Thanksgiving always brings back especially fond and warm memories of my early childhood. The setting for these recollections is the period of my life from age five or six till the beginning of adolescence when my parents apparently became either aliens or lepers, driving a need to distance myself from them.
But from the late 50’s till the fierce onset of my teenage years in the mid-sixties, my Thanksgivings were pure Norman Rockwell, America at the height of post-World War II optimism, naivete and innocence.
First, there was the intense feeling of emancipation on Wednesday afternoons when school let out. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was Friday on steroids. Four days of life without school ahead of me. As I have mentioned before, I was raised by school teachers (My first dog was Spot. I am surprised I wasn’t named Dick, a sister no doubt would have been Jane.), and no one has benefitted more than I have from what an education can mean in a life. But that doesn’t mean that my young self relished sitting in class. It was an intrusion on my play time.
So, Wednesdays of this special week consisted of an undercurrent of euphoria at school, which must have been maddening to our teachers. Weather permitting, the afternoons after school on the day before Thanksgiving erupted into games of rough and tumble, a form of football which involved one kid catching a punt and then trying to cross a goal line with the rest of the neighborhood trying to tackle him (or her, my neighbor Lynn was possibly the best athlete on Cherry Lane).
Weather not permitting, as was often the case, the holiday weekend began indoors with a couple of other neighborhood kids. This usually involved playing with toy guns or toy soldiers and fighting the Germans just like our daddies had done.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving now is usually thought of as the busiest travel day of the year. I have several more recent memories of hilarious complications I have encountered in trying to make it home for the holiday from business travel or trying to visit out-of-town family. But in the Christiansburg of my early years, you didn’t travel on holidays. You stayed put, where you had everything and everybody you needed anyway. My world in those days consisted of Christiansburg, Blacksburg (for football and basketball games at Tech), Roanoke (for shopping, Mecca for my mother and her sisters, agony for me) and Myrtle Beach. That was it. Nowhere else existed. My grandparents on both sides, my aunts, six to eight first cousins, and a few uncles all lived within a mile or two of my home. So the thought of Thanksgiving as involving travel was inconceivable. Where would we have gone?
Turkey Day itself was for me the single best day of the year, better than Christmas in many ways. In my mind’s eye, the day always (almost) dawned bright and sunny. There were still a few scarlet or golden leaves on the trees. The weather was wonderfully crisp. As was normal in my home, my Dad and I were up early, my mother ‘languishing” in bed to midday – sometimes as late as seven a.m.!
There would at some point be a flurry of activity involving preparation for one of the great Christiansburg traditions of the time: the community Thanksgiving church service. This annual event was when the Methodists and the Presbyterians and the Baptists in town laid down their dogmas and communed together. It took place at nine in the morning, and I am sure all were welcome, but in Christiansburg of that time “all” pretty much consisted of Methodists (our “team”), Presbyterians (including the entire opposite side of Cherry Lane, my side being all Methodists except for one outlier Episcopalian family), and Baptists. Diverse religiously we were not.
Less one think that somehow sitting in church was the highlight of my 8-year-old life, rest assured it was not! If school was hard on me, church was unbearable. The “fidget factor” reached record levels. My father, a kind and (usually) patient man, stared me into submission. The service seemed to last until Thursday of the next week. But, finally and mercifully, it would end, and there would be a period of mutual exchanges of good wishes and other salutations outside the church. Then the main event would begin!
We would hurry home and change out of our “church duds,” as my father called them, into warmer clothing, and hit the road for Roanoke to Victory Stadium and the annual VPI-VMI football game. In my world this was the seminal event of the entire sports year, if not of life itself!
One year I was in such a hurry that, having been ordered to remain at the kitchen table until I finished my breakfast while my parents readied themselves, I shoved a sausage patty through the radiator vent next to my chair to get rid of it. A few weeks later when this misdeed was detected, my dad did not accept my explanation that the dog must have done it. Something about lacking opposable thumbs.
The trip down Christiansburg Mountain to the game was fun in the great anticipation but paled in comparison to the main event itself. At this point in time, both schools were all military. The game was viewed as the Southern version of the Army-Navy game, the “Military Classic of the South.” In my mind, it was bigger than Army versus Navy, bigger than Alabama versus Auburn, bigger than Ohio State versus Michigan. You get my drift; it was big-time in my small world.
Forget the fact that these two Virginia schools still played with true student-athletes, young men who would go on to become military and community leaders, renowned engineers and scientists, successful farmers, and business leaders. They were not the mercenaries the major colleges of today put in front of us. The NFL didn’t promise future riches in those days, and it was beyond the reach of most of these players anyway. Big-time college football had not reached Virginia at this time.
Perhaps the greatest memory of all was of the venue: Victory Stadium. Until Lane Stadium opened in 1965, it was the largest stadium in the commonwealth. Miles Stadium on campus at Tech seated around 14,000, Scott Stadium in Charlottesville seated 22,000. Victory Stadium held the staggering total of 27,000. It was located near Jefferson Hospital where I had been brought into the world a few years before.
Both the hospital and the stadium are now merely part of Roanoke’s rich history, their destruction a violation of my personal story, I feel. In one of life’s little ironies, the sister of one of my best friends, and my law partner for almost 40 years, was one of the Roanoke City Council members who voted to send Victory Stadium to its doom. Apparently, it had become more useful for hosting swim meets than football games in its later years, its location along the Roanoke River becoming a problem. Long live its memory.
As mentioned before, the game was more than a game; it was a spectacle. It was color and pageantry. The cadet corps from VPI was brought to Roanoke by bus from the drill field in Blacksburg; the Keydets from VMI took the train from Lexington, and each corps marched into the stadium with their respective bands, culminating with formations on the field and much fanfare. There were hat tricks (look it up, another lost tradition) by each seated corps, and tame insults thrown back and forth. Who knew then that some of these young men would be losing their lives side by side in Southeast Asia in just a few short years?
The games were a whirlwind of orange and maroon and red and gold. VPI usually won. Occasionally the Keydets would pull out an upset, sending me into a funk for the rest of the weekend. For any who want to lengthen this stroll down memory lane, I refer you to YouTube for a short but wonderful home movie of the day captured by (I believe) a member of the corps at VPI, circa 1958. Also, the Sept. 21,1959, cover of Sports Illustrated – the college football edition that year – is a wonderful two-page foldout with a sideline view from the 1958 game. It captures the pageantry and the intensity of the moment better than any of my words.
So, Victory Stadium is long gone, the corps at Tech is merely a small blip on the screen that is now Virginia Tech, and VPI and VMI have not played in years, but I have the memories, as do many others from all around Central and Southwest Virginia who enjoyed these special Thanksgiving days a long time ago.
Evans “Buddy” King is a proud native of Christiansburg, CHS Class of 1971. He resides in Clarksburg, W.Va., where he has practiced law with the firm of Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, since 1980. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.