memories, nostalgia, tragedies, Virginia

German road signs that make me fall down rabbit holes…

A few days ago, when Bill and I were heading home from our trip to the Black Forest, I looked up and noticed a road sign for a town called Hirschberg. Google tells me that Hirschberg is a town in the northwestern part of the German state of Baden-Württemberg (as well as a place in Thuringia). I’ve never been there, and before Monday, I had never noticed that sign. But seeing the name of that town brought back some very old memories from my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia.

This is something I’ve noticed in Europe and the United Kingdom. A lot of the place names here, and in my home state of Virginia, come from surnames. A lot of places in Virginia, especially, are named after places in older establishments. Take, for instance, the town of Kilmarnock, Virginia. It shares that name with a place in Scotland. I guess people from Scotland settled the town in Virginia and named it after their original hometown across the pond. I have to agree, having been to both places, the landscapes are kind of similar.

In any case, when I saw the name Hirschberg, I was immediately reminded of a tragic story from my childhood, over 40 years ago. The date was March 23, 1981. I was eight years old, and a third grader at Botetourt Elementary School. In March 1981, I had only lived in Gloucester for about nine months. My parents bought their business, The Corner Cottage, in the spring of 1980 and we moved to Gloucester on June 21st of that year, the day after my 8th birthday. I experienced quite a culture shock in Gloucester, because we had come from Fairfax, Virginia, which is a MUCH more populated place. And we’d only been in Fairfax for two years; prior to that, we lived on Mildenhall Air Force Base in Suffolk, England. In 1981, I still felt kind of like a foreigner in the United States, having spent three of my conscious years abroad. I wasn’t fitting in very well in Gloucester and, truth be told, I hated it there.

My next sister, Sarah, was sixteen years old on March 23, 1981. She was soon going to be 17 years old, and she attended eleventh grade at Gloucester High School. I would graduate from there myself in 1990. In 1981, 1990 seemed like a million years away. And in 2022, 1990 seems like it was yesterday.

In 1981, the principal at GHS was Mr. Donald W. Hirschberg. I didn’t know anything at all about him, but I do remember Sarah talking about her life at GHS. She probably mentioned the principal, too. She seemed so grown up to me at that time. I remember she was studying French and was even allowed to come to Botetourt to “teach” French to some of the gifted kids. At the time, one of my friends was one of Sarah’s “pupils”.

I don’t think Sarah was at Botetourt on Monday, March 23, 1981, though. That was a day that is still remembered by a lot of my peers because it was the day that Mr. Hirschberg’s wife, Nancy, and their twelve year old daughter, Julie, would die in a horrific car accident. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think another child also died in that crash. I make that assumption because I found a Facebook post about the accident that mentioned another girl who died. Strangely, I don’t remember hearing as much about her.

I was still very new to Gloucester in 1981, so I never had the pleasure of meeting Julie. She was three years older than me, and went to what was then called Gloucester Middle School and later became an elementary school (after I had finished GMS myself). I do remember the accident, though. It happened at a time when Gloucester had very few traffic lights. I know it’s a cliche, but in 1981, that county was still very much covered in farmland. We had a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut that served the whole county. The water in Gloucester Courthouse, which is about a mile or two from where I lived, had really disgusting water that tasted like sulfur. Our house had well water, which was only marginally better. I remember turning on the taps and seeing rusty water.

I’m not totally sure where the fatal intersection was, but I know I drove past it many times. Route 17 runs from north to south through Gloucester. It’s the main artery through the county, and it’s virtually impossible to avoid driving on it if you’re traveling through Gloucester. I actually think the intersection was one very close to my home. For years, there was nothing but a stop sign there, where people would wait as traffic coming down Route 17 barreled down the highway. Since 1981, the farmland has been turned into a huge Walmart complex. People probably don’t zoom past that intersection anymore, because it’s now heavily moderated by traffic lights. If that wasn’t the intersection, then it was one not far from there, and I would have passed it many times over the 19 years Gloucester was my actual home.

So there I was on Monday, October 3, 2022, speeding down the Autobahn, suddenly remembering Gloucester in the early 80s. I saw that sign for the town of Hirschberg in Germany, and it made me think of twelve year old Julie… a girl I never knew, but heard a lot about when I was growing up. Knowing how Gloucester was in the 80s, I feel very sure we would have probably met at some point. Back then, Gloucester was the kind of place where most people knew each other. I don’t think it’s like that anymore, though. I do still know a lot of people who live there, as a number of my classmates either never left or have returned with their own families.

I got curious about Mr. Hirschberg, too. So I looked him up, and discovered that he died in 1998. He had moved to Poquoson, a city not far from Gloucester, and remarried a woman with the same first name as his late first wife’s. Mr. Hirschberg, at age 61, wasn’t that old when he passed. I wonder if he never got over the grief of that terrible accident. People on Facebook were still discussing it as recently as 2011, with some saying they would never forget that night. A few said it was the first tragedy of their lives, and the first funeral they ever attended. Some said that they still think of Julie and the other girl who died every time they go through that intersection.

I think about the fact that Julie was just three years older than me, and it appears that she was a very popular girl with a lot of promise. She was involved in many community activities and probably would have gone on to live a very productive life. It amazes me that her life ended the way it did– so suddenly, tragically, and randomly, it seems. It could have been any one of us who met that fate. I wonder what she would think about me– someone who never met her, but was one of her contemporaries– thinking and writing about her 41 years after her death, reading about her on the Internet, which didn’t even really exist for regular people back in 1981. I wonder what she would think about people in the “You grew up in Gloucester” Facebook group, still remembering her in 2011 and posting about that dreadful day in March 1981. Julie never experienced Facebook, but I bet she’d know it well if she had lived to see adulthood. I never knew Julie, but I knew a lot of her friends, and they still miss her so many years later. That amazes me.

I haven’t been to Gloucester since 2010, when my mom finally sold the house I grew up in. I was astonished by how different Gloucester was then. It was weird to walk through the house and see things I hadn’t seen since we moved in back in 1980. Our house was old, and kind of weird, so there was a big plumbing pipe coming up through the floor in the tiny room that had served as my bedroom in the early 80s. It had been covered by my twin sized bed for many years. Now it was laid bare, looking as strange as it did in 1980. Even our house is very different now than it was in 1980. My parents doubled its size in 1984, when they added on a new kitchen and a knitting and needlepoint “shop” for my mom to run. My dad had a new custom picture framing “shop” built in 1997, knocking down the weird building that was erected there some decades before. Now, it’s owned by the lady my dad hired in 1989 to help him frame pictures.

Isn’t it funny how the most random things can cause a person to fall down a rabbit hole of memories? Or, at least that’s how it happens for me. I used to wish I was born in 1968, so I could be closer in age to my sisters and have more of a relationship with them. But now I’m glad I was born when I was. I think it was the right time. I don’t know why my mind takes me on these tangential rides, but I have a feeling someone else out there still remembers Julie. I’ll probably be “visited” here by people from Gloucester, who can recall the spring of 1981, too. I am not a Gloucester native, but I know a lot of people are, and they have long memories.

I was pretty fortunate to grow up in Gloucester, even though I hated it in the 80s. My sisters were all Air Force brats, so they were moved constantly. I don’t know if they really feel like they have a “hometown” like I do. They’ve settled in different places, but their childhoods were nomadic. I used to be envious of them, but then I became an Army wife and experienced that lifestyle myself. I think it would have been hard for me as a child. It’s hard as an adult. It’s nice to know that there is a place where people remember me, even if no one in my family lives there anymore. I’m glad to have some roots… although I doubt I’ll be moving back there. I don’t think I fit there anymore. It’s like the old Neil Diamond song, “I Am… I Said”, when he sings:

Well I’m New York City born and raised
But nowadays
I’m lost between two shores
L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home
New York’s home
But it ain’t mine no more

Yeah. I can relate to that.

Just because it’s a great song that still works in 2022.
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book reviews, memories, nostalgia

Repost: Facts and Figures… a book I used to love!

I wrote this post on my original blog on March 18, 2017. I am sharing it again as I think about what to vent about today.

I am the youngest of four daughters.  There is an eight year gap between me and my next oldest sister.  Even though there is a large gap between my sisters and me, I inherited a lot of their stuff when I was growing up.  One of my favorite hand-me-downs was a book called The Golden Book of Facts and Figures.  Published in 1962 by The Golden Press, this book was loaded with information that was accurate circa 1962.  I was fascinated by it.

I don’t have that book anymore, but I did find a fun blog post about it yesterday.  Click here to see a picture of the book and its innards.  You will see that there were many colorful pictures on a huge array of topics.  I remember reading about everything from U.S. presidents (up until 1962, anyway), the five senses, zoology, astronomy, and anatomy. 

I’m pretty sure my favorite part of the book was the part about the planets.  The author, Bertha Morris Parker, had constructed a chart that offered a visual comparison about what the planets were like (as they understood them in 1962).  One of the columns in the chart was the question “Capable of sustaining human life?”  For each of the planets, there was the word “no”, except for Venus.  Apparently, in 1962, there was a belief that someday we might be able to live on Venus.  I find that hilarious now, but when I was a child, it opened up a whole realm of fantasies and possibilities.  I remember marveling at the idea that someday I could visit Venus. 

I also loved reading about carnivorous plants, which if I recall correctly, was a subject that was covered in this book.  I loved looking at the illustrations of Venus Fly Traps and Pitcher plants, plants that would trap and eat hapless bugs that got caught in them.  I remember having my curiosity piqued by the subjects within this book and wishing I had more information.  I guess, in a sense, that’s what made this book so good.  It whetted my appetite for learning and made me want to know more.  And that required looking for other sources of information, which is one of the best ways to learn something new.

At some point, my copy of this book disappeared.  I’m sorry it’s gone, because I distinctly remember drawing and writing all over the inside cover.  I remember drawing a crude picture of a naked woman and writing mild expletives.  It was very childlike and I’m not really sure what possessed me to defile that book in such a way.  I think one of my sisters might have drawn in it first and I just decided to follow suit with my own artistic and verbal renderings.  Even those crude drawings remind me of something else from the past, though.

In my grandmother’s house, there was a little closet under the stairs.  When my cousins and I were little kids, we used that closet as a fort/clubhouse of sorts.  I was usually on the fringes of the “cool clique” at Granny’s house and was relegated to playing with my younger cousins, who have since grown up to be very cool people, but back then were strictly B List.  I remember my cousins and I wrote on the walls of that closet, just as I wrote on the inside of my book.  Many years later, my uncle remodeled the closet and removed our childlike graffiti.  I wish he’d left the graffiti, since that house has been in our family for probably 70 years or more.  My dad was actually buried near the house for about a year until my mom moved him to the family church’s cemetery.  I guess she worried that someday, no one in the family would own the house anymore.

I’m not sure what made me think of Facts and Figures yesterday.  I guess the older you get, the more things like that pop into your head and you start feeling nostalgic.  I’m almost tempted to see if I can buy another copy of this book and relive the wonder.

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family, memories, nostalgia

Repost: Lost in Bloomingdale’s…

Here’s a repost from April 28, 2014. I’m reposting it because of the toy post I just wrote… it reminded me of trauma from my childhood. Hope you enjoy.

Yesterday, as I wrote about graduation season, I was reminded of another dramatic event from my youth.  It actually took a long time to get over this particular trauma in the years after it happened, but yesterday was the first time I’d thought of it in a long while. 

I was six or seven years old.  We lived in Fairfax, Virginia, which is a suburb of the Washington, DC area.  At the time of this incident, my sister, Becky, was about seventeen or eighteen.  We generally got along, though she had a tendency to be moody and would get very upset and angry whenever the mood struck.

Becky liked Bloomie’s.

Anyway, one day she decided she wanted to go to Bloomingdale’s at Tyson’s Corner, which is a huge shopping mall in McLean, which is in northern Virginia.  For some odd reason, she decided to take me with her.  My parents had company coming over.  Maybe that’s why she took me… they may have told her to get me out of the house as a condition of driving the car.

So we went to Bloomingdale’s and they had a kids’ area where there were books and toys.  Becky told me to stay there and read while she went shopping.  I stayed there for awhile.  I really don’t know how long.  It could have been a few minutes or an hour.  I was a kid, and a few minutes probably seemed like an eternity to me.  All I know is that at some point, I got bored and decided to go look for my sister.

I started wandering around, but I couldn’t find Becky.  Before too long, I got lost.  I started to cry.  Eventually, a matronly looking black woman approached me.  She said, “Little girl, are you lost?”

I was sobbing uncontrollably, but managed to tell the nice lady that I couldn’t find my sister. 

She said, “Come with me.” 

I followed the lady, who turned out to be a plain clothesed security guard.  She took me to her tiny office and called my parents, who said they’d be right there to pick me up.  Meanwhile, Becky was still out there in the store, looking at the latest fashions.

The security guard took me to what must have been a room designated for lost children.  All I remember about it was that there were couches and a nurse worked there.  Why there was a nurse working at Bloomingdale’s, I’ll never know.  It was the 70s, though.  Maybe she just looked like a nurse.  I remember she wore a white uniform that resembled a nurse’s outfit of that era.

The security guard finally found Becky, who was furious with me and swore she’d never take me anywhere again.  She kept asking the “nurse” why they hadn’t paged her.  The nurse said they didn’t have a paging system in the store. 

My dad eventually showed up at the mall.  He had his friend with him.  They were chuckling about my frightening ordeal.   I remember being very worried about Becky being so mad at me for wandering off.  Had this scenario happened today, God knows what kind of invasions that would have invited into our home.  I’m sure someone would have called CPS!  Not that I would have agreed with that, of course. 

It was a scary incident when I was a kid, but I survived it mostly unscathed… and Becky did eventually forgive me and take me on other outings.  She even joined me in Europe when I was traveling there on the way home from Armenia.  Given how certain parts of that trip turned out, maybe it would have been better if she’d kept her promise not to travel with me anymore… 

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memories, musings, nostalgia

A few notable memories of past December 27ths…

The featured photo today is one of me when I was about three years old. It was not taken on December 27th, 1975, but it does appear in my Facebook memories today.

I happened to be awake last night at midnight. That’s something that doesn’t happen so often anymore. I’ve always been more of a nightowl than Bill is. His brain has a tendency to go down with the sun. By nine o’clock, talking to him is like trying to listen to a Walkman with dying batteries. His eyes roll back in his head and I have to tell him to go to bed. I usually go with him, and he wakes me up very early in the morning. He can’t help it. So now, after eighteen years of marriage, we tend to go to bed somewhat early and rise early… and I sometimes have to nap, because I’ll stay up and read.

As Bill slept next to me, I looked at my Facebook memories, freshly available at the stroke of midnight. December 27th has historically been a memorable day. There were quite a few great memories from over the years. And there was also a not so great one from last year. As we were coming back from seeing my friend in France, we stopped at a rest area near Beaune so we could pee and call the people who owned the gite where we were going to stay. As we were about to leave, some jerk slashed our tire. We were driving our brand new car that, at that point, we had only owned since July 1, 2019. I wrote about that incident last year.

Flat tire caused by criminal jerks in France last year. This cost us a lot of money, but at least we got an extra day in France.

At the time of the tire slashing, it wasn’t such a good day… but now I look back on it and realize that some good came out of the slashing. For one thing, we got a taste of French good will. The gite owners let us stay an extra night free of charge, and the guy at the tire shop went out of his way to help us find the right tires. I discovered a love of Pommard wine, and since we didn’t know what was on the horizon in 2020, we got an extra day in a country we’ve come to love. I would love to be stuck in France today… minus the threat of the coronavirus, that is.

The next notable memory was from December 27, 2018. I posted “I am in serious need of fun.” To that, I now say, “I really had no idea.” In 2018, things were still open. Ah well, maybe next year, things will be less fucked up than they are in 2020. Maybe… one can hope and pray. I do have a sense of realism, though. On the other hand, maybe 2020 has taught me to appreciate the small things more. Going out to eat at a restaurant next year would be a great pleasure. Maybe it will happen.

The next notable memory was from December 27, 2014. We lived in Jettingen, having moved there in September of that year. We moved back to Germany in August 2014, but spent the first month in alternative lodging– a hotel for a week, then a temporary apartment that was a little too cozy for us. I was happy to have a home of my own, even if I didn’t love the house we rented and later came to despise the landlady.

Anyway, on December 27, 2014, we had a lot of snow. Zane and Arran were still youthful, and both having been born in the South– Zane in Georgia and Arran in North Carolina– they were not too familiar with the white stuff. Zane had encountered snow once, around the time we first got him. The storm in Georgia had happened in January 2010, I think… Zane was barely out of puppyhood and loved the snow! So I wasn’t surprised by this joyful reaction in 2014…

Zane and Arran in the snow. Zane was a fan, and Arran was not so much.

When we lived near Stuttgart, it wasn’t unusual to get decent snow at least once a year. Actually, where we lived, we got more than a lot of people did, even in the Stuttgart area. Jettingen was a higher altitude than some of the surrounding areas, so the snow tended to stick around awhile. We’d still have sleddable hills long after people in other areas had a sloppy, muddy mess.

Here in Breckenheim, we’re kind of in a valley. It doesn’t snow as much here anyway, so it’s been awhile since we last had a good snowstorm. I miss it. Arran doesn’t. Noyzi seems to like snow, though. A couple of weeks ago, we had some snow that melted after a day or so. He had great fun running around in it. Noyzi has been more playful lately, anyway. He seems to be settling in nicely.

And finally, the last notable memory I was enjoying last night occurred on December 27, 2010. A high school classmate of mine shared this photo of our third grade class…

I’m in the front row, wearing the 70s era hand me down dress and clogs.

My German friend immediately picked me out of the crowd, and I started to explain the context of that photo. We had only recently moved to Gloucester County when this was taken. I was eight years old, and my parents had moved us from Fairfax County (a suburb of Washington, DC) to Gloucester. I was actually born not too far from Gloucester, in Hampton, Virginia. A lot of my classmates were born in Hampton, or nearby Newport News or Williamsburg, but they had spent their whole lives in Gloucester. I, on the other hand, was an Air Force brat, and we moved to Dayton, Ohio not long after my birth.

Anyway, two years after my dad retired from the Air Force out of Mildenhall Air Force Base in England, my parents moved to Fairfax, Virginia. Fairfax was a very suburban place in the late 70s. We lived in a neighborhood where there were sidewalks and playgrounds. I had lots of kids to play with and could walk to and from school every day. My school in Fairfax was also diverse, and I had classmates from all over the world. I remember learning about Japan and Thailand in first and second grades. We even had culture days at school where we’d taste foods from different countries (I wasn’t a fan because I was a very picky eater). I remember learning about Vincent Van Gogh and other artists, too. Fairfax had a lot more money than Gloucester did, so the school experience was very different.

Gloucester, by contrast, was like a different world. In 1980, it was still extremely rural. My parents bought a house with a business attached. On one side of the house there was a dirt road, where there were no playgrounds or sidewalks, and the kids would act like they were on the set of The Dukes of Hazzard. Yes, there were plenty of Confederate battle flags everywhere, and instead of playing childhood games, the kids would ride bikes and motorcycles, shoot BB guns, and play in the graveyard (seriously, we did this). It was decidedly “redneck”, and not what I was used to at all.

On the other side of my parents’ house ran Business Route 17, a busy road that led to Gloucester Courthouse. It provided my parents with a supply of customers, but it wasn’t the best place to live. In Fairfax, there was a shopping mall on the other side of the woods behind our house. I could walk to the mall with ease. We were also really close to a meeting house for the Mormons. Little did I know that I would someday marry a Mormon. Now he’s an ex Mormon! In those days, I remember thinking that church was mysterious. In Gloucester, I had to walk about two miles down Route 17 to get to the crappy shopping center. In those days, I could do it– even as a young kid– and no one cared.

My first year in Gloucester was very difficult. I experienced a lot of bullying that year. In Fairfax, I had my cousins nearby, and while we weren’t close friends or anything, they were family. I had friends in the neighborhood. I didn’t have to ride the bus. In Gloucester, I knew no one, and people thought I was weird. I’m still weird, but people appreciate it more now than they did then.

So looking at that photo is a little painful for me. That teacher, Mrs. Thompson, didn’t like me much. That was supposedly the “gifted” class. Half the class wasn’t gifted, though… We were divided into two reading groups. I was in the more advanced group, having been moved there a week or two after I started at Botetourt Elementary School. I had originally been in Miss Booker’s class, but I could read better than the other kids in that class. So I was put in Mrs. Thompson’s class, where all the “cool kids” were. These were mostly kids who were born and raised in Gloucester. Their parents were community pillars. Some of them rode the school bus with me and made every day a living hell. I often came home crying.

In third grade, we were in these big open classrooms that could be separated by an electric divider. Our divider was always open, and the teacher in the other room, Mrs. Holstrom, was a lot louder than Mrs. Thompson was. My attention would often drift to her class. Mrs. Thompson would then call on me, and I would be lost. So the kids would make fun of me, and I would get upset and cry. They took perverse delight in tormenting me for having a short span of attention and being easily upset. And my parents did nothing about it. I remember one of my older sisters used to coach me in comebacks. I’m now pretty good at verbally putting people in their places, but back then, I didn’t have a clue.

I seem to also remember feeling like I needed better clothes. The dress I’m wearing in the photo above came from my former Fairfax County neighbor, Sarah. She’s two years older than I am and Canadian. We ended up friending each other on Facebook! She now lives in British Columbia, but for two years, she was my friend. I inherited a bunch of her clothes, including that dress. I remember liking that dress because it “spun” so well and was comfortable. But all of the kids in Gloucester were wearing oxford shirts, Levis, and Nikes, Docksiders, or saddle shoes, and monogrammed sweaters. They all had combs in their back pockets, too. I never got into the comb habit, nor did I ever own a pair of saddle shoes. I do remember having “Topsiders”, which was a rip off of the vastly superior “Docksiders” shoes people wore back then. It’s now funny to me that I was so into brands when I was 8.

I see that photo was also taken in what we used to call “The Pit”. It was a room where we’d watch films, take music class, and have class pictures taken. That was also the room where we had the horrible “Growing Up and Liking It” discussion. Yep– I learned what menstruation is in that room! The Pit no longer exists. It was “filled in” some years later because the school officials needed another room for normal classroom use. Years after I was a student at Botetourt, I taught an after school enrichment horse class for my 4H club. I was 17 at the time, but still had such vivid memories of going to Botetourt.

I also have curls in that photo. Why? Because my sisters used to curl their hair and I wanted to be like them. I slept in pink curlers the night before that photo was taken. I thought it was a good look. I wore clogs for the same reason. My sister, Sarah, had them and I wanted to be like her. She was in high school then, and used to come of Botetourt to teach the “cool kids” French. That was fourth grade, though, and by then I was out of the so-called “gifted” group. Mrs. Thompson had me put down a level. I ended up being the best reader and speller in my fourth grade class. That was when I had Mr. Almasian, who was very popular and young. He was also of Armenian descent, and he used to talk about it in class. Little did I know that I would eventually go on to live in Armenia. But I could devote an entire blog post to his class, so I won’t continue with that tangent, except to say that being in his class helped put an end to the bullying, at least. But Mr. Almasian had a whale shaped paddle that he used on us. He’d paddle us in front of the class. Yes, it happened to me, and yes I’m still pissed off about it. Again… a story I’ve already written, and one to rewrite and embellish on another day.

Anyway… it’s already after 1:00pm, and so far the most exciting thing that has happened is that I finally vacuumed. So next year, if I write another post like this one, I’ll have to pick another day to do it. At least I’m still married to this guy…

And we no longer live in that house…
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