Boyhood and “The Lost Cause”

 

My seventh grade “Core” teacher at Franklin Junior High School in Wheaton, Illinois, was Mr. Funkhouser. He wore bowties and could wiggle his ears, and best of all, he seemed to treat me preferentially, perhaps because I actually did the work he assigned, unlike some others, like Roger ___, who drummed on his desk, and Pete ____, who didn’t drum but found other creative ways to disrupt class. I liked doing research papers, which I laboriously typed out, with much use of “white out,” and put into colored plastic folders. One research topic I became especially absorbed in, not because I was a precocious student, but because I liked escaping into the past, was the Civil War. Or rather, that part of the war which involved  ragged Confederate soldiers, who, with their odd-bore guns and spine-tingling rebel yell, and led by brilliant generals–grave Lee, redoubtable Stonewall Jackson, flamboyant J.E.B Stuart–outflanked bewildered Union armies under bumbling General McClellan.  I thought the rebel flag, with its “stars and bars, ” was much cooler than the American flag, with its stacked stripes, and boxed stars. I read that Rebel troops often dressed in homespun cloth dyed with walnut husks, and since we had a walnut tree in our backyard, I made up a walnut husk bath, and dyed one of my T-shirts, and in the process stained my fingers a deep brown, a sort of badge, which remained for weeks, and of which I was both fairly proud and mildly alarmed. Oh, I rooted for those Confederates to win! And they did win some battles against the powerful industrial North, with its rank upon rank of blue-coated soldiers, equipped with endless stores of arms and equipment. The Industrial North: Ugh! I alas lived in that North, which for me were the “suburbs,” specifically, Wheaton: which I held to be colorless, repetitive, and inescapable. And which, I dared not admit, was also safe, quiet, and a perfect cloister from which to imagine that chaotic and desperate time in our nation’s history. Reading in my room, with Mom’s typewriter on the card table beside me, I could escape the suburb which so coddled me, and cheer on those starving, picturesque Rebs! In the end they lost, as they were bound to. But losing was better, in a way, for in losing they retained all their mystique, and antique glory. I wasn’t a winner, either: wasn’t in student government, wasn’t an athlete, didn’t go to the dances, had no earthly idea how to “date” girls.  And one day we would lose the “The Swamp,” at the end of Lincoln Street, where we caught leopard frogs and flushed pheasants from the cattails, would turn into just another housing development, I was sure of it. Already, at age twelve, I mourned a past which had not yet even arrived!

Now, however, I cannot help seeing, in all my fantasizing about the Confederates when I was a boy, shades of the “Lost Cause” mythology espoused by unrepentant Confederate generals, J.E.B Stuart among them,  after the war. Did the authors of the books I read for my research paper also espouse this mythology, and so pass along its tincture to me? Was this calculated on their part, or unwitting? Or does the Lost Cause simply carry on, in its own guise, a more ancient mythic theme of lost dreams, nobly fought for? Whatever the answers may be, I am beginning to comprehend the omission, yawning like an abyss, which I somehow never saw then: slavery.