from State By State, Ecco, 2008
My childhood was spent in Laurel, Maryland, in a development named Montpelier after the erstwhile plantation on whose acreage it sat. It was a late-sixties era Levitt & Sons community—one of the last built by the veritable inventors of twentieth-century suburbia. Four floor plans and their mirror images were arranged along four square miles of lawns and curving lanes to create the semblance of diversity, blocks of two-story homes enlivened by the occasional ranch. No address was without a bucolic or poetic appellation like Fernwood Turn, Cedarbrook Lane, or Mt Pleasant Drive—though the only genuinely descriptive name, and this from a purely demographic standpoint, was Ivory Pass. I liked the place best during the impressive blizzards of the 1970s when those lanes and drives became impassable for days and towering piles of shoveled snow obscured my view of everything, making it easier to pretend I was elsewhere. The whole point of a suburb, after all, is its proximity to somewhere else. From Montpelier it was about a half-hour drive to Washington, D.C., or Baltimore. It was an even shorter commute to the federal agencies located in and around Laurel itself, not all of which were keen on being identified. Growing up, I was told to say that my father worked for the government. If pressed, I could specify the Department of Defense. These were the Cold War days when NSA stood for No Such Agency, when my father’s fifteen-minute commute with his Carter-era carpool ended at an unmarked exit.
I spent a good portion of my childhood seeking escape. If I searched hard enough, I was certain I’d discover territory I alternately thought of as the wilderness or the country. One of my earliest forays involved hiking along the drainage ditch that ran behind some of the neighboring houses in the hope it would lead to a river or a lake, preferably one that had yet to be named. When that failed, I took to my bike. Near the edge of Montpelier I found a prairie—a seemingly endless ribbon of high grass—that would have better facilitated Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasies without the skeletal power lines that sutured its length from horizon to horizon. Upon mustering the courage to cross the commercial street that marked the beginning of the nonresidential world, I discovered a curving, wooded back road edged with wildflowers. One unmarked turn-off ended at a complex of anonymous buildings guarded by a man in a sentry booth, whose singular contribution to my historic expedition was the directive “Turn the bicycle around and exit the premises” repeated with military-industrial insistence until I took his advice. I kept to the main road after that, which was exhilaratingly devoid of curbs, houses and manicured lawns and which delivered me to a land of unpremeditated foliage, unmowed grass, and the occasional barn. I pedaled past Poultry Road, Entomology Road, and Biocontrol Road in a state of unbounded derring-do. I had not seen a single car since leaving Montpelier, and thought I might have been the only living thing until I discovered pigs—actual pigs!—snuffling in and out of low cinderblock outbuildings. Never mind that their hutches were marked with the letters USDA and the words Research Animal Services, Swine Unit, or that I had passed signs that read No Trespassing/Government Property. The day was an idyll spent gazing at animal life, picking fist-sized bouquets of wildflowers, and exploring the untrammeled woods that stretched on either side of the road for ten feet before the appearance of fences topped with barbed wire.
Meager as my version of the country may have been, the other alternative to suburbia was too daunting to even attempt. What I knew of the city came from being driven south on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway by my father to visit the Hirshhorn and the National Air and Space Museum and north for shopping excursions with my mother to spend my allowance on stickers and candy at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. My childhood impressions of Baltimore were limited almost solely to this waterside shopping mall, the rest of the city existing in my suburban consciousness as a bastion of poverty and crime, a notion reinforced by momentary glimpses of liquor stores and people with bad teeth on the occasion a wrong turn was taken to or from shopping. My impression of Washington, D.C., as a safer place was, in retrospect, a function of my parents’ assiduous efforts to keep to its northwest quadrant—except for the summer months when we would bring home bushels of live crabs from the D.C. Fish Market (an isolated destination point in the anathema that was southeast portion of the city). In addition to weekend museum trips and seasonal crab forays, we would spend each Fourth of July at the Washington Monument along with the rest of the greater metropolitan area, suffering through monumental lines to use the bathroom and then lying on the lawn to watch fireworks explode over the National Mall. The city was a hodgepodge of isolated, seemingly unrelated locales that required cars and adults to reach, and that sometimes necessitated peeing in the shrubs that fronted the main headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service. My young imagination required something less logistically complicated, something that could be conjured from a few experimental pigs and some roadside trees.
As it turns out, my childhood expeditions were only off by about forty miles. Seventeen of Maryland’s twenty-two counties belong to the country, but Prince George’s County—where I grew up—composes part of the state’s non-rural nexus. Picturing Maryland as a gun pointing west, I lived in the suburban portion of its trigger, along with most of the state’s population. This area lies sandwiched between the rural areas that form Maryland’s barrel and handle. The result is our national red-state/blue-state division writ in miniature. Montgomery County—a neighboring trigger county twenty miles south of Baltimore—recently approved a school sex-ed curriculum that includes homosexuality, while forty miles north of Baltimore, Cecil County parents recently protested the adoption of a biology textbook that didn’t include creationism. Someone driving north from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia on Interstate 95 will traverse these cultural poles in about ninety minutes.
As a trigger-dweller, it was easy to forget about my handle and barrel neighbors. The voice of P.G. County tends to be the voice of the state. Rural Maryland—whose population overwhelmingly votes Republican and speaks in Southern accents—hasn’t influenced a Presidential election in 100 years. In fifth grade, my incipient sense of state pride depended upon Maryland’s Northern-ness. I—it was made clear—was a Yankee. Maryland, after all, fought for the Union in the Civil War. I accepted this as unquestioningly as state bird, flower and flag and in the spirit of self-satisfaction with which it was taught, as if I and my eleven-year-old classmates and our teacher, Mrs. Henley—in addition to belonging to one of five states in the nation that had voted against Reagan in 1980—had personally contributed to Maryland’s having chosen the correct side of American history over a century before any of us had been born. Even now, having lived in New York City for over ten years, Yankee is still a word I apply to myself without once thinking of baseball. My self-identification is such that I smiled smugly when, at the turn of the millennium, Georgia fell into conflict over the Confederate trappings of its state flag. Georgia’s foibles seemed so alien, so distant. Then I learned about Maryland’s state song.
I must have learned its title along with the oriole and the black-eyed Susan. I thought I had somehow forgotten the words until I looked them up and realized that my memory was not the problem. There’s a reason Mrs. Henley didn’t opt for a class sing-along. The following are excerpts from “Maryland! My Maryland!” meant to be sung to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree”:
The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
Maryland! My Maryland.
His torch is at the temple door,
Maryland! My Maryland…
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb –
Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! She burns! She’ll come! She’ll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!
This catchy little defamation of Abraham Lincoln and exhortation to join the Confederacy was penned in 1861. Its author, James Ryder Randall, was a Maryland-born poet. He was inspired to such heights of martial grandiloquence by the death of a friend during the riots that occurred when Southern sympathizers attacked Union troops marching through Baltimore on their way to defend Washington, D.C.—which signified a major gap in my lifelong understanding of Maryland’s historical loyalties. For while it is true that Maryland voted to remain in the Union, apparently this only occured after Lincoln—in a historically unprecedented act of executive privilege—suspended habeus corpus. What enabled a twenty-first century president to establish Guantánamo allowed a nineteenth century one to imprison nine Maryland legislators with Southern sympathies who—had they been permitted to remain in elected office—would have tipped the state legislature in favor of Maryland’s secession from the Union. Growing up in a town bordered by covert federal agencies, in a neighborhood where people tended not to talk about what they did for a living, perhaps it is apt that I grew up with a similarly selective understanding of my state’s past. I don’t blame Mrs. Henley for my incomplete education: she was probably as embarrassed as I was to learn the truth. “Maryland! My Maryland!” was not adopted as the state song until 1939—over seventy years after Randall’s verses should have been a quaint historical footnote. Right around the time I was tracing a picture of an orange-and-black bird into my fifth-grade notebook, a state senator from Montgomery County received a death threat for introducing a bill that advocated the state song’s retirement.
My life-long sense of kinship with those north of the Mason-Dixon Line was the last casualty of my civil re-education. I recently learned that my born-and-bred Bostonian friends don’t think of themselves as Yankees. In New England, there was no Us and Them: the nearest battlefield was over 400 miles away. In Maryland, battle lines divided homes and backyards. About ninety minutes west of Laurel, on Interstate 270, Marylanders fought and died for both armies at the Battle of Antietam, where over three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers were killed and twenty thousand wounded. Almost 150 years later we still feel the need to pick sides. The state’s flag nicely encapsulates our cultural schizophrenia. Instead of the default blue-with-something-slapped-down-in-the-middle, it is divided into four diagonally-symmetrical sections. A slanted yellow-and-black checkerboard fills the upper right and lower left quadrants, an op-art red-and-white cross inhabits the upper left and lower right. Though the design derives from the shield in the coat of arms of Maryland’s colonial founder, only the yellow-and-black checkerboard was originally associated with the state. The red-and-white cross was adopted by Maryland’s sesessionists, who flew the cross as a banner and wore it when they joined the Confederate Army so that their bodies would be shipped back to the right place. When the state flag appeared in the decades after the Civil War, the joining of these two patterns was meant to represent reconciliation, but the cross and checkerboard have no colors in common, no shared shapes.
Since I left Maryland, housing integration has invalidated Montpelier’s Ivory Pass and the National Security Agency has posted an exit ramp off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway that reads NSA. The wooded road that provided my escape from suburbia has been widened, its trees knocked down to accommodate a bedroom community whose streets have names like Sumner Grove, but the pastoral quiet of Poultry Road remains uncompromised and the pigs are still there, snuffling. The state song remains the same. If you happen to be driving through Cecil County on Interstate 95, look for the Confederate flag. Originally, it was flown from a flag pole in a yard overlooking the highway just south of the Perryville exit. Recently, perhaps inspired by Randall’s unrelenting poesy, its owner mounted it—pole and all—atop an industrial cherry-picker, allowing the thing to attain a height that surpasses the length of the torch-wielding arm of the Statue of Liberty.
Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll,
Maryland! My Maryland.
Thou wilt not crook to his control,
Maryland! My Maryland.
Better the fire upon thee roll, Better the blade, the shot, the bowl
Than crucifixion of the soul,
Maryland! My Maryland!