection from the Confederacy. It is not at all clear, that is, that they were not initially motivated by allegiance to particular local leaders whom they had come to trust to defend their regional autonomy against the plantation belt and indeed against all outsiders.
On the terrain of political ideology, the up-country, notwithstanding its manifest hatred for the pretensions of the gentry, was held loyal to the slave regime by the doctrine of state rights—or rather, of opposition to the centralization of political power. So long as the slaveholders made few demands on these regions, their claims to being champions of local freedom and autonomy against all meddling outsiders appeared perfectly legitimate. Whatever else Northern abolitionists and free-soilers may have been, they were outsiders who claimed the right to determine local institutions. Conversely, the provincialism of the up-country held to a minimum demands on the slaveholders for extensive expenditure for an infrastructure capable of modernizing the nonplantation areas. There is, in fact, little evidence that the great majority of the up-country farmers wished to exchange their proud isolation and regional way of life for integration into the commercialized economy of the despised plantation belt. Certainly, things were different in West Virginia, East Tennessee, and some other areas, but there, the economy was being integrated into that of the neighboring free states to produce a qualitatively different social setting, the full scope of which deserves extended study.
In the Lower South, at least, those up-country farmers who swore loyalty to the Union and those who swore loyalty to their state were generally of a piece. Their first loyalty in fact was to their own local community, and either the Union or the state might either respect or threaten that community autonomy. Hence, the difficulties that befell the Confederacy, when the up-country desertion rate soared; hence, the movements of outright treason to the Confederacy that accompanied the imposition of necessary war measures. The exigencies of war had forced the Confederacy to do to the up-country the very things it had sworn to oppose. The whole point of secession, after all, was to defend local rights against the pressures of centralization. Confederate conscription, taxation, requisitioning, in a word, outside domination, had to be perceived in the up-country as a betrayal of trust. (8)
The slave South held the allegiance of its second society not because the yeomen farmers and herdsmen outside the plantation belt had been duped, nor even because they were ignorant. Rather, their alleged ignorance was an ignorance on principle—that provincial rejection of an outside world which threatened to impinge on the culture as well as the material interests of the local community. The slaveholders could abide the autonomy of the up-country not because they necessarily respected its moral foundations but because they could be—and indeed had to be—indifferent to its development. The last thing the slaveholders of the plantation belt wanted was an additional tax burden to finance the opening up of areas regarded as potentially competitive or simply irrelevant to the plantation economy. Much less did they wish to promote the development of areas that might have to proceed with free labor and might, therefore, develop a marked hostility not merely to slaveholding aristocrats but to slavery itself. The solution lay in a mutually desired silence and limited intercourse, notwithstanding occasional struggles over a few more roads and schools and, perhaps even more important, demands for ritualistic respect and recognition. This type of silent understanding has had many parallels elsewhere—in Sicily, for example.
The main problem of interpretation, then, concerns the yeomen of the plantation belt itself. Antebellum dissent, such as it was, and wartime desertion centered in the up-country. The commitment of the farmers of the plantation belt to the regime, by normal political standards, became much firmer. Why? The answer of race will not, by itself, do. The up-country yeomen hated and feared the blacks and wanted them under tight racial control. But the up-country yeomen also were quick to identify slaveholders with slaves—to perceive the organic connection between the two, not only materially but culturally. To the up-country yeomen, slaveholders and slaves were two peas in the same pod. The plantation-belt yeomen also saw the master-slave relationship as organic, but they yielded much more easily to planter leadership. (9)
Those who wonder at the plantation-belt yeomen’s support of slavery might well begin by asking themselves a question. Why should the nonslaveholders not have supported slavery? After all, men and women normally accept, more or less uncritically, the world into which they are born. Something must drive them to reject and resist the social order that, at the least, offers them the security of a known world.
Let us take Joshua Venable, dirt farmer of Hinds County, Mississippi. Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make. The marriage, in fact, brought the Venables and the Mercers into an uneasy conviviality. Massa Jefferson Venable had to swallow a bit to tolerate his parvenu relatives at table, especially since John Mercer could not be broken of the habit of spitting on the floor in the presence of the ladies. But, business is business, and kinfolk are kinfolk—even by marriage.
Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to his dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair—a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.
Now, of course, Josh resented his cousin—so much so that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success—some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans. But, how far could he carry his resentment toward Cousin Jeff? Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, black or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinnati? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was always ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.
Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighbors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how could many of the poorer farmers make it? The planters occasionally hired the sons of poor neighbors for odd jobs or even to help with the cotton picking. They hired a relative here or there to oversee their plantations. If a small farmer got lucky and was able to buy a slave before he could profitably use him, there was Jeff ready to rent him. for a year. Alternatively, if a farmer got lucky and needed the temporary services of a slave he could not yet afford to buy, there was Jeff ready to send one over at the going rate. And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to help them get started. Certainly, that kind of neighborliness was normal in rural areas throughout the United States. But in the South population was much more scattered, and it would have been hard to help people get on without the work of those slaves. What then could lead Jefferson Venable’s neighbors to see him as an enemy? He in no way exploited them— except perhaps for the poor white trash he occasionally hired for odd jobs and treated with contempt. And they were no-account anyway.
Plantation-belt yeomen either aspired to become slaveholders or to live as marginal farmers under the limited protection of their stronger neighbors. And there was nothing irrational or perverse in their attitude. White labor was scarce and unreliable, at least if a farmer needed steady help. Any farmer who wanted to expand his operations and make a better living had to buy slaves as soon as possible. It was, therefore, natural, as a matter of inclination and social conscience, to be ready to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime—in short, to think and act like slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were motivated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.
Under the best of circumstances, a class of independent proprietors, with limited spatial range and cultural horizons, could hardly be expected to put hard questions to these relationships. No matter how poor or marginal, small farmers were in no position to make sophisticated analyses of the indirect workings of the slave system as a whole and to conclude that they were oppressed by the very planters who played Lord Bountiful or in any case did not bother them. But this particular class of farmers had had its own political history in relation to the planters, upon which some reflection is in order.
As shorthand for a complicated historical development, we may focus on one or two features of the democratic upsurge of the Jacksonian era. If one reads the political speeches and dwells on the rhetoric, the South after 1819 was torn by the bitterest kind of class warfare. The farmers rose against the aristocracy, the debtors against the creditors, the people against the privileged few. The ensuing political reforms, as Fletcher Green and Charles Sydnor in particular have so well shown, were in fact formidable. Politically, the South underwent substantial democratization. The haughty aristocrats were beaten, although more thoroughly in Mississippi and Alabama than in Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina.
And yet, this period of democratization coincided precisely with the great period of territorial, demographic, and ideological expansion of the slave regime. In its wake came the suppression of Southern liberalism. Those who brought democracy to the Southwest also brought plantation slavery and the hegemony of the master class. At this point the Herrenvolk thesis is usually trotted out to resolve all contradictions. Unfortunately, it cannot explain how the racism of the yeomanry, no matter how virulent, led the farmers to surrender leadership to the slaveholders instead of seizing it for themselves. And they did surrender it. It is not merely or essentially that lawyers attached to the plantation interest dominated politics-after all, in a democratic society lawyers usually do. The main question is the social interests they serve, not their own class origins. Quantitative studies of social origin and class have solemnly revealed what every fool always knew: politicians are not themselves usually bankers, industrialists, planters, or in general very rich men—at least not until they take office. The fact remains that the democratic movement in the South effectively removed the slavery question from politics and thereby guaranteed the property base of the slaveholding class—which is all a hegemonic politics is supposed to do.
This process of democratic expansion under slaveholder hegemony emerges from a critical view of antiaristocratic rhetoric. Consider some of the major recurring issues: a more equitable legislative apportionment; transfer of the state capital to the interior and away from the centers of entrenched wealth; credit and banking policies to aid debtors rather than creditors; internal improvements designed to open up those areas suitable to staple-crop production; and a final solution to the Indian question. In each case, we find the rhetoric of class war—the poor against the rich, the people (defined as white) against the aristocrats. But, “the people*’ turn out to be planters-on-the-make as well as yeoman farmers trying to move up the social and economic scale. In Mississippi, for example, the goal was to break the power of the arrogant nabobs of Natchez and to permit the rapid settlement and development of the interior. But that development always concerned the development of the slave-plantation system itself—of the extension of one side of the dual economy. The struggle, above all, pitted old and conservative slaveholders against bold new men whose commitment to the social order did not deviate one whit from that of the nabobs themselves. Room had to be made for free competition, which, despite pretenses, required public power in Mississippi as elsewhere. The new men required new money, and the old banking monopoly, tailored to the limited interests of the Natchez aristocracy, had to give way before a policy that would create the credit necessary to buy land and slaves for the interior.
The demands, by their very nature, brought a significant portion of the planter class of the interior into coalition with the democratic yeomanry, whose interests appeared largely the same. Thus, wealthier and more successful men in the interior easily assumed leadership of the movement. Among those of common interest, the men of wealth, education, and influence—or, at least, men who looked like a good bet to become so—were obviously better equipped to formulate policy. And when the crash came, the interior planters themselves retreated into the conservative policies they had helped overthrow: by that time, they were established and needed sound money rather than loose policies designed to advance the interests of some new competitors. By that time also, the farmers of the up-country as well as of the plantation belt had felt the ravages of speculative banking and were ready to accept the lure of hard money or at least fiscal responsibility. In short, so long as the yeomen accepted the existing master-slave relationship as either something to aspire to or something peripheral to their own lives, they were led step-by-step into willing acceptance of a subordinate position in society. They accepted that position not because they did not understand their interests, nor because they were panicked by racial fears, and certainly not because they were stupid, but because they saw themselves as aspiring slaveholders or as nonslaveholding beneficiaries of a slaveholding world, the only world they knew. To have considered their position in any other terms would have required a herculean effort and a degree of sophistication capable of penetrating the indirect and subtle workings of the system as a whole.
It was not impossible that ordinary farmers could have accomplished that herculean effort and attained that sophistication. The secession crisis and especially the defection from the Confederacy demonstrated the fragility of the up-country’s loyalty to the regime. And even in the plantation belt, the slaveholders were by no means sure that such arguments as that of Hinton Helper would not take hold among a basically literate, politically experienced, and fiercely proud white population, if economic conditions deteriorated or free discussion was encouraged. The slaveholders contained the threat by preventing the message from reaching the people—by placing the slavery question beyond discussion. It did not, however, require a genius to recognize that a hostile free- soil regime in Washington, the constant agitation of the slavery question within the national Union, or some internal crisis that upset the delicate ideological balance within the South might lead to the emergence of an antislavery movement at home. Secession and independence had much to recommend them to the dominant propertyholders of so dangerous a world.
How loyal, then, were the nonslaveholders? Loyal enough to guarantee order at home through several tumultuous decades, loyal enough to allow the South to wage an improbable war in a hopeless cause for four heroic years. But by no means loyal enough to guarantee the future of the slaveholders’ power without additional measures. The full measurement of this problem lies ahead of us, although William Freeh- ling’s forthcoming book on the South in the fifties should answer many questions. But what seems especially clear is that the yeomanry, both of the up-country and of the plantation belt, have yet to receive the careful attention they deserve. Without it, much of the Southern experience must remain in the shadows.
Until recently, we knew little about the actual lives of the slaves, and many said we would never know because the data were not available. Yet, Rawick and Blassingame, Levine and Stuckey, and others as well, have demonstrated the value of the old adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” In retrospect, the work of Frank Owsley, Blanche Clark, Herbert Weaver, and others of their school appears all the more impressive despite sins against statistical method and a tendency toward romantic reconstruction. (10) Much as a new generation of scholars has been able to uncover the story of the slaves by taking a sympathetic view of their lives, their aspirations, their struggles for survival, so did the Owsley school point a similar direction with regard to the yeomen. One would hope that a new wave of research, however, will pay close attention to the fundamental cultural as well as economic cleavages that separated the farmers of the up-country from those of the plantation belt.
One thing is certain: we shall never understand fully the triumph and eventual demise of the slave system of the South, nor the secret of the slaveholders’ success in establishing their hegemony in society, nor the nature and extent of the persistent threat from below within that very hegemony until we study the daily lives, the religion, the family and courtship patterns, and the dreams of the ordinary farmers of the slave South—which means that we shall have to study them with the same kind of sympathetic understanding and fundamental respect that so many fine scholars are now bringing to the study.
1. See esp., Fletcher M. Green, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1930); and “Democracy in the Old South,’’ Journal of Southern History 12 (February 1946): 3-23.
2. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. chap. 2.
4. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939).
6. Morton Rothstein, “The Antebellum South as a Dual Economy: A Tentative Hypothesis,” Agricultural History 41 (October 1967): 873-83. Of special relevance is a work formally addressed to French history but with far-reaching implications for many other parts of the world: Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971).
7. See esp., James Byrne Ranck, Albert Gallatin Brown, Radical Southern Nationalist (New York: Appleton-Century, 1937).
8. This well-studied subject might usefully be reinterpreted in the light of the insights advanced by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), and Bandits (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)
9. In short, the yeoman of the up-country and of the plantation both perceived slavery as embodying an organic social relationship, although they judged the effects differently. Their perception was accurate. I have tried to sketch that organic relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), especially Book One.
10. Frank L. Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeoman, 1840-1860 (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1942); Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850-1860 (Nashville; University of Tennessee Press, 1946).
(Agricultural History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 331-342)
June 2, 1971. Near Drumright, Oklahoma:
5 years old. It begins.
The day I formally declared war on red ants.
I saw the red ant hill, bustling with activity in the summer heat.
I had already been killing the small yellow worms that had infested our Maple tree in the front yard. They would squish a yellow/white goo when I crushed them with the blunt end of a small stick.
The red ant hill was on a lot next to our home in Country Club Heights. Country Club Heights belied its name, visions of big shot mansions on a hill. It was instead, a solidly middle-class suburb, nothing fancy about it. A dream achieved when there was a day that a decent job could support a family.
The next-door lot had huge mounds of reddish-brown earth. It hardened into large clods and my friend from up the street, Russell and I would have huge dirt clod fights with each other, the hardened earth like a snowball with a semi solid core. We’d usually fight until one of us got hurt, no quarter given.
My mind went into full fantasy mode. I imagined the ants as heavily entrenched Japanese soldiers, the same ones that killed Grandpa Troy on Iwo Jima. Now it was time for payback. Staff Sergeant Troy Joe and his band of worthies charged Mount Suribachi. Avenging angels dressed in Marine battle fatigues.
I pounced on the ants and began to stomp. They died like heroes, wave after wave.
Then something surprising happened, more ants swarmed from the hill, alerted, I assumed by scouts who had somehow escaped my foot fusillade. More ants streamed from the hole and then more holes near me that had been unseen. They began a spirited counterattack.
Formed into a red lump, they attacked my sandaled feet, shorts and T-shirt. I managed to hold my line, but they kept coming, at last overwhelming me. Ants started on the tender parts of my feet, then proceeded to attack my legs, waistband of my shorts, then my torso.
Stunned and hurting, I organized a hasty retreat to a safe distance from ant hill Suribachi.
I was bloodied but unbowed. Numerous red welts covered my body. I took off my shoes and picked the rest of the ants off. Then I used my T-shirt to peel the ants off my legs and torso, quickly killing all survivors with a new-found respect for the enemy. They were ferocious fighters and would gladly die to protect that hill. Their severed ant heads with their pincers attached to the leather of my sandal was proof.
These sandals weren’t those namby-pamby children’s shoes, or a flip flop. These were bad-ass, wide strapped, thick leather with a recycled tire for a sole. Natural ant killing machines, despite the gaps between my feet and exposed toes. They had found these spots with pin-point accuracy. I lobbed several dirt clods into the hill, a screen for my retreat, and went into the house.
“What happened to you?” asked Momma.
“I had ant battle”, I said with enthusiasm. “I almost beat the Japanese”.
She gave me a worried look, my welts now visibly red. “Why don’t you stay inside and play for the rest of the day. Set up your Hot Wheels track in the den and then you can watch cartoons on Uncle Zeb at 3:30.
“OK” I said, knowing better than to argue with Momma. If I was a first sergeant with a stunning military career, killing the enemy in close combat, then Momma was a 5-star general and nobody fucked with her.
I upped the ante on the ants. My cousin, Todd Floyd and I were counting out our firecrackers under our Grandparents carport, deciding what to do with them. That’s when we spotted it. An anthill on the other side of the fence from Big Granny and Paw Paw’s garden. Big Granny was a tall, rawboned Cherokee woman from the Skin Bayou district of the Cherokee Nation. She stood over 6 feet tall. She and my Paw Paw were hardened people who had survived a depression, a dustbowl and WWII. Their entire back yard was a vegetable plot. Self-sufficient, they were proud, cutting corners and surviving the dirty 30’s. Big Granny would not hesitate to swat the shit out of you with her large hand or a nearby switch, magically produced when needed. You fucked with the garden, you got punished, hard.
“Hey”, I said to Todd Floyd, “Lets blow up that ant hill!” He readily agreed. Partners in crime. We had bottle rockets and firecrackers, preparing for maximum carnage.
We didn’t have a “punk”, which looked like a stick of incense that burned slowly, allowing you to “Light fuse, and get away”, the instructions on the box beneath a large black cat.
It was the 70’s and everybody smoked. Todd Floyd was my cousin from California “California Okies” they sang on Hee-Haw one night to my amusement. Whenever the family gathered, there was a heated, serious, sometimes all-night card game of “High Nine”.
Todd Floyd had an idea. “Let’s go ask my dad (Uncle Clinton) if he can give us an old cigarette butt to use”. “Novel idea” I thought. We went inside to the card game. Todd Floyd said to his dad: ”Me and Troy Joe want to light some firecrackers on the driveway and we don’t have a punk”.
Uncle Clinton, engrossed in the strategy of High 9, absent mindedly handed a full lit cigarette to Todd Floyd. “You boys be careful”, he said as we whisked away before he could change his mind.
We prepared our first two mega bombs, five firecrackers, fuses twisted together. The enemy would perish at the hands of well place high explosives. For good measure, we took 5 bottle rockets and tore the sticks off, bound together by a newspaper rubber band, once again twisting the fuses where one touch would light them all at once.
We struck in two waves of frontal assault. Digging deep into the hole with a stick, thus avoiding the ants as they climbed up the stick, not our legs. Once done, we placed the firecrackers on the now swirling void of ants and touched off the fuse.
We didn’t have the detonation right, so the firecrackers cooked off one at a time like gunfire: Blam, Blam, Blam, Blam Blam! Both times. Each successive explosion creating havoc and blowing up enemy troops, stuck underground but rallying as I had often seen them do.
The cigarette had burned down and was going out. We decided to make the cherry glow again, so we both took a puff, Todd Floyd first, then me. We didn’t inhale, just sucked and held the smoke in our mouths like we had seen on TV, after a few seconds, we “exhaled”.
I felt dizzy, with a strange taste in my mouth. “Let’s do bottle rockets” said Todd Floyd. We moved to the now shell crater, put the bottle rockets upside down, lit with the now glowing cigarette. We got it right this time. Like a rocket on lift off, they all ignited at once, screaming and whistling into the ground. An impressive, single explosion followed.
“Hey” said Todd Floyd. “Wanna try another drag? “ Without hesitation, I said: “Sure”. We commenced to smoke. More dizziness, I didn’t know it, my first buzz, I liked it. Todd Floyd and I lost all interest in fireworks and smoked that fucker to the filter. What a rush. What freedom. Lack of any adult supervision courtesy of a simple card game combined with a thirst for winning. The ants lived to fight another day and Todd Floyd and Troy Joe had tasted the sweetness of an altered state. My first, but definitely not my last.
- 11 years old. Stepdad trouble.
My parents divorced and my mom shacked up with this guy named Bob.
He was a “Good ‘ol Boy” and a wanna-be cowboy turned real estate salesman. He had sold himself to my mom for sure. She hauled ass as soon as she could and left my dad in a bachelor pad at a local trailer park. My war on ants had continued in smaller sorties.
I didn’t want to play sports with my friends. I wanted to play “Army”, ride my dirt bike or kill ants. I found sports boring and narrow minded. Much like religion. Dad always said: “ If a man becomes overly religious, it’s his own damn fault”.
I launched my next large-scale attack on an ant hill situated on the berm of a livestock pond. I stole a shovel and went to the dormant hill on a Jihad to kill red ants.
I stuck the shovel deep into the sleeping ants. Stealthy hitting the enemy when they least expected it. Repeatedly, I dug up huge chunks of earth and flung it into the pond. The ants came to the top like survivors of a shipwreck, bobbing on the surface and clinging to weeds at the edge of the pond.
“Hey! What in the hell are you doing?” Asked Bob. He had slipped up behind me in the throes of my fetish. “Oh, Nothing, just digging for worms,” was my lame response. “No one digs for worms in November”, he said. “Take that shovel back where it came from and if I catch you digging up this berm again, “I’ll kick your ass.”
Sullen, but undefeated in spirit, I slunk back to the barn to put away the shovel.
- 12 years old. Hot days and flamethrowers.
The anthill sang to me like a suicidal Siren. “Kill me” they seemed to say telepathically. I was more than willing to oblige them, Bob or not. I was obstinate and could take an ass beating by this time.
I had been watching old WWII movies of Saipan. Sherman tanks outfitted with flame throwers cooking the caves with the enemy inside, immolated, save a few souvenir Samurai swords. I snuck into the garage and took a pop bottle, half full of lawnmowers gasoline. I stole the safety matches off the top of the fridge. Then I took some dishwashing soap from the countertop. Using this concoction, I swished the ingredients around the glass bottle, homemade napalm. Those ants were about to die a horrible death by the scores. Revenge at last. I would raise the flag on ant hill Suribachi.
I took the bottle and snuck out back to the pond while Mom and Bob fought about his latest indiscretion in someone else’s bedroom. I was the grim reaper, about to sow a flaming death on the ants, courtesy of the lack of adult supervision.
I got to the ant hill and poured a huge dose on it. The gas itself killed on contact, then I struck the match. The mound erupted in an acrid, smoky flame as my adversaries died trying to escape the hole. That’s when things went a little sideways.
I was still holding the bottle at a downward angle. The flames jumped up and leapt into the neck of the napalm pop bottle. The fields were dry from the August heat, perfect kindling for a wildfire. I danced around the berm of the pond shaking the bottle like a salt shaker in a panicked attempt to get rid of the flames, as I did so, it ignited all the dry grass near the berm. I finally collected myself and threw the bottle into the pond, the fire snuffed out in the water. I looked behind me in horror as a fire blazed in the dry grass. I ran over and began to stomp it out. Wearing sneakers, the heat melted the soles but I somehow managed to put it out. I snuck back to the house, hiding my shoes and claiming I lost them at the skating rink.
- 13 years old. The transition.
It was the summer between 7th and 8th grade, triple digit heat. the female lifeguards at Claremore public pool took a shine to me.
I was staying with my dad for 2 weeks each summer. He had remarried and my step brother Mark and I went every day. “You’re really cute” the blonde lifeguard said to me . “Yeah, he’s gonna’ be a total fox by the time he’s 16” said the curly headed brunette at the snack bar. The blonde then asked me. “Do you know how to French kiss?” I had kissed a girl ONCE at a 7th grade dance at the PYO, like you’d kiss your Aunt, quickly, with a closed mouth. “Come here and let me teach you” she said. It was amazing, a hot tongue swirling around in my mouth. I quickly reciprocated. They never went any further than that. I was still a virgin, so I thought it was a form of sex. It probably was some kind of crime for those girls to have me as their mascot and kissing student, however, you can’t molest the willing.
Ants were the furthest thing from my mind. I was now laser beamed focused on girls and using my newfound skill set on them. “Those guys in 8th grade don’t stand a chance. I know how to French kiss” I thought with confidence. I plied my trade, a cracked voice Casanova, steeped in puberty. It would be two more years before I figured out what second base was.
July 15, 1983 Honolulu Hawaii
17 years old. The ant war had dimmed down in the last few years.
We now lived in Hawaii. My Mom and Bob had divorced (they would do so twice), she bought him out of their little real estate company in Pryor and Bob split for Hawaii to find himself or get laid by some Polynesian women. It was probably both. I finished Junior High and was a Sophomore in High School. Bob had been in Hawaii just long enough to burn through his money. Then he found Jesus Christ, like he’d been missing. In Oklahoma Jesus was everywhere.
Bob called Mom and told her he loved her, and she was the woman for him. Jesus had come to him in a dream and told him so. Mom immediately sold everything we owned and we moved to Hawaii. Thank God once again for lack of parental supervision.
I ran wild with the kids of Hawaii Kai. Got thrown out of Hawaii Baptist Academy (Bob and Mom thought it would do me good). I had smoked pot in Oklahoma at 15 in. Lyndell’s primer and Bondo ’57 Chevy parked on Dog Pound Road. It was Mexican dirt weed, full of seeds and it gave you a mild high and enough cottonmouth to drink the shitty 3.2% alcohol beer sold in Oklahoma.
This pot in Hawaii was amazing. Fresh, crystalized, red hairs and a rich, peppery taste that got me totally wasted the first time. The locals called it “the Crippler” and it lived up to its name. You only had to be 18 to legally drink in Hawaii and we made the most of our fake ID’s in the bars and nightclubs of Waikiki. It was a target rich environment. Mainland girls coming to Hawaii to party and hook up. It was an endless supply. A fresh batch every weekend.
I was in a Mexican restaurant and over frozen Margaritas, Dennis said “Wanna try some coke”? “Sure” I said. I was up for anything. We went into the men’s room and I took a bump off the tip of his pocketknife. It was my first taste and it gave a sweet tooth for Cocaine that lasted well into my 40’s. It was literally everywhere.
One day at Kaiser High School, Kevin said, “Man you’ve got to try this” He showed me a small piece of paper. “LSD” he proudly explained. “Slip it under your tongue, let’s ditch school and go to Portlock point”. At first, I felt nothing, then a warm sensation came over me and I started seeing tracers and visuals. Big Granny always said the Cherokees respected everything in nature, living beings with a soul. My head swirled as I hallucinated, I looked around at the trees, the grass and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Everything seemed to be breathing and alive. I found a new sense of respect for the earth and everything on it. Plus, I tripped my balls off.
I formally declared a truce and cease fire on the red ant war.
It would be like Korea. A demilitarized zone separating me from the ants. A pyrrhic victory of sorts, but peace, nonetheless. Additionally, there were no red ants in Hawaii. The LSD had opened up something I had never experienced before or after. Like a portal directly to God.
Relaxing and assuring, then letting me in on the big secret. the real world was actually the hallucination. A cosmic joke.
A lot has changed, yet still remains the same. I spent 20 years in New York City. A hellish place with orange halide lighting that cast a surreal glow over everything, eliciting depression from my eyes into my bloodstream. I have gone through some good times and bad. Big Granny, Paw Paw, Momma, Uncle Clinton and Dad have all passed away. I’m a divorced father with 2 kids and on my second marriage. For all the horse shit life has thrown at me, my second wife made it all worthwhile. We’re still in lockdown and she is working part time while I ride out the unemployment. She literally saved me from myself. I’m happy again. No more bad habits.
We have a deal. She feeds the dogs and I walk them. Topanga is hilly and dry. I take the dogs on a trail to the road we walk.
The other day, I discovered a red ant hill. These ants were a little different than the ones in Oklahoma. Lighter framed to survive the coastal desert plains and lack of water, but still possessing a ferocious set of mandibles.
I walk the dogs directly over the hill avoiding the urge for full scale attack. There is a tenuous peace between us. However, I can’t help but kill a few of the forward scouts in the outlying pickets to conceal my approach.
Better safe than sorry.