Saturday was a beautiful, sunny spring day. So I followed through on plans to take my youngest son and two daughters to Roanoke. The girls had to do some shopping at the big mall over there, and I wanted to show my kids some of the city of my roots.
We drove down Williamson Road and I showed them Oakland Elementary School and Breckinridge Middle school, both which I attended as a boy. I was at Oakland when John F. Kennedy was shot. They sent us all home. I only attended Breckinridge for 6 weeks before moving to Baltimore. But I had a couple interesting experiences there.
Roanoke was just beginning to integrate its schools and Breckinridge had three (yes, that’s “3”) African American kids. Breckinridge was also the school where a kid with my same name beat up another kid and I got into trouble for it. (My uncle told me years later that some guy with my name did an inside job at a local hotel. I figured it must have been the same person I knew in junior high.)
I recalled there was a Krispy Kreme on Williamson Road which gave away free donuts on Halloween when I was a boy. It took me three intersections before I could remember where it was. I pointed out the location to my kids. The building is no longer there.
We turned off Williamson Road onto Thurston Avenue. I told them my old neighborhood looked pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid. A couple blocks up Thurston, we turned onto Colgate Street where I spent about 12 years of my childhood.
I showed the kids my old house, now occupied it seems by a family with several preschoolers. The house is small, although there has been some additions to it since I was a child. My two siblings and I shared the same bedroom the entire time we were there.
In the neighborhood tour I pointed out the house of my cousins (the children of my father’s brother) and my best friend. I met Jeff when I stole sandbox from his sandbox around the age of four. He lived across a fence diagonal to our back yard. His mother still lives there.
We left and I took the girls to Valley View Mall to shop. Then Lukas and I headed for Mill Mountain.
We drove down 581 to Elm, turned left on Jefferson and then turned left on Walnut. After a climb we were on Mill Mountain.
We spent a lot of time at the electrical star there. There’s a great view of the Roanoke Valley, which looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a boy. The main addition is the gold-topped Wachovia building, which dominates the scene now.
As the plaque at the star says, it is 1800 feet above sea level and is illuminated until midnight every night. When I was a kid I recall the normally white illumination turned red when there was a traffic fatality in Virginia. A memory of a red star on a mountain overlooking a valley makes me think of a scene from some Disney flick involving a witch and some oppressed subjects.
My son and I hiked a bit down the trail on the back slope of Mill Mountain. I don’t recall ever doing this as a child. Maybe the trail wasn’t there. More likely, I was never there because we weren’t much of a hiking family. I was a boy long before the physical fitness craze that came later.
We discussed the difference in nature from the country of Finland. We just moved from that land of birch trees and lakes. I was trying to determine the trees that dominated the slope. I am pretty sure they were maple, based on the old leaf we found and a discussion we had with a young man holding down the desk at the nature center. While hiking we heard a woodpecker and some other screaming bird we wouldn’t have heard in Finland.
My son reminded me that I didn’t care for Finnish nature and said it was probably because it’s all the same. I replied that it was probably more likely that I just preferred what I was used to, which was what we were viewing at present. There is no doubt that Finnish nature is beautiful. It just doesn’t strike my fancy for some reason.
Ironically, my friend Jeff, a lifelong native of what he calls “the ‘noke”, called while we were on the trail. I told him of our visit to the old hood, and that I told my kids how we met. We discussed some of the details of our old haunts, including the fate of some of the people and houses we had known. He was on his way over there to visit his mother that very afternoon.
I told Jeff I wasn’t sure you could go home again. I said to him that the Williamson Road area seems so run down and old to me now, and we talked about how the area has changed since we were boys.
On the way out, I drove down Campbell Avenue, home now to museums of art and a transportation museum celebrating Roanoke’s railroad origins. While they are interesting I’m sure, the one place I want to come back and visit is the Roanoke Wiener Stand, in new digs. I recall them having hot dogs to die for.
Note: For a photographic trip down memory lane, visit the Old Roanoke website, the source for some of these photos.