Richard Hoover: Parents must find new ways to teach teens way the world turns

Richard W. Hoover

Most teenagers I know live carefully managed lives, hemmed in by institutions and parental controls, lives whose ticking minutes are spent on academics, athletics, computers, clubs, TV and the like. What I do not see is much personal freedom, the kind that teaches how the world  turns, which helps form better judgement and a better sense of risk, i.e. when and when not to take it.

Young people of the 1950s were blessed with freedom. Travel, for example, supplied adventure, kept them well abreast of big changes, of what was vanishing and what was a-birthing. On buses and trains, they met people from all regions, of all conditions.

So, as a Civil War history fanatic, and with the most supportive parents, I boarded a Greyhound bus the summer of 1955 and headed dead south, leaving Cleveland for New Orleans and Vicksburg. I was 15, carrying lots of cash (before credit cards) and instructed to call home, collect, every third day.

Under the heading “Witness to What was About to Vanish:” a young and happy-spirited black couple boarded in Columbus. We three sat in the front row. As the Greyhound roared toward the Ohio River, they seemed to be debating. And as we hit the river bridge to Kentucky, they exchanged a should-we-or-shouldn’t-we glance. Suddenly, they rose and merrily moved to the back of the bus!

Heading through Tennessee, we stopped at a rural shelter to pick up four or five “outstanding babes” (pardon this  reversion to teenage vernacular). Country girls, they surrounded me like lionesses around a lamb. Obeying some dark, genetic impulse, they began to tease: “Why Dickie Hoover, aren’t you the sweetest thing, coming all the way down here to visit us in the South. Now, tell us what you’re about, where you’re going,” etc., etc. Just when I steadied myself to blurt out something about the Civil War, we reached the next stop and they all got off. At first sight, I knew these girls were trouble, but I simply couldn’t fathom how they knew my name! Transferring at Memphis, I stood to retrieve my suitcase from the overhead rack and discovered my ID tag dangling from its handle, right over my seat.

As for witnessing what was being born: pulling out of the station at Tupelo, Mississippi, a musical wave of the future blared from the loudspeaker: early Elvis! I probably did not understand the meaning of an “iconic moment,” but it was just that and never forgotten.

Then, New Orleans; I spent almost a week with its architectural and historical treasures. Nights in the French Quarter, I peered into places I was too young to enter. I was accosted by both sidewalk hustlers and bouncers who, all at once, invited me in and kept me out! Adventure!

A two-hour Southern Trailways stopover in Natchez, Mississippi. It was long enough to view grand homes from a distance and, close by the station, actually access an eerie, mildewing, but not entirely boarded-up antebellum ruin, filled with crumbling 19nth century remnants — broken furniture, a wicker pram, ruined pictures hanging askew.

I spent well over a week in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Saw my first color TV, in the YMCA lounge. Days spent walking over the fields, map in hand.

On judgement and risk: one broiling morning, I stumbled upon a remote battlefield property — a “garden” prominently seeded with dug artillery shells. It adjoined a ramshackle souvenir hut, long shut down. An old and unwell fellow invited me inside to cool off with a Coke, guided me past all the faded posters and postcards, past the big red Coca-Cola cooler and into the rear room. He sat on a bed and I in a corner chair. After telling sad tales (his wife had died years before), he suddenly produced a shotgun from under the bed. Brandishing it, he asked if I had come to poke around, to steal the shells from his garden. Well, as you may note, I brilliantly talked my way out of it — well enough, at least, to live to write it up!

Nights, I walked Vicksburg. Indelible is the peaceful, melodic memory of several black ladies, each sitting on the front porch of their narrow side-by-side river houses, talking straight into the darkness, conversing without looking left or right.

More adventure: I was taken under the wing of Vicksburg Park historian and World War II U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edwin Bearss. Bearss was destined to write great books and become chief historian of the National Park Service. With his good friend Walter Grabeau, we traveled to Vicksburg-related battle sites — Raymond and Grand Gulf. This was real backwoods. I remember minie ball holes in ancient sheds and fences, Confederate trenches (“covered ways”) overlooking the Mississippi, so overgrown and unexplored that we thought ourselves their first 20th-century visitors!

My point: whatever I may have learned of human nature, life, risk, the Civil War and the South, I could not have done it so well without such youthful adventures. Nor so well, actually, had I been in the distracting, if not restraining company of companions. Whenever possible, it’s best to venture alone.

Yes, today is different. What  parent(s) would send a lone 15-year-old on such a journey? Yet, lest they risk training-up children to become vulnerable innocents, parents must find ways to teach their teenagers the way the world turns, must find alternatives that provide more personal freedom, more adventure than youngsters from most caring homes are now permitted.

Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warren County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings.