Virginia was the first state in the U.S. in which the Wakeham clan — Dad, Mom and their five offspring — took up roots after the out-migration of airline employees forced us to depart Gander.
And, despite some profound loneliness and a desperate longing to be back in Newfoundland (especially for me), Virginia — a state I had minimal knowledge of, most of it acquired superficially through Western movies I had seen at the Crescent Theatre in Gander — had a relatively subdued and easy-going culture (at least on the surface) that eased, somewhat, our initial adjustment to life in America.
That first day of school in Falls Church, Va., was traumatic, though, giving rise to a story that has taken a prominent place in Wakeham family lore:
My Grade 7 teacher, a nun, ordered me in her southern drawl: “Come on up here, now, and tell us all a little bit ‘bout yourself.”
I, the classically shy Newf, awkwardly made my way to the front of the class, and began to mumble something, apparently unintelligible, because the teacher interrupted: “I do not know,” she said emphatically, almost angrily, “whether it’s ’cause ya got your head down, or ’cause of that thick Irish brogue, but we cannot understand one single word you all are sayin’.”
Red-faced, I could only respond in rapid-fire words, and succinctly: “That’s the way we talks, S’ster.”
Later, at recess, I was surrounded by a bunch of tall Yanks, one of whom wondered: “How’d ya all learn to speak English so well?”
But, despite that hellish morning, I did learn to embrace Virginia, oblivious to its darker side.
We lived there, quite happily for a year and a half; Mom joined a bridge club, she and Dad had an active social life. We road horses, swam a lot, enjoyed all kinds of outdoor sports during the long, warm summer months. Other than missing Newfoundland, it was near idyllic.
I heard the “n” word used quite liberally, in a matter-of-fact fashion, in idle conversation, but had neither the knowledge and maturity nor background and context to realize just how awful and loaded a term it was. I was barely 13 years old, had lived my life in a place where I had only seen one black person, Clobbie Collins, an “import” player brought over from the mainland to play in the Newfoundland Senior League. I knew nothing of racism.
St. James was an all-white Catholic school; ironically, I did know a bit about segregation, but it was religious segregation in Gander. Catholics and Protestants (the non-Catholics, as described to us by our narrow-minded teachers), were educated separately, an opportunity for the RC educators and priests to tell us, among other delightful pieces of instruction, that Protestants were off-limits in terms of future relationships, that getting involved with that crowd was a recipe for matrimonial disaster, the ultimate “mixed marriage.”
Anyway, we were a long ways from Gander in 1963, in a place where Confederate flags flew everywhere, a great source of pride to the locals; my knowledge of the Confederacy had been accumulated, again, mostly from movies at the Crescent Theatre, in which former southern rebels (John Wayne’s character in “The Searchers”) were viewed somewhat romantically and sympathetically, having been underdogs in the fight, the Civil War, with that nasty federal government which was attempting to alter “states’ rights.”
What I didn’t know back then, of course, was that the most important “right” the Southerners wished to maintain was to keep slaves, an abomination of human depravity for which the United States still has not apologized to the descendants of slaves, a century and a half later.
I once saw a chain gang of all black prisoners cleaning out ditches in our area of rural Northern Virginia, but, again, I was too young, and totally lacking in any sort of historical knowledge, to grasp the impact of what I was seeing.
I was also unaware that only three or four years before we arrived in Virginia, it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry (a couple arrested and charged for such a crime had their true story depicted in last year’s Academy Award-nominated movie, “Loving.”)
We’re told, we’re led to believe, that Virginia (and other southern states) have progressed since the days when we lived in Falls Church (everything’s relative, I guess), and I was inclined the other day to conclude those neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville were an aberration.
But then Trump opened his bigoted mouth, and it struck me that half of the Americans who voted last fall chose this racist, sexist pig to be their president.
If ever the world needed further evidence that racism thrives in so many parts of the United States, it is provided almost daily by its disgraceful president.
Virginia, the Virginia I knew briefly 55 years ago, was pure fantasy, a world of fiction.
It was, indeed, a grand place to live. As long as you were white.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org