Friends have had enviable summer vacations to Italy, Myrtle Beach, Ireland, L.A., and Hilton Head. On the eve of my husband’s retirement, we took an overnight trip to Saltville, Virginia. Don’t rush to the map—I’ll tell you how to get to this fabulous place. Drive down I-81, following the mountainous spine of Virginia until you develop a crippling cramp in your right hip because your foot hasn’t left the gas pedal for four hours.
Why Saltville? It was mostly a research trip, and partly a visit to my father’s home town. Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, Saltville is known for its salt caverns that were vital to the Confederacy, its salt marshes where Ice Age mammals were trapped, its chemical plants—Saltville was a company town—and such famous people as Hobart Smith, banjo virtuoso, and his sister Texas Gladden Smith, who sang folk ballads with a voice that scared small children spitless.
I’d been to Saltville twice, back in ’92 with my husband to find my roots on my father’s side, and again in 2002 on school visits in Smyth County, including Saltville Elementary. When I first viewed the town from an overlook—a collection of houses and businesses ranged along Main Street—I felt no sense of home. I hoped to find people who would help me find connections to the Farris family.
On this trip, I had an appointment with the manager of the Museum of Middle Appalachia. He told me that William Campbell, hero of the Battle of King’s Mountain, slashed Tories in half with his broadsword, that Kentucky got its name from the Native American “dark and bloody ground,” that Saltville was the birthplace of modern chemistry, that fossils contain traces of rare earth minerals, that Patrick Henry’s two sisters (who lived here) carried on normal conversations a half a mile apart over the stillwater pond dividing their properties.
I took notes feverishly for two solid hours and looking them over now read “fossil mastodon dung” hard by “all natural gas in Mid-Atlantic stored in capped salt wells.”
The man I interviewed knew little about my family. Apparently we pale beside the fearsome Campbells and Buchanans.
It’s difficult to generate traction about my family, even armed with genealogy that dates back to 1720, because I have no stories. My father was an only child. He left Saltville before he finished high school to join the CCC because he stole either a hundred dollars or a typewriter. My sister says Daddy denied this story. Whatever, he kicked over all traces of Saltville and never once looked back.
After the museum closed, we toured the sites. Old salt kettles and cabins. Interpretive trails. Archaeological digs.
Then we climbed back in the truck and headed for the hills. Winding roads led us into hollers where houses clung to hillsides like mushrooms. A sign read “Slow Church Zone.”
Here I saw the real Saltville, scenes that burst upon my astonished eyes. It was impossible to pull over and take pictures. Maybe it was best I didn’t. Not every experience needs to be recorded.
Later we stopped at Ed’s Drive-in where I was sorely tempted to order the fried bologna sandwich. If it had been served on Wonder Bread instead of a soft roll, I would have. We dined on Philly cheese steak, grilled cheese with tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise, hand-cut French fries, hand-dipped onion rings, coffee, Cokes, a single scoop of moose tracks Kemps ice cream that was easily a pint—all for $9.
This couple sat at the table behind us. I thought they were long-married high school sweethearts. Both from Saltville, they were actually dating. He drew us maps and she told me a little about my family. The waitress and cook sat at the counter, their talk as easy as mountain water over stones.
Everyone in the diner laughed and chatted with everyone else, including us. Even without stories from my father’s side—he left our family when I was very young—I felt a small piece of myself settle into Saltville. I came for ghosts and found kinship instead.
Though summer is fast coming to an end, I’m cramming in as many thrillers and other “beach” reads as I can. At the beginning of this month, Bookology published a short essay of mine about children’s summer reading. I’m one of the magazine’s many contributors, happy to be among writers like Avi, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Heather Vogel Frederick. Here is my piece:
Every summer I wish I was ten again, the perfect age for the perfect season. At that age I was at the height of my childhood powers. And as a reader, books couldn’t be thrust into my hands fast enough.
Every morning I’d eat a bowl of Rice Krispies, with my book at the table (my mother wouldn’t let me do this at supper, though I often kept my library book open on the seat of the chair beside mine). Then I’d go out to my tree house to watch birds and read the day into being. Whatever I was reading—fiction or nonfiction—shaped my daily experiences. I longed to live in books.
At ten, I had mastered writing and drawing to the degree that I was comfortable moving back and forth between words and images. With pencil, paper, and crayons, I could slip into the world beyond the printed page. I “continued” the story in the book, or drew pictures, sometimes copying the illustrations.
I loved the reckless, sketchy lines of Beth and Joe Krush’s drawings in The Borrowers. And I drew precise, tiny black cats like the ones Eric Blegvad often included in books he illustrated, like The Diamond in the Window, and Superstitious? Here’s Why!
Books led me to places beyond my small Virginia landscape. After finishing The Talking Tree, a novel about Pacific Northwest Native Americans, I was desperate to make my own totem pole. I glued three empty thread spools together and tried to etch a stylized raven, wolf, and beaver with the pointed end of a nail file that kept skidding off the smooth wooden surface.
My cousins got roped into acting out a Nancy Drew story. The Mystery of the Leaning Chimney gave me the bright idea of burying my mother’s sake cup, brought back by my uncle after WWII, in our back yard. When my cousins rolled up, I ran to meet their station wagon.
“Mama’s valuable foreign vase has been stolen!” I exclaimed, showing the boys the sinister-sounding note I’d written.
“Aw, you wrote that,” Eugene said, recognizing my handwriting.
“No, really, it’s from the vase stealer!” I was shocked at his unwillingness to suspend disbelief, but undeterred. I dragged them all over the yard, digging holes until I “stumbled” on the buried cup.
What made that summer special was the freedom to read. I read during the school year, of course, and even in class when I was supposed to be working on fractions, but pleasure reading time was squished to weekend afternoons and bedtime. Summer, however, was one Great Big Reading Fest.
Best of all, I wasn’t hobbled by a summer reading list. I grew up in an era in which teachers turned kids loose in June, glad not to clap eyes on them again until after Labor Day. Now many elementary schools ask students to read to prevent “Summer Slide.”
The random lists I checked offer a wide variety of books in a range of reading levels. But the reading list noose tightens in middle and high schools. Students are often required to read from a more specific list and write a paper.
In her recent Washington Post piece, educator Michelle Rhee admits her own childhood dislike of summer reading lists that included such titles as Anne of Green Gables and other books she trudged through with little interest. As a teacher, and later as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, she recognized the value of summer reading programs. But she also believes students should choose their own books.
A few weeks ago, I wandered the nonfiction children’s section in our public library. A boy around ten sat cross-legged on the floor, a book on helicopters open in his lap. I guessed he had pulled the book from the shelf and plunked right down to read it.
“Mom!” he said. “You have to see this! It’s the most amazing thing in the world!”
It is the most amazing thing in the world to watch a child just the right age fall into a book of his choice. I hope that boy will keep that glorious part of his self always. Let books continue to guide him, pull him in, shape his day.
If you have a child, head to the library and don’t come out until you’re both carrying a big stack of books. If you don’t have any kids handy, go anyway and indulge in your old favorite children’s books, or new titles you haven’t had time to read. Labor Day is still two weeks away!
We heard their piping, excited voices as soon as we walked through the door. My friend Donna and I had planned a Friday morning pause between exercise and errands. After meeting at a downtown coffee shop to talk shop, we’d sandwich in a gallery-hop at Liberty Town Arts Center. And now there were kids. We exchanged glances of amused dismay.
Voices carried in the high-ceilinged old plumbing supply warehouse that housed studios and galleries. We followed the chatter upstairs.
At a table set up in the narrow hall, a painting class was in session. The kids looked up at us and I wondered if they were irritated at our intrusion. The little girls, all about six or seven, smiled bright as newly-minted pennies, then returned to their work.
As we edged past, one girl said to the others, “This is the magic time.” Yes, it is, I wanted to say.
Donna and I wandered through the beehive of studios. Finished paintings were propped against easels. Glazed pots lined shelves.
Jugs of brushes, baskets of half-squeezed oil tubes, and watercolor-daubed palettes covered taboret carts.
Some studios had inviting furniture and thickly-piled rugs. Crystal chandeliers made a classy contrast to open duct work. I longed to move in and play.
Studio paintings seemed at rest, content with the last brushstroke. Slightly musty air settled on my arms. I recognized that mid-August feeling, like riding the Ferris wheel when it pauses at the top and the whole world is spread out below.
Donna glanced at her watch. Time tugged at us.
Art, says Teller of Penn and Teller, is anything we do after the chores are done. My to-do list was depressingly long but I was grateful for this interlude. After steeping myself in paintings and pottery, I could face the hot sun and uninspiring stops along Route 3. Maybe save some of this day for some art-making of my own.
On our way out, we passed the children’s class again. The little girls smiled around lollipops, cheerful as a field of daisies. The whole world stretched out before them; time hung suspended between the taste of cherry and a splash of red paint.
I walked down the steps, remembering when I was forever-seven in always-August and I too made magic all day long.
One girl remarked to the girl sitting across from her, “Don’t you wish you were me?”
Yes, I wanted to say back. I do.
It was a place I often thought about. I located a lot of my imaginings in it. ~~ Wendell Berry
As I cruised through my neighborhood last Thursday afternoon, I felt like an extra in a Charlton Heston sci-fi movie, “Soylent Green,” perhaps, or maybe “The Omega Man.” When I left for Hollins University back in June, kids were always outside, playing soccer, drawing on sidewalks, tossing Frisbees, turning newly-learned cartwheels.
Now the streets were silent and empty. Bikes were flung in front yards as if their owners had been vaporized. Our cul-de-sac alone is home to seventeen kids of various ages, but not a single one was in sight. It wasn’t until Sunday evening, long after the sun had dipped over the treetops, but well before lightning bugs rose and sparked from the clover, that I saw my first child outside. She ran indoors as if ordered by martial law.
Yes, it’s another hot July in Virginia so everyone takes refuge in air-conditioned buildings. But it’s always hot in Virginia in July. The house I grew up in didn’t have a/c or even a fan, except for the window fan in the grownup’s bedroom and that was only switched on after dark. What did us kids do all day? We stayed outside. Being outdoors was preferable to being indoors because that’s where we became our summer selves.
For me and my town cousins, our summer selves swapped Classic comics under the big silver maple tree. We argued whether Kool-Aid or Cheer-Aid was better. We fed green grapes to the neighbor’s chickens. We ambled through the field behind the lumber yard, scouting killdeer nests. We slipped on moss-slicked mussels in Milford Mills Creek. We played Red Light, Green Light among fireflies. After our baths, fragrant with talcum powder, we lay across the bed to catch the faint breeze, watch the blinking radio tower and make ambitious plans for the next day.
At home, I claimed my own summer kingdom. In the woods, I rode a bouncy sapling over imaginary prairies. I built a fort out of a roll of chicken wire and a musty tarp. I read Nancy Drew, the yellow-back books, in my tree house. I played in the woods and fields alone and unsupervised. I was always (well, usually) within hollering distance. Once, I crossed a little red bridge arching over a creek that led to rustic Japanese-style buildings and an in-ground pool. I wandered around the strange camp, enchanted, then found my way home. I never located that camp again.
But it was okay. The camp, like the horse-tree, the chicken-wire fort, intrepid Nancy Drew, the back yard, the front yard, the sedge-y margin between garden and woods, all formed the place of my summers. And that place was mine by right. Woods and fields, any wild outdoor spaces, belong to children.
In her book A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World, Jay Griffiths names nineteenth-century poet John Clare as the patron saint of childhood. “Clare writes of the land as if he were a belonging of the land, as if it owned him . . . his childhood belonged to that land and to its creatures; he knew them all and felt known in turn.” Making her case for nature-deficient children, Griffiths threads ribbons of Clare’s poetry about his childhood “lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,” “roaming about on rapture’s easy wing.”
Recently I stumbled on aerial photographs of the area where I grew up. With a click of the mouse, I peeled back layers and years, the same spot in 1979, in 1968, 1963, down to 1962, when I was ten. And there were my fields and woods, the strange camp, the holly tree in the front garden, even the hog pen. The location of a lifetime of imaginings. I touched the monitor glass, willing it to vanish so I could run barefoot in that grass again.
Over the decades I’ve watched as government, schools, and parents annexed the country of childhood. Driven by litigation and ever-increasing safety standards, communities and schools build playground equipment so tame—no angles, corners, or edges—that older kids become quickly bored. Recess has been chipped away or morphed into organized sports. The number of kids who walk to school—or walk anywhere—has dropped significantly since the 1970s.
When the kids in my neighborhood do play outside, they stay confined to their small front yards, or the cul-de-sac, almost always with a parent nearby. There is no chance for them to belong to a patch of asphalt, to be owned by a square of neatly-manicured lawn. Certainly no opportunity to slap together a fort from rusted chicken wire or discover a mysterious camp in the woods or feel known by birds and wild flowers.
Where are the children of summer today? They are holed up in their bedrooms in self-imposed curfew, watching TV or playing computer games or constructing Lego sets with detailed directions. Their freedom has been chiseled into a safe haven . . . or a cage.
Worse, they don’t even know what they are missing.
As a children’s writer, I’ve preferred to write realistic fiction about kids who sort themselves into pack hierarchies, explore, make up their own traditions and games, and rearrange the landscape to locate their imaginings, just as I did. These days I’m writing the same type of books, but they are fantasy.
At night when my mind idles, I think about the places that shaped my childhood and wonder what the children of summer today will remember when they are grown up.