Went to my my high school Class of 1966 50th
class reunion last weekend in Danville, Virginia. Had a very good
time catching up with friends from those days and meeting many
classmates I did not know then. Danville is always a place of mixed
feelings for me but reunion certainly gave me some good memories to
add to the mix.
The reunion was part
of a week-long trip east that also included cycling with my brother
and seeing my closest friend. Maggie and I flew into Raleigh, North
Carolina and stayed with friends from my Richmond days. We had seen
each other once or twice in the past 40 years but had kept in touch.
We talked late into the night and for much of the next day. Long
enough that Maggie and I ended up driving north out of the
Raleigh-Durham area just as Friday rush hour was getting under way.
Throw in a traffic-blocking accident on I-85 and we ended up reaching
Danville about fifteen minutes before the reception.
My brother, Neil, and his
dog, Chloe, had already arrived. It was our first time meeting the
dog, a sweet beagle-whippet mix. We immediately bolted for 2
Witches Winery and Brewery
for the Friday reception. That Danville has a brewery and
winery is change enough to be significant but that it's name
celebrates (or at least gives it a positive spin to) witchcraft is mind
boggling. Walking in the door I immediately ran into a friend
and the conversation began. That pretty much repeated itself
throughout the evening. Fortunately, we all had stick-on name
tags—recognizing each other after 50 years would have been
daunting. Many names had long been out of mind but I remembered
them instantly upon seeing the name tag. Maggie brought her own name tag from a previous
meeting where she was Assistant Grand Wazoo of Dot Dog Enterprises
which was made for interesting conversations. The beer was good. I
had a couple pints of Danville Lager but several IPAs were also on
Saturday was cycling
day. My brother and I cycled together in Danville in 2014
he was here for his 50th
reunion. Like then, he borrowed
a bike for me but it needed some adjustment. We found a bike shop
not for from our motel. The owner/mechanic had just bought the
business after building (I think it was) race cars He said inventory
was scarce since he was still working out the relationship with bike
companies. Neil had also worked in a bike shop so a fair amount of
shop talk ensued during work on the bike. The mechanic was able to
adjust the dérailleur but the brakes were hydraulic disc brakes and
he lacked the fluid to was unable to restore the back brake but got
the front to work.
We took off down the
along the Dan River. I discovered quickly that the front
brakes worked hardly at all. I could stop at slower speeds with some
distance but would not be able to stop at the bottom of even a mild
hill or suddenly, if necessary. I figured I could pull it off if I
was careful so we followed a route that had no hills and the most
minimal traffic. We crossed the river on the bike/pedestrian bridge
near the Warehouse District and made our way uphill through the old
neighborhoods to Danville
where our parents are buried. We spent some
time reflecting on Frank and Kay Fleming and our relatively short
time together before working our way up to Main Street. We continued
out West Main and into Forest Hills where I learned that I could pick
up speed going downhill with my front brake fully engaged.
Fortunately, no traffic was about but I decided then that lack of
brakes is reason enough to end a ride and we headed back to our
start. To do that, we had to descend back to the river, a dicey
proposition with no brakes.
That evening Maggie
and I headed to the Danville Golf Club for the the reunion event.
This was a more formal affair than the previous evening. We began
with a class photo which required a certain amount of “herding
cats” as we assembled, first in one and then another location as
the the evening twilight faded. That done, we set about eating,
drinking and conversing. I listened to classmates' stories and told
my own. The evening's program recognized couples married 50 years,
veterans, class officers and a few faculty members from our high
school years. One was Ken Miller who taught me that English
literature made for good reading. As part of the veterans'
recognition, a classmate killed in Vietnam was remembered. We also
remembered other classmates who died. Among them was one of my first
new friends in high school and the first friend to serve in Vietnam
combat. He came back with problems. I don't know what happened to
him but can't help but think that experience contributed to his early
Beyond the program
was more conversation, food drink and music from the mid-60's. The
environment was far more inclusive than I remember from high school.
The Class of 1966 was large—461 if I remember correctly—divided
by geography (north vs south Danville) and the junior high school
attended. I went to the small Catholic grade school (10 in my
graduating class) in south Danville but lived on the north side of
the river so I had friends in both groups but never felt quite like I
fit in with either. I was also shy and reclusive so I did not leave
high school with fond memories of friendship, participation or
achievement. None of that was evident at the reunion, though. The
five decades since graduation pretty much obliterated whatever
divisions I felt back in high school. We were all just old friends
who shared an important time in our lives together.
Neil and I had
planned to cycle on Sunday but lack of brakes killed that plan.
Maggie and I met a few classmates at the hotel breakfast bar. All
were among the ones I met for the first time over the weekend. We
chatted with them for a while before heading out to run some errands
and see the town. We mostly drove through my former North Danville
neighborhood and environs. We saw a lot of older, dilapidated
housing along with signs of renewal, especially in the North Danville
Historic District. Walking around that area, we met the owner of a
new farm-to-table restaurant that opened in the old business district
there. He told us about plans for further redevelopment in th area.
From what I saw it still looks like a heavy lift. Among my
classmates still living in town I heard varying assessments of future
success. The city is still reeling from de-industrialization that
closed the large textile mill that was its economic anchor for much
of the 20th Century along with other industries that
located there in the late 50's and early 60's.
One thing that the
city has going for it is a beautiful natural setting centered on the
Dan River which bisects the city north and south. When I lived there
the river was simply the “muddy Dan” and was rarely visited.
Some people fished in the river but the catch was mostly catfish and
some friends had a raft above the Schoolfield Dam. But the river was
mostly just a barrier to cross-town travel. These days, with the
mill buildings removed on the north bank, the river is flanked by a
seven mile paved bicycle/pedestrian path that leads to a major
recreation complex on the city's east side. The path provides access
to the river that was completely lacking during my years in the city
and includes a river crossing that links it to the old Warehouse
district which is now being converted to residential use. It's
something to build on but the city's prospects are uncertain.
Maggie and I headed up Route 29 to to visit longtime friends Peyton
and Carol Coyner in Nelson County. Route 29 is a familiar one to
me—I drove it many times during college in Charlottesville.
Despite its familiarity the road has changed greatly since those
days. Not only is the highway a four lane divided road but bypasses
now skirt the small towns and City of Lynchburg that were always
bottenecks. The route follows Virginia's Piedmont region, more or
less paralleling the Blue Ridge Mountains, drawing closer to them as
it travels north. Fall colors were just beginning to turn; those
that were out were brilliantly highlighted on this sunny day.
By the time we
reached the Coyner's place in Nelson County we were well into the
Blue Ridge foothills with high peaks and ridges to the west. As
always, we fell into immediate conversation, catching up on news
since my spring visit. Next day we drove with Peyton to Reeds Gap on
the Appalachian Trail. Maggie and I hiked south up the ridge to a
rock outcropping that I used to visit with my dog Toby in the late
70's and early 80's. Maggie buried a small portion of Toby's ashes
there in 1989. On this trip we to buried a small portion of our
Dalmatian Prince's ashes. Reeds Gap has been a spiritual center for
me since the mid-70's. It's not far south of Humpback Rocks where I
first discovered the Appalachian Trail and experienced a genuine
environmental epiphany. It seemed like a good place for remembering
another dog that has been so important in my life.
After Reeds Gap we
drove to the western trailhead of the Blue Ridge Railway Trail
rails-to-trail project that Peyton helped create. The site has a
restored station—not open to the public but looking fine.
Volunteers are now rebuilding a caboose on the frame of an original
caboose from the railroad. We drove over to the Roseland trailhead,
about two miles up the trail and walked a bit with Peyton who
explained the challenges of keeping poison ivy under control. Some
older vines, now cut at their base but still clinging to their tree,
are as thick as a man's forearm. After dinner we watched “The Last
Our last full day in
Virginia took us to the Nelson County Humane Society
Thrift Shop and
to the Almost Home Animal Shelter the society operates. Peyton is
active with the society and was project manager for constructing the
new shelter. He continues to haul dogs and cats as far north as
Boston for adoption. The thrift shop has an extensive inventory and
supports the shelter's operation. After the store we drove a few
miles north on Route 29 to the shelter itself. The lobby and
adjacent rooms are filled with cats. Deeper inside we can hear the
dogs barking. Once inside the dog runs the cacophony is
overwhelming. Maggie and I took dogs out for walks. My first dog
was Tucker, a foxhound mix, I think, about 50 pounds and strong.
When we were done, a volunteer had me release him into one of the
outdoor pens. My second dog was Victoria, also a hound of some sort,
who didn't require a leash. She got to run as much as she wanted.
She was, however, fixated on the shelter because all of her runs
ended at the gate leading back. Each time I would make walk away
from the gate with me. When we were done, she made a beeline back to
After the dogs we
went back to Peyton's. I helped him stack firewood. Maggie began
cleaning the glass doorway facing the trombe
. We walked with Peyton through his nine acre woodland on a
bright fall day. Fall is clearly in progress—some trees are
already bare while others are just turning color and some trees still
sport green leaves. Even those have a diminished appearance—not as
robust as when I was here in spring.
On Thursday morning
Maggie finished cleaning the trombe wall. I read my last in-hand
Washington Post newspaper and loaded the car. Then we said
our good-byes and headed south. After a quick side trip to
Lowesville to buy locally stone-ground grits we followed Route 151 to
29 and back through Danville. We found the Raleigh-Durham Airport
with the help of a kindly southern lady at the Hillsboro Visitor
Center and a North Carolina highway map. Afer an hour gate delay we
made it home to Olympia around 1:00 am.