Life in rural Virginia in the '50s, '60s and '70s

The Strangers Among Us


Mombasa, Kenya
Sneaking away from the house before Mom found out.

One of the earliest memories I have is of my sister, Barbara, and I sneaking away from the house to visit our cousin Annie Ruth. Annie lived just down at the end of the dirt road from us and during the summer we tried to make it all the way to her yard on our tricycle almost every day. I’d sit on the seat and my sister would have one foot on the back stand while she pushed with the other foot to get us down the road as fast as she could, all the time hurrying and whispering, hoping we wouldn’t get caught. Most of the time we didn’t even make it half-way there, but a few times we got all the way into the yard and even had time to play for a while. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that anything bad could happen to us. After a while we’d look up the road and see our mother standing in the yard waving a dish towel and yelling inaudibly, and we knew we’d better head right back.

I couldn’t have been more than three years old back then. Mom would give us free reign to come and go as we pleased, as long as we stayed in the yard. Most times she was like a hawk watching her young, but sometimes we were able to sneak through the cracks, we were constantly testing our boundaries. In our neighborhood, you didn’t just have one set of parents, you had four or five. We knew we were being watched even when it didn’t seem like we were. And once we were old enough to leave the yard and visit friends on our own, a report of what we’d been doing and how we’d behaved reached our house before we ever made it back.


Mombasa, Kenya
Sorry kid, no more playing alone outside.

We were very fortunate to grow up in Fauquier County, Virginia, specifically in the town of Remington. We grew up nurtured, well-feed, well cared for in a loving family, all within a tight-knit community. That’s why it saddens me each time I read about mothers who have been arrested for allowing their children to go to the play ground alone. I wonder what happened to the idea of knowing everyone in your neighborhood? What happened to the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child”? I realize that it is probably like comparing apples and oranges to view my childhood experience in comparison to the reality of what it’s like for a child growing up today. But couldn’t we, as adults, walk the child back home and speak with the parents before calling the police to swoop in and whisk the child away? If we take children away from their parents for allowing them to play unsupervised, what does that make us as a society? Aren’t the children being abducted anyway, but not by strangers, by us. We are quickly becoming the very thing we are supposed to be fighting against. Social services, the police, the judicial system, our neighbors, we, all of us have become the strangers who are stealing children from their parents. We claim it’s being done for their own protection, but who are we kidding? I don’t think we’re even kidding ourselves. Let’s find another solution.


Family Tree
Can learning about your genealogy have a downside?

You might not think that researching ones ancestry would have a down side, but it always does. The down side is that you find out things that you weren’t supposed to know or you reveal things that you weren’t supposed to tell. Actually, those are about the only down sides. With the advent of the Ancestry.com. web site, it has become so easy to research one’s roots. My cousin June, who spent years traveling to gravesites and public libraries to uncover details about our family history, would be amazed to learn that today it only takes hours to uncover much of the same information, thanks to Ancestry.com. I am so proud that she named me as the benefactor to our treasured historical documents and photos.

When I was 17 years old, I worked for the Community Action Program in Warrenton, VA. and was assigned as a summer counselor at a church out in the county. One day as I stood on the steps at the entrance of the church, a boy of about 12 or 13 walked up to me. He said, “Hi, I’m (and he said his name), I’m your cousin. My mother is…” (he told me his mother’s name). I recognized her name and I’d known his family all my life. He went on,”… and my father is (he named a relative of mine)”. One look at him and you could easily tell that he was a member of the family; the head, the eyes, the cheeks, yes he was family all right, it was unmistakable. I was a bit taken aback at how matter-of-fact he was though, he wanted me to know exactly who he was. He went on to tell me that he’d been in trouble quite a bit because he hadn’t had a father growing up. He didn’t have a father because the person he named had never acknowledged him as a son, according to him. His father had never given him a Christmas gift and had not so much as stopped by to see him, ever. If you’ve watched any television at all, this scene is not that foreign to you. This family skeleton storyline has played out on the TV and big screen quite a few times over the years.

The problem is that you won’t find that boy’s name anywhere in my family tree. It’s not that the family doesn’t know he exists, it’s that we’re not “supposed” to know, it’s never been publicly declared that he is related to us. Granted, I learned of my cousin’s existence decades before Ancestry.com was ever conceived, but now that it’s here and I use it religiously, I have to play tug-of-war with my conscience over whether to include him in the family tree or not. Is it true that sometimes too much information can be bad for you?


Family Tree
Cousin June left behind a treasure trove of family history, a monument to her work ethic and dedication to family

Then there are the kids I grew up playing with that turned out to be my cousins. We, my siblings and I, were never told that our friends and schoolmates were actually part of the family. Not even the fact their grandmother always asked how my grandmother was doing and called her “Cousin Lula” tipped me off. It just never clicked in my brain that she always referred to her as “cousin”. It turns out that how we came to be related might be a cause for embarrassment for one or more members of the family, so I suppose that is why we were never told. But it really didn’t have any affect on our relationship with that family. We grew up in a very tight-knit community, where you felt kin to everyone even if you weren’t. Still it would have been nice to know at the time.

The moral to the story: family is family, no matter how you became family and it all should be acknowledged and welcomed. Researching our family history should not be cause for anguish or worry that long kept family secrets might get out. As family historians, as true genealogists, we must not be afraid to follow our roots to their true beginnings, no matter where they lead.

Embracing Our Roots


DNA Results
For African Americans, there’s no such thing as just being black anymore, almost all descendants of slaves have some amount of European blood cursing through there veins.

It’s gotten to be a habit now, I guess I’ve been diving into my family genealogy so much I can’t stop now… Whenever I meet someone for the first time, I try to look into their past. I look deep into their features, staring down into their history to see if I can tell where their genes originate from. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. If I asked, “Aren’t you related to the (fill in the blank) family over in Culpeper?”, nine out of ten times you can bet I’m right. Or, I will do what I did with a former co-worker some years back. We were sharing an office and after an acceptable amount of time of keeping my thoughts to myself, I just came out with it, “You look Scandinavian, is your family of Scandinavian descent”. And as is the case when I ask most non-blacks that question, he answered, “Well, yes, but I guess you could say I’m actually a mutt, my mother is from Denmark and my father’s side of the family is from Germany”, then he went into even greater detail naming several more European countries as being part of his lineage. I listened intently and decided that I’d give it a try too. So,I responded, “That’s interesting, I’m part Scandinavian too and I’m also part Irish”. My new office-mate leaned back in his chair, let out a big guffaw, then turned to me and retorted, “Yeah, right!”.

He hadn’t believe a word I said. He didn’t believe me? “No, it’s true!”, I defended my position, “My great-grandmother came directly from Ireland during the potato famine”, he didn’t let me finish…. He got up from his desk and stuck his head out into the hallway, “Hey Everybody! Stan says he’s Irish!” (followed by laughter). To him I was just a regular black guy and I guess regular black guys are just that, just Black!


Mombasa, Kenya
Mombasa Kenya, 1976 – I thought I was tracing my roots, but I learned that they stretched much farther than I could ever have imagined at the time

There was no convincing this guy that I had anything other than African blood cursing through my veins. It was time to educate this guy. I said, there are white people mixed in on all sides of my family, all sides. You do realize that I am a Virginian who has roots that go well back into slavery, don’t you? That means that there is a 99.9 percent chance that some master had his way with a slave girl somewhere in my family history and produced at least one mixed race child. My great-great-grandmother on my father’s side had reportedly nine children by her slave master. It may have been consensual, it may not, but being that she was a slave and he was her master, and that she was his property, that kind of makes it non-consensual no matter how you look at it. I could see that recapping of my family history to this young man was falling on deaf ears, he wasn’t having any of it. It looked to me like “The One Drop Rule” was alive and well, no, thriving would be a better word. You know the one drop rule, if you have one drop of black blood, that makes you black, there’s no middle ground.

That brings up my Barack Obama issue, to me Obama is the only real African-American I know of. His father was born in Africa and his mother was born in America. But here lies the rub, that means, he’s not really our first black president. Because to me, I thought our first black president would have had at least an inkling of what it was like to come from a heritage that included the shackles of bondage, be someone whose roots bore the baggage of slavery. But that is an entirely other story, I won’t even deal with that right now, that has nothing to do with this story.

But I guess in a way it does, because being born with the baggage of slavery and baring the shackles of bondage is almost a thing of the past. At the end of the day, we are all Americans and at the same time we are all mutts. As an African-American I want to feel as free to detail my multicultural heritage as my former office-mate did. I’d like to be able to list all of the places my family hails from without fear of, well, simply not being believed, that would be nice. While we’re still a long way from someone actually wondering, much less asking, what my heritage is, the day has come where I am free to share and be proud that the making of me was a global endeavor, I’m not just a one hit wonder, Africa. To most people a single glance tells them all they need to know. They think that the mere sight of my brown skin, hair texture and broad features gives them the full scope of my family tree. But if we look deeply within ourselves, we may find that our roots reach out to almost every continent on the planet. If they do, we should at least be aware of them and we should embrace them all.

A Sign of the Times


Enjoying watermelon
Kids enjoying some cool, refreshing watermelon. If they were poor, they wouldn’t have known unless someone told them

A young lady responded to a post I recently submitted to Facebook that, as a child, she did not know she was poor until someone told her. I can relate to that, I would not have known we were poor if not for the fact that we qualified for government cheese and free dental care. The fact that I qualified for Lyndon Johnson's Community Action Program also gave me a realization that we were poor.
Many times I could have forgotten that I was ‘colored’ were it not for the constant reminders at every turn. Many reminders came in the form of signs like, "Colored Only", "Colored Served in Rear", and there were many others.
Unfortunately, a lot of the reminders also came directly from our own people. Back then, blacks had a habit of making sure other blacks "stayed in their place", it got to the point where white people didn't have to bother reigning us in, we took care of it for them. We did it by calling each other the N-word and with questions like, "Where do you think you're going?", "Why you trying to act white?", we kept each other in line.


Colored Only Sign
Signs reminded us of who and what we were

You really didn't have to go very far to be reminded that you were colored, schools were segregated, bus stations offered "separate but equal" waiting rooms. Movie theaters had a colored section, usually in the balcony. In the little village of Opal, just up the road from where I grew up, there was a truck stop on the corner. When the business moved up the road to a new location, the old building was dilapidated and falling to the ground. The only thing left standing was a side door with a sign that read "Colored". That door stayed up for years after Jim Crow laws were shot down, it was a constant reminder that we were second class citizens. I stared at it, mesmerized, each time we passed by in the car, as though it were my first time seeing it.

Thankfully, there were also people fighting for our rights back then, even though I was completely oblivious to it at the time. Their efforts and dedication made it possible for the signs to finally come down. It took time, but they did came down, along with a lot of the attitudes. There are new signs up now, signs that say that the baggage of Jim Crow and of being colored, that I carried and still find sometimes weighing me down today, are gone. My kids and grandkids don’t bear that weight, they don’t carry the baggage of the past and of being different, everyone is different now, normal is the new different. To my kids and grandkids, the stories I tell about growing up colored are as ancient as the Civil War, as far away as forever. “Is it because I’m black?” is no longer the first question asked when young blacks get a negative response on an application of any kind, that reason would never cross their minds today. Oh, we learn every day that there is still discrimination in all aspects of life; sports, housing, businesses and other areas, but unless it’s blatant, most young people wouldn’t recognize it. To me that is a sign that our society is moving forward in a positive direction, but we can’t move forward with blinders on. Remember the old adage that “history repeats itself”, well forgotten history is the easiest to repeat. In these times, on the home front and abroad, Americans of all ages, races and cultures must take up a new sign, a new sign that reads,
“We must stay vigilant, if we want to stay free!”. Let this be the new sign of the times.

A Picnic to Remember


Family outing along Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park
My family and I on one of our many visits to Skyline Drive, that’s me on the right

While growing up, our family made picnicking on Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park, a regular pastime since before I can even remember. So when I was finally able to purchase my own car and it came time to take a female friend on a date during the day, driving and picnicking along the Shenandoah National Parkway was always my first option. The female in question on this occasion wasn’t actually a girlfriend, well she was my girlfriend, I just wasn’t her boyfriend. It gets complicated, see she already had a boyfriend, so to her I was just a good companion to have around when he wasn’t and it seemed like he was hardly ever around. Whatever the situation was, it didn’t matter, we seemed to enjoy each other’s company. This unidentified young lady lived on a farm up in the mountainous region of northern Fauquier County. She even tried to teach me how to ride a horse bare back once. I never caught on to it though, I couldn’t get pass the “slide-while-you-ride” factor, horses are slippery critters.

The dirt road that led to her house was like a rollercoaster ride, only worse. But that was during the day, at night you couldn’t tell if you were driving over a steep hill or about to plummet to your death off of a cliff, that’s how steep the terrain was. My car would get to the top of one hill that was so steeply angled that the frame would get caught on the gravel road with the tires suspended off the ground. You had to rock the car back and forth and you could end up going backward or forward, depending upon which tires hit the ground first, the front or the back. We really didn’t need to pay $2 to go to Skyline Drive, to me she already lived in the mountains.


Great Picnic fixings
I considered myself quite the lady’s man back then, unfortunately…

When it came to impressing the ladies, I didn’t half-step, I always tried to go the extra mile. This was one of those occasions where I wanted to make a good impression, so I stepped it up a notch. So, I went to the 7-11 and bought a bottle of Sangria, some assorted cheeses, went to the A&P and bought a loaf of French bread and two long stemmed wine glasses. I even drove all the way to Pier 1 Imports in Manassas to buy a wicker picnic basket (with the complimentary checkered table cloth included). All I needed to do now was pick her up and we’d be on our way. I drove 30 miles to the mountains to pick up the young lady, then we drove another 30 miles to some other mountains to look at other mountains, yep, this was going to be a day to remember.


1971 - An unidentified young lady sits atop an old Ford pickup truck somewhere in the mountainous regions of Fauquier County, Virginia
An unidentified young lady sits atop an old Ford pickup truck somewhere in the mountainous regions of Fauquier County, Virginia

Back then, I guess you could say I was a bit naïve about, well, just about everything. We arrived at Skyline Drive and spent the better part of the day moving from one overlook to the other, talking and enjoying each other’s company. Finally, it came time to eat and we decided to stop somewhere and enjoy our picnic lunch. I found a good spot to park, just along a curve with a shoulder just wide enough to be clear of oncoming traffic. The spot was at the foot of a pretty steep hill, but the hill rose to a secluded area. From our vantage point I could tell that the woods above contained a hollow with cool soft grass that was just right for a romantic interlude. We unpacked the car and hiked up the hill. We stopped at a spot where there was a clear 360 degree view, we were at the crest of the mountaintop. The wine was poured, the cheese was cut, our bellies were plied and content. Now came the time for romance.

I stared deeply into her eyes and leaned forward for that first kiss. It was at this juncture that I happened to let my eyes wander away from hers, I looked down the hill toward my car. That’s when I noticed that a park ranger had pulled along the shoulder. He was already out of his car and looking over my vehicle, this scene was being played out about a half mile below us, we regained our composure and watched and wondered at what caused him to stop in the first place. The park ranger then turned his attention toward the hill, the hill we were sitting on. He looked up and down the hillside, but there was no way he could see us, but he was definitely trying. He reached into his vehicle and pulled out some binoculars. After scanning through the trees for a while, he decided to just start up the incline. He was climbing the hill but had no clue which direction he should be going. I could tell that if he continued in the direction he was headed he would miss us by quite a distance, but he continued to climb, apparently determined to find the owner of the car left on the side of the road.


Designated Negro Picnic Area along Skyline Drive
This photo has absolutely nothing to do with the story, by the time I came along this sign had long since been removed. I just find it interesting.

After about 15 minutes of watching the park ranger hunt for us in vein through the woods, I decided it was time to let him in on where we were. I knew he’d eventually find us because it didn’t look like he was about to quit anytime soon. I called him over:
“Sir! Officer! We’re over here!”
As he approached, he spoke up while we nonchalantly continued enjoying our wine and cheese. This is how the conversation went…
“Good afternoon sir, I’m the park ranger assigned to this area, is that your vehicle at the bottom of the hill sir?”
– “Yes, it is”
“You’re having a picnic, are you? Nice day for it”
– “Yes, it’s a beautiful day”.
“Is that wine you have there in those glasses?”
– “Yes, Yago Sangria” (He needed to know that he wasn’t just dealing with anybody, he was dealing with a connoisseur of fine wines)
“And the young lady, hello ma’am, how old is she?” (He was very polite)
– “Oh, she’s 17″.
“And you sir, how old are you?”
– “I’m 19″
“Ok, well, do you know why I came looking for you up here today sir?”
– “No officer, is there a problem?” (Did I mention how naïve I was?)
“Well there are a couple of park regulations that you’re currently in violation of, where shall we start?
Your car sir, #1, you’re parked on the side of the road, that’s an undesignated area. You can only park in designated parking areas within the park, sir. And #2, you’re picnicking in an undesignated area, we have picnic areas clearly marked throughout the park. Then there’s the alcohol, there’s no alcohol allowed in the park, that’s #3. You have an open container of alcohol, #4 and you are drinking in public, that’s 5 so far. Sir, the young lady, you say you are 19 and she is only 17, that means you are contributing to the delinquency of a minor, you could go to jail for that young man. That’s 6 park violations. That’s it, I think that’s all I can find for now. What do you have to say for yourself?”
– “I’m sorry officer, I wasn’t aware of those rules”
“You weren’t aware, YOU WEREN’T AWARE? We have signs posted everywhere! How could you not be aware?” He calmed himself and thought for a minute, then continued, “But you seem like a nice young man, you called me over, you weren’t hiding from me. You do seem innocent enough and you weren’t doing anything other than having a picnic, so I’m going to let you go, but let this be a lesson to you”
– “Oh thank you sir, we’ll go back down the hill and get out of here right now”
The officer turned and started down the hill to his car, then he looked back and pointed his finger, “Don’t leave any trash, that’ll be number 7! Take all your trash with you. Leave it the way you found it!”. With that he was gone.
Seven national park violations and he let us go, that had to be some kind of record. Needless to say, the young lady in question and I never went back to Skyline Drive again.

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Way Back Home

I hadn’t heard this in years, but when I did, I knew that it fit this site like a glove. You must hear the song to appreciate the lyrics.


Written by: William Felder, Johnny Bristol, Gladys Knight
Performed By: Junior Walker & The All Stars
w/Hitsville Funk Brothers (band)
Pop Chart #52 Dec 11, 1971+
Album: The Ultimate Jr. Walker & The All Stars

copyright http://phonelyrics.com

WAY BACK HOME

There’s good ‘n bad things about the South
And some leave a bitter taste in my mouth

Like the black man livin’ across the track
White men on the other side holdin’ him back
Way back home

But we won’t talk about that ’cause it’s understood
Ev’rybody sees the bad but what about the good?

I’d give anything just to smell that scent
Of honeysuckle growin’ on a backyard fence
Way back home

‘Oow!’

‘Oh Heaven Scent, Ya’All!’

(Way back home)
Yeah, way back home
(Way back home)
Way back home, back home

Play
Playing with their pet dog, Dino.
Image

I’d love to smell the wetness of grass and trees
And see ground kissed by honey bees
Like way back home

But childhood days are dead ‘n gone
But the memories still linger on

Have you ever gone swimmin’ in a muddy creek
With nothin’ on your body from head to feet?

Way back home

Laying in the cool grass, way back home.
Image

What happened to the games like hide an seek
And sneaked through the weeds over hills and streams

I know some kids still play those games
But when they play it just ain’t the same

Like way back home

‘Sad to sing it ya’all!’

YEAH!
Way back home, way back home

(Way back home)
Way back

Playing with the dog
Remington, Virginia – My Home Town
Image

I really miss those things that have faded away
I remember them like it was yesterday
Way back home

(Way back ho-ome)
(Way back ho-ome)

*Missing verse*
When the Lord decides to take me away
I’d like to rest in the land where I used to play.

You know I miss that five cent ice cream cup
And the things that were part of my growing up.

Way back home
Way back home

* This verse not heard on some recordings

Remember that Ford Falcon I told you about in the State Bank of Remington story that I posted in 2013? You do? Well, there’s another story that goes hand-in-hand with that one. Here it is… As soon as I got my driver’s license and bought a car, my mother decided that she too, should learn to drive. Knowing that dad didn’t have a lot of patience when it came to teaching something to someone that he felt should come naturally to them, my mother turned to our neighbor across the field. Buddy Hayes, you may know him around town as “Blinky”, taught both my mother and me how to drive a straight stick. He would let us drive up and down that old dirt road we lived on to our heart’s content. He was very patient and he’d let you make mistakes without being judgmental, a virtue that not many of us possess. After Mom received all of the training she felt she needed from Buddy, she decided it was time to give her experience a real test. she wanted to take my car out on the pavement, down Sumerduck Road and beyond.

Once we started, Mom did really well. I was in the passenger’s seat and my younger brother was just along for the ride and was in the back seat. Sumerduck Road “651” was a breeze, she did everything right. We turned on Savannah Branch Road, “751”, and still things went smoothly, but this is where the controversy begins and our collective memories of what happened next part ways. I decided to have her turn left on Morgansburg Road, “653”, it runs along the Ott farm, yes the same farm mentioned in the story, The Long Way Home”. Mom says I waited too late to tell her to turn, I think I gave her adequate notice and that said notice abided by the strict Queen’s Standard Protocol for blurting out driving instructions. We will have to agree to disagree on this matter, for there is no documented evidence or video footage that we can cite as a valid and reliable source at this late date. All I know is, no matter who was to blame, the car veered too late to make the turned and the steering was overcorrected to the point that the car ended up in the ditch. I apologize for all the legal mumbo jumbo, but one must be very careful when recounting disputed accounts and recollections, especially in cases yet to be settled. But I will yield to my mother’s version out of respect and the fact that she may knock me up-side the head if I don’t.

The next thing I knew we were sitting cock-eyed in the ditch, teetering precariously to the left. I immediately jumped out of the passenger side door, flailing my arms above my head yelling “My Car, My Car! What have you done to my car!?!?”. I was completely in shock and adrift of my senses as I circled the car, searching through the imagined wreckage looking to assess the damages. The car had not a scratch on it. At that point my little brother decided that he too, should go into panic mode and began crying uncontrollably. It was summer, the windows were down, so I stuck my head in the back window and yelled, “Shut Up! You’re not hurt! My car! My Car! Look at my car!”.

All of a sudden, the ocean of corn parted majestically, a la the Red Sea. A light appeared in its midst and descended down upon us? Was it an hallucination brought on by a concussion? Was it an angel from on high? No, it was none of those, it was Mr. Ott on his tractor. This was old Mr. Ott, not to be confused with the young Mr. Ott. The Mr. Ott, who, from my perspective at the time, owned a farm on the scale of the Ponderosa Ranch on the TV show Bonanza, that Mr. Ott. The Mr. Ott that my father had worked for, milking cows, when he was only 12 or 13 years old, that Mr Ott. But to me all I saw was a guardian angel. He stopped with the tractor still puttering and asked if we needed help. He said he’d brought a chain with him so he could pull us from the miry clay, to wrest us from death’s impending grip! He and his tractor pulled the car out of the ditch. We were saved! Afterwards, we talked. He knew who we were, asked how my Dad was doing and refused to accept any payment for his kind deed. He drove off into the sunset the same way he had arrived. As soon as we returned home we told Dad what had transpired, “The Miracle of the Corn”, as it has come to be known and he immediately got in his car and drove down to the Ott farm to thank him for helping us. And indeed, it was a miracle as far as I was concerned and something that has stayed with me to this day.

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