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[Full family history]
From age 2 to 11 I lived with my family in a then-rural part of northern
Virginia called Chesterbrook in Fairfax County. Hardly any trace of this
area remains today. Thanks to George Gilmer, Jimmie Walker, and Russell
Hill for help with this chapter. It's just one part of a family history I
have been writing for my children; the whole thing
is here (warning: it's huge). There's an overview
of it here, with links to some of the other
chapters that have been extracted.
In this chapter:
You, you guys = My children Peter and Amy da Cruz
Gus = My grandmother, Lenore da Cruz (née Rager, 1896-1955)
Mom = My mother, Vivian da Cruz (née Lund, 1922-2002)
Dad = My father, Frank da Cruz (Sr.) (1918-1990)
Pete = My uncle, Daniel da Cruz (Dad's brother, Gus's son, 1921-1991)
Dennis = My little brother (1949-1978)
Howard and Lita = Our friends in NYC 1970s-80s
Sarabecca = What you called Howard and Lita's children (Sara and Rebecca)
were all WWII veterans; Mom and Dad were in the Navy and
Pete the Marines. Gus
was a Red
Cross nurse in both WWI and WWII. A few years after moving away from
Chesterbrook, I was in the Army.
—Frank da Cruz <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Most recent update: 1 February 2023 20:37:26
Chesterbrook VA 1947-56
|House on Kirby Road 1947
|Map of the area
In 1947 my dad bought a small house on a quarter-acre of land just two miles
from Gus's house in Arlington. The house was on Kirby Road in Fairfax
County in a place that everybody called Chesterbrook but that wasn't on any
map. Our mailing address was RFD 2
, Falls Church, Virginia. The area was totally
rural except for this brand-new small development of cheap houses built for
returning veterans, plus a small number of older and larger houses along the
short stretch of Kirby Road between our house and Old Dominion Drive. My
dad got a GI Bill loan for $7000 to buy the house and paid back something
like $90 a month. The closest "town" was McLean (in those days just a
crossroads with a few stores).
|View down the hill - GI-bill cinderblock cubes, late 1940s
There was a dense forest in front of our house and another forest down the
hill, behind the cluster of GI Bill houses. Up and down Kirby Road were old
family farms, pastures, animals, and more forests. All gone since the
1960s. I have a whole website about this place with photos and stories;
to see it.
It pains me to say it, but our little working-class GI-Bill housing
development was the beginning of the process that gentrified the whole area
out of existence.
|Tyson's Corner 1950s
|Bond Bread door
McLean (pronounced "mclane"), which is now a metropolis, was just an
intersection with a feed store, a Safeway, a gas station, and a junk store;
Tyson's Corner had a rickety old wooden diner with a Bond Bread
screen door (a fixture of rural Virginia in the mid-1900s) and cows grazing
on the land around it. I'd go there on my bike, five miles there and five
miles back, just to get an ice cream soda. All of these places are now
glass-and-steel metropolises complete with highways and cloverleafs.
|Our back yard (and the Walkers')
At first we had the house but no car, no TV, no phone, no toaster, no
washing machine. We saved scraps of soap, grew our own vegetables, got milk
and eggs from the farmers. When milk ran low, my Mom would cut it with
water. The milk came straight from the cows up the road; it had a layer of
cream on top.
The road our house was on was a dirt road until about 1955. When the road
needed work and when it was finally paved, the work was done by chain gangs
of Black prisoners.
|Manassas battlefield - Click to enlarge
Our house was only 3 miles from Washington DC, years before the postwar
suburban explosion wiped out the Civil-War era farms and expanses of forest
and open fields. The area was originally settled by newly freed slaves in
the 1860s. Of course Indians lived there before that; the tribes in that
area were Manticore and Powhatan, but I don't recall anybody ever finding
any trace of them. Not too far away is the well-preserved Manassas
battlefield, where the farmhouses and fields are unchanged and the look
(aside from added statues and historical markers) is pretty much the same as
the farming area community in which the GI-Bill houses were embedded in
1946-47. Apropos of Manassas, I was with Russel Hill when, plowing
with his tractor, he turned up a Confederate belt with brass CSA buckle.
|Harry and Avis 1960s
|Harry Hill mid-1950s
|The Hill farm 1950s, barn at right
Just up the road a couple hundred feet was the Hill farm: Russell and Avis
Hill and their son Harry, who was one my major childhood friends, and Avis's
mother Helen Walker; Avis grew up on this farm, Russel grew up on another
farm down the road. Harry was like Huck Finn, always getting into trouble.
The farm was 40 acres, usually fallow but sometimes Russell would plant a
crop of tobacco or rye on the least-recently-used quarter of land. I
remember tobacco drying in the barn, of which you can see a piece in the
photo; it was bigger than it looks. There were other outbuildings too, and
all kinds of rusty old plows and harrows and rakes and rusted hulks of 1920s
pickup trucks and old school buses scattered over the land. But he did have
a working tractor; I used to ride on it with him. I spent a lot of my time
there. Avis would often give me lunch (invariably Campbell's tomato soup
and piece of toast). One day when we were sitting around the kitchen table
at lunch, Russel sees something in a tree out the window, grabs his shotgun
(which is leaning up in the corner right next to him) and shoots
it...BOOM!!! "Goddamn crows!" It all happened in a second and I could
hardly hear anything for the rest of the day. He was always playing tricks
on me, like getting me shocked on electric fences, giving me whisky to
drink, etc. But on the positive side he showed me how to make apple cider,
how to get walnuts out of their husks, how to use a plow, how to play Edison
cylinders, how to castrate a horse (he had a special tool for that), how to
painlessly kill a litter of unwanted kittens... (Not that I ever did the
The Hill farm by our house belonged to Avis's family, it's where she grew
up; her mother (Harry's grandmother) Helen Walker still lived there. Russel
grew up on a much larger Hill farm down the road. After he moved away he
and Avis sold the form to real estate developers for a lot of money, enough
replace the farmhouse (on the corner he kept) with a much larger new house,
and also buy a much larger farm in
Warren County VA. Russell died in car accident 1966 and Avis
died in 1995.
|Mary Walker, Mom
|Jimmie Walker 1956
Our next-door neighbor on the other side was the Walker family: Nolan, Mary,
and their son Jimmie. Nolan was a Navy WWII veteran who had a janitorial
business and Mary had been a Rosie the Riveter. Jimmie (like Harry) was a
couple years younger than me. Jimmie and I made contact by email after 60
years and he turned out to have a nearly perfect memory, plus he had a lot
of knowledge of the history of the area. Mary is the one
who rescued my mom from the washing machine
and also probably saved her life one of the times when
she tried to kill herself
|Farms in the area about 1890 (Salona Farm)
To the southwest, Kirby Road was lined with farms.
These were much bigger than the Hill farm, maybe 80-100 acres, and they had
barns and other outbuildings, livestock, live-in farmhands, grazing land,
fields for corn, rye, or tobacco; pigsties, chickens, goats, ducks, and
geese. Many of these farming families were related to the Hills. I would
estimate that those farmhouses dated from the 1860s to about 1900; they were
wooden, painted white, with a big front porch. Some had outhouses rather
than bathrooms with plumbing. I remember being at one of the farms when
they were digging a well — the old-fashioned way: with a shovel. The
farmer with his shirt off about 20 feet down in the red clay and still no
sign of water.
Farm animals roamed free (no confining them into tiny boxes for their whole
life, as is done now) — cows went out to pasture in the morning and
"came home" to the barn at night, where they were milked the next morning,
usually by the children. The farm ladies used the expression, "til the cows
come home". They didn't actually come home by themselves; the kids
would go out bring them in, so the expression actually meant either "never"
or "forever", depending on context. There was always a big shade tree where
the cows could lay around in the shade on hot summer days, when the
temperature could go to 105, and there were electric fences to keep the cows
in the pasture, and within it big well-worn salt licks for their enjoyment.
For us kids, the cows were fun to play wish but also a little scary when
they chased us.
Chickens lived in a big airy coop where they could run around and it didn't
get all stinky. Rabbits lived in hutches that they chewed their way out of.
Pigs had their own big area for wallowing. Geese, ducks, dogs, and cats ran
free and the roosters crowed at sunup (and a course of dogs chimed in). The
main meal was served at noon, all the family and the hands around a long
table heaped with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, greens cooked in hamhocks,
and home-baked biscuits, with fresh-made lemonade to drink. The farmers
— Black and White alike — helped each other out, shared
equipment, and socialized.
When I was about ten I bought a bicycle for $40 that I had saved up from my
25¢/week allowance and 75¢/hour wages digging postholes and I went all over
the place on it by myself, on the country roads, past farms and fields,
along forest paths, to distant towns just to get some little treat.
When Little League started in 1956, sometimes the practices or games were
miles and miles away and I'd bike there. It was a good bike, it was like an
"English racer" (i.e. thin tires and frame) but instead of handbrakes, which
I thought were stupid, it had pedal brakes. There were big hills where I
could go down at 40mph (I had a speedometer). I never wore a bike helmet,
never even heard of such a thing. Ditto later in life when I had bicycles
in NY, you guys had helmets for when Mommie and I took you on long rides
sitting in baby seats on the backs of the bikes… around Central Park,
over the GW Bridge to NJ, etc. Sometimes we'd go with Howard and Lita and
Howard was my friend (and boss) from work, our families were very close
from before you guys were born until 1984, when they move away. Howard
died in October 2022, I wrote a eulogy for him
Aside from the bike, the other thing I used money for as a kid was buying
plastic models of WWII airplanes and gluing them together. No, I wasn't a
glue sniffer. Later on, after we moved to Arlington, Ludwig and I blew them
all up with cherry bombs.
|Hopfenmaier Rendering Plant
My father commuted to DC every day to work, there was a
stopped about a half mile away on Old Dominion Drive. I remember some
things about DC in those days, the most interesting was a canal (the
Chesapeake and Ohio [C&O] Canal) near Key Bridge, built about 1825,
which was still in operation when I was little. It is just wide enough for
a barge. The barge was pulled by mules on the tow-path alongside, the mules
driven by Black men, like a scene from the antebellum South. (Just
downstream of Key Bridge was the uninhabited Roosevelt Island, where my dad
said he used to take women for sex in the woods during the War.)
(Hmmm… perhaps including my Mom!) Also on the Potomac at K Street
was the Hopfenmaier Rendering Plant that converted dead animals into
fertilizer and put out a horrific stench (a holdover from the days before
cars; it's where all the dead cart horses ended up). Cars traveling along
the freeway had to roll up their windows, it was a DC ritual. Gus
had a lot of jokes about this place but I can't remember them.
My mom baked bread because we couldn't afford to buy it at the store, and we
made toast in the stove's broiler because we coudn't afford a toaster. If we
had meat, it was usually Spam. More often we'd have beans... Navy beans of
course. Sometimes we didn't have anything for dinner except toast and milk.
Mom would put a slice of toast in a bowl and pour hot milk over it; she
called it Graveyard Stew. To me it was a wonderful treat. It also had a
pat of margarine (I never even heard of real butter until after I left home).
Margarine came in a plastic bag. It was white and there was a little red pill;
you had to squeeze and massage the bag to make the margarine turn yellow.
gave us a hot breakfast because it was "the most important meal of the day":
eggs, bacon, toast, applesauce, and milk. She saved the bacon fat in cans
and jars and used it for cooking instead of oil. Sometimes we had oatmeal,
and on special occasions pancakes or waffles.
One of the main compulsions I still have from those days is to never to
waste food (or soap... we used to save the tiniest slivers of soap and
combined them into new bars, a habit left over from wartime rationing).
Sometimes they couldn't afford coffee (or it was still scarce) and drank
Mom made our clothes (and her own) herself and washed them in a tub a with a
washboard and brown soap. If she needed to make a phone call she used the
neighbors' phone. We didn't go anywhere. This existence made my mom pretty
depressed. But at the time I didn't think any of this was unusual because
it was all I knew. Little by little my dad earned more money; I remember
the big milestones: a real toaster, a Maytag cast-iron washing machine (with
a power ringer), in 1950 a new Ford, and finally about 1953 or -54, a TV (so
I lived the first 9 or 10 years of my life without television, and then
another five years while in Germany, and another 2 years after the Army, so
about 17 out of my first 24 years with no TV).
For health care there was a dentist, Dr. Cooksie (I barely remember him) and
a husband-and-wife medical practice, Dr. Willard and Dr. White, in Arlington
close to my grandmother's house. If I got sick with measles or mumps or
chicken pox (I had all those) my Mom would call from the neighbor's house
and Dr. Willard would come in his car. For measles they had to make the
house dark inside for a week. When I was five, evidently Dr. Willard told
my parents that I needed to have my tonsils and adenoids out, and to be
circumcised. Standard practice in those days except circumcision was
normally done a birth, not at age 5... Ouch! (in a 1949 letter from Dad to
Pete announcing the birth of Dennis, he says "We had this boy circumsized,
and I curse the Navy doctor who was too bored to perform the same assistance
to Bubba" [me]). A visit to or from Drs. Willard and White was $5.00. I
had to go every six months to have the wax removed from my ears... it built
up until I was just about deaf. But after I was 10 or so it didn't happen
Mom used Norwegian words in everyday speech but I didn't know they weren't
English. The main ones I remember are "takk skal du ha" (pronounced
tuks-guh-duh-HA) meaning thanks very much, "skærk" (not sure of the
spelling), meaning crust of bread (as in "eat your skærks!"), "hutfeduma!"
meaning "Damn it!". She also called a head scarf a "babushka", I don't know
where she got that! My dad, on the other hand, never showed any sign that
his father was Portuguese.
Radio/phonograph console 1946
Before the TV we'd do different things at night. Often, just read. Or play
checkers. In summer we'd go out in the yard and watch the sun go down, or
wait for the big storm to come. In winter, we'd listen to radio
shows… Dragnet, Gangbusters, The Whistler, The Lone Ranger, The Green
Hornet, The Shadow, The Great Gildersleeve, Death Valley Days, Duffy's
Tavern, Our Miss Brooks, Fibber McGee and Molly, Grand Central Station,
Inner Sanctum, Captain Midnight, Tom Corbett Space Cadet… I remember
all of these from the late 40s and early 50s. We had a
big wooden radio and record player
with cloth over the speakers; Dennis and I would lay on the rug
next to it to listen, picturing the action in our heads.
Movies in those days were creative, made with live actors, original scripts,
original ideas, usually based on real life, not comic books. There were
hardly ever sequels (with some exceptions like the Thin Man and Tarzan
series). Going to movies was fun, not painful. Admission was a dollar or
less, there were no ads, theaters were lushly decorated, clean, and
comfortable, there were ushers, and there was a huge velvet curtain that
opened when the show was about to start. The show consisted of a newsreel,
previews, sometimes a travelogue, on Saturday afternoons a serial ending
with a cliffhanger, a Disney or Warner Brothers cartoon, and then the
feature. After we moved to Arlington when I was 11,
the Glebe theater was just a couple blocks away
and kids got in for a quarter. I saw all the famous monster and science
fiction movies there: Creature from the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth,
Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Incredible Shrinking
Man, Godzilla, some of them about space, others about about monsters created
or awakened by atomic testing.
|Reading the Sunday Comics 1952
Another source of entertainment were the comics in the daily newspaper,
which was delivered to our door… L'il Abner, Steve Canyon, Terry and the
Pirates, Superman, Little Lulu, Moon Mullins, Mighty Mouse, Gasoline Alley,
Beetle Baily, Archie, Batman, Popeye, Red Ryder, Lone Ranger, Tarzan, The
Phantom, Tom and Jerry, Hi and Lois, Nancy, Dick Tracy, Pogo, Prince
Valiant, Smilin' Jack, Dagwood and Blondie, Joe Palooka, Little Orphan
Annie, Micky Mouse, Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Snuffy Smith, The
Katzenjammer Kids (which was set in German West Africa), Flash Gordon,
Our TV arrived about 1954. Early TV included (evening) the variety shows of
Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Ed Sullivan…
Late at night were old movies and also the Tonight Show with Steve Allen,
which was a tremendous improvement over its successors. Kid shows on
Saturday morning were Froggy the Gremlin (Andy's Gang), Sky King, Cisco Kid,
Watch Mr. Wizard… And of course cartoons, mostly from the 1930s. We
also had some Confederate-themed TV shows in Virginia like The Gray Ghost
and Mosby's Raiders. There were a few kid shows in the evening too, just
before dinnertime: the Lone Ranger, Zorro, Robin Hood, and Superman. And
later, the Wonderful World of Disney, which almost caused the extinction of
the racoon when they showed Davy Crockett in four episodes in 1955
("Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, kilt him a bar when he was only
ANYWAY… Mom wasn't totally alone in the house all day because I
didn't start school until 1950, and Dennis not until about 1955. But I
think it must have been during the brief time that Dennis and I were both in
school, before we moved to Arlington, that she was alone in the house doing
the wash, feeding the wet clothes through the power ringer, when somehow her
arm was pulled into the ringer up to the shoulder and there was no way she
could get it out. Finally our next-door neighbor Mary Walker heard her
calling for help and freed her. Her whole arm was black and blue after that
but eventually it healed OK.
Another awful accident was a pressure-cooker exploding in her face. I only
remember that it happened, but not the details. Anyway, no permanent
damage. (Pressure cookers were the 1940s-50s version of the Slow Cooker,
but much more dangerous; she would buy cheap tough meat and put it in the
pressure cooker with potatoes and cabbage for a long time and it would come
There was no kindergarten, let alone pre-K, where we lived. But my Mom
wanted me to learn to read and write and do arithmetic starting when I was 4
or 5, so while Dad was at work she'd spend a few hours with me each day
reading from books. For arithmetic she made flashcards, and for
handwriting… When she was a girl penmanship was very important, and
she did have beautiful handwriting. As a child she had to spend hours every
day practicing overlapping curliques on lined paper, so I did some of that.
Thanks to all these lessons, I was pretty advanced when I started school and
usually did well. (My Mom was so quiet and self-effacing that as a child I
never appreciated how many technical skills she had; I knew her as "just a
|The Methodist church early 1950s
|The old part of Chesterbrook School (demolished in 1978)
I went to Chesterbrook elementary school on Kirby Road grades 1-6.
The first three years it was a small schoolhouse with some WWII surplus
Quonset huts added in back. Because of the postwar baby boom and the
mushrooming DC suburbs, there were two grades to a room, and there were two
shifts, morning and afternoon, so there were four classes in each room each
day. One year my class was in the basement of the whites-only Methodist
church. Mostly farm kids went Chesterbook school then; probably half the
kids were in the 4-H Club, which in those days was mainly about raising farm
animals, growing vegetables, canning and preserving, etc. Once a year there
would be a fair at the school where the 4-H kids would bring the calfs or
pumpkins or jam in hopes of a blue ribbon.
|View from Chesterbrook School in 1952
The photo shows the view across Kirby Road from the school about 1952. At
left in the photo, the Black First Baptist Church of Chesterbrook; built in
1866, it is almost certainly the oldest building in the area. Far right,
the single-story building with green roof is the old abandoned Stalcup's
Chesterbrook market that closed some time between 1920 and 1940. You could
look inside and still see the ancient merchandise among the dust and
cobwebs), and I think I even remember rocking chairs still on the creaky
porch front porch. Left of the market, a white frame house, which might
have been the Odd Fellows Hall at one time, which
also served as a school for the Black
children until about 1940
. Both of these buildings are gone today.
Down the hill, the houses and farms of African-American community,
descendents of freed slaves. At least one white family lived there too in
the early 1950s.
Both churches are still there but the simple frame houses beyond the
Methodist church been replaced by mansions and condo complexes — the
same that happened to Hall's Hill, the Black
community in nearby Arlington — as have the houses down the hill and,
for that matter, along the entire length of Kirby Road. Chesterbook is no
longer a modest community of slave descendents and returning veterans.
Left of First Church (not visible in the photo), the house of an old guy who
kept a cow tethered by the front porch (but apparently not when this photo
was taken). The cow was a source of fascination to all the schoolkids
because its horns were growing downwards, curving around towards its big
eyeballs, closer every year. When I moved away in 1956, the points of the
horns were a quarter inch from the eyeballs. This still worries me.
|Virginia witch face
|4th grade at Chesterbrook School 1954
One of my most enduring memories of Chesterbrook school comes from the huge
maps in each classroom that could be pulled down, like windowshades, to
cover the blackboard — a USA map, a world map, and a map of Virginia.
Usually the Virginia one was showing and all I could see when I looked at it
was a big scary witch face! Every day, year after year. And speaking of
windowshades, the classrooms also had blackout shades left over from WWII
that could make the room totally dark, perfect for showing movies, which
happened from time to time; they'd wheel in an old movie projector and show
some US Department of Agriculture or Health educational film. The best part
was when it was over we'd all scream to show it backwards in fast motion
instead of rewinding it directly reel-to-reel, so that way we'd see people
running around backwards, taking food out of their mouths with a spoon, even
a slimy baby calf being sucked up into its mother's butt.
|Chesterbrook School 1953 annex, Quonset huts, incinerator
In 1953 to accommodate the growing population, they added a new wing with
lots of classrooms and a cafeteria. The first few years I brought lunch but
started eating in the cafeteria in 4th or 5th grade; I think it cost a
quarter. Good southern home-style farm cooking, cooked by ladies from the
nearby farms… Mashed potatos, fried chicken, fresh string
beans or greens…
One day they made corn fritters (kind of
like zeppolis but made with cornmeal and with corn kernels mixed in, served
with powdered sugar or syrup, crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy on
the inside); they were so good I pestered my mom for weeks to make them, and
finally I guess she found the lady who cooked them and got the recipe.
Another thing about school cafeterias in those days was they never served
meat on Fridays; either it was no meat at all, or else fish. I don't think
that happens any more but it used to be universal.
When I brought lunch it was always the same: a Smithfield Ham salad sandwich
on homemade bread (we couldn't afford store-bought). Fresh farm milk in the
thermos with some Bosco syrup. Smithfield Ham Spread came in a tall thin
jar, like an olive jar but flattened (they stopped selling this decades
ago). It had a very strong taste; Mom mixed it with mayo and chopped
pickles. It was so good I wouldn't trade with anybody. (We never bought a
real Smithfield ham, the big one that comes in cloth bag, that would cost
way too much, but I remember Russell Hill had one hanging in one of the
outbuildings; however, I did buy one myself decades later as present for
; best gift I ever gave him.)
|Scrapple, eggs, and syrup
Which reminds me, another treat we had at home sometimes (because it was so
cheap) was scrapple, which is pig scraps mixed with cornmeal and peppery
spices, fried in an iron skillet so it gets a crunchy crust; I didn't think
it was known anywhere north of Maryland but one day I found it in C-Town on
125th Street and made it for Amy (there's a Law & Order
where Lt. Van Buren is sending some detectives to Baltimore for some reason
and asks them to bring her back some scrapple). It's the perfect
accompaniment for grits and fried eggs with soft yolks, and you can pour
syrup on it.
|A 17-year locust
|A pile of dead locusts
Also in 1953… A plague of locusts! 17-year locusts (cicadas). For
about a week, they were so thick you could barely see across the street.
They were big and fat, about 2 inches long, with big bulging red eyes and
they crashed into you constantly whenever you went outside. And they were
loud! Walking to school through a dense cloud of locusts was like bumper
cars. As they died off, there were insect corpses piled up everywhere
giving off a putrid stench. I imagine this had been going on for thousands
of years, but that was the last time. After that, all the forests were
leveled to make way for suburbs, and those had been the trees where they
deposited their eggs. (I can't believe nobody took pictures of this.)
I used to get horrible cases of poison ivy, I can't even describe how bad.
For example my fingers would fuse together, my eyelids would swell shut, it
would be all over my body… Anyway, once I had a case so bad in second
grade I was out of school for two weeks, and when I came back I was so
far behind that they just put me in 3rd grade and that's how I skipped a
|Me, Jimmie, Harry at a nearby farm
|Back of Hill farm
Chesterbrook was totally rural when we moved there, except for our little
clump of postwar GI-Bill houses. The school was about a half mile's walk
from our house down Kirby road, which wasn't even paved when we first moved
in and of course had no sidewalks. Beyond the school and the First Baptist
Church, the Kirby Road bridge over Old Dominion Drive, then the Methodist
church and down the hill from it, the "new" Chesterbrook market and Bray's
Esso, the gas station that sponsored my little league team (1956 was first
year ever of little league in the area, a sign of creeping suburbanization).
|Sámi marking knife
The operational market was the old-time kind where the man behind the
counter wore a white apron; you told him what you wanted and he got for you;
no self-service. Sometimes a farmer would bring a pig to be butchered,
or a hunter would bring a deer, and the market would sell the meat.
Once he gave me fair-size piece of deerskin, with hair on one side and
gooey bloody chunks on the other. I had the Sámi ("Lappland")
knife Uncle Pete had given me, and George Gilmer and I spent many long
days trying to clean and cure it before we gave up (these short knives
were actually used for cutting notches into the ears of reindeer to serve as
ownership marks, not for cleaning pelts).
In early years my mom shopped by calling up the market from the neighbor's
phone and reading her shopping list; later a guy named Frank, who had
several fingers missing, would drive up in an old rusty pickup truck with
the order. After we had a car, we drove to McLean to shop at the Safeway
supermarket (not very super), where a week's groceries for four cost $25.
|Little League game 1956
|Bray's Esso Little League team 1956
It was the segregated South, but the lines were not super-firm.
For example, in the house behind ours was where my friend Ricky James lived.
His dad was white but his mom was Jamaican and Ricky (second from left, back
row) was somewhat brownish but went to the white school, as did a number
of other kids (e.g. two rightmost kids in back row) who were not exactly
white but were not black either. Also for part of one year I had a Black
teacher in our segregated white school. Go figure. Also the stores weren't
segregated; I never saw Colored and White signs on anything except when I
went further south; for example, to Charlottesville.
While the school and churches were segretated, the farms were not. A
prominent farmer, Lewis Hall, was black and his family and Hill family were
good friends and frequent visitors. I went with Harry's family sometimes to
the Hall farm on Cottonwood street about a mile and half northeast of us
along Kirby Road, when they visised and Harry and I played with their
children, who were a bit younger. It's solid suburbs now of course.
A lot of families beside the Jameses lived in the house behind ours. Once
there was a family of (what everybody called) hillbillies: man and wife with
10 ragged dirty snotnosed kids ranging in age from infancy to about 10.
Every night in the summer the whole family would sit in a circle in the back
yard, all of them smoking cigarettes except maybe the babies, while the dad
sang and played guitar. That was the first time I ever saw a guitar. I'd
go there sometimes and he'd show it to me. In retrospect, he reminds
me of Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie.
|Mona Joseph 1955
|Mona and son Philip
Another family was Nick and Mona Joseph and their little boy Philip. I've
told you about them lots of times, but just for the record… I don't
know where Nick was from (he was not a southerner) but he hated fascism so
much that he couldn't wait for the USA to get in the war, so he joined the
RCAF in 1939 or -40 and flew combat missions throughout the war, starting in
North Africa. While there, he met a French Algerian ("Pied-Noir")
ballerina, Mona, and they got married. Eventually they settled in the house
behind ours. Nick decorated the house with war and aviation souvenirs, like
a real (wooden) fighter-plane propeller, and he was full of war stories. He
worked at National Airport and took me there sometimes; he took me in the
flight control room, let me sit in airliner cockpits like the big 4-engine
DC-4s at night with all the lights glowing.
Mona was one of those people who knew how to do everything, you had to
admire her. She spoke French, English, and either Arabic or Berber. She
showed my Mom how to make her Algerian dishes, so without knowing it I grew
up eating Algerian food (when we could afford the ingredients): lamb cooked
with "french style" string beans and tomatoes in sauces like the Lubee in
Samad's with Magreb spices like cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and nutmeg. I
always remember Mona in the backyard swinging wet lettuce around in a wire
basket to dry it for salad, the droplets shooting out in great arcs and
catching the setting sun.
Chesterbrook being rural, kids' lives were pretty rough compared to most
kids today. I got in fights with other kids all the time. Bullies always
picked on smaller kids, they'd take my hat or my lunchbox and I'd have to
fight them to get it back. Once in a fight at school, I knocked a kid down
and his head hit a rock; he got a concussion and had to go to the hospital.
I was in big trouble for a long time.
I was stung by bees and wasps almost daily, bitten by dogs, shot with BBs
and once by an exploding shotgun shell. One time
some older kids jumped me when I was taking a shortcut through the woods and
tried to rob me at knifepoint but somehow I fought them off without getting
cut. They wanted the $10 Timex watch my grandmother gave me. Anyway it was
such a common occurrence that I came home bruised and bloody, my parents
barely even remarked on it. I broke my nose lots of times, which is why it
is so lumpy and misshapen now; fights, football… And once at Fort
Knox I dived off a high board and smashed my face onto the pool bottom; I
was unconscious underwater for some unknown number of seconds, I
woke up and everything was red, swam to the surface.
Speaking of insects, we used sit out in the back yard at night and the most
amazing kinds of bugs would swarm around the single yellow lightbulb over
the back door: gigantic moths, creepy monster mosquitos, ... and in the
grass, big fat black beetles the size of a golf ball with pincers and
lobster claws… Across the road, the woods was full of box turtles and
snakes, stickbugs and praying mantises. And hummingbird moths... a moth
that looks like and mimics a hummingbird. The creek in the woods had crawfish.
The ditch in front of our house was full of frogs and tadpoles (and mosquito
larvae of course).
Other common injuries in the country involved the shins. Geese on the farms
always went for kids' shins, chomping down with their tiny sharp teeth. But
even more annoying were the old rusty barrel hoops lying hidden in the
grass… when you step on one, it flips up and whacks you with its sharp
edge right in the shin. This was similar to stepping on a rusty nail,
another common occurrence. You were supposed to get a tetanus shot when
this happened so I didn't say anything about it.
And playing, we did things so dangerous I can't believe I didn't get killed.
We totally ran wild, no such thing as adult supervision. One thing I
remember was, when they started to clear the forest to build the new
suburbs, they put all the trees in a huge pile, 30-40 feet high. On a day
when nobody was working we went there, climbed up on it, and discovered we
could slide down through the interior, zooming down through dark twisty
passages. It's only blind luck that I didn't impale myself on some broken
branch that was pointing in the wrong direction.
Sledding on the farms in the winter could be tricky too. Once there was a
deep snow that buried the barbed wire fences and I crashed into one at full
speed with my face; I could easily have lost an eye or two.
Another time, I climbed on a bulldozer that was left in place overnight in
front of the house when they were paving the road and fiddled with the
buttons and levers until it started and I was heading down the road but my
dad noticed and caught up with me and turned the thing off. Good thing too,
I had no idea how to steer it or to stop it.
Another time I fell out of a tree from about 30 feet up, but wasn't hurt too
bad. But then another time I was swinging at the Hill farm on an
ancient tire swing that hung from a big tree branch that was 30-40 feet up
and the branch broke off and landed on my head. I was unconscious for a
while and when I woke up I had lost all memory of recent times, I could only
remember things from years before (this was after I had moved to Arlington,
but I didn't remember that I had moved). Harry's Mom Avis very gently and
patiently helped me recall everything.
|Hill farm in 1900
Going to Harry Hill's house or to any of the other farms was like going back
to 1900 or even to 1860... wooden Victorian houses with blown-glass window
panes (when you look through them everything is wavy), kerosene lamps, and
cast-iron hand pumps instead of faucets at the kitchen sink, to bring up
water from the well. But aside from the old farms, the 1940s and early 50s
seemed modern and solid to me. There was music on the radio in the daytime
and dramatic shows at night and on special occasions we could go to the
The first movie I saw was Song of the South in 1946, with Uncle
Remus, Brer Rabbit, and Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. This must have been at the
Glebe theater in Arlington when we were living
with my grandmother Gus, it was just a couple blocks away. It's never been
released since then because it's full of stereotypes, but it's kind of
sweet, not vicious. A lot of people thought it sugar-coated plantation life
during slavery, but actually it's set during Reconstruction.
I remember going to another movie in 1949, after we had moved to
Williams extravaganza in color. The whole family went in our brand-new
1950 Ford, purchased probably around October 1949, when Dennis was about six
months old. The theater had a special glassed-in balcony for families with
new babies (crying, breast-feeding, changing diapers...) — this was,
after all, the height of the post-war baby boom. It was the State Theater
in Arlington; I read somewhere it was the first movie theater to have air
conditioning. After the movie we went to the drug store next door and sat
at the black marble soda-fountain counter on red leather revolving stools
and had ice cream treats. It must have been a birthday.
Aside from that I remember seeing other movies with my parents and Dennis in
the baby balcony at the State, mostly black and white — first-run
movies with stars like Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Johnny Weissmuller
(Tarzan), Marilyn Monroe in her early noir roles…
|George Gilmer 1954
|George Gilmer 1958
|Beedee (center) 1952
|John Gilmer 1945
One of my friends in Chesterbrook was George Gilmer. He and his sister
Beedee (real name Virginia, like her mother) already lived there when we
arrived in 1947, right down the hill behind our house. I had not yet
reached my 3rd birthday.
|Cinderblock cubes a few months later
|Gilmer house and car January 1947
At first I was more friends with Beedee (George was a year older, Beedee a
year younger). Beedee had only one eye but so many there had missing parts
this didn't seem odd to me. She usually wore a patch over the missing eye,
but sometimes she took it off. There was a partially formed eyeball in
there somewhere but it was covered with skin. She had numerous operations
but it couldn't be fixed. I thought she was cute. Anyway I played with
both her and George and their mom used to drive us to school on rainy days,
at first in her 1939 Chevy then later in her new 1952 one. She was one of
the few working mothers in the area, a social worker. George's father had
been commander of a Coast Guard cutter during WWII in the Pacific Aleutian
Islands and in the Atlantic on the Murmansk run; after the war he worked
for the USDA.
|Gilmers' house, top center, 1955.
What's interesting about George is that, with only some relatively minor
gaps, we have been friends all this time and he helped me a lot with the
Chesterbrook part of this history, and he and his wife Connie
New Deal sites
around Hampton Roads for me in 2017. Plus in the 1990s
George did C-Kermit builds for me on some oddball computers at his job.
|Virginia, Beedee, George 1950
We are different in every way: he's right-wing, I'm left; he's religious,
I'm not. He's a bluegrass fanatic and I... well, as Stan Freburg would say,
"too piercing!" (He also likes Black country blues and both Black and white
gospel music). But we get along fine and discuss things on a pretty calm
and friendly level. He's married to his lifelong sweetheart, Connie, and
after running an auto repair business for many years, and then working in IT
for a decade or two after that, he and Connie retired to the Gilmer's
ancestral lands (which George bought back from Coors) in Elkton, Virginia,
where Patsy Cline came from, and they built a gigantic log house, which is
surrounded by farmland. They are close to the Shanendoah River, Blue Ridge
Mountains, and Skyline Drive. They have a large extended family of
children, grandchildren, etc. They're active in the church, and perform
country-music duos (voices, bass and guitar or mandolin) at church and
local bluegrass get-togethers. Mrs. Gilmer died just weeks after her 100th
birthday in 2017. Beedee moved to England decades ago and never came back.
John Gilmer died in 1995.
George died Thursday, April 9, 2020, in the Coronavirus pandemic. He is
survived by his wife Connie, and his children and grandchildren. As Connie
said, "George left us to be with his Lord this afternoon. He put up a good
fight but it was too much for him. I will miss him so much but I know he is
with Jesus. But God is faithful and I have much support from our family."
The 2017 photo shows a family gathering at George's and Connie's home in
Elkton. George, his mom Virginia (age 99), and Connie are in the second row
from the top. Click the image to enlarge it and to see George's caption for
Link: George Gilmer
Obituary, Kyger Funeral Home, Harrisonburg VA.
The Chesterbrook community swimming pool
|Chesterbrook pool site about 1953
|Opening ceremony 1954
|Chesterbrook pool 1955
|Chesterbrook pump house 1953
By 1954 several new middle-class housing developments had sprung up, so
there was enough money for everybody (i.e. all the white families) to chip
in and buy an abandoned piece of land adjacent to the pump house on Kirby
Road and across from the school and to build a community swimming pool.
This was done almost entirely by volunteer labor, but children had to be
paid; I dug postholes for 75¢ an hour — my first paying job at age 9.
Once it opened, I'd go to the pool every day summer after school and on
weekends. I learned how to swim there, and after a year or two I was on its
competitive swimming team, along with George Gilmer, Brian Adams, and some
Photos by my father. In the first pool photo (infrared) you can see a band
at the far end, with a big string bass. In the second pool photo you can see
the new wing of the school peeking through the trees at far right, above the
car. It was a "swimming club", members-only, with a moderate annual
membership fee. At some point after we moved away in 1956 it opened its
membership to Black people. Click each photo to read more.
My mom and dad liked the pool too, but they weren't good swimmers. Mom swam
with her face in the water, so could go only as far as she could hold her
breath. My dad could do the crawl properly, and he'd do a lap or two but
with no joy, as if only to show everyone how it was done. Whereas I did
every kind of stroke including invented ones, swam on the surface and
underwater, splashed, played, dived off the low and high boards, and always
had great fun.