I never know what my wife is doing in her art studio. Occasionally I hear some clunks and rattles, but basically she paints in silent seclusion.
Frequently, she emerges to share her progress on a painting. Studies it for a while and then scampers back upstairs to her studio.
Today, she brought me an early Valentine’s gift with special meaning. The painting is from a scene at Orkney Springs, Virginia.
In past articles, I have shared my love for this historic spot. In the 19th century, it was a resort for the wealthy in search of the healing powers of the mineral springs. They stayed at the Grand Hotel, a strikingly amazing structure still in existence today. It’s one of those places off the beaten path that causes you to wonder, “How the heck did that get here.”
In the mid 1960s, Orkney Springs hosted symphony workshops. That’s when I discovered it. Offered my first opportunity to study trombone under a professional classically trained musician.
I later learned that my grandparents grew up nearby. You can read about there experiences in and around Orkney in my book, In the Valley of Hope: Faith Conquers Fear.
But what made Orkney memorable was what happened there in October 1970.
It had rained that day, and it was miserably cold. When you’re young and in love, who cares.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the trail and the multi-colored leaves along our path. The weather added to the ambiance by adding a gray tint to the landscape.
We walked hand in hand, both of us trying to summon the nerve to express our feelings. Much to my surprise (and relief), Janet said it first.
“I love you,” she said.
Three incredibly powerful words that changed my life.
That was 46 years ago. So her painting is the best Valentine’s gift ever. It depicts a time, place, and event that remains indelibly etched upon my heart. Arguably, the best day of my life.
What can I do to reciprocate? I’ve got 10 days to figure it out.
My last novel, Hope of Cherry Blossom Lane, was dedicated to her. But that was January.
One thing for certain, I won’t attempt a painting. The good Lord didn’t bless me with that talent. Even my stickmen are unrecognizable.
May you be blessed with such wonderful memories.
Characters in stories must be believable. Even amazing superheroes have flaws and weaknesses.
Case in point…Kryptonite and Lois Lane make Superman weak and stupid. So, when I decided to write a book about my childhood hero, I was determined to find the holes in his perfection.
The star of Farewell PFC POLK is Charles F. Polk, Jr., my Uncle Buddy. He died when I was 7-years-old, which means that I have little recall of the actual man. Most of what I know about him was advanced by my family, the best PR firm ever.
Did I want to risk knocking him off that pedestal? Not at all. But I did want to know him better and answer the question, “Was he that good?”
So I began my research without the benefit of a single living family member to assist. Fortunately, my grandmother left behind a trunk filled with Charles Polk memorabilia, and the United States Marine Corps was wonderfully forthcoming with detailed records of Buddy’s military service.
As with any tragedy some facts are misunderstood, erroneously reported, or misrepresented. The first myth-buster was that he was accidentally killed by his best friend in Korea. In fact, PFC Polk was killed in Japan which was revealed in several documents.
My grandmother often talked about Buddy’s job out of high school when he worked for the Virginia Highway Department. She was persuaded that he worked on the roads doing heavy labor. In reality, he spent the summer of ’53 sitting along Virginia roads in a chair, counting vehicles. His job title is listed in the travel reimbursement request form below.
Armed with that simple document from 1953, I uncovered a photo of the hotel (no longer exists) in which he stayed and where he met the love of his life, that is, in the hotel dining room.
West Point Hotel, VA
To be clear, I don’t believe for an instant that Buddy’s mother lied about details of his life away from home. Just like most parents, she was left out of the loop. Parents have two ways of keeping up with their children. Eavesdropping on their conversations with their friends (not always intentional) and monitoring Facebook (not an option in the 1950s).
One tale that was often repeated was an incident in which Charles was reprimanded by a Marine Corps officer for carrying a New Testament in his shirt pocket. The miniature Bible was in his personal effects and mentioned by him in a letter to a girlfriend.
Buddy Polk was strikingly handsome, and blessed with movie star good looks. Again, it was his mother who advanced the story that he had a bunch of girls after him. Was that true? Judging from numerous letters from multiple love interests the answer to the question is a resounding “yes.”
Letters from friends were a great resource for time, places, activities, his thoughts, and key players in his story. Judging from the testimonials in those letters it was clear that he was perceived as a “good guy.”
In researching the letter writing of a girl named, Roxanne, who was madly in love with him, I unveiled a shocker. The girl from New Bern, North Carolina, was only 14 years old. They met when Buddy was stationed at Cherry Point at a nearby beach. And they dated (maybe only once). After his death, Roxanne paid a visit to my grandmother who would have had no idea that the girl was so young. She thought that it was strange that her daddy drove her to Virginia all the way from North Carolina. Knowing Mable Polk as I did, she would not have been happy to learn that her 19 year-old-son had a 14-year-old girlfriend. But then again, the more I studied the letters, the better I was able to understand the relationship. She was into him. He was just nice to her, you know, the good guy thing. Didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
His real love interest was Sally Duffy, a girl that he had met while working for the state in ’53. The letters revealed that their love was rekindled to the point of thoughts of matrimony.
Conclusion: After a ton of research, digging through family and military records, tracing the paper trail of his letters, and essential data uncovered through ancestry.com…Charles Polk, Jr., really was that good.
If you get around to reading my novel, and I hope that you will, please be so kind as to share a review. You can get Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare here.
What inspired a series on the Valley of Hope? What is it? Where is it? Why is it important?
To be clear, the Valley of Hope is a real place but the concept is a state of mind. The place is the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was where early settlers came, many of them immigrants, with hopes and dreams for a better life in a new land.
I grew up in that beautiful Valley with its rich farmland and breathtaking landscape. The opening words to America the Beautiful capture the pristine beauty of the countryside.:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
As a child I took it for granted, didn’t seem all that special. In fact, it was a boring place to live, or so I thought.
Except for a brief stop in Middletown, most of my growing up was in Strasburg. Mom and dad lived in several different houses there but the place I have always claimed as home was on Capon Street. That’s where my grandparents lived and the central location for my fondest memories.
Can’t tell you why, maybe it was all the personal tragedies, but as high school graduation drew near I couldn’t wait to get out of there. My father died when I was eleven, mom remarried and soon after suffered a debilitating stroke, and I was a fat kid who was often picked on. Can’t believe I just told you that. Just needed a new start.
Music was my ticket out and off I went, leaving the Valley of dreams to chase my dream.
Trombonist in the Navy Band, radio personality, Southern Baptist pastor, published author, and a wonderful wife and family is what followed. So, I’m confident that physically leaving the Valley was the right decision. However, there’s a part of me that remained, like an anchor, firmly holding me in place, keeping me from drifting aimlessly away from my roots.
My heart still lives there, in the Valley of Hope. Never left. The seeds for my future were planted there. They just bore fruit elsewhere.
So, the Valley of Hope is a real place where life happens, good and bad. Seeds of hope are planted there that blossom into something beautiful and better which is what I want to happen with my books.
No matter how difficult the trials in your life, it is my fervent desire that you will discover hope and inspiration IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
Someone asked me recently, “How much is fiction and how much is truth?” Great question which I’ll attempt to answer by revealing some of my research.
It is also important to define the genre, Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past
That definition is a very broad stroke and leaves considerable room for sub-genres like romance, mystery, etc. Personally, I am drawn to Historical Fiction because I’m old. Just kidding. I like the genre because it creates mood, feeling, and color.
When writing IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, I had a very specific geographic region and time period in mind that related to historical characters. The places referenced are very real and for the most part still exist. Most of the dates are accurate although there are some that are speculative and based on my best guestimate. For example: Charlie’s 1918 WWI draft registration is spot on because I found the original registration document. He registered at the Shenandoah County Courthouse in Woodstock, VA.
WWI Draft Registration p.1
WWI Draft Registration p.2
Many of the Wissler family events are linked to accurate dates based on stories uncovered in Woodstock, Virginia’s Shenandoah Herald. From November 11, 1891, I found the following article concerning the purchase of Strathmore.
Frank Wissler Purchases Strathmore
Check out all the valuable info revealed in an account of John Wissler, Jr’s wedding from June 24, 1910.
John Wissler, Jr. Wedding
In one scene in the story, when Charlie’s father, Bill, is belittling him, he references his deceased child, John. That idea was based on a Herald article from June 23, 1905.
Death of Bill Polk’s son
Although I had done considerable ancestry research on my family, I was unaware of my Great, Great, Grandmother Teeny Shown. Well, actually I had uncovered her name, but did not know that she was called Teeny or that she was somewhat famous. Until discovering the following article, from February 13, 1909, I only knew that her name was Christina.
Golden historical nuggets are found by asking lots of questions. That “who, what, where, when, why, and how” that was drummed into me by a high school English teacher, keeps me busy. Example: What about travel in the Shenandoah Valley of 1910? How would it differ from travel just 10 years later? Surely automobiles began to enter the picture but when and how many and what kind? Horses, horse drawn wagons, horse drawn buggies, mule and buggy, oh yeah, and miles and miles of walking. Back then, walking was not for exercise, it was a necessary form of transportation. But wait. The IN mode of transportation was by train. Check out the following train schedule from 1910 and notice how it linked the towns of the Valley.
Valley Train Schedule
For me, Historical Fiction is a work in progress. There’s the initial research and then continual research until I hit those coveted words, “The End.”
So, in answer to the original interrogative, “How much is truth and how much is fiction?” Truth is the anchor and used as accurately as possible and fiction is where creative imagination breathes life, emotion, and interest into the story. 50/50? Uh, maybe. Whatever a good story requires.
If you travel to Mt. Jackson, VA, which provides much of the setting for IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, then hang a left (if traveling north) onto Highway 263, you will ultimately arrive in the community of Orkney Springs. Just keep driving until the road runs out. Takes just 20 minutes and, I promise, you’re in for quite a surprise.
As you drive along 263, you’ll see a lot of farmland, and cows, and hay. You get the picture. But then, right there in the middle of what you have decided is nowhere…there stands this impressive grand hotel. Then you wonder, “How the heck did that get there?”
Orkney Springs Hotel
The Grand Hotel at Orkney is said to be Virginia’s largest wooden structure. Couldn’t prove it by me but there is definitely a lot of wood. Been around since 1873 and was, once upon a time, a very popular resort, where society’s elite gathered to take advantage of the alleged healing powers of the springs.
I first discovered it in 1964, thanks to my high school band director, who thought it an excellent place for me to advance my musical education. It was the second year for the Shenandoah Music Festival.
Back then, some of the world’s finest classically trained musicians came to Orkney for a workshop and whatever else happens when musicians get together.
Again in 1965, I returned for lessons from a trombonist with the National Symphony out of DC. An exciting time, for sure.
I recall sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hotel while watching one of the musicians compose a symphonic piece. Later, at the annual concert, his stunning work debuted.
Across the road from the Grand Hotel stands a gazebo by a pond, where a French Horn quartet gathered to play in the afternoon. No audience…they were just there for themselves, but that magnificent sound filled the countryside.
The symphony rehearsed in the upstairs ballroom. I stood on the wraparound porch, peered through the open windows, and observed professionals at work. It was an eye opening experience for a kid from a small town, enough to inspire me to pursue a musical career.
In the winter of 1966 I was accepted into the Navy Band. 4 years later, I left the band to pursue a career in radio.
Orkney at night
Upon coming home I met a beautiful girl named Janet and we started dating. On a chilly and gray day in the Fall of 1970, I took her to Orkney, and once again there was music, but of a different kind. No musicians. Just the sound of a gentle breeze rustling through colorful autumn leaves and the hearts of two people beating as one. In that awesomely romantic setting, Janet and I realized that we were falling in love. That was 45 years ago, we’re still together, and the music is still playing.
In 1979, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia purchased the old resort to be used as a retreat. I’m happy to see that the music festival is still alive and well, an annual event, that has featured some pretty impressive talent over the years.
Folks used to believe that there were healing powers in the springs of Orkney. Can’t tell you for sure if that is true or not. But it will always have a special place in my heart.
Just completed the trailer for IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE. You can view it here:
[kad_youtube url=”https://youtu.be/kojZ1pUe7N4″ ]
IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE
As soon as I give you just a few minor details you will be able to “name that tune.” It has been around for years, originated in the 1800s, and somehow became a popular tune for ocean going sailors. A country group from Muscle Shoals took it’s name (If Bubba Can Dance). For you old timers, Jimmy Stewart starred in a movie by the same name. Of greater significance, there is a famous river that runs through the Valley of Hope with that same name. Got it yet? Of course, you do.
When I was growing up, Shenandoah was all around me. I lived in the Shenandoah Valley, in Shenandoah County, and the Shenandoah River ran through my home town. One of the first songs we played in the high school band was Oh, Shenandoah. What have I done? That tune will be rambling in my head all day.
As a kid, I fished in that famous river. My grandmother packed my lunch and off I would go with a friend and we would spend the day catching everything from shoes to strange looking river creatures.
Once, while visiting a friend who lived on a farm by the Shenandoah, we found an old boat and took it for a short run down the river. Not that we intended for it to be a short trip, it’s just that the boat had a hole in it. She went down not far from shore.
When I was researching IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE the Shenandoah River was unavoidable. All the towns in the story are near the river: Edinburg, Woodstock, Mt. Jackson. The river was essential to the survival and livelihood of the farmers who settled there.
Meems Bottom Bridge
Land close to a river is particularly fertile and is called ‘bottom land.’ Thus the name of the famous landmark near Mt. Jackson, Meems Bottom Covered Bridge. ‘Meems’ for the man who owned the land and who first built the bridge. ‘Bottom’ for the type of land by the river.
In an earlier post I mentioned that we have a tendency to take our surroundings for granted. It took moving away for me to appreciate the beauty and history of the Valley. I never knew that the Shenandoah was such a winding river or that it was a tributary of the Potomac River or that it runs for 100 miles into West Virginia.
Here’s a nice version of the song and some appropriate scenery to go with it.
[kad_youtube url=”https://youtu.be/etC59HVD-tg” ]
And now, it’s movie time. Grab your popcorn and enjoy, the 1965 flick, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart.
[kad_youtube url=”https://youtu.be/G7ItPVd6dUw” ]
Do you remember your first job? Do you recall what you learned from that gig?
My first employment opportunity, other than mowing my neighbors grass, came when I was sixteen at the Virginia Restaurant in Strasburg, Virginia. Not certain that there was a job title assigned to my position but I’ll just call it “Gross Removal Specialist,” or GRS.
As Gross Removal Specialist it was my responsibility to empty and clean the grill grease buckets and carry out the garbage and trash. That was in the days when people still smoked in restaurants and their empty plates became ash trays. Nothing like an extinguished cigarette in a pile of ketchup and French fries. It took me several weeks on the job before I could perform my tasks without gagging.
More troubling was the reaction I received from many of the customers. The Virginia Restaurant was the primary hangout for teenagers in my hometown and among them, some of my friends, who thought it was a riot seeing me in my apron cleaning up their garbage.
I also discovered that other employees like to criticize your work. “The other boy that used to do this didn’t do it that way.” “You missed a spot.” “Are you always that slow?”
It wasn’t exactly full-time employment but it was steady work requiring at least a two hour effort, seven days a week for a dollar a day. Yep, seven big bucks a week. Now that was in 1965 when you could still buy a Coke for a dime or a long Coke for a nickel. “What’s a long Coke?” you ask. It was mixed at the soda fountain. Less syrup, more carbonated water.
Did I like the job? Nope. Hated it. But I did like the proud moment every week when my boss, Buggy, handed me my $7. Yes, his name was Buggy and the cook’s name was Pearlie. They were brothers.
What did I learn? Jobs are not always pleasant or enjoyable. Sometimes they are demeaning and your co-workers can be critical and unkind. And there will be times when the best thing about your job is…getting a paycheck.
Jump ahead 40 years. There is no such thing as the perfect job where everything is just the way you like it. That’s true no matter the level you attain on the success ladder.
The key to surviving in an unpleasant work environment or, for that matter, any unpleasant situation in life…is an attitude of gratitude. Put another way, be thankful for what you’ve got and go with what God gives you. Make the best of every moment while striving for something better IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.