Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Exile Begins: Moving to Virginia, 1963

I will have to hunt up some photos for this post, but right now I‘m in the upper lower peninsula getting away for a few days. I’ll be home tomorrow night as on Friday, I’m the chief (volunteer) cook and bottle washer for a big fundraiser. Back to the story at hand. I’m pretty sure I have a photo of my 6th birthday, but it‘s not on this laptop. If I find it, I’ll add it. As any reader of this blog knows, I was born and mostly raised in North Carolina. However, there was a three year period that I jokingly refer to as “our exile.” Then, we lived in Petersburg, Virginia, where I attended Walnut Elementary School for grades one through three. This is the start of my Petersburg stories. Enjoy!

Mom was all excited as she stood next to the phone of the kitchen wall talking.

“We’re moving to Virginia,” she said with her hand over the mouthpiece. “Do you want to talk to your dad.“

It may have well been my first long distant phone call. I put the receiver to my ear and asked my dad if Virginia was another country.

Dad had started a new job several months earlier and had been in Baltimore, where ever that was, in training. He’d occasionally come home for a weekend and we’d pick him up at the train station in Southern Pines. When he’d go back, he’d take the overnighter on Sunday evening, arriving back on Monday morning. Once, when Mom was writing him a letter, I decided to write one, too. I was five and the only words I knew how to write where the names of filling stations, so on a piece of paper I wrote Esso, Shell, Sinclair, Gulf and Texaco. As the time to move got closer, Mom when up to Virginia with Dad and the three of us “youngins” stayed with my grandparents. I turned six then and my grandma threw a party; her dining room was cramped with cousins and friends from church.

We moved to Petersburg in January 1963, just a week after my sixth birthday. I don’t remember much about the move, except that Uncle Frank helped and all our stuff was loaded onto one of his farm trucks. I assume, since my Dad had just started to work for the company for whom he’d work for the next four decades, they didn’t provide expenses for the first move like they later did when they moved us back to North Carolina. It was after dark when we arrived at the rented cracker-box house on Montibello Street, overlooking toll booths along the Petersburg-Richmond Turnpike. There was a row of houses on the south side of the street, our backyards dropping into a swamp. Across the street was a chain-link fence that kept us from running out into just about all the traffic the moved between the Northeast and Southeast. Just south of town, I-85 and I-95 (although neither one was completed at this time) merged and if you heading north from New Orleans, Atlanta or Miami to Washington or New York, you drove right by our house. It didn’t seem such a problem that January night, as we moved in, but come spring, when we opened the windows, we heard the constant roar of trucks and cars as they braked for the toll booth and then accelerated as they continued their journeys into the night.

I have only snippets of memory about the house on Montibello Street. A gas floor heater in the hallway heated the house and when the gas was on, it was warm and you could stand on the grate and watch the first through a small window in the metal heater. When it snowed, my sister placed her wet shoes on the heater and turned it up. When my mother discovered this, our shoes were well-done and curled. Out back, the yard slopped down and there, my father taught me how to ride a bike. He had installed training wheels on the bike and blocks of wood on the paddles. After I got to where I could keep it upright, he took the training wheels off and I’d ride it down the hill and then turn and try to make it back up but generally gave up after a few stokes on the peddles. My grandma had given me some seeds, corn and peas if I remember correctly, and that spring I planted a small garden and was proud of my handful of peas that I harvested. I don’t remember if we got any corn.

Our next door neighbors, to the west, were the O’Neils. Mom was always telling us to be quiet when we were outside and they were home. I didn’t understand; they seemed stuck-up as they never talked or waved. I assumed that was because they were Yankees from New York. I knew they had a boy a few years older than me, but I only saw him in the backyard once, laying in a lounge chair sunning. Mom wouldn’t let us go out and meet him. Then he died and we had to be especially quiet. Mom made pecan pies and took them over and afterwards they became good friends. Ellen, who was a teenager, took me to the city pool when she introduced me as her new boyfriend. That made me feel special. Years later, I learned that her brother had leukemia.

On the other side of the O’Neil’s, at the last house on the street, lived a kid my age. His name was Robert and we became friends. His dad was in the Army and worked at Fort Lee. About the time school started, his family had a big party and Robert invited me, but my mother wouldn’t let me go because the adults were going to be drinking beer.

I should say something about church in Petersburg. Coming from good Highlander Presbyterian stock, albeit over two hundred years since leaving Scotland, we first attended Second Presbyterian Church. Maybe we tried First Presbyterian, but I only remember the Second one. There, in the sanctuary, someone took pleasure in showing us where a Yankee cannon ball crashed through the roof a mere 98 years earlier. The church had a big bell tower, but no steeple, the story being that the steeple got shot off during the Civil War. Afterwards, it was rebuilt to be blown off by a tornado. It was rebuilt again and in 1954, the winds of Hurricane Hazel once again removed it and the church decided that three strikes must mean God didn’t intend them to have a steeple.

That September, I entered the first grade at Walnut Hill’s Elementary School. As there was a shortage of teachers and classrooms, first graders went to school only a half day of class. I was in the morning shift and came home for lunch, passing by those going for the afternoon shift. Mostly, my parents took me to school and picked me up when it was time to come home. Once, I rode the city bus with Ellen. Mom had given me what she thought was the correct change, but I was a nickel short. I volunteered the nickel I had for milk, but the bus driver said I could pay him later. I never rode a bus again while we were in Petersburg. Well into adulthood I carried guilt with me for having cheated them out of a nickel. I was in my 20s, when I told my mother about it and she assured me that she was pretty sure she sent Ellen with the money I owed the next day. I’m not so sure, but it was a nice attempt to alleviate my guilt.

That fall, my parents brought a house on Bishop Street in Walnut Hills. Before moving in, Mom and Dad painted and fixed it up. We were still in the process of moving the day my father picked me up at school. When we got home, Mom had the TV and the radio on and was very upset. The President had just been shot. I will always associate that house with Kennedy’s assassination.


  1. So interesting how the moments of the greater world intrude on our smaller worlds. I was picking berries with my brother when Robert Kennedy was shot. I walked back to the truck with a load of berries and saw my father crying. It was so shocking.

  2. Does the house still stand? All the previous houses I have lived in have returned to the earth. Only the last one and the same one my parents still live in is standing. I like it better that way though because then it can always just be MY house.

    Good story though it seems like you have a thing against Yankees.

  3. It was cute to see a 5-y/o writing the names of gas stations! :)

    Does First Presbyterian have any priority or authority power over Second Presbyterian? Is there Third Presbyterian and Last Presbyterian out there? - it's a trick question dude!

  4. Walnut Hill sounds so bucolic.

    I was getting out of gym when the rumors began. Then I went to extra help in math. An English teacher ran into the room crying. They ended school and began playing some strange, to me at least, classical music over the loudspeaker

  5. I like these childhood memories of yours, Sage. I wasn't born when Robert Kennedy was shot, but i know from my parents that it had a great impact in Spain, together with Martin Luther King's. These must have been terrible days in the US, filled with commotion.

  6. the only words I knew how to write where the names of filling stations, so on a piece of paper I wrote Esso, Shell, Sinclair, Gulf and Texaco

    What, no Fina? Wavaho? 76? That one would've been easy.

    I look forward to more tales from the days before we had interstates :)

  7. Charles, those big events seem to seal the memory of the small things in our lives...

    Ed, yes, and in 2004, I was at a conference in Richmond and one afternoon, nothing interesting was happening, so I drove down and walked around the neighborhood--I'll have to write about that and how the hills had all eroded away!

    Mother Hen, town churches often used the name 1st, 2nd, etc. In some places like Pittsburgh, there's a 6th, 9th and 13th... the largest Presbyterian Church in Chicago is 4th... but one doesn't have any power over the other

    Pia, Walnut Hills wasn't like that at all, at least not by the time we got there. The city had grown around it.

    Leni, I was in the 5th grade when Robert Kennedy was shot--I wrote about this in four posts on the troubled year 1968--that was several years ago

    Bone, I don't remember those stations from that era... It was odd thinking about how I-95 ended and we'd have to drive on US 1 and 301...

  8. I'm amazed at how vividly you remember everything...with the exception of the Kennedy assassination. Who'd ever forget where they were when they heard THAT news?

    I love that you knew how to write the name of al the gas stations when you were 5! Your dad must've gotten a kick out of your "letter." :)

  9. On that day, I was walking down the hallway at De Paul Hospital in Norfolk, on my way to lunch, when someone announced over the loudspeaker that the President had been shot.

  10. You're memory of those years are way better than mine. I do remember JFK's assassination but I was in 5th grade and the announcement came with an early dismissal from school. I remember watching Oswald's shooting on television so i am thinking they must have closed the school for a couple of days.

  11. JFK's assassination was of course the coming of age moment for so many. Such moments, (mostly tragic, sad to say) at least bring us all a little closer together.


  12. Sage: Reading this, it is evident that you are blessed with a wonderful memory for detail! This has become a fantastic asset for your literary pursuits and travel as you have such a wealth of information to share with us and we, in turn. feel as if we are going back with you in time! Yes, isn't it something how tragic events as President Kennedy's death still haunt us? Excellent writing and you always gibe me much to ponder!

  13. My gosh, in reading this, happy childhood memories of my own came flooding back. I'll bet it felt like an great big adventure to you. Its so interesting when you can remember so vividly your childhood perspective on things, from the standpoint of an adult. This was a lovely snapshot of your life, Sage.

  14. Lil Red, those major events do seemed seered into our psyche

    Kenju, it's a day we'll all remember...

    Walking Guy, you're 5 years older than me! I remember seeing Oswald's shooting, but I think it was a replay

    Randall, yes, they do bring us together

    Michael, Thanks for the kind review

    Stephanie, Thanks, glad to give you a glimpse back into your life and hope you'll write about it as I've enjoyed your memories.

  15. I wasn't around when JFK was shot but will forever remember where I was when the space shuttles exploded and when the twin towers collapsed.

  16. This is an interesting story about you neighborhood and on those times of Kennedy. I love listening to stories that's been a remarkable part of the past.

  17. Moving to another place is kind of lonesome feeling but its good too because you meet new people.