I was raised in the South, Arkansas to be precise. I grew up with people who believed in Southern hospitality and good manners. There were ways of saying things that got the message across without doing harm to someone else’s psyche. Those good manners were mandated in homes, churches, and schools and seemed to have little to do with economic status. Every boy I knew shot to his feet when a lady (we never used the word, “woman”) entered the room. All adults were answered with a “sir” or “ma’am” tacked on to the end. We also had that strange custom of addressing the adults of our acquaintance by their first name with a Miss or Mister precursor. My father was never Mr. Roberts but Mr. Luther. My grandmother was Miss Wessie. It was perfectly acceptable to have nicknames and hers was short for the middle name, Westfall. And on more formal occasions, children were addressed in the same manner.
I look back on those days with longing because I feel we have let things drift so far from good manners that it is now perfectly ordinary for adults and children to treat each other rudely without even causing that slight lift of the eyebrow that use to say, “Dear child, who is raising you, and why are they neglecting their duty?”
The boys I knew might tease a girl, but it was never suggestive or improper in any way. They could disagree vehemently with a girl’s take on things; but in discussing it, gentlemen used a moderated tone and listened politely. At home, my brother might tell me that one of my friends was as crazy as a Betsy-bug; but when he was around her, he treated her as if she were perfectly sane and had every right to her opinion. I have to say, I miss this.
The summer I was 17, I witnessed this form of chivalry applied to me. It is a thing I have remembered fondly since. I knew then that I would forever adore those young men I grew up with and hold them up as examples of what young men can aspire to.
One of my childhood friends lived in one of those old southern mansions that are sometimes referred to as working plantation homes. While they are huge and graciously appointed, they are comfortable and have an easy lived in look. This big house was on the banks of Old River Lake. The front door faced the lake, which meant that the driveway from the road branched off to go around to the front while the main drive went to the back. Like most working farms and plantations, the back of the house also had access to barns, tool shops, and multi-vehicle garages. Hers had a wide circular drive in the back with spoke going to the house and various buildings. The house was two stories with deep two story screened back porches. The top one was outfitted as a sleeping porch for those hot Southern nights in the days before air-conditioning.
My friend liked to throw a party each summer and the summer of 1957, was no different. This was a significant time for all of us as we were all students of the Little Rock School system by choice and the fact that our parents paid tuition. We were all college bound kids whose parents wanted us to have the advantages that a large school could give. That included foreign languages, arts, and music as well as advanced placement classes in all of the regular subjects. Most of my hometown friends qualified for those. If you remember your history, you know that that was the year Little Rock Central High School would become the most famous or infamous high school in the world. We all knew what lay ahead and most of us were being instructed to keep our heads down and mind our own business which was getting an education not a reputation.
Everybody I knew was at this party. We danced to Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper. We were having a great time, and there was a new boy in town to make things more interesting. He was a distant cousin of one of the girls and was visiting from out of state. When he heard one of my girl friends mention that she was nervous about school, he joined the conversation. As always, I took the most liberal view of things and said I had no problem with the upcoming changes. After all, we had been playing with “colored” kids all of our lives, and we knew that some of them were plenty smart. In those days, “colored” was an acceptable word. This boy turned on me with, “So that makes you a N----- lover.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Then in one swift move, every one of my childhood male friends circled this kid and hustled him out of the room. He was back within five minutes, untouched but humbled and apologized in front of everyone there for his behavior. I could not have been prouder of those boys who came to my defense even those that I knew were probably as prejudiced as he was.
When the party was over, the girls stayed for a sleep over. We donned our baby-doll pajamas and retired to the sleeping porch. It wasn’t long before all of the boys came back for their annual drive through. They would come up the road and make a couple of turns around the circular drive and honk and wave as they yelled good-night. We girls would go to the screen and wave back. While our jammies were short, none of us was allowed to have anything immodest. This night as I waved to the boys, I bumped the wooden framework of the porch. I dislodged a wasp nest, and the wasps flew up under my little top stinging me as they fought to get free. I did the only thing I could think of while in pain and under attack. I pulled off my top. There I was with my lithe, 17 year old body displayed brazenly to all of these boys I had known for years. There was a moment of silence followed by hooting and honking such as had never been heard before. I, on the other hand, fled to the bedroom with friends who could see that I was in serious trouble. I began having an allergic reaction to the nearly 20 stings I had suffered, and after a quick phone call to my family, was transported to the hospital.
You might be asking how chivalry comes into this after those boys reaction to my strip tease. Well, the word spread quickly that I had been dangerously close to dying . To this day, not one of those young men ever mentioned to me or anyone else that I know of what happened that night. What they saw may be burned into their brains just as the experiences of that evening are burned into mine, but a true gentleman tells no tales.