On Vanished Worlds and Historical Preservation

Hey regular (and new) readers, good to be back. As I said last week, had a minor health setback, but am ready to work once again. Word to the wise, though: avoid swimmers ear if at all possible. Shit is deadly serious. Now I’ve had a kidney stone so I can’t say it’s the worst pain I’ve ever encountered (although that was over in like an hour), but the words “agony”, “torment”, and “suffering” all easily float to the top of the mind.  I’m talking throbbing from neck to temple, the kind of stuff that makes you curl up in the fetal position and pray for death. Conversation was, quite simply, beyond me for a day or two. Real one-star experience, if you know what I mean. F–, would not recommend.

But hey, I’m doing much better today and can actually hear out of that ear, which was a pretty touch-and-go proposition for a few days. Now to ramp my activity back up to pre-pain days.

Anyway, moving on to this week’s (or should I say last week’s) topic, a few words on why I’m so fascinated with the past and historical preservation. One of the prevalent themes in my photography – almost a quest, if you will – is seeking out remnants of the vanished past, bits of detritus and ruins that remain from a long-gone world. This is not necessarily a matter of nostalgia, though that can provide a fun boost to such searches. It’s more about exploration and context and, consequently, what those can mean for your emotional landscape.

Take the photo below as an example. This is a shot of downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia during a holiday season in the late 50s or early 60s. This was an era where “downtown” really meant something, before malls came along and wrecked that paradigm.

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I came along too late for this era, by far; this was the world of my mother’s childhood, one that she’s described in glowing terms but which I couldn’t quite grasp until I saw this photograph. The reality pictured here haunts me as I consider what such a world looked like, felt like, smelled like. By the time I arrived on the scene the department store in the center of the frame had alreayd entered its decline phase, soon to close forever and live only in memory and photographs like this one. I never knew a world with that JOE shop, or the clothing store next to it. My memories of downtown are seedier, more ramshackle, a place that you visited only when you absolutely needed to grab one of the famous Jesses’ Hot Dogs.

Now even that world has vanished, replaced by a movement to attempt to revitalize the downtown area (but which is still falling short due to a combination of short-sightedness and the times having moved on from such mid-00s trifles). Here is a photo of the place from Christmas Day 2014. The big gray building on the right, a public school administrative building, is what remains of the department store above. I can’t say for certain whether the buildings to the left are the remains of those old stores. They don’t appear to be, but much can change in 50 years, including facades.

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This is where context is so important. The place looks sparse and utilitarian, even on Christmas Day, with little more than the modest wreaths to even indicate the season. The photo by itself might not spark much feeling if you didn’t look at that one above, didn’t know that this place once thrummed with its own vibrant sense of life. With that in mind, you can imagine those angels covering the two windows of the school building, of that display in the window above the entrance way. There’s an ache to the place, a bittersweet emotion that’s hard to define.

Historical preservation becomes near and dear to my heart where this emotion crosses with historical relevancy.  It’s about holding on to the floating ties of a vanished world, about offering context to the world around you. I’m continually shocked and amazed to discover strange realities floating just out of our mind’s eye, waiting to spring to life; the home that was once a convenience store, the general store converted to a restaurant. The lives that once intersected at that location matter, and it matters that we are aware of that convergence.

Now you certainly can’t save everything. I’m also a believer in change and progress, and sometimes it’s truly not worth the time or effort to save any hint of, say, a hot dog stand down the street. But we can save photographs from that time and us amateur archaeologists or whatever you want to call us can seek out the remains that may still stand.

This is why I photograph the places that I do. It’s why I think it’s important to photograph the detritus of places like the General Lee Motor Court, so that we can not only revisit places that we might have once known and get that hit of nostalgia, but also to contextualize our ever-evolving world. The ghosts of the past are all around us. We need to not only notice them, but reach out and grab hold of them, even if it’s simply capturing an image. Without that context, we can easily lose sight of just how our own world can vanish at any moment.

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On another note, expect a status update on my woefully-behind-schedule novel on Friday, and next week I’ll be back to talk about our upcoming trip to Culpeper, Virginia and what it means to me to be on the open road. See you again soon.

Halloween Post: Rockin the Box

Talk about something strange; while I’m sure I’ve mentioned Harrisonburg, VA as my birthplace and my bio states that I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, I don’t think I’ve talked about my actual hometown. While I would call Dayton, VA my hometown, I spent the first five years of my life in the “unincorporated community” of Lacey Spring.

I credit this to being five when we moved away. Oh, sure, I have some solid memories of Star Wars toys, of playing with Tony across the street and rapidly discovering what it meant to be on the outside looking in (he was the only Hispanic kid in the neighborhood, I was the only fat kid), and of being hit in the face with a rock, but when it comes to Halloween, the nominal subject of this post, I have precious few memories. Photos exist, to be sure. I’ve seen the chubby little kid in brown corduroys with a lavish spread of Halloween candy, and a toddler in a Big Bird costume, but I have no tangible recall of those moments.

My strongest memory is of making a trek to the Lacey Spring Grocery on a hot day to get Sunkist soda, which was always my favorite. It felt like such a long walk back then, but Google informs me that it was a mile-and-a-half. I suppose that’s the nature of being a four-year-old with four-year-old legs. Sadly, the grocery closed down at some point and I can find no photos of what it looked like in its heyday. I recently visited the place, and here’s what it looks like today:

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The place is white in my memories, which makes sense with that block of white on the right-hand side. Paint job at some point? Anyway. We moved to Dayton in July of 1981; easy to nail down the date as I have vivid memories of that July 4th. They shot off fireworks from the high school down the street, which blew my little mind. Granted, Dayton’s population couldn’t have been more than 750 people at the time, but compared to Lacey Spring it was a veritable metropolis, full of possibility.

The park where I played as a child.

The park where I played as a child. In ’81 this was an empty field.

We lived in Dayton for 14 years and, consequently, most of my Halloween memories revolve around that place. Hell, it still retains a spooky vibe in the Autumn, even when I revisit it as an adult. The thing about Dayton is that so much of its history still lives on, from the circa-late 19th century buildings downtown to the graveyard (which itself once abutted a long-lost church) with graves dating back to the 1700s. Oh, let’s not forget the potentially-haunted Silver Lake, which was the previous site for said church until a spring flooded out the grounds. Supposedly there are still gravestones in some spots, though I have no idea if anyone has verified this claim. The point is that the ghosts of Dayton’s past still walk the grounds, and it was a fertile place for my imagination.

Silver Lake

I loved to walk the streets around Sunset as the days grew short. A lot of people in Dayton still relied on wood stoves to heat their homes, so the place had this wonderful smoky scent that permeated the air. Imagine a combination of that odor with the loamy smell of fallen leaves and the ambient blue-and-purple lighting that fell across the nigh-deserted side streets and alleys. Absolute magic for a kid fascinated by the dark and decay. I’d stay out there for hours until the sky went black, and even then I’d sometimes linger under the oaks, peeking up through the last few wavering leaves to watch the twinkling stars overhead.

Dayton didn’t have a large population of kids, but we celebrated Halloween hard and well. Oh, we had our usual childhood stratification, with the older kids focusing on pranks and the younger kids focusing on trick-or-treating (sans parents, of course, you could still safely walk the streets alone), but there was a sense of it being a town-wide event. 1985 and 86 were the best that I can remember, though 85 is a little fuzzy, save this photo of me with that year’s Jack-O-Lantern. Note the sweet Movie Channel T-Shirt.

Movie_Channel

My touchstone would be 1986, which would be my last year in Elementary school and represent a jumping-off point to adolescence. We had just discovered the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and, while I would have to wait until Christmas for my own system, several of my friends already had theirs, and they were playing Castlevania that Fall. This would become my go-to-world to visit while I walked through streets, imagining myself as a rogue vampire hunter roaming the graveyard and climbing through construction sites. How could you resist such a fantasy? Practically crack, pure distilled badass as far as I was concerned.

Castlevania

And boy did I think I had a sweet costume in place that year. I didn’t dress as Simon Belmont, the hero of Castlevania (that would be a few years later, for a school dance), but I had something else in mind. That year also represented the last big bang of toys for me, in particular M.A.S.K., GI Joe and Transformers. I had developed a fascination with the recently-released Transformers movie, in particular the character Blurr, a fast-talking futuristic car/robot combination. I have no idea if he’s made an appearance in the live-action movies (I avoid those as much as possible), but I was in love. I had to dress as this robot. Now, keep in mind that this is what the character looked like:

Blurr01

By now you may have figured out that we weren’t exactly rich and, even if you did have money back in those days, you couldn’t exactly pop down to a Michael’s  and buy costuming materials. You either bought off-the-rack or tried to build your own the best you could. Blurr wasn’t a star character like Megatron or Optimus Prime, so the off-the-rack option was gone from the beginning. So, being the, ahem, creative child that I was, I decided to create one myself. With boxes. And face paint. And hair dye.

It turned out about as well as you’d expect. I mean, it wasn’t a terrible idea, but the execution lacked poetry, to say the least. It would become a neighborhood legend, in fact, spawning the nickname Boxman. My parents, God love them, have preserved this moment of shame so that I may share it with you.

Blurr

Not pictured: boxes on feet.

Hey, at least I tried. Sadly, no evidence remains of the Belmont costume, which actually did turn out pretty sweet and got compliments.

Such is life.

Hope all who celebrate have a Happy Halloween, and I’ll see you next week with some talk about Historical Preservation.

Emerging From The Writer Cave

Hello one and all, I return from my Writer Cave bearing good news. I know, I know, not the first time returning, nor will it be the last, I’m sure. Blame it on an overwhelming drive to finish up this novel in the face of more than two years of work. But hey, at least I’m in the closing stages of Came to Believe! Well, the last few chapters of what is ostensibly the final draft, anyway. A few more steps to go through after that, but I’ll talk more about that on Friday.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: I have a plan for this space now.

Now, don’t expect to see content as ambitious as what I’ve posted in the past. I’ve shifted priorities to focus on quality in my novels, which is rather intensive and eats up a lot of writing time, which means daily posts are just not possible. It’s sad and frustrating, but it’s reality. And at least I do have a reliable process now, after five years of searching. One of the biggest lessons of the last ten months or so has to been to trust this process and understand that it will ultimately provide, even if it seems at times to be magic. Again, I’ll talk about this more in the near future.

My current goal for this space is to provide a “home base” of sorts for my efforts, both writing and marketing. At the moment, this means a weekly post focusing on the major themes of what is beginning to look like a series. This series revolves around the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and, more specifically, the city of Harrisonburg and towns of Dayton and Bridgewater, though other towns are represented. It’s an area that is undergoing a transformation from rural stronghold to metropolitan region, all driven by an influx of student loan money. It’s a rich vein to mine, with lots of ephemera that only shows up on the sidelines in the books but could be expanded upon with the proper time and care. That’s what I want to bring you in the weekly posts.

 

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You can also expect a bi-weekly update on the status of my latest works and talking about my overall writing, pitching, and marketing process. These will be quicker entries, just a few hundred words to get you up-to-date.

In the meantime, I’ll also be updating my Facebook Author Page, Pinterest boards, Tsu page, and Twitter with relevant content; for example, you may see me talking about Halloween in the Shenandoah Valley here and sharing some photography from past and present Valley Halloweens over on Pinterest, all while talking about this year’s festivities on the Facebook author page.

It should be an interesting adventure, and I hope you stick around for it. More in the near future.