“I ain’t gonna ride on no Yankee boat!”

Photo of Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the moon.

By NASA/Apollo 11 (Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the Moon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ll never forget my first encounter with irrational reverence to the Confederacy. It happened in June of 1961. I was nine years old and had traveled with my family to Biloxi, Mississippi, a popular vacation spot on the Gulf of Mexico.

Like many locales along the southern coasts, Biloxi drew thousands from the north who wished to lose their summertime ennui in sunshine and sand. Unlike some of those locales, Biloxi’s appeal was purely wholesome. No rowdy bars, no carousing—Biloxi boasted mom-and-pop motels, family restaurants, and touristy distractions.

One such distraction was an excursion to Ship Island, a barrier island about ten miles off the coast. My parents primed me to go with the thought of scooping rare and valuable shells along the shore. Having gleaned but a few lackluster specimens on the public beach, I was ready to find the motherlode. I envisioned an abundance to rival the riches of King Solomon’s mines.

We drove to the harbor, bought our tickets, and joined the other day trippers on the pier waiting to board. Our vessel was a small ferry, well scrubbed and equipped with the requisite rope lines and round white life preservers. However, its most salient feature was the Stars and Stripes. Tethered to a spar at the stern, it danced in agitation against the breeze’s whip, resisting the lash with furious, noisy flapping.

I noticed a boy in our group who was about my age. His skin was tanned and he wore a white sailor cap. He was ahead of me in the cue, and he appeared unsettled. When the boarding started, he stopped short and backed up, like a donkey digging in.

“I ain’t gonna ride on no Yankee boat!”

The rest of us pretended not to notice his outburst, and we casually made our way around him to take our seats. As we did, a woman ushered the boy aside and gave him a hushed talking-to. Whatever she said effected a swift exorcism. It was as if his indignation was carried off by the very wind that had conspired with the flag to inflame it. We embarked without further incident, and the boy remained quiet, if somewhat sullen, for the duration.

Except for the relentless biting flies and soupy, inescapable heat, little else of that day stays with me. I don’t recall if I found any shells. I don’t even remember which of my relatives were along. But the image of that boy with the sailor cap, echoing a deep-seated bitterness, is crystalline. It clings, but not because it insulted my ideal of patriotism. To me, a “Yankee” was a player on the world’s greatest baseball team. Nor did it make me feel threatened—he was just a kid, quickly subdued.

What haunts me is the seeming randomness of his sudden anger. It was surreal, like a scene from a Hitchcock film, gulls diving from the sky to attack passengers on a ferry. Or an actor leaping from the stage of a theater to shoot a man in the audience.

I wonder if the fellow is still living. Was that day a turning point for him, a happy course correction? Did he escape the voices that pour the poison of inherited resentments into young ears? Or has he joined the misguided chorus?

I have no way of knowing. But I do know that those voices, muted of late, still exalt the Old South and its symbols. They use words like “heritage,” “tradition,” and “states’ rights.” When they do, I hear an adolescent in denial, screaming: I ain’t gonna ride on no Yankee boat!

It’s time the rest of us stop pretending not to notice.

2 thoughts on ““I ain’t gonna ride on no Yankee boat!”

  1. I love this story on a couple of levels. First, it brought the joy of remembering our family vacations (Ship Island flies and all) and the fun of being a kid and seeing new places and meeting people unlike those in our Midwestern environs. Summer vacations were a time of less stress and more fun with a prevailing camaraderie that makes the memory especially poignant.

    Second, and more important, it brought to light an even stronger image that I remember clearly even now: The restrooms and water fountains marked “colored.” While racism was equally prevalent in my hometown of Evansville, it was not so open, so unapologetic, as it was in the South. On one of my first trips to Biloxi, I remember staring at the sign over the water fountain and wondering what was so different/wrong/contagious about “colored” people that they needed their own drinking fountains and restrooms. As I think about it now. either I didn’t ask why or if I did, I was given no real explanation for the separate facilities.

    I lived in Indiana until I was almost 22. I have lived in Georgia since then — 44 years. Admittedly, I have lived in Georgia twice as long as Indiana. However, I believe the level of prejudice in my home state is no less than in my state of residence. It may be less obvious in some situations and more obvious in others, but it is there.

    While it is true that the Confederate Flag is a vestige of a painful and broken time in this country, I think most people here in the South have moved on from that. It is time that the Confederate Flag be laid to rest like the drinking fountain and restroom signs. It serves no purpose except to foment hatred and to open old wounds.

    What we can’t remove, however, are the beliefs that get imprinted on hearts and souls: that a person’s value lies in their skin color or their gender or their economic status, or their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs (or lack thereof); that any one of us is born entitled to anything more or better than anyone else. And these are beliefs that exist in every state in the union, and to some extent, in every one of us.

    So thank you for writing this, dear brother, and reminding me of a childhood experience as well as all the work we, I, have yet to do.

    • What causes people to accept an obvious lie—to come face to face with an error and rationalize it rather than reject it? A President who led our nation to war on false pretenses still insists it was the right thing to do! The great tragedy of pride reeks like rotting flesh since time began. The flags of the Old South are but a drop in the bucket of this persistent plague. It will take time. To quote Sandburg: “I am the grass. Let me work.”

What do you think?