By lex, on October 18th, 2005
Don’t much like traveling, truth to tell. Strange in a pilot, I know, but it perhaps explains how I resisted the siren call of easy work and high wages that came with an airline job. Be that as it may, duty called and I got into Norfolk late Sunday, just as the sun was going down. It was good to debark, the flight from coast to coast being a long one, and the head flight attendant aboard my Southwest Airlines flight suffering from an acute excess of personality. This excess manifested itself by her regrettable tendency to spontaneously break out in song on the announcing system, to talk in a rather too excited tone and volume about pedestrian things. Did we know about seat belts, and how they worked? We did. My already advanced tendency towards curmudgeonliness was in no manner mitigated by the fact that no few of my fellow travelers applauded at each of these set pieces. Not sure what they give those Southwest folks for “dietary supplements” in order to get that unique attitude, but I admit to sometimes wondering, if as a result of ingesting these (probably theoretical) performance enhancers, whether they could pass any of the Navy’s more rigorous drug screening tests.
But back to the trip itself: Although I grew up in Richmond and Alexandria, the peninsula is not an area I know well, having spent little time there, and most of that back in the dusty antiquity of my long-lost youth. So it was reassuring to hear from the rental car clerk that the base was not so very far away, nor so very difficult to find, for while it is true that naval aviators never get lost, it is nevertheless also a fact that we can become temporarily disoriented at times. The time spent on random vectors across parts unknown is directly proportional to the time spent traveling to an unfamiliar destination.
I wasn’t on the road long in this unfamiliar place before I had the strangest realization: Although I didn’t really have but the faintest idea where I was or whence I was headed, I was in a very real sense home. I discovered that although I haven’t much lived in the Old Dominion over the course of the last 20-odd years, Virginia is still my own, my native land. The fact that I got that feeling of returning to the familiar by traveling up the broad, tree-lined boulevards of a city I scarcely knew only added to poignancy of the moment. I felt this so strongly that you might perhaps forgiven me the instant fantasy that I could be parachuted almost anywhere in the commonwealth the dark of night and blindfolded and would still somehow know that I was back from whence I came, and where I belong. Maybe home is like that for everyone, but for me, it just feels different here, than anywhere else. Virginia may or may not be for lovers, but it is a part of me still, even after all these years and many hundred thousand sea miles, air miles and road miles in my wake. I also discovered accidentally that my heart had been reaching out for the familiarity of Virginia in a way that I had not even been aware of, a way only familiar perhaps to the southern-born, having within it our great good blessing and simultaneous curse, the mystical and almost unbreakable bonds between home and hearth, between life and land.
My first clue was the place names, speaking more of old England in stout Saxon brevity than of San Diego’s more loquacious Spanish evocations: Norfolk itself of course, Little Creek too, and Dam Neck, my destination. Then there were the houses: Solid red brick and honest wood, their grains and textures as familiar as your mother’s back. These were mostly set far back from the road on broad lawns, some of the homes low and humble, others proud and pillared, but all speaking to me of comfort, homeliness and familiarity. I knew the smells of their kitchens, basements and moss-covered fence posts, the dark loam in the back corners of their lots, even without stepping out of the car. No palm trees here, no terra cotta, only the gray shingling on the roof, itself as staid and proper as a Brooks Brothers suit. This too, spoke to me of home.
And everywhere my restless and hungry eye turned, the world was a rich, dark green, where it was not a deep and darkening cerulean blue. Thickly tended grass of course and old, embracing oaks, the first a welcome carpet, the other a hoary shelter from heaven’s observant dark blue eye, itself peeking from through the graceful boughs and weary, grateful leaves, each satisfied on a mid-October evening that its work is almost done. Where I live now, the world tends to be a good deal browner, and the great disk of sky can press down hard upon a man who was Virginia born, Virginia bred. Too, here there is a characteristic generosity of room, an almost profligate use of space. Wide avenues, grand lawns, standing forests towards which no one ever felt the need to raise an axe, old and watchful stands of oak which separate the small and scattered hamlets, the whispering creeks and lily-padded lakes. Here, one notices here the spaces between the places. With all that space out there to the west, all those valleys out beyond the Alleghenies, the Smokies, the Rockies, there was never any perceived need to twist and wring each last dollar from the land by building up as close as ever might be, one structure cheek by jowl to the next. The land itself seems to ask you to spread out a little, my son, to promise that there always be more room, out there. Out to the west. Make yourself at home. Eventually of course, even the west would be about used up, at least those most valuable bits right up against the shore, where million dollar McMansions sit ungracefully, elbows tucked in against their neighbors on little postage stamps of lots, but that word has not yet gotten back to Virginia.
Leaving the car at the BOQ, to my right a dim stand of trees gloomed in front of a small black pond, one I could tell just from the whiff of it would hold at least a few moderately sized and wily bass out in its hidden channels or beneath the half-sunken limbs cast like unwanted toys by petulant and willful summer storms long past. From among the darkening and enveloping arbor small, hidden things sang to me their familiar chorus of gentle sussurus and chirri-chirris, and I knew that if I went to walk among them they would halt their evening prayers, if only for a little while. Only to gratefully resume their paeans to their unknown and unknowable gods once my intrusion in their temple was over, my offense forgiven. Having only visited during the winter months for these last many years, I had forgotten the sound of their song, a song that was once as familiar to me as my own breathing, so very unlike the baleful, waiting silence of the western wilds. I had forgotten them, but they had not forgotten me, or if they had, they were polite enough to disguise the fact.
It is October, very nearly the most wonderful time of year here in the mid-Atlantic. The soul-crushing heat and stifling humidity of the summer is nothing but a distant memory. Winter itself is very far away, bringing with it only a tepid menace and promising at least one Indian summer’s intervention before all is said and done. In between the now and then is the whispered promise of the annual and riotous panoply of colors that comes with the turning of trees, for whose arrival all the world seems to stand in breathless, tiptoed anticipation.
I found to my amusement that even my voice started to change, adapting itself to our conjoined geography, returning to the vowels and rhythms of our Tidewater birth, the pursed and rounded “o”s, the flat “i”s. I smiled inside to hear how the word “house” transformed itself once again to “howse,” and as “five” was reborn again as “fahve.” Today on the way to the airport I saw the world in perfect golden sunshine, a light that seemed to both illuminate things from within and round their harsh edges. There was a lovely little breeze in that wine-sweet air that managed to be cool but never cold and that raised the hairs on my arm like the tender caress of a lover, full of promise, full of welcome, full of regret.
So soon I will head back to San Diego, where we now make our home, where my family is, a band of gypsies who have no knowledge of these things, never having lived anywhere long enough for the land to imprint itself inside their DNA. There I suppose I will live and work for yet a while, until the last of them but one goes off finally on their own journey.
Maybe then I can come home. Maybe then I can take her home with me.