Whenever I think of the Delaware I grew up in—during the Fifties and Sixties—I tend to slip into the Rodney Dangerfield mold. Delaware, up until now, got “no respect.” Think about it. Assuming you’re not from Delaware, how many people from Delaware have you ever met? Delaware is small, but it’s not the smallest state. Rhode Island claims that distinction. Delaware does have the distinction of being “the first state,” but only through an accident of proximity and geography. We were the closest colony to the Continental Convention in Philadelphia, and we had only three delegates, making consensus easy. Besides, being “the first state” has never netted Delaware any tangible benefits. The state has fewer than a million people and only two senators and one representative in Congress.
The Delaware I knew as a kid, moreover, always seemed to be a land of prose and not poetry. “A river” didn’t “run through it.” It ran alongside of it—at the time, a somewhat polluted Delaware River. But a canal did run through it. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal divided roughly the northern third of the state from the southern two-thirds. “North of the Canal,” as we used to say, was a land of suburban tract developments, strip shopping centers, factories, and above all, chemical companies. “South of the Canal” was a flat tableau of farms and small towns—a place you had to drive through to get to Rehoboth Beach or to Ocean City, Maryland.
Then there is the problem of Delaware’s nondescript location. It’s neither North nor South (and it’s not in New England—a common misconception). It sits in the middle of the eastern seaboard—the mid-Atlantic region of the country. There is romance aplenty and there are distinct subcultures associated with the South and with New England and even with the Midwest. But not with the mid-Atlantic. Those of us “North of the Canal” lived under the hegemony of Philadelphia and tended to use expressions such as “youse guys.” Those “South of the Canal” looked to Baltimore, and many shared that distinctive “Charm City” accent. I suppose we were united by a shared fondness for Maryland blue-claw crabs and Philadelphia-style Italian submarine and steak sandwiches. But I can’t say that there is a distinctive mid-Atlantic or Delaware culture per se.
The one dubious distinction we did cling to when I was growing up was being the “chemical capital of the world.” “Better things for better living through chemistry,” the DuPont Company of my youth used to proclaim. DuPont was, and still is, headquartered in Wilmington. Atlas and Hercules Chemical—both major concerns in their own right—were also there. But the working-class Delaware dream in those days was “to get in with DuPont”--one of the great paternalistic companies that used to promise secure lifelong employment and a good retirement.
For those of us with no prospects of going to college, the next best thing to DuPont seemed to be a soul-deadening-- but highly paid, union protected--life of monotony on the assembly line at either General Motors or Chrysler—both of which had plants in northern Delaware. But there was always the military too, and that’s the route I chose in order to escape the life of industrial-strength boredom that seemed to be my legacy were I to stay.
Looking back on the fifty-some years since I first left, one thing I’ve learned to appreciate is the ironic truth of a popular song lyric from the Seventies: “You can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are.” I have worked my way out to Washington State-- about as far as I could get from Delaware and still be in the contiguous United States. A year ago, had I challenged people out here to name a famous Delawarean, I’ll bet they couldn’t have done it. But, now, a Delawarean, Senator Joe Biden, has become the Vice President of the United States. It’s time to embrace the truth of a self-deprecating joke I’ve often made with friends and acquaintances from other places: I’m just a simple working-class lad from New Castle, Delaware. It worked for Joe Biden, and its working for me.
I think I’ll start that long-put-off Vietnam novel, and the protagonist will be from Delaware. Maybe my wife and I will even move back there someday.