I Spent Two Hours in Bath County Proving Thomas Wolfe Wrong

I spent two hours in Bath County this morning


It’s strange how Facebook can take you miles away or bring friends right to your door.


This morning I got a friend request from a man in Bath County, Virginia that I haven’t seen in, well, years. I immediately recognized his name so I confirmed the friend request and started looking around his wall.


Stuck somewhere in the middle was a link to another Facebook page, Bath County, Virginia. Since I left Bath County 40 years ago, I clicked on it and suddenly was standing back in front of the Virginia building watching Granite and Judy Lockridge cutting hair as they swapped stories and sipped the shine.


If you don’t know the Virginia Building, that’s ok. Read on anyway. If you recognize the name that venerable building with the faded carpets, creaky stairs and musty smell, keep reading. The dusty corners of memory will be cleared out and we’ll pass through Bath County one more time together.


Behind the Virginia Building was Virginia Hill. A mish-mash of houses, duplexes and curving drives; fascinating to a ten-year old, where the Dickerson brothers lived and had Ricky Fry and Rocky Smith as neighbors. From the top of Virginia Hill, you could see all of downtown Hot Springs.


Wasn’t much to see — the town was just a tad over a football field long.


As I stood at the crest of the hill and the morning fog lifted from the tablets of my mind, I could see the clapboard movie theatre where blacks and whites were separated by a 4 foot tall partition, Hirsch’s store where, for 2 cents, you could get three fireballs and over there is the chimney. A tall black, belching monument to coal power, Agust Snyder climbed to the top and stretched a canvas over the opening. Agust was my first brush with a real live activist.


From the top of Virginia Hill, I drifted on down to Cedar Creek where Jeff Hicks and Pete Williams lived. Jeff’s father was an auto mechanic and I got behind the wheel for the first time in Jeff’s pickup when we were 10. Pete Williams was the bus driver who drove the yellow prison van, #13, and carried my reluctant butt to Ashwood Elementary every day.


From there I breezed over the hills to the Lower Cascade Golf Course where I played golf in high school. Never the best one on the team, I didn’t take 2nd place to anyone when it came to commitment. I’d be one of the first ones on the course for practice and almost always the last to leave. I enjoyed golf, but I liked being outdoors more. When you’re 15, the worst day outside is better than the best day in a classroom.


Next the images on the Facebook wall carried me past Mitchelltown to the top of the hill where Bath County HIgh School sits kind of poised like a frog on a lily pad.


I could hear Coach Cauley yelling in the gym. I don’t know who or what he was yelling at, but for a change it wasn’t me. He’ll always be “Coach Cauley to me. I can’t get used to calling my former teachers by their first name and despite having spent weeks with the Mexican Drug Cartel in the desert, I’m worried what he might do to me if he ever caught me calling him “Buddy.”


Mrs. Neff’s — yes, her first name was “Dot” but to me, every teacher’s first name was either Mr. or Mrs. She was my math teacher and as I watch through the window in the battered door, I still see her head shaking in disgust as I stood at the blackboard and tried to wrap my brain around something called the Pythagorean theorem.


Other teachers come to mind also. Rita Hill, who taught writing, Zona Landis who taught English and Suzanne Palumbo who taught French and Spanish. I should’ve listened to Ms. Palumbo, but I never thought I’d be living in Buenos Aires. ¿Sabes lo que quiero decir?


The old Mick or Mack store in Mitchelltown filtered through the images as did Fassifern Farm, the ski lodge and the Crystal Room at The Homestead.


The years on the road since I left Bath County have been good. I’ve fished for Piranha in the Amazon, sat out thunderstorms in the Angkor Wat Temple, climbed Pike’s Peak, eaten kangaroo with the Aborigines and watched the sun come up from a bullring in Spain. But no matter where I am — or what I’m doing — Bath County is still home and the faces that carousel through my mind are friends from long ago.


The smell of leaves burning, the smell of oil and sawdust on the floor at Ashwood Elementary, Robert Shaver and I playing GI Joe in the dry creek bed behind his house and the smell of the indoor swimming pool where I learned to swim when I was seven.


The images on the Facebook wall brought the memories and the memories brought the sounds and smells of growing up in another world called Bath County.


Maybe Thomas Wolfe had it all wrong. Maybe you can go home again.


By Jerry Nelson

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