Main Street (January 2006)

I did not know the movie version, but the historical account had been drilled into my 9-year-old head during many a lecture in Miss Summers’ 4th grade class on Virginia history. It came as really no surprise then that, before the caption ever appeared on the screen, I recognized wat was about to happen and whispered excitedly to my friends, “That’s my hometown!”. The Union soldiers rolling the barrels of gun powder through dimly lit tunnels that pass beneath the unsuspecting Confederate side. The match struck. The fuse lit. The explosion rips open the ground, releasing an inferno of fire and flame, and a mushroom-shaped cloud of thick, black smoke that slowly dissipates into the sky.

Since its release a couple of years ago, whenever I meet someone new and the conversation turns invariably to that question, “Where are you from?”, I simply say, “Have you seen the movie ‘Cold Mountain’? Well, that’s my hometown they blew up in the opening scenes.”

Crater Road, aptly named for the still-present hole in the ground the Yankees put there, runs North-South through Petersburg, its direction likely just as fitting considering the sides that waged war in that field almost a hundred and fifty years ago now. It was the main thoroughfare through town, leading to or past all of the major points of interest from the courthouse to the mall.

Our street, Fort Rice Street, sat eight blocks away from Crater Road in the neighborhood of East Walnut Hill. The straight shot down Morton Avenue proved an ideal test strip to measure one’s speed on a bike, racing the cars as they turned off Crater towards the smaller streets of our community. If you dared, you ignored the stop sign at Van Dorn Street and plowed ahead, gaining valuable time and space as the cars were forced to slow and stop. It was exactly on-half mile, corner to corner, from the Esso Station to Fort Rice Street and with my legs pumping as hard as they could go, I’d cover it in a minute.

Crater Road gave access to the “upscale” Walnut Mall with the anchor stores of J.C. Penney and Thalheimer’s. It bisected the lesser Walnut Hill Plaza that housed Sears and the Rite Aid where my brother and I would both eventually be employed, working afternoons and weekends during our respective high school years.

It led to Sycamore Street and South Boulevard, the other major roads in town, roads that in turn took me to such important places as the public library and the general hospital where I endured my fair share of trips to the Emergency Room for stitches and x-rays. It was the way to Walnut Hill Elementary School, a one-mile walk from home in a time and place when your eight-year-old brother was deemed old enough and responsible enough to walk his six-year-old sister to school.

And it took me to Walnut Hill Baptist Church where, from infancy on, I was instructed in unwavering truths of manner and mores; of a consecrated belief in how to treat people with decency and kindness; of a god who, above all else, loves. I learned songs that, to this day, can be sung with no need for a hymnal. “Blessed Assurance”. “In the Garden”. “Tell it to Jesus”. Songs that served as a common language, a thread that tied generation to generation.

Though the traffic could prove tricky on your bike, Crater Road was the fastest route to get to Battlefield Park Swim Club where summer days were spent by the pool or on the tennis courts. Where the 4th of July was celebrated with contests like egg toss, potato sack and three-legged races and where, on one particularly memorable holiday, I won that coveted trophy – a small, gold-plated cup mounted on a slab of marble – for eating my wedge of lemon meringue pie faster than all of the other 12-year-olds that year. And of course, there were fireworks.

As I grew older, my mode of transportation changed, too. The soldiers likely rode horses on what was to become this well-traveled road, I drove a Dodge Colt – my vehicle for driver’s education and Crater Road my passageway through this rite, this path to freedom. Past the bowling alley, to the Putt Putt and the movie theater I drove. To the Mad Italian or the Pizza Hut, whose parking lot backed up to the Blue Star Drive-In where “under new management” meant the arrival of XXX movies with colorful titles like “Debbie Does Dallas” or “And Then Came Eve”. Where my brother and his adolescent friends were known to sneak through the woods on Friday nights to catch a glimpse of “adult entertainment”.

When not driving, I was riding, sitting shotgun in Susan Chappell’s pickup truck, windows down, smoking cigarettes and listening to Freddie Mercury belt out “Another One Bites the Dust” really loud, signifying the height of my teenage rebellion.

And it was on Crater Road that I forgot one of my driver’s ed lessons and made an accordian of the front end of the Ford Escort my father had brought home for the first time only an hour earlier. When they arrived at the scene, both of my parents said that all that mattered was that I was okay, but with the brand new car wrecked, I wasn’t totally convinced that my well-being was really all that mattered.

In time, it was Crater Road that led to the highway and the roads that took me away from home. Interstate 95 North to 64 West to 81 North. My college campus sat only three hours from Petersburg, though in reality it was much, much farther. It was a lifetime away from the small world I knew so well. And once taken, I never really returned again. From time to time, the same roads brought me back to the familiar, but I was different.

During summers home from school, Crater Road was still the way out of town. Driving south past rows of tobacco and peanuts and soybeans, past cute little pink critters that, in their next life would be someone’s Sunday ham. Crater Road led to Virginia Beach, to the homes of college friends and a whole new world of girlfriends and gay bars, things not found in my hometown.

And then there was the day, one cold day, one early January, we rode together down Crater Road, my father, brother and I, chauffered in a black stretch limousine, receiving first-class service that I might have actually enjoyed were the circumstances any different. We led a procession of cars several miles long. Past the Shoney’s where there would be no more family dinners out, past the House of Burgesses where no more weekly hair appointments would be necessary, past Flank Road where my mom lost her life and in doing so took a big piece of ours as well.

We rode down Crater Road to Southlawn Cemetery, a place of stillness and quiet, a strange mix of peacefulness and death. We passed the duck pond, the rows of small markers, many plastic flowers resting in permanent vases, impervious to time and weather. Small reminders, mementos to last in between the visits that, as time passes, stretch further and further apart.

It has been years now since I drove down Crater Road, years since I visited my hometown. There is no reason to return now. There hasn’t been for some time. I will always be from Petersburg, the pride rising up on occasions such as witnessing familiar movie scenes or overhearing someone claiming to be a Civil War buff. Petersburg was the site of a “last stand”, the last line of defense before the fall of Richmond and the surrender of the South. It is a place with a huge hole in it – a scar that remains, serving as a reminder of all that took place there over the years.

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