Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
We did, in a sense, go home again, at least for seven days. Staunton, Virginia, is not our hometown, but was home to Brenda and me for twelve of the happiest years of our lives. We spent the whole week in Staunton. We saw old friends and journeyed to the Gypsy Hill Park, Staunton Braves Stadium, and Wright’s Dairy-Rite where car hops still come out and take your order. Little has changed from the day it opened in 1952.
As we walked the winding hills in town, up past Trinity Church, and up the street to Mary Baldwin College, wonderful things began to happen. We remembered our motor scooter rides around town, and how Doc Haley, our poodle, used to sit under our large maple tree and listen to the Robert E. Lee High School band practice. The memory made us smile and nod.
We went out to Gypsy Hill Park and laughed as we remembered our first visit to the bandstand on that warm July evening to hear the Stonewall Jackson Brigade Band. As the concert began the crowd stood and we anticipated the first few bars of the Star Spangled Banner. Instead, to our chagrin, the lively notes of the Confederate song, “Dixie,” filled the air. As transplanted Yankees, we didn’t know whether to stand or sit down. We stood. We were outnumbered.
The time we spent in Staunton was a gift. Why did the grace of the town encompass our beings as it did in 1993 when we moved into our lovely home on Coalter Street?
We stood in our old front yard, looked at the Blue Ridge, and let our minds wander. Mountains aren’t mortal. They serve to remind us that we are. Don Reid, of the Statler Brother sings, “Let me spend just one more summer in Virginia.” We understand why he feels the way he does about Staunton.
Brenda and I talked about our memories, and at times sat in silence, knowing words weren’t needed.
Because my ancestors are Irish, I have many of the Irish traits. I can be melancholy and sentimental. The best things should never be assumed and so now, today, I do not take for granted that Brenda and I will ever again make the trip to Staunton, which has become the adhesive of our lives and memories.
“What is Staunton like?” people ask us. Our friend, Lynn Mitchell, perhaps best described Staunton when she spoke about Dan Pritchett, the Coalter Street Food Lion manager, whose home was a baseball’s throw away from ours: One Memorial Day Dan announced over the store’s intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, this store will, for one minute, observe a moment of silence in honor of America’s fallen military heroes.” The cashiers stopped checking out customers, the music was shut off, the customers paused in the aisles, employees ceased working, the lights were dimmed and the store was essentially shut down.
It was good to have the opportunity to have lunch with Dan, Betty and their son, Eric, at Kline’s Dairy Bar. The Pritchett family represents the best of Staunton.
Just up the street from Food Lion, sits the beautifully tree-lined Taylor Street where our former home sits on the corner. The white sycamore tree with the low hanging branch where friends posed for pictures welcomed us back.
Shelby and Brenda Brooks still live next door, and next door to them lives Frank, the man who loved beets. Sadly, both Chuck and Annette are gone now. Annette died three years ago, and Chuck lives in the mist of dementia.
We stopped at Lowe’s and saw Russell who tried to deliver our refrigerator one rainy Sunday afternoon. “Do you remember delivering the refrigerator to our home at Taylor and North Coalter Streets?” I asked Russell.
“I sure do,” Russell replied. “We were sorry we didn’t come back that night, but we had trouble unloading it at the store.” Brenda and I nodded and smiled at the memory.
I met Don Reid and his son, Langdon, at the Pampered Palate Café for lunch. We discussed politics and religion, subjects only good friends should discuss. It didn’t take long for Don and my conversation to shift to movies and particularly Westerns.
We never meet without remembering Don’s story about the Lone Ranger. “Do you remember how the wounded Texas Ranger became the Lone Ranger?” Don asked. “The Texas Ranger’s name was John Reid, and my brother, Harold, always told me when I was little that John Reid was our cousin.” Don laughed at that wonderful memory.
We cherished out time with our friends, but on this trip strangers made impressions on us, too. One morning, while Brenda was shopping, I decided to ride the trolley that travels downtown, out to Gypsy Hill Park, and back in to the blue collar neighborhood of Newtown.
One widens his circle of friends when riding a downtown bus or trolley. There were only a handful of people on board, a small number of tourists, and a sprinkling of town characters.
When I first sat down, a little girl blew into a wand and flooded the trolley with tiny bubbles. I laughed. It was a good way to start the ride and an omen of things to come.
The trolley made its first stop at Mary Baldwin College. Instead of a young coed, an old man entered the front door and quickly took his seat. He was skinny, looked a bit malnourished, and seemed to be in his own happy little world. He didn’t speak to anyone but himself. He wore a blue shirt with Dr. Pepper written across the back. One of his sleeves hung down, torn from his shoulder, held together by a couple of threads.
I heard someone call him ‘Porky,’ which was comical since he didn’t appear to weigh one-hundred pounds.
The trolley next stopped at the library. A woman about sixty-years-old and her son, roughly forty, slowly walked up the trolley steps and sat behind the skinny man. The woman was solemn and weary. Her son, who appeared challenged, was outgoing and talkative. “Hi, Porky,” he said waving to the skinny man.
Porky either didn’t hear him or totally ignored the salutation. “Be quiet, Conrad,” the unsmiling mother said to her son.
We rode in silence for about two blocks. Suddenly, Porky jumped up and yelled, “I want off!” and made his way to the back door. The driver stopped at the next traffic light and the man exited the trolley.
“Porky is a multi-millionaire, you know,” Conrad said, to no one in particular. Again, I smiled as I knew the conversation was heading down a capricious path.
“Now, how do you know that?” Conrad’s mother asked. “All he does is pick trash out of garbage cans.”
“He just likes to pick garbage, but he could buy fifty of these trolleys if he wanted to,” Conrad said as he took another sip of his unsweetened iced tea.
Our next stop was the old Booker T. Washington High School on West Jefferson Street. A flamboyant-looking man, long past his prime, stood at the bus stop. He boarded with flair. He carried an old suitcase and wore an outdated three piece suit and a bow tie. He had the look of man who had something special.
His manner was smooth and his movement graceful. His voice was rich and deep. This man was different from the others on the trolley. He was charismatic, eccentric and obviously down on his luck.
Conrad struck up a conversation with him. “Have you been to Hollywood lately?” Conrad asked the man.
“No, son. It has been many years since I set foot in Hollywood, but those were the days, don’t you know,” the man said as his white smile lit up his side of the bus.
The man appeared to be in his eighties if not older. “Conrad, did I ever tell you I worked with Ozzie Nelson?” he asked as he shuffled the small bag below his seat.
“Ozzie was one swell guy. Most people don’t know this, but Ozzie was one of the smartest men in Hollywood. He graduated from Rutgers and was an attorney,” the man continued as he slipped a Washington Nationals hat on his head.
“Conrad my boy, Ozzie did one of the nicest things I have ever seen a human being do. Ricky had a friend, a classmate, who was about fifteen-years-old when his father died very unexpectedly, leaving a large family behind,” the man said as he leaned forward in his seat.
“Ozzie hired the boy who had zero acting experience, and put him on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett.” His name was Skip Young, and he played Wally Plumpstead on the show for the next ten years,” the man said. “Ozzie wanted to help the struggling family, and out of total kindness, hired this young man who became famous as the sidekick to David and Ricky.”
My stop came much too soon. I wanted to continue to listen to the conversation between Conrad and the man, but it was time to move on.
It was good to see old friends and to make some new ones, too. It was soon time for Brenda and me to leave.
The words of Dr. Seuss came to mind as we left Staunton, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
All we could do was smile.
Patrick Haley currently serves as a county commissioner in Clinton County, Ohio, where he lives with his wife Brenda. He has enjoyed a distinguished career in the fields of law enforcement, criminal justice, government and business, and was elected as Sheriff of Clinton County, Ohio, in 1980, serving two four-year terms. He was Chief Deputy Sheriff of Henrico County, Virginia, served in Governor Jim Gilmore’s administration, and worked on the personal staff of Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte. He served as President of Integrated Biometric Technology (IBT), Nashville, before returning to Ohio. He has attended the FBI Academy’s Professional Law Enforcement Administration Program, in association with the University of Virginia, and attended the FBI Academy’s Senior Management Program at Quantico, Wright State University, Hocking College, and Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. Pat is an author and presenter on issues related to organizational change and law enforcement accreditation and has been published in the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Virginia Criminal Intelligence Association Magazine, “The Validator.” A published author, Pat wrote “The Danes Murders: Lost Innocence in Lees Creek,” a non-fiction account of the murder of a Clinton County family, and recently released his second book, “The Storyteller: Growing up in Clinton County, Ohio.”