The transition from boy to man

Published 10:45 am Saturday, August 11, 2012

Long peanut rows beyond the front hedges of our yard are almost touching in the middles.

July heat wilts the unprotected. I rock intermittently in the chair with the replaced bottom, feet sometimes propped up on the porch railing. Summer, eastern Virginia haze smothers individual trees at the far end of the “long rows,” as my father calls them. They’ve become just a dark edge against a distant sky.

My year of college at Elon is a month in the past; it was not a stellar performance. My 18th birthday is two weeks past; there was no celebration.

I sit without plan or purpose. I feel I’m wasting my parents’ money; there’s not a lot of that to start with. A small scholarship for college expenses from my church helped, but money is still tight with my family.

I seem to be at loose ends, somewhere between advanced adolescence and beginning adulthood, a place known to create anxiety within families. I think many have stood at this doorway before me, but it seems intensely personal right now.

A lifetime moment of transition is about to occur.

A car enters our path and comes to a stop close by the front porch. It’s a friend from college; he’s also a friend from visits between our separate church groups.

His family lives in Holland, about half way to Suffolk. We sit and chat about any number of things, soon to be forgotten. Small talk ends; he gets around to the purpose of his visit.

He says, “Arch, let’s go join the Navy and fly airplanes.”

It sounds perfectly reasonable to me and we make plans to visit a recruiter. Adventure calls; I feel a moment of purpose.

A waiting period ensues after signup. My friend is notified of a show-up date and place, but I wait another two weeks for my notification. He precedes me to initial boot camp by two weeks. We plan to meet up during the indoctrination.

At some point during this waiting, my father approaches me with what I think is a request. He suggests that I could return to college instead of running off to the Navy.

I can remember only one conversation between my father and myself in the past. It had to do with segregation and my attitude was different from his. His point seemed to be “Be grateful for what you have and don’t rock the boat.”

My father is a good, kind and generous person; his strong work ethic provided for a wife and seven children, and includes many acts of kindness toward others.

He functioned in his home and workplace with a grade-school education and a graduate degree in experience. He is well known and respected in the neighborhood.

We had a difference of opinion, as much as a child is permitted to have a difference of opinion with a parent.

Summer jobs, beyond the farm, include a stint bagging groceries at the local Colonial Stores, cutting well pipe for the Pittman Brothers at their shop near Courtland and helping Mr. Ray Tillett in his roofing and sheet metal business. Mr. Tillett is my last summer employer, and I respect and admire him as an employer. His courtesy and concern for his workers is a good model for later years.

I assume an air of anticipation, having made the decision to be of service to my country, although the decision is more an escape from boredom and the status quo than from any sense of duty. It seems to be a proper escape vehicle from the imagined chains of childhood and family. After all, who can decry the volunteer attitude toward flag and country?

On the appointed day, I place a change of underwear and some toiletries in a brown paper sack as instructed, say quick goodbyes to what family is present, and take the passenger seat in our car for the ride to Norfolk and another universe. I feel excited at prospects for change in my life; I look forward with the complete confidence of the immature uninitiated. I join the legions that marched before me.

There are many transitions in my life, none more significant than that fall day, pulling out of our path onto the highway toward Franklin, knowing that something beckoned and I was powerless to refuse, understanding that old paths and patterns would become less familiar with disuse and distance. I didn’t look back.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at