'By the way, where you from, Alexander?" I was sitting at a group table in the unrenovated National Press Club barroom, and the stranger was just making conversation. Without thinking I started to say, "Baltimore," which was natural enough. I had just arrived from The Baltimore Sun, via Kiplinger News Agency, having quit to try a column with McNaught Syndicate.
But for some reason that I hadn't time to wonder on, the answer got no farther than "Balti --." It stuck in my throat, and I heard myself firmly say, "I'm from West Virginia. Clarksburg."
There are explanations for these subconscious blurtings. There always are. But it has taken me years to sort them out. First off, there's a powerful sentiment in the expression "hometown" -- where're you from? -- and it comes from where the heart is, a myriad throng of emotions and recollections. It was 1946 or early '47, but I hadn't lived in Clarksburg since 1917, nor as memory served, even been back there. Actually, if my pride had spoken I could have said, "Charles Town, W.Va.," my father's birthplace, where I spent mny boyhood summers with my Uncle Richard. If it's possible for a boy to have the Stars and Bars for a birthmark, mine was on me somewhere. I had no childhood love for Clarksburg, though I lived there for 11 years, but Charles Town -- well, I adored it, the tinderbox of the Confederacy.
John Brown was tried in the Jefferson County courthouse, across the street from a post-bellum insurance firm, "Washington & Alexander," my cousin and grandfather, founders. The Kansan was hanged in a family orchard, now designated by an historical marker. Two granduncles were with the Stonewall Brigade and two with Jeb Stuart. Two didn't survive. My grandfather's obituary listed him as militia officer. If home is where the heart is, Charles Town was mine. My Uncle Richard was so proud of the place that his home was enclosed with stained glass windows from the West Virginia sand banks, and a black chauffeur drove him daily to his office as vice president of the Equitable Trust Company, Baltimore.
Yes, but I grew up in Clarksburg.
In the campaign of 1960 I went to the state with candidate Jack Kennedy and the memories swarmed: Pierpont public school; the hideous cone-shaped mountain called Pinnickinnick; Kelley's Hill where imported Italian miners subsisted on goat's milk because they couldn't afford the cow pastured in the backyard of every upper-upper family; the marble, small equestrian statue of Stonewall (the Confederate Daugthers were few and penurious, so they purchased and indoor model and mounted it outside).
A lady waved at the press bus and said, "Why, there's Holmes Moss." Many of us as kids were double-named, but I hadn't been called that for three decades. I remembered Aunt Amy Vance's house (her son would be secretary of state), another frame house where Cousin Somebody (a provincial title for relatives and non-relatives alike) tried to teach me Spanish, so I could be a Rough Rider. And, of course, there was the tall house of John W. Davis (what gossip when he married a divorcee whose husband was both an adulterer and dead, so what was all the fuss about?). There was the law office of Steptoe & Johnson (Louis Johnson was Truman's secretary of defense), and the Episcopal Church where my Uncle Henry was for 30 years the Sunday school superintendent. And the Empire Building, which contained the grown-up firm of Alexander & Alexander. And, of course, my old home on Chestnut Street and the beautiful summer cottage, Spring Hill.
Though Clarksburg was West -- by Gawd! -- Virginia, not the gentle Charles Town of the Confederate Shenandoah Valley, it was nothing to be ashamed of -- not like my birthplace, Parkersburg, my mother's home, situated on the Ohio River -- Yankeeland.
The family insurance company in Charles Town was founded to underwrite the McCormick reaper, another Shenandoah Valley product, and had followed lucky land to the mid-state coal mines worked by Italian immigrants with name tags on their ragged shirts.
Prosperity wouldn't let us alone. Daily after school I took to the streets with the Clarksburg Evening Telegram: "Read all about the war in Europe!" I didn't know at the time that Uncle Will, my father's intrepid brother-partner, was braving the U-boats to sell insurance polices in London, establishing a modest family fortune. Up until the Great War these two West Virginia towns made up my whole world, and it is no wonder that there in the Press Club bar I choked on Baltimore and suddenly realized that I had no home but Appalachia. c
But mysterious forces were at work without benefit of consultation between my parents and me. I became vaguely conscious of impending change, and it disturbed me. Finally it came out in dinner-table conversation that the firm had outgrown Clarksburg and there were business reasons for moving to Baltimore.
My dismay was unanswered by references to the fine school I would attend in the city and state I had visited across the watergap at Harpers Ferry and regarded on a lower Yankee level Ohio, a traitor state.
Why, I pleaded, couldn't I stay here with any of many friendly and related families? Never mind whatever prestige attached by my parents to Gilman Country School; Pierpont suited me fine. It was coed -- some fetching tomboys whom the teacher could not dissuade from "skinning the cat" on the gym bars at recess and who were mischievous fight promoters after school (some of them could even be persuaded to take off their clothes in an empty piano box on a back lot).
Never mind, the best of times must end, and this one shut down one night to the well-remembered smell of varnished leather in a hired cab that took us to the B&O station and Baltimore.
How I hated the place. First, I think, because a huge touring car on St. Paul Street ran over Fritz, our Boston bull terrier, and never slowed down. Daily I made the trip to Gilman. The West Virginia system left me scholastically unprepared and I was demoted to a lower class and developed a juvenile inferiority complex which had other ramifications.
I think I was the only Gilman boy at the time whose parents did not know one another, and from an eager afterschool scrapper I became downright timid. I now walked wide, whereas in Clarksburg I would sprint around the block to seek some adversary for a second round.
But I had my heroes -- male faculty members, many just back from the Western Front with canes and arm slings, others with a wealth of university book-learning which I fell down and worshiped.
I had never mastered penmanship, and was always flunking examinations, but I was obsessed with literature, beginning with H. C. Witwer's The Leather Pushers and Ane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, but rising to any nonassigned masterpiece at the school and home libraries.
None of the school publications appeared without my contributions, and I was also the willing ghost writer for occasions from dedicatory exercises to football rallies to debating team contests (I was too shy to make the speeches that won the prizes).
When it came to athletics, I was reduced many degrees by the fact that the athletics director contemptuously translated my name as Homeley and I was so nervous that I cost my football teams untold yardage by jumping offside. It wasn't until some of my schoolmates invited me for weekends at their country homes that I became both an adroit horseman and a sighing romantic for their sisters. My reputation soared the day I jumped my mount over a huge barnyard stonewall on a dare and for the sake of a rosy smile.
A hometown? What more could I ask than Baltimore? At 24 I was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates; at 26 I was awarded the annual medallion for meritorious achievement in literature; I won the Moonlight Steeplechase, along with other races; I was captain of an all-Baltimore Cup-winning polo team ("The Orioles," naturally). Nineteen ushers saw me up the aisle when I married a lovely girl of Virginia (of course).
But something was missing.
Still, when asked at the Press Club, I had rejected Baltimore as a hometown, sold my family farm and GI bonds to start again at 40 in Washington. How come? Well, there was in me a strange discontent of nonacceptance. It was, I repeat, in me, not in my associates, but I imagined it to be in their parents who never quite accepted the Appalachian interloper. I don't know why, but I kissed girls with abandon everywhere except Baltimore. I could not then have married a Baltimorean, though I was in love with several. Something in the community seemed false -- its clubs, its social parties, although I belonged and enjoyed them all. To the dismay of my parents, I made close friends of the blacksmith and stable grooms, I suppose because they had a touch of Clarksburg.
As a Washington columnist I made a point of meeting all (then) 98 senators, most of the House chairman and leaders, and the office staffs. I had arrived with the 80th Congress, and was soon on friendly terms with the future men of destiny -- the Kennedy's, Lyndon Johnson, Humphrey -- and I belonged to all the right clubs. But somehow I never felt at home there either.
There was, I suppose, no mystery about it, for I was as much an unreconstructed Right-Winger as a Confederate, being published by right-wing houses, which literary folk, editors and high-toned hucksters scorned, but which I did not regard as disgraceful.
What would have been disgraceful is self-pity, but I was born as long ago as 1906, and felt much too grown-up for that. There is a better remedy. At least once a year I find some reason to fly to Clarksburg. The Evening Telegram, which I used to hawk after school hours, carries my column. It tells me where my home is, and that is something everyone needs to know.