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.