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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)
Mom, Dad, and Pete 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 <fdc@columbia.edu>
Most recent update: 8 August 2020 08:48:02

Chesterbrook VA 1947-56

[SEE GALLERY]

House on Kirby Road 1947
House on Kirby Road 1947
Chesterbrook GI Bill houses
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 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
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; click here 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
Tyson's Corner 1953
Bond Bread screen door
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.

Back yard
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 it needed work and when it was finally paved, the work was done by chain gangs of Black prisoners.

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 around our house.

The Hill farm 1950s
The Hill farm 1950s, barn at right
Harry Hill 1950s
Harry Hill mid-1950s
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. He was kind of 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 last two!)

Jimmie Walker 1950s
Jimmie Walker 1956
marywalker 1950s
Mary Walker, Mom
nolanwalker 1950s
Nolan Walker
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
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; usually 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 joined 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 Sarabecca.

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.

C&O Canal
C&O Canal
Hopfenmaier Rendering Plant
Hopfenmaier Rendering Plant
My father commuted to DC every day to work, there was a WV&M bus that 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 is 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 Whitehurst 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.

Postware margarine
Postwar margarine
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.

Mom always 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. If we had rice for dinner, then the next morning's breakfast would be what Dominicans call "concón" — the browned crust from from the bottom of the pan, in hot milk. I think I made that for you guys a few times. 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 Postum.

She 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 medical care there was a husband-and-wife 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 any more.

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.

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 Shadow, Death Valley Days, The Great Gildersleeve, Duffy's Tavern, Our Miss Brooks, Fibber McGee and Molly, Grand Central Station, Space Patrol, 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 console 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, 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
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, Captain Midnight…

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 three...")

Maytag wringer washer
Maytag washer
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.

Pressure cooker
Pressure cooker
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 out tender.)

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 Mom".)

Chesterbrook Methodist church for white people
The white-people church
Chesterbrook School 1954
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 church. Mostly farm kids went this 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.

1940s Virginia Map
Virginia witch face
One of my most enduring memories of Chesterbrook school comes from the fact that every classroom had huge maps that could be pulled down, like windowshades, to cover the blackboard, such as a USA map, a world map, or a map of Virginia. Usually the Virginia one was showing and all I could see when I looked at it was a 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 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 1954
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…
Corn fritters
Corn fritters
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.

Smithfield ham
Smithfield hams
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 Granpa; best gift I ever gave him.)

Scrapple
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 episode 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 17-year locust
Dead locusts
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 several 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 grade.

First Baptist Church
First Baptist (Black) church
Rural Chesterbrook
Me, Jimmie, Harry at a nearby farm
Rural Chesterbrook - back of Hill Farm
Back of Hill farm
Chesterbrook was totally rural when we moved there, except for our little clump of postwar GI-Bill cinder-block cubes. The school was about a mile's walk down Kirby road, which wasn't even paved when we first moved in and of course had no sidewalks. Across from the school was the Black church, which turns out to be the oldest surviving building in the area, built just after the Civil War by a new community of freed slaves) and the original Chesterbrook market, an old, abandoned, rickety wooden structure with a front porch for rocking chairs — you could still look inside and see all the old stuff from the 1920s on the sagging wooden shelves. As far as I know, nobody ever broke into it. Then the Kirby Road bridge over Old Dominion Drive, then the white church. Down the hill from the white church: 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).

Lappland knife
Sami 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 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 Sami ("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. After we moved away in 1956, the farms and forests disappeared and vast suburban housing developments — and eventually glass and steel high-rise cities — took their place.

My Little League game 1956
Little League game 1956
My Little League team 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 definitely 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 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.

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 Joseph 1955
Mona and Philip
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 1940 and flew combat missions throughout the war, starting in North Africa. While there, he met a French Algerian 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
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 movies.

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 Chesterbrook: an Esther 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

George Gilmer sixth grade
George Gilmer 1954
George Gilmer 1958
George Gilmer 1958
Beedee Gilmer
Beedee (center) 1952
John Gilmer 1945
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
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.

Down the hill
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 also photographed 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.

Gilmers 1950
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, guitar, bass, and/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.

Gilmers 2017
Gilmers 2017
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 it.

George Gilmer Obituary, Kyger Funeral Home, Harrisonburg VA

The Chesterbrook community swimming pool

Chesterbrook pool site
Chesterbrook pool site about 1953
Chesterbrook pool
Opening ceremony 1954
Chesterbrook pool
Chesterbrook pool 1955
Chesterbrook pump houe
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. In the summer I'd go to the pool every day 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 other friends.

Photos by my father. In the second pool photo (infrared) you can see a band at the far end, with a big string bass. In the right-hand 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.


Most recent update: 8 August 2020 08:48:03