Once more to Roanoke

Last week a class of Fulbright Scholars I teach with a colleague read E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”. White is more well known for his classic “Elements of Style”, a grammar. 

 “Once More to the Lake” is an essay. It  is a memoir of a time when he took his son his own childhoold vacation spot.  Set in Maine, White uses the senses to describe how he remembered things, and how the felt now.

He feels the damp moss in the bait can as  he reaches for worms to fish. He notices that an old road he was walking on now has two ruts instead of the three he remembers.  He even senses the cold in his private parts as his son pounces into the cold lake. He is reliving his childhood through his son.

I am having a similar experience to E.B. White’s these days, as I have returned to the area of my childhood.  I grew up in Roanoke, a city of close to 100,ooo in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. I live in the next county over now, but my family and I make forays over there occasionally.

When we go, I have feelings of deja vu.  I told my students this.  Mostly, I view Roanoke as a kind of living museum of my childhood. Yet, it’s not a museum. People still live and work and go to school in the area where I grew up. In fact, people live in our old house from the 1960s.

The old bungalow house I grew up in off Williamson Road looks pretty much the same.  The little dugout entrance to the area beneath the house is still there. I used to set up my army men there. My battles were similar to the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg during the Civil War. There have been some additions to the place.

The houses of my cousins and friends from that time look the same, too.  I have learned that one of these old houses was sold to a group called “We Buy Ugly Homes.”   My wife thinks its cute, however. I suppose beauty is in the of the beholder.  

One of the houses down the steep hill from my cousins is gone.  It belonged to some geeky kids I remember. However, generally all the same houses on Colgate Street and Wayne Street, the home of my best friend Jeff, are still in place. In fact, Jeff’s mother still lives in  the same house I used to hang out at with Jeff.  I mostly recall watching old sitcoms like “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show” over there.

This neighborhood was the home of my comrades of childood. There was Jeff, who I met after I stole sand from his sandbox as a preschooler.  I hung out with him, mostly. Occasionally I would hang with Glen across the street, who is infamous in my childhood lore as having traded his coonskin cap for my scooter. My mother recalls me saying of that occasion,”I’m gonna get that scooter back if its the last thing I do”!

There were the neighborhood rebels, too. Ronnie was one, and Mikey was another. My friend both getting in a fight with the latter. He had a glass nose as I recall, so when I hit him, it bled like a bottle of catsup. For a nonviolent kid such as myself, it was a rare victory.

The Williamson Road area itself has grown seedier, but it still follows the same course, and has the same schools I went to, which also look the same.   Oakland Elementary is now som  sort of special school and Breckinridge Junior High is now a middle school.  They have the same look , although  Monterey Elementary, a newer school on the cutting edge in the 1960s is now surrounded by suburbs.  There was a historical picture of it in the Roanoke Times the other day. It is just as I remember in that shot. 

The building where I read comic books is still there, hosting some other kind of business. The Krispy Kreme doughnut shop is long gone, however.  It used to give out free doughnuts on Halloween.

Unfortunately, Searstown is now a government office area, including a police headquarters. Santa used to arrive at Searstown by helicopter and  I used to take my empty pop bottles to the grocery to collect the return deposit.  It pales in comparison to the nearby Roanoke Civic Center.

The Mill Mountain Star is still on top of its ridge, shining down on the city at night. This man-made star is why Roaonoke calls itself “The Star City of the South.” 

 The downtown still has the Hotel Roanoke, with its Tudor architecture and the yellow Catholic church with its spires. The newer Wachovia Bank building, however, looks out of place.

When my family and I went to Roanoke on Friday afternoon, it was sunny, close to 90 degrees and humid.  The humidity is a mellow kind, as is the heat. Somehow my mind remembers the humidty on my skin in its syapses.  I think of myself living on Colgate Street and playing in the summer weather with the other neighborhood kids when I feel it.

We tooled around southwest Roanoke County on Friday.  It was quite busy with traffic, and is now the place for the middle class of Roanoke.  I never went there as a kid.  Willamson Road is on the other side of town. As I recall, Lakeside Amusement Park was somewhat close to this area, though it has since been torn down. If we ever go back to live, this is probably the place we’ll end up.  My old pal Jeff lives within a mile of the place we looked at that day.

The one sensation I am longing for these days is a hot dog from the Roanoke Weiner Stand.  They are the best, and my mouth is salivating just recalling the taste.


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