My brother Steve really enjoyed his trip to Richmond for a Freeman High School reunion this past November. This node of the Rice family stopped by last week on their way taking son Adam back to Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh after a semester in Queensland, Australia. The young fella had an internship previous to that in Palo Alto, California, so I'd say he's doing all right. I wouldn't want to trade ages with him, but I'd sure like to trade places.
At the reunion, Steve ran into a classmate who has just published a two-volume memoir which he had written for a masters degree program. During last week's visit, he left them with me to read, knowing I'd be interested. Kevin Gray came to Richmond with his family from the North as a youngster, just as we had, due to his father's new job. Our dad lost his very good position with an insurance company in Milwaukee in the depths of the 1959 recession because of fraud by the president (what these criminals were called before "CEO"). To make the situation worse, our house, built on a badly graded corner lot, was flooding from snow melt and nothing was selling (even dry houses). Through a head-hunting agency in Chicago, he found three jobs, in Richmond, New York and Birmingham, and asked us which one sounded best. All we knew was the North, but Birmingham and New York sounded too extreme, so we pinned the tail on the donkey at Richmond. Just like the baby bear's bed, it turned out to be just right. He preceeded us and lived in the brick apartments near Willow Lawn for a few months while we sold the house at a big loss. Taking us on a ride down a green and flowering Monument Avenue in April 1959 in our rusty 1954 Dodge (I didn't even know what azaleas were) to show us our new home, we were all smiles, mighty pleased.
Economics dictated we settle in the uninspiring, cheesy and barn-like new development called Farmington (in the far West End) instead of the stately or comfortable areas of the city (the serene older West End). Without six people in the family, families like the Leftwiches wisely chose those. The yard was big, there was a family room, and we set about planting trees and setting up a basketball court. Past a dozen houses to the west there were only wild woods. I found dead animal skeletons, abandoned and burned farmhouses deep inside (how long ago was it a farm, with those huge hardwood trees?), and a pond with freakin' snapping turtles. Later on, roaming was done in cars, making trouble easier to find.
We all start exploring, wandering around, trying to define ourselves and figure the world out, while growing up in suburbia. And however ordinary, our memories of youth have a vibrancy you don't want to lose; it was so long ago but it's still real. "Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone..."
Mr. Gray, five years younger then I, lived near us at 414 Keats Road (above), in the triangle known as Tuckahoe, bounded by Patterson, Ridge, and Forest Avenues, so his memoir is filled with places and names that I knew well. Dead Man's Curve where Quioccasin segues into Gaskins (where Bob Freeman rolled and totalled his parents' Renault Dauphine). Tom Ogburn of WGOE (he got the thick black glasses right, and that his excellent voice just didn't match the man's appearance). Sitting on the railings at Beverly Hills Shopping Center, skateboarding at the Village Shopping Center, biking to Willow Lawn to the movies or Gary's Records, exploring the woods now all gone; even out to Bill's Barbeque on Broad on Friday nights, just like Dan and I in his fine 1957 Ford. The almost obligatory daring trip to downtown Broad Street without parental permission -- I remember seeing Dingo boots at a scroungy shop after not finding any Beatle boots and thinking I'm going to get those someday (I did, when at RPI/VCU). Kevin, on his trip to the big city, was looking for a fringed leather jacket, but there was no such thing in Richmond even then. He made do with a home-made skateboard just as I did and also envied the agile Hobie Cat model his friend had. One very different experience was attending Gill's Country Day School until public high school at Freeman; I remember seeing the bus going around the West End scouring up what I thought were the privileged to take them to the unknown reaches of Southside. After his description of the cramped concrete-block private school, I realize it wasn't anything special other than a very long ride. The first volume ends with his beginning day at Freeman, emotionally charged yet ordinary, like everyone else's. Although the name was changed, I think he even mentions the lovely Biology teacher in whose class Bob Antonelli and I met.
And his gang got their beer through friends' older brothers from the Robin's Nest at Beverly Hills, just like we did.
While I was enjoying every page, I was horrified that a 30-year veteran teacher (as he turned out to be) of English and journalism was still writing at a high school freshman level. I found myself re-doing most sentences. Even worse, a handout in the book promotes his private consultation and group workshops on memoir writing. Has he re-read his own?
Worse yet is the editing, by one M. Stephan Strozier: "There's" instead of "theirs." "Playing his roll" instead of "...role." "Marmon" for "Mormon." Richmond Polytechnic Institute, for heaven's sake. Thalheimers in Willow Lawn at the end of the center walkway, instead of Miller & Rhoads (spelled Rhode's in the book). One thing is mentioned as not yet existing in 1969, but I know it was there as early as 1965. There are many more.
But I'm grateful to Steve for lending me these good but bad books, and to Mr. Gray for the memories. They shoot bad editors, don't they?