By Lynn R. Mitchell
Tragedy hit at 6:45 a.m. EDT on Wednesday morning southeast of Roanoke, Virginia, when the WDBJ-7 TV shooting exploded onto news networks and social media. Horrified viewers watched the on-air murders of television reporter Alison Parker and camera man Adam Ward who were ambushed while on a remote live-broadcast location on the shores of Smith Mountain Lake, a popular resort community.
As morning news shows dropped regular programming and reported minute-by-minute updates, law enforcement officials were in hot pursuit of the gunman. The gruesome images along with gripping details rippled out into surrounding communities in the Commonwealth and across the nation as the shooter, a disgruntled fired WDBJ-7 employee, led a chase that began at the lake. It continued to the Roanoke airport where the gunman changed cars before speeding north on I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley.
Listening to the news as it broke that morning, we were snugged in our corner of Augusta County, safely away from the tragedy that was unfolding about two hours southeast of us. Or so we thought.
My Richmond sister Lori and cousins Faye and Sharon were in the Valley to visit for the week. Our plans on Wednesday were to meander and explore the Blue Ridge Parkway from Afton to Peaks of Otter where we would enjoy lunch at the lodge overlooking Abbot Lake and Sharp Top Mountain, and then return home in the evening.
However, before we could leave the house we found ourselves drawn to the TV screen as we watched the horror of the unfolding news. As a result, it was late morning before we left, driving through historic downtown Staunton on our way to I-64, Afton Mountain, and Milepost 1 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
That was when, while continually monitoring Twitter and Facebook on my iPhone, we saw that the police chase of the shooter had entered our area with law enforcement searching I-64 east to Fishersville and Afton Mountain in Augusta County, and I-81 north to Verona, also in Augusta County. Area schools were on lock-down. We decided to stay on Route 250 as we drove to Afton instead of taking a chance of getting caught up in any kind of police action that could take place on the interstates.
As we passed Rowe’s Restaurant on Route 250 at I-81, a Staunton police officer was parked beside the road keeping watch.
We continued through Fishersville and Waynesboro before beginning the climb up Afton Mountain, sticking with Route 250 as it hugged the mountain beneath Skyline Drive. At the summit, we decided to stop at King’s Gourmet Popcorn before continuing south on the Parkway. As we turned in, the parking lot was filled with law enforcement vehicles from Virginia State Police, Nelson County and Augusta County sheriff’s departments, the U.S. Park Service, and others. It was comforting to know that those who protect us were on alert for a murderer who was reported to possibly be somewhere in the vicinity.
At that moment we knew we were in the safest place in Augusta County.
The popcorn man himself, Ron King, was there. He was not busy as he sat in a lawn chair behind the food truck waiting for customers. He greeted us with a big smile and hugs, and we filled him in on the latest from news reports as he filled our popcorn orders. A few other customers showed up as we sat at the picnic tables, taking pictures and nibbling on popcorn.
And that’s when I noticed my sister had returned to the ordering window as Ron filled close to a dozen mini bags with a variety of flavored popcorn, labeling each with a magic marker so its contents would be known. I walked over, thinking she must be buying popcorn for her daughter’s roommates at the University of Virginia since they had just returned to classes.
No, these bags were not bound for UVa. They were for the troopers and deputies and park service police who were parked nearby. When Ron finished, she gathered up the bags, filled her arms with them, and walked over to where the uniformed officers were standing and, as they gathered around, she handed each a bag with thanks for all they do for all of us.
“Thank you for all you do,” Lori told them. They were all smiles and full of thank yous and said they appreciated it — not just the popcorn but the words of encouragement.
Random acts of kindness. Pass it on….
Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell
August 26, 2015