Evans “Buddy” King
I am writing this column very early on a chilly Saturday morning in early fall.
It is that wonderful time of the year when the seasons change, and the heat of summer is giving way to crisp autumn weather.
Having lived most of my life in the mountains or close by, I have had the joy of cool, crisp (or frigid) mornings and warmer (at least relatively) days for most of my life, with the exception of three years spent in the swamps of Williamsburg (I am sure the weather had its redeeming features, I just can’t remember any).
When I accepted my job and moved to West Virginia more years ago than I care to remember, lots of my new neighbors asked me “how do you like the mountains?” My stock (but honest) answer was “I miss them.”
Most West Virginians in my part of the world think that Virginia consists of the D.C. beltway and Mercury Boulevard in Newport News. They are always amazed when I remind them that there is a sizable sliver of Virginia that is west of West Virginia and that my hometown of Christiansburg is due south if not slightly west of my adopted hometown of Clarksburg, not to mention three times the elevation.
This column is not about flaunting my superior knowledge of geography or my weather forecasting skills though. It is about memories of my father, brought to life when I wake up early (it’s o’dark thirty here now) the first cool Saturday morning each fall.
It is about college football and bonding with my dad. It is about my padding across our house to the kitchen at 5 in the morning where he would be sipping his coffee and reading the Roanoke Times. It was at least two hours before my mother would join us, precious time for me, with my father’s undivided attention. This was an autumn ritual from the time I was old enough to read till puberty (that seminal event changed most of us, not for the better).
My dad was a great father, I want to make that clear, but he was a busy man in those days. He was superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, which meant long days and often longer nights, with school board or board of supervisors’ meetings two or three nights a week plus stumping for public referendums on bond issues to build new schools on many other evenings.
During his tenure, the county went from a maze of one room school houses to (then) modern structures, many of which are still around, and from a fully segregated “separate but equal” school system, to fully integrated schools. He had a lot on his platter in other words.
One of the books by my favorite author Pat Conroy is the “Water is Wide” (should be mandatory reading for everyone who aspires to teach). At the beginning of the book, Conroy writes, “the most powerful man in most southern communities in the 1960’s was the superintendent of schools.”
This was true because of the woeful economies in the south at that time and the resulting significance of the public school budget to jobs and the common welfare. I know that I personally thought my dad was the most important man around, although maybe not equating that with power. Conroy used his description of the southern school superintendent in a not so complimentary manner, but I feel (as shared by many others I think) that my dad was one of the most respected individuals in our community. Between his tenure as teacher and principal at Christiansburg High and his 15 years or so as superintendent, he was known as a passionate advocate of the value of education (particularly public education, which he personally had found to be the way to escape poverty and which he felt “could” solve most of the country’s problems). He was also known as a fair and uncompromisingly principled man and an expert at finagling every last dollar he could from the county, state and federal governments to support his school system. All of which is to say that time alone with my dad was to be cherished, as he did not even have enough for himself.
This brings me to those great Saturday mornings on Cherry Lane those many years ago. The house would have the wonderful (to me) smell of a furnace powered by heating oil (furnished each fall by my dad’s great friend Howard Bane). Having been dormant for several months, the furnace would crank out an aroma that was uniquely comforting, as were the accompanying smells of freshly brewed coffee and bacon and fried apples in a skillet. I never remember my mother ever fixing breakfast. I would walk into the kitchen amidst these wonderful smells and my dad and I were ready to talk college football!
My first reading materials as a child outside of the classroom were Sports Illustrated and other sports books and magazines. So I would be prepped for these Saturday mornings. I would have read the college football edition of SI from cover to cover, as well as the wonderful Street & Smith’s College Football Yearbook.
I would be ready. We would discuss the prospects of our favorite teams – predictably then, Texas, Alabama, Southern California and Ohio State – and I would learn and store away the schools my dad did not like – Tennessee, Oklahoma and LSU in particular, whom he considered “cheaters.”
We would turn our attention then to the stars on these teams and the coaches, whose personalities were bigger than life. I loved the game and wanted nothing more than to play on Friday nights for dear old CHS. I was also certain at age 8 that, before I became the second baseman for the L.A. Dodgers, I would have a successful college football career.
My father used to joke with my mother about the dilemma we would have if I was recruited by Woody Hayes (Ohio State) and the Bear (Bear Bryant, at Alabama if you are too young to know) and Darrel Royal (Texas, a Longhorn) and John McKay (USC). Final answer – probably a Longhorn, to play for Darrel Royal. I read his book on coaching when I was 9 years old. Surprisingly I recall no recruiting letters from these folks, maybe my mother hid them from me.
After my mother would awake and join us in the kitchen, another great tradition would ensue. My father and I would finish breakfast and he would take me to Robinsons’ Barber Shop on Main Street for a haircut. There were two Robinson brothers – I wish I could remember their first names. They were “stout” men, and one in particular was the gregarious sort who made the tiny barbershop have its own life and identity.
My dad would wear his “casual” clothes – sport coat and tie as opposed to a dress suit and tie which he wore the other five days of the week and on Sunday to church. He did not think that the principal of CHS or the superintendent of Montgomery County Schools should ever be seen in public without a coat and tie or having a drink (his drinking was reserved for an occasional beer on our annual Myrtle Beach vacation, never a drink in the Commonwealth except champagne on Christmas morning that my mother insisted on).
To demonstrate the esteem in which he was held, almost everyone referred to my dad as “Mr. King” during this time. I am sure he didn’t insist on this, but it was who he was. I think my mother’s sisters, both teachers, even called him Mr. King! He had a dignity and a presence that would be hard to emulate in the current world.
We would arrive at Robinsons’ around 8 a.m. and there would already be several farmers there as well as a few townspeople (men of course). The smells also linger with me to this day – a wonderful combination of witch hazel and bay rum (those old timey after shaves they had in barber shops back then), as well as the smell of an old stove that heated the shop. My dad would always know everyone there and had probably taught them or their kids. The talk was usually about hunting or the CHS football game the night before or the prices at the stock market that week (in Christiansburg this didn’t mean corporate stocks and bonds, it meant the cattle that were sold on Thursday’s at the stockyard in town, another well remembered smell from my childhood).
Sometimes the trip would include going to my dad’s office in the courthouse or stopping by the businesses of some of his good buddies so he could chat. But we always made it home so that I didn’t miss any Saturday morning neighborhood football game or the kickoff of the weekly college game on television.
Wonderful memories, to this day brought alive when I smell the heat wafting through radiators after several months of dormancy or when I see the bottle of bay rum I keep in my medicine cabinet.
Evans “Buddy” King grew up in Christiansburg and graduated from CHS in 1971. He lives in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he practices law with the firm of Steptoe and Johnson PLLC.