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.”
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 12 of the happiest years of our lives. We saw old friends and journeyed to the Gypsy Hill Park, Staunton Braves Stadium, and Wrights Dairy-Rite where car hops still come out and take your order. Little has changed from the day it opened in 1952.
“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.
Just up the street from Food Lion, sits the beautifully tree-lined Taylor Street where our former home sits on the corner. The towering white birch tree with the low hanging branch where friends posed for pictures welcomed us back.
Down the street we saw Frank’s home — the man who loved beets. Next door sits the empty home of Chuck and Annette. Annette died three years ago, and Chuck now lives in the midst of dementia.
Later, 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 Westerns.
“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.” We laughed.
We cherished the 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 downtown trolley 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.
As I 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 a hundred pounds.
The trolley next stopped at the library. A woman about 60 years old and her son, roughly 40, 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 whimsical 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 a man who had something special.
His manner was smooth and his movement graceful. His voice was rich and deep. 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. Its’ 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. His son, Ricky had a friend, a classmate, who was about 15 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 Harriet. His name was Skip Young, and he played Wally Plumpstead on the show for the next 10 years,” the man continued. “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 older man, but it was time to move on.
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.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.