Richard Petty’s Hometown and the U.S. Military

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The famous Petty stock-car-racing family is quite representative of the very American sport, generally, in that its members come from the small Piedmont North Carolina town of Randleman.  From Wikipedia we learn that, as of 2020, Randleman had a population of 4,595, but as late as 1980, only 2,156 people lived there.  Doubtless, this more than doubling of the population reflects the fact that it is becoming a bedroom community for the larger cities of Greensboro and High Point to its immediate north.  Just over three quarters of its residents are non-Hispanic whites.

Actually, although Randleman is usually listed as Richard Petty’s hometown, he and the Petty family are from the much smaller community of Level Cross, just to the north of Randleman.  The important thing about them is the culture of which they are a part.  In his seminal 1965 Esquire magazine article, “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” New York City-based Richmond writer, Tom Wolfe, made the observation that the Appalachian region from which Johnson hailed has also produced a greatly disproportionate number of winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor.  See “In Praise of Appalachian Soldiers” for an updated treatment of the subject.

We are stretching things only a little bit to make Randleman and Level Cross part of the Appalachians.  Junior Johnson’s native Wilkes County is just on the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains and the Petty’s Randolph County is three counties to the east of Wilkes, well out of sight of the mountains, but, especially in the rural part of the county, the culture is very similar.  The requirement to excel in military combat and in NASCAR racing have one big thing in common, that is, great physical courage, and, when it comes to that, the men of Randolph and Wilkes Counties are very similar.

As it happens, during my four years of graduate school at the University of North Carolina, 1968-1972, I got to know a guy from Randleman fairly well.  He was a Navy veteran.  He had a military-themed tattoo on his forearm before tattoos were in style outside the Navy and the criminal class, and he often wore long-sleeved shirts even in very warm weather to conceal it.  He was in the journalism school, and I was in economics graduate school, but we were both members of the North Carolina Veterans for Peace organization that protested the Vietnam War.  My main interaction with him, though, came from the fact that we both had Korean wives.  He had met his while in the Navy, while I, recently returned from serving in the U.S. Army in Korea, met my future wife in my first full semester of grad school.  His wife baby-sat for us, and I would see them on the occasions when the campus Koreans would get together for picnics featuring fabulous Korean food, and, to my combination of amusement and dismay, the Randleman native’s wife would prepare bologna sandwiches for him because the feast was too exotic for his palate.

But back to the subject at hand, an observation he once made about his upbringing has stuck with me.  “Most of the guys I grew up with,” he said, “are now either dead or in prison.”

My first thought was that he had confirmed what I had imagined about Randleman, that is, that it is a really rough sort of blue-collar place.  Upon more recent reflection, I have been struck by how closely his experience accords with that of the English poet, A.E. Housman, so much so that I have penned this paraphrase of one of Housman’s poems, substituting “Randleman” for “Ludlow”*:

When I came last to Randleman,
Amidst the moonlight pale,
Two friends kept step beside me,
Two honest friends and hale.

Now Dick lies long in the churchyard,
And Ned lies long in jail,
And I come home to Randleman,
Amidst the moonlight pale.

The two young men in Housman’s poem were both honest and healthy, he tells us, but one of them has been sent off to prison for a long stretch and the other one, we can gather, died young.  So, what’s the story?

Starting with Ned, we may gather his crime was not theft, fraud, or anything that broke the moral code of the community of which he was a part.  Housman characterized both friends as honest, after all.  We know for a fact that had he been an associate of Junior Johnson, Ned’s crime could have been making, transporting, or selling whiskey for sale, upon which no taxes had been paid.  There would have been nothing dishonest about that, according to the prevailing moral code of the community.  Or the crime might well have been a violent one, perhaps one of passion or over a point of perceived honor.

As for Dick’s demise, he might have been killed by Ned, for all we know.  The poem suggests, at least, that he did not die of natural causes.  He might well have been killed serving his country, or what is more likely in the mid-20th century United States, killed in an automobile accident, and he didn’t have to be fleeing the cops with a load of moonshine for it to happen.  We do learn from Horace Kephart’s classic, Our Southern Highlanders, that violent confrontations within that society are a good deal higher than among the nation generally.

Again, Randleman is not in the Appalachians, but the region was heavily settled by immigrants whose origins were in the highlands of Scotland, many by way of the north of Ireland.  The town of Ludlow in the county of Shropshire, on the border of Wales in the south of England, is quite far from Scotland, but there is at least one hint of a strong cultural similarity on the Shropshire Wikipedia page:  “Ludlow Castle site features heavily in the folk-story of Fulk FitzWarin, outlawed Lord of Whittington, Shropshire and a possible inspiration for the Robin Hood legend.”

What that suggests is that as among the “good ole boys” of North Carolina, there was a certain contempt in Shropshire for the laws imposed upon them by outsiders.  Housman’s famous little volume, A Shropshire Lad, is also heavy with martial references, suggesting that, like their Piedmont Tar Heel counterparts, the young men of Shropshire might have carried a disproportionate share of the military load for the British Empire, starting with the very first poem, “1887,” written upon the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria.  While “’tis fifty years tonight,” says Housman, “that God has saved the Queen,” things haven’t gone so well for his homies:

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

For more than a century, the young men of the Randlemans of the United States, going back to men like Sergeant Alvin York of Fentress County, Tennessee, have carried more than their share of the burden of the creation and preservation of the U.S. empire.  With what has been going on in the United States military in recent years, that era looks like it is coming to a screeching halt, and it bodes ill for the nation’s martial might.

U.S. Military and NASCAR Fans Parting Company

For reasons not at all hard to understand, it looks like the crowd who originated the chant that NBC reporter Kelli Stavast interpreted as “Let’s Go Brandon” has grown quite disenchanted with military service.  Our nation’s armed services are falling farther and farther short of their recruiting goals, and a major reason for that is that they aren’t getting enough white people to sign up.  This white shortage, we may gather, is not coming from urban areas or from the college educated, because they haven’t been a big source for the military for quite some time.

A total of 44,042 new Army recruits were categorized by the service as white in 2018, but that number has fallen consistently each year to a low of 25,070 in 2023, with a 6% dip from 2022 to 2023 being the most significant drop. No other demographic group has seen such a precipitous decline, though there have been ups and downs from year to year.

In other words, the bottom has dropped out of recruitment of whites for the military, and it seems to be getting worse at an increasing rate.  That quote is from the web site, and they venture some rather weak explanations for why it might be happening such as the growing “obesity epidemic” and what they call, without elaboration, “partisan scrutiny of the service.”

 My fellow Southerner and economist, Paul Craig Roberts, might elaborate for them:

A military headed by a black Secretary of Defense, a female Deputy Secretary of Defense, a black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a female Chief of Naval Operations, a female Secretary of the Army, a Hispanic Secretary of the Navy, and a black head of the US Air Force Academy comes across as a military hostile to “racist, misogynist heterosexual white males.”  These officials might all be competent, but they don’t come across to those in the ranks as warriors loyal to the troops. The black Secretary of Defense reinforced this impression when he announced that promotions for whites were on hold because there are too many white officers. In other words, the military is no longer merit-based. It is a racial and gender quota system.

Moreover, it appears that the “woke” indoctrination that has infested higher education and a great deal of corporate America has come to our military, especially during the Biden administration.  The following quote comes from an opinion piece written by a University of Tennessee law professor when Kevin McCarthy was still the Speaker of the House:

And now a large group of retired senior military officers — generals and admirals all — is raising the alarm on the pernicious influence of “woke” ideology in military DEI programs.

In an open letter addressed to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and the Armed Services Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairmen, they warn the pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion, and political correctness generally, is getting in the way of the military’s actual mission: to fight and win wars and, by being able to do so, deter adversaries from starting anything.

“For generations, our military was a meritocracy,” they write.

It was one of the most — possibly the most — diverse and inclusive institutions in America precisely because it recruited and promoted on merit to a greater degree than almost any other institution in America.

But, they caution, in the name of DEI, it’s moving its emphasis from merit to things like skin color and national origins, in a system where people are “labeled as ‘oppressed’ or ‘oppressors,’ and pitted against each other.”

And as we are repeatedly being reminded by retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, it’s not just in terms of effective manpower that the U.S. military is being hollowed out these days.  In spite of our massive military budget, according to Macgregor, our armaments as well come very much short of the mark.  We are more and more beginning to resemble our NATO allies in such countries as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in terms of our ability to wage warfare against anything resembling a serious opponent.  The very latest word is that the overpriced high-tech weapons that we do have aren’t all that effective.  With every day that passes, for a host of reasons, our military bite is falling short of our diplomatic bark.

*Some years ago, as a part of a tour of Spain, my wife and I got to spend some time with a retired economist and his wife in Seville.  The wife had been a high school classmate of my wife in Seoul.  The man, with a Ph.D. from Cambridge, I discovered, was actually a native of Ludlow.  Economists tend to be rather narrow in their field of knowledge; this fellow seemed to know nothing about A.E. Housman, in spite of the poet’s numerous references to the historic Shropshire town in A Shropshire Lad and the fact that the poet’s ashes are scattered at Ludlow’s St. Laurence’s Church, and there is also a plaque there honoring Housman that I have seen with my own eyes.

He reminded me of a couple of American Ph.D. economists I knew in Puerto Rico when I worked there 1978-1980.  One of them, with a Ph.D. from Yale had seen the 1978 Vietnam War movie Coming Home, as I had, and liked it.  When I told him that I particularly enjoyed Jane Fonda’s performance in the movie, he responded, “Which one was she?”

The other one, the source of whose doctorate I either never learned or have forgotten, admitting that he was no sports fan, had to be told who Muhammad Ali was when I mentioned the boxer’s name to him.

David Martin

4 Thoughts to “Richard Petty’s Hometown and the U.S. Military”

  1. John

    Kind of wordy. I had to skim half the article to get to the main point.

    Our military is almost worthless. How a president can drain it down from a peak during the Trump years to a point lower than the Obama years is beyond me. Wokeness (communism) at its finest.

    “Good ole white boys” are smartening up. A veteran myself, I would NEVER recommend a military career to any of my kids.

    We’re fast heading into a situation where illegals will be recruited into the military to sustain a war with Iran. Jihadists who have been crossing for the past three years will be activated and then a large terrorist attack will take place. All thanks to the senile Biden.

    1. It’s the main point only if you’re going by the grabber headline that it was given on, “The DEI Destruction of the American Military.” That’s not the article’s title, though, you might have noticed. There’s a good deal of useful information in the article, I think, for one willing to avail himself of it. You might want to go back and read the whole thing more carefully, clicking on the links that you skimmed over rather than reading it just to confirm what you already know.

      On your last point, it’s clear that Israel and their fifth column in the United States have been trying to bait us into a war with Iran for quite some time. it would be insanity for us to fall for it, and so far we have been able to resist it. Let’s hope the resistance continues, but with all this talk about jihadists being allowed into the country, I fear that they might be setting us up for another big false flag attack of the 9/11 variety, which they would then use as an excuse for going to war with Iran.

    2. Eyes of Horus

      It’s also the destruction of the American educational system. But it started with the introduction way too many people who know nothing about teaching: administrators.

      1. Not only am I an Army veteran, but I am also the son of a school principal and an elementary school teacher. I also taught economics in college for six years. I agree completely with this observation. The key to good education, I have long felt, is simply to get good teachers and let them teach. On both counts, we do just the opposite. The ridiculous, mindless courses one has to take to get a teaching certificate could hardly be better devised to assure that the worst students go into teaching as a career. If, for some reason, a few with a real love of learning make it past thay obstacle, they are hamstrung by the administrators who burden them with pointless paperwork and other requirements that have nothing to do with real learning.

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