Not Just a Walk In the Park

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, July 18 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

“Westmoreland State Park is a great place to run,” they told me.  “Write up a story about it.”  “But I don’t like running,” I said.  “But it’s a great place,” they said, “You’ll love it.”  That was a couple of days ago.

Right now it’s one of the hottest days I can remember and I’m tired and I haven’t even been running for ten minutes.  A little over a mile, and the sticky heat of the day is drawing the energy out of me like a wall of tiny sponges barring my path.  I pass through the imposing woods along a trail in Westmoreland State Park, and I begin to remember all those reasons why I don’t go running very often anymore.

My friends and I who ran varsity cross-country in high school came to the conclusion after many grueling practice runs that the “runner’s high” is actually just a “bad trip.”  But I keep running.

Last year, 116,000 people came to Westmoreland State Park.  They jogged and they walked and they camped and they swam among other things in its primarily wooden 1300 acres.  They walked on the several scenic trails and saw the cliffs.  They came from hundreds of miles around to rest in the shade and see some of the park’s raccoons, deer, wild turkeys, or even the occasional bald eagle.

They rented a boat or swam and played in the Potomac River, or in the lifeguarded swimming pool that is open during the park’s busiest season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  They stayed in some of the park’s 30 cabins – some of which were built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps over fifty years ago – or in one of the park’s 118 campsites.  And, judging by the way that this year’s attendance figures are ahead of last year’s pace, many of those 116,000 had a good time and came back.

There are six miles of scenic trails in Westmoreland State Park.  This seems odd because the hill I’ve been running up on Turkey Neck trail seems about fifteen miles long by itself.  Actually, it seems about fifteen miles high, since it’s all vertical anyway.

Sometimes when you’re running, it’s a wonderful relaxant because all you have time to do when you run is think and sweat.  Right now, working my way up the hill, I’m devoting almost all of my time to the latter.  I watch a rabbit pass me, moving up the hill through the leaves that cover the base of the woods.  It’s beautiful, I think, and then I go back to sweating full-time as I near the crest of the hill.

Willie E. Bowen is the Park Manager.  You can generally find him in his office, where he’ll answer your questions with a no-nonsense style.  Bowen treats the job with the earnestness of a man who has spent most of his life in the Park Service, but flashes of personality show when he talks about the park.

Does Westmoreland State Park have a personality?  “Yes,” he says, “I’d like to think it does.”  Bowen calculates that the park’s unique personality is a combination of its sense of preserved nature and the people who flow daily in and out of the park, bringing to the park an endless stream of new experiences, and new friends.  I figure they also bring new cans of mosquito repellent.  

Bowen tells me more as we drive on a tour of the park.  Bowen is administrative chief of the park’s five full-time and 26 seasonal employees.  He lives in a charming-loking house on the park’s property, often visited by over-friendly deer, and not far from where the Park Ranger lives, and his morning commute to the administrative office of the park is about five hundred yards of road through shady woods.  He doesn’t usually have problems with rush hour traffic, either.  Driving along with him through the park, it doesn’t seem like too bad a job at all.

Is there a best part to the job?  Bowen thinks for a moment and decides that it is getting to meet the people who come to the park every week.  Conversely, the worst part of the job is the slow winter months when – although the park is open – it sits in a lonely, quiet white winter sleep.

Winter.  What I wouldn’t give for winter right now.  I’m gliding down one of the park trails, sidestepping roots that encroach on the path’s edges, and imagining how great it would feel to get caught in a sudden snowstorm.  Of course, in a few months I’ll be complaining about how desperate I am for summer heat, but running is no time for foresight.  

In fact, if you did have foresight, you probably wouldn’t be running because you’d realize that you ended the trail at exactly the same place as you started.  Not only did all of this running not actually get you anywhere, you spent a good part of the time that you ran being irritable and making statements calling into question the legitimate ancestry of your local weather forecaster, the persons who built the trail, the persons who built your running shoes, and indeed the entire National Park Service.

Bud Altman is an employee of the park who provides a fairly new service – he is a camping coordinator.  He lives in one of the camping areas with his wife and serves as sort of a general guide and ombudsman for the camping community.  He says that he is thoroughly impressed by how clean and self-sufficient the campers are.  “Most of them,” Altman says, “leave their spots as clean – or cleaner – than they found them.”  Are the campers ever unruly?  Altman claims to have heard an astonishing two crackles of fireworks in the park over the Fourth of July weekend.  This campground certainly isn’t the Woodstock festival.

Altman says that plenty of large groups come camping at the park – that week, there was a large contingent from L.O.W. – an organization of widows and widowers.  “If they start dating each other, or if they get married,” Altman recounts what he was told of the group’s rules, “they’re out of there.”

Bowen notes that the demand for the cabins in the summer is great – he recommends making reservations several months in advance, especially if you want a cabin during July.  The cabins are fairly well furnished, and are affordable at about $300 per week, with the rental periods available ranging from a weekend to a fortnight.  Demand is always highest for the cabins that overllok the spectacular cliffs.

Altman says that there aren’t many complaints or problems with the park’s many campers, because they tend to be very self-sufficient people.  “In general,” Bowen adds, “campers aren’t complainers.”  The most grievous problems reported by cabin dwellers tend to be busted lightbulbs or air conditioning problems.

I don’t have much farther to go on my run.  After about another mile, I will collapse back in the seat of my car, turn the air-conditioner on “sub-arctic,” and shotgun half a case of Mountain Dew.  After you have been running in hot weather for a while, you cease to think about where you are or what you’re doing, and you just begin thinking about where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be doing after you finish being where you are and doing what you’re doing now.

So I’m plodding along and I hear a bird chirp loudly and I grind to a halt.  And I look around me and I’m in the middle of a beautiful wood, and it seems like the forest has accepted me silently as just another tiny flywheel in the intricate machine that a forest is.  The other panting beasts – and I don’t feel so bad, because I figure that raccoon fur can’t be too comfortable in this weather – in the forest quietly go their ways and leave me to go on mine.  As I slowly pick up speed and begin to run again, I feel that – for a moment – I realize why this place is special and why running through the woods is all worthwhile.  Then I go back to thinking of the end of the trail and the Dairy Freeze not too far away.

Down at the beach, the pool is busy and the beach is jammed with picnickers and players in the surf.  Indeed, so many people seem to be laughing carelessly and enjoying themselves that the cynic in you expects to see a shark fin on the horizon at any moment.  But the people play on, and the families charge the picnicking tables and retreat to the water later to cool off.  The lifeguards sit like bronze statues consecrated to the Greek sun god Ray-Ban in their chairs by the pool.  On the far side of the beaches, the sharp cliffs can be seen.

Everyone I speak to repeats the same reason they are here: “The kids wanted to come.”  “The kids wanted to swim.”  “We figured we’d take the kids somewhere to get away from the heat.”  “The kids insisted.”   I half expected to hear someone claim that their kids had kidnapped them and driven the car themselves to come to the park.  But I somehow suspect that the adults there weren’t too averse to the trip.

Terry Sanford wears a friendly smile at the contact station that straddles the road entrance to and exit from Westmoreland State Park.  She says that some people come down the winding road into the park, find out that they have to pay an admission fee – one dollar during the week, and a dollar and a half during the weekends – and turn right around and drive away.  Others drive in to ask directions, often to Lee’s Birthplace or Washington’s.  Some even drive in an ask where the monuments are, expecting that they are at one of the birthplace memorials.

But most of the people who pass through the gates enter and leave the place they wanted to be.  And, judging by the many happy returns to the park, they fell in love with it again.

Horrorscope of the Stars

By the Mysterious Professor Zoltar

The Westmoreland News, July 14 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

Editor’s Note: We here at the Westmoreland News pride ourselves on being responsive to our readers.  We have received numerous requests from our readers to stop making the horoscopes funny.  This aroused some confusion, as we really didn’t think they were funny to begin with.  However, your wish is our command, and this represents the final issue of the Mysterious Professor Zoltan’s tenure as Staff Astrologer.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22):  Well that’s just great.  They’re firing me.  Wonderful.  I hate you all.  Do you hear me?  I’m gonna go down the subscription list and come to everybody’s  house with a bazooka.  Oh?  You want a horoscope?  Here’s your flippin’ horoscope: I’m having a rotten week and I think you should too.

Leo (July 23 – Aug. 22): Consider  your business dealings with strangers carefully.  Make your move to let someone know you care.  Eat lots of fruit.  And believe everything you read.

Virgo (Aug. 23 – Sept. 22): There is a great amount of money in your future this week.  Unfortunately, it is somebody else’s money.  Stay alert this week: opportunities are here!  They are bad opportunities, but they’re opportunities anyway. 

Libra (Sept. 23 – Oct. 22): Be careful in your business dealings this week: don’t fall for that old “I’ll trade you two tens for a five” trick.  Avoid Tauruses and corrugated aluminum siding. 

Scorpio (Oct. 23 – Nov. 21): Alright, you didn’t send me any money, so here’s your horoscope: you will die in the next 24 hours.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 21): This is the dawning of the aaage of Sagittariuuuus!  da-dah The aaage of … that just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?  Never mind.

Capricorn (Dec. 22 – Jan. 19): You should take yourself too seriously this week.  Like me.

Aquarius (Jan. 20 – Feb. 18): Be sure to recycle this week: cans, bottles, motor oil, unwanted family members, you name it.  Keep an eye open for something which will happen this week and don’t worry about something else, which will not happen.

Pisces (Feb. 19 – Mar. 20): Did you send me any money last week?  Huh?  No!  Nobody did!    Do you think it’s easy coming up with horoscopes week after week?  Do you have any idea how difficult it is to cash checks addressed to “The Mysterious Professor Zoltan?”  Well, no money – no horoscope. 

Taurus (April 20 – May 20): This would be a good week to stay home and catch up on soaps.  Avoid Sagittariuses and rat poison.

Ask Madamoiselle Mannerisms

By Abigail van Lines

The Westmoreland News, July 11 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

Dear Mme. Mannerisms:

Last night my husband and I had some dear old friends over for dinner.  After our repast, we had some light sherry cocktails.  In fact, our dear old friends had about fifteen each and began behaving inappropriately.  We tried saying that we were out of sherry but they ran upstairs and drank all our cold medication.  We tried excusing ourselves but they said, “That’s fine.  We’ll just stay here and break things.”  Eventually we got them to leave, but only after they had destroyed our china and eaten our drapes.  But today I wonder if this was the proper thing to do.  What is the acceptable way of dealing with cherished visitors who have gotten bombed out of their minds?

Signed, Worried in Waukeegan

Dear Worried:

Politely ask them to be more sociable in their behavior.  If they keep it up, shoot them.

Dear Mme. Mannerisms:

Is it proper to serve three silver forks if one is having a seafood appetizer between the salad and cognac, but before the main dinner course?

Signed, Questioning in Quamsattucket

Dear Questioning:

Yeah, right.  Just steal a bunch of those plastic “sporks” from Kentucky Fried Chicken.  You can eat anything with those.

Dear Mme. Mannerisms:

Is it proper for a lady to ask a gentleman out on a date?  If so, should the lady first request some sort of social activity with other persons in the party, if an unchaperoned date is too forward?

Signed, Confused in Cleveland

Dear Confused:

Get with it.  It’s the nineties.  You should not only feel free to ask a guy out, but to insist that they go out with you and threaten them if they don’t.  The next time you meet a man in a proper social situation, like a church function, funeral, or sleazy topless bar, ask him out and tell him that if he says “No,” you’re going to tell all his friends that he is gay.  If he is gay, tell him that you’ll tell all his friends that he’s straight.  Or you can tell a young gentleman politely that you have a snub-nosed .38 pointed at him that you’re not afraid to use.  It works surprisingly well.

Dear Mme. Mannerisms:

I was at a dinner a few nights ago and I was eating the veal course when I took a bite and found that my veal was very undercooked.  I excused myself and placed my napkin over my mouth and placed the veal in the napkin, but I was left with a soiled napkin and an uncomfortable situation.  What is the best way to remove unpleasant food from one’s mouth at a polite dinner?

Signed, Embarrassed in Edgeville

Dear Embarrassed:

Spit it out at the host who served you the crap.

Dear Mme. Mannerisms:

What is the proper gift for a couple on their sixth anniversary?  I know that certain anniversaries have a certain gift intended for them: first anniversary, paper; fifth, wood; twenty-fifth, silver, seventy-fifth, diamond; and so on.  What are the proper gifts for anniversaries six through ten?

Signed, Unknowing in Underwood

Dear Unknowing:

Sixth anniversary: dried leaves

Seventh anniversary: fake rubber cat droppings or whoopee cushions

Eight anniversary: lint

Ninth anniversary: magnesium

Tenth aniversary: loose change

Dear Mme. Mannerisms:

I am horribly worried about the impending arrival of my cousin, who is coming to visit for a week.  He always brings his cat, which is not housebroken, and his 8-month-old daughter, who is not housebroken either.  Furthermore, he insists on commandeering the television set to watch Hee-Haw reruns at all hours of the day and night, and becomes violently mad if everyone else does not “Hee-Haw” with him.  Worst of all, he has not brushed his teeth since 1978, and I am afraid that his breath will melt my porcelain collection.  I am so upset about his arrival that I’m fretting at all hours of the day and night.  What can I do?

Signed, Sleepless in Seattle

Dear Sleepless:

Move.  If he does find you and come to visit, ask him politely to be more sociable in his behavior.  If he persists, shoot him.

It seems that we have run out of space for this week, but please keep your questions and comments coming – by the way, a check for $20 will help – to:

Dear Madamoiselle Mannerisms

c/o Westmoreland News

Montross, VA   22520

And remember: manners are as good as gold, but not as good as an American Express gold card.

Fireworks and Circuses: Diary of a Roman Holiday in Washington

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, July 9 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

July 3: A Descent into the Maelstrom My friends and I arrived in Washington about 11 p.m. after three wrong turns, two heated arguments about which direction “North” was, and the Chain Bridge into D.C. being closed after a tree fell on it.  

As a journalist, my obligation was to do what I could to talk to the residents of Washington, to experience the mood and the messages of the masses on the brink of the holiday.  With this firmly in mind, we went to spend the night at my friend’s house in the southwest of the city. My friend attends American University and lives in a large house with several of his Delta Chi fraternity brothers.   

Unbeknownst to us, he and his friends were holding their annual “The Fourth and a Fifth” party and the house was packed to the walls.  Since I had brought along some bourbon – and that is one of the first things you learn in journalism school – we blended in and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to “talk firsthand with plenty of Washington D.C. ‘Generation X’ representatives.”  

Being a “Generation X” representative myself, I can say with fairly absolute certainty that the idea “Generation X” is actually pretty insulting and a wildly inaccurate generic label for twentysomethings.  However, editors seem to love it – and it sounds better than “I interviewed my drunk friends” – so it seemed like a good idea to investigate.  Besides, I owed my friend some bourbon to make up for the last time I came to visit and drank all his vodka and destroyed his computer’s dot-matrix printer.

Looking back on my notes, it didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d hoped: most people didn’t have a whole lot pithy to say besides “Whoooooo!” or “Where’s the bathroom?” and even if anybody had said anything witty and revealing, I certainly wouldn’t have remembered it.  

The best information we could glean was that everybody and their grandmother planned to spend tomorrow on the Mall.  The whole city was gearing up for the celebrations that would climax with the fireworks display in front of the Washington Monument.

July 4: Heart of the Matter We all got up bright and early at the crack of 11 a.m.  I chugged a couple of cans of Mountain Dew (or “starter fluid” as I call it) and my companions and I prepared to check into our hotel room early to watch the U.S.-Brazil game in the World Cup soccer tournament. 

We checked into our hotel and decided to take a stroll to Georgetown for lunch.  Everywhere the city bustled with young people, carrying backpacks and cheap fireworks.  

They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.  This was certainly true of all the tourist-trapping vendors selling cheap polyester $3 American flag ties.  I bought one.  It was made in Korea.

Images of the Stars and Stripes were everywhere.  There was even a small American flag in the deli we stopped into for lunch, run by a Pakistani man who prominently displayed autographed pictures on his walls of all the celebrities who had had lunch there.  There were also a couple of pictures of the president in there, but it wasn’t autographed and I think he just had it there in case Mr. Clinton decided to stop by for ice cream and have a pen handy.  I would heartily recommend the turkey club in a pita pocket if I thought that I could ever find the deli again.

We walked quickly back to our hotel to escape the heat. My friends and I scientifically calculated that the temperature on the sidewalk was about three billion degrees farenheit.  You may think I’m exaggerating, but I earnestly expected the hydrogen nuclei in our bodies to start fusing together if we didn’t get back to air-conditioning.

We did return to the air-conditioned environs of our hotel, the State Plaza, just in time to meet another group of friends and settle down for the World Cup game.  Our friends had brought cheap American beer (Miller), cheap American food (McDonald’s), and now all we needed was a cheap, unearned, undeserved, unlikely American victory over Brazil to make our patriotic holiday complete.

In our small party watching the game, we had two foreign elements: Adrian , a British exchange student friend and dedicated football hooligan rooting gladly for the “colonies’ team”; and Maggie, a traitorous element of American citizenship but Brazilian descent who chose to root-root-root for not-the-home team.  

We all became excited as the game progressed and the Americans did not get immediately slaughtered (as had been predicted) by the best team in the world.  The tension mounted, and Adrian – being used, I supposed, to doing civilized British things during soccer games like destroying stadiums and throwing rocks at bobbies – was the most ecstatic and vehement fan of us all.

In fact, Adrian was wildly cheering for the U.S. team with the enthusiasm of a soccer connossieur, while the most spirited thing I could manage to say while watching America’s soccer team players was “Get a haircut, slick.”  

The game continued and the U.S. still hadn’t been eaten alive yet – this was exciting.  The Americans missed an early scoring opportunity, and then Brazilian shot after shot ended as a near miss.  Slowly a great realization dawned upon us: nothing really ever happens in World Cup soccer.  It’s great to play but duller than a barn-raising to watch.

Surprisingly, only two tense moments arose during the game-watching party on this most patriotic of days.  

First was the inevitable debate of nomenclature with Adrian (“It’s football.”  “It’s soccer.”  “I’m telling you it’s football.”  “I’m telling you that the Cowboys play football and this sure as hell ain’t it.”  “It’s football!”  “It’s soccer!” and so on).  

Second came the moment when the Brazilians scored then one and only goal of the game, well into the second half, and Maggie let loose with some Brazilian fervor.  I stood up, leveled a nasty gaze at her, and muttered, “Leave the room.”  A few minutes later we all settled down, but only after heated charges that America was an Imperialist jerk and a retort that Brazil’s greatest contribution to world history was Brazil Nuts.

Brazil went on to win the game and the party was adjourned to forage for food.  Eventually we joined up again and began our walk to the Mall.

The Mall in Washington is enormous – a stretch of grass with the Lincoln Memorial at one end, next the Reflecting Pool and the Vietnam Memorial, the Washington Monument in the middle, flanked by the Smithsonian Institute’s buildings and a carousel, with the Capitol building at the far end.  And the stream of people towards the area was amazing.  

Thousands upon thousands of people drifted away from the other events of the day – the Independence Day parites, the various parades, a noticeable contingent from the Great Smoke-Out marijuna legalization demonstration – and towards the mall to see the fireworks that were to be launched from in front of the monolithic Washington Monument.

It seemed like the whole country had gathered for the celebration.  The whole Mall was covered with people on the grass and even up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; we crammed into a tiny spot near the reflecting pool and spread our blankets.  The tent of a group who had camped out on the lawn to preserved their spot stood nearby; they took it down before the fireworks began, to avoid blocking the view of the other spectators.

There was a man juggling flaming sticks in the Reflecting Pool, and another who waded through and towed behind him a motorized shark fin.  We kicked back and shared a cigar with a State Department official who sat with his family, just in front of us.

The fireworks were set to begin at 9:15, and were expected to be tremendous: the show was to include over 3,000 individual shells, with 1,100 reserved for the finale.  As the sky lit up, we were not disappointed.

The crowd oohed and aahed as the night air exploded in white and blue and red in a thousand different patterns and designs.  Each firework was followed by the sharp crack of its explosion, a half second later.  Several times the crowd bellowed cheers as high firework bursts rained down a multitude of gleaming tiny shells that trailed sparks like shooting stars.  It was like an aerial war fought by armies of dueling painters.

The blazing finish came and went, the assembles masses roared and clapped while about a thousand “early-birds” snuck off into the Metro station at once to try to beat the rush.

The crowd began to filter away, and police helicopters with searchlights scanned the crowd.  Radios in the crowd played everything from Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” to Lynrd Skynrd’s “Freebird.”  We stopped for a moment in the Lincoln Memorial to look out over the scene, and then wandered back to our hotel.

After seeing some news coverage of the fireworks and a rather lewd game of charades, we walked to a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant for some midnight snacks.  I won the “Draw on the back of your placemat what America means to you” competition that the restaurant was holding that day.  My entry had a relatively neatly-drawn (you try filling in all those stars with crayons) American flag, and the words, “A bold experiment.  Some successes.  Some failures.  But we’re still the best house on the block.  What can we say?  We’ve got Elvis on our side.”

I won a T.G.I. Friday’s button and a balloon which I proceeded to suck all the helium out of and talk like a chipmunk.  Then we went back to the hotel and to bed. 

July 5: There and Back Again We awoke from our Independence Day festivities just in time to avoid a grumpy cleaning lady.  The headline of the Washington Post read, “Respect for American soccer: born on the Fourth of July.”  

We took with us some dazzling memories and I took with me the Gideon’s Bible from the hotel room, an act which my friends assured me would lead to my going straight to hell.  I assured them in turn that, judging from the rest of my life, this act simply assured that I would get a front-row seat when I got there.

We bade goodbye to Adrian, as he prepared to catch a plane home to Heathrow Airport the next day.  And we bade goodbye to our nation’s capital, feeling that we really had found a nicely rounded example of America at large.  I was proud that I had shared our national birthday with the rest of Washington, and proud also I had bought a really cool flag tie for only three dollars.  

It had been a fine holiday, and we would have driven off into the sunset with a flag draped over the car, if it hadn’t been the middle of the afternoon, when sunsets are hard to come by.