An essay assignment for a second-semester freshman composition course (ENG102) written on 1 August 1994 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Growing Up Connected
by James M. Wallace
With the exception of my first six months, I grew up in basically the same place. After my mother's family moved to Florida for my grandfather's health, we moved into their house. I spent seven and a half years in the house where my mother grew up. I completed my maturation and lived as a young adult in the house that my parents built next to my grandparents' house.
My neighbors were basically the same throughout my life. Most of my neighbors were not only neighbors but kinfolk as well. I grew up surrounded by my mother's aunts and uncles and cousins much as she had been when she was growing up.
My mother's aunts and uncles had all been young adults during the Great Depression. They endured the economic deprivations as a family. They were fortunate and grateful to have work and to have some land for gardening and livestock. They learned to make do with what they had and always to be prepared for the hard times. Even today, they have jars and cans of nails, screws, buttons, and other desultory items sitting on basement shelves and in the backs of cabinets. Apparently, I picked up some of these attitudes and habits from them. Before I dispose of an item, I have to consider its potential usefulness, because I "might need it someday."
My mother's aunts and uncles made the sacrifices necessary to help win the Second World War. They kept the home fires burning and did without for the good of the country's war effort. My younger great-uncles served in the armed forces. They served in France and Germany, Italy, and the Pacific. They never made a big deal about it or even talked about it very much. They simply acted on a deep sense of duty and obligation and, after the job was done, they came home and resumed their lives with the quiet dignity of those who have paid the price. Even though my own military service doesn't begin to compare with theirs, I felt compelled to serve by a similar deep sense of duty and obligation that was at least partly inspired by them.
In the decades that followed the War, my mother's aunts and uncles worked hard to make the most of the prosperity and abundance that had been missing or deferred in their earlier years. They raised families to extend our heritage and traditions into the future. They created a modest degree of wealth that will ultimately add to the prosperity of the generations that follow. After having done without for so long, perhaps they did indeed grow "complacent" and "self-satisfied," but who are we, the benefactors of their endurance, sacrifice, industry, and generosity, to condemn them. I think that our yeoman farmer ancestor who bought his passage from England with four years of indentured servitude would be very pleased with us and proud and honored as well.
The woods and fields around my home were also a constant in my life. Most of this land had belonged to my maternal grandmother's family almost since the first settlement of the county. Though it had been subdivided through the years to be distributed as inheritance or sold off for cash, significant portions are still owned by members of our family.
I spent many hours of my youth exploring my surroundings. I don't doubt that I knew the land better than the people who owned it. In a sense, I owned the land more than those who actually held a deed. I gave myself to the land, and I let the land become part of me.
The woods were an ideal place for an introspective individual such as myself. I could go for hours and walk for miles and never encounter another human being. I would plunge myself into the scrub pines, poplars, oaks, and hickories and disappear from the world. I would immerse myself in my own thoughts. I would trace the numerous streams and branches downstream or up. I would follow the flow of my own thoughts.
I have more memories than I can ever recall of plodding home at dusk after a day of rambling through the woods and my thoughts. Often, my body ached in weary satisfaction, and my boots were caked in glorious Tar Heel red clay. I may have been physically exhausted, but I was always psychologically reinvigorated.
When I joined the Army, I separated myself from all of this, from everything that I had ever known. Even so, I never left it. I discovered that being apart from it wasn't a problem, because it was all a part of me. I realized the very powerful influence that my family and environment had on me. Both had contributed to my deep sense of myself. In return, I was compelled always to act in a manner that would do them honor and keep them in good repute. It was a source of great, personal strength that kept me on an even keel. You don't know what you've got until you let it go.
I watched many of my fellow soldiers get caught up in alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, and other shameful, unrespectable activities. I was, and am, convinced that many of these people would never have engaged in any of these things if they had been at home. Doing so would have brought personal shame and social opprobrium upon themselves and their families. Yet there they were thousands of miles and an ocean away from home acting in such a disgraceful manner.
Apparently they figured that knowledge of their activities would never get back to their families and friends back home. In many cases, this was probably very true, but they omitted an important part of the calculation. There were many people like me who witnessed their improper behavior. We held less than favorable opinions of them personally and of their families generally. Such weak and wretched creatures were obviously the products of weak and wretched families. Fairly or not, their actions reflected badly, not only on themselves, but on their families too.
They didn't seem to realize, or to care, that they were representatives of their families. They didn't seem to realize, or to care, that they were disgracing themselves and their families. They didn't seem to realize, or to care, that they retained certain obligations to their families even though they weren't currently within its bosom. They seemed completely oblivious to the psychological and social connection that exists between individuals and their families regardless of any physical separation.
For the first time in most of their lives, they were separated from their families and their friends. They seemed to have lost all connections with their previous lives. As a result, they fell apart morally and socially. They were like boats that had slipped their moorings and were adrift in a sea of moral ambiguity.
Unlike these lost, drifting people, I remained true to myself, my family, and my upbringing. I clung to my past as tenaciously as an old oak tree holds the soil in which it's rooted. When the inevitable storms came, I stood firm while others seemed to come apart. The ties that bind don't necessarily hold us down; they hold us together.