12 October 2008

Carry Me Back

The Rotunda of the University of Virginia

I greet the new day from the vantage of Charlottesville, Virginia. The leaves are beginning to turn here; the air is fresh, the sunlight so far abundant. Yesterday I saw a wild turkey on the road. In all, it’s one of the prettiest places I know in America, and for a long time it was the focus of all my youthful aspirations. I was meant to go to college here — at the University of Virginia, on the brink of which campus my motel sits. And I was meant to be a Virginian. It was my certain idea of myself. Now I visit that idea, even more than I visit this place.

My boyhood idol was Thomas Jefferson, my view of him uncomplicated either by adult perspective or by more recent historiography. I knew I had been brought up to be a Southern gentleman, a type of which Jefferson was a paradigm, with all the rougher Texan edges polished smooth. Really, Jefferson’s embodiment of that dubious ideal was the very summit of human achievement, I thought: he was a farmer who read Latin and Greek, a scientist who played Mozart on the fiddle, a patriot who served his country without taking up arms, a lawyer who died broke. One could fault him for nothing.

Granted, I have since learned better, but I strove from that day forward for a kind of Jeffersonian sophistication, and particularly when I was young, there seemed no better place to pursue my goal than at the university he founded, among the hills and woodlands he loved.

Just down the road, toward Lynchburg, is where the fictional Walton’s Mountain would lie, and where its creator, Earl Hamner, Jr., grew up. Thus this area is home to my other great boyhood role model, John-Boy Walton. Although the Jefferson model was one I seized for myself, the Walton model was pushed on me a bit, by my mother most especially. It wasn’t hard for either of us to see me in John-Boy, the sensitive writer in eyeglasses, and whether to please her or myself, I adopted John-Boy’s flawlessly respectful manners, learning in time that they work to get you what you want even from snooty French bureaucrats, provided you do the translating. When John-Boy wants a thing, he wants it “purely,” and that became a goal for me, as well.

The writing came of itself. I don’t think anyone gets very far with writing simply because he saw someone else do it on television. The process may look attractive from the outside, but once you get closer, it’s messy, ruinous to your interpersonal relationships, and very, very difficult. The best comparison I can draw is to Disney’s Snow White: if you think housecleaning really is attended by cute little birds and squirrels, who will help you to dust in those hard-to-reach corners, go ahead and clean house, and good luck to you.

But the model of John-Boy was powerful. More than one Christmastime, my mother gave me, almost shyly and once with tears in her eyes, a Big Chief notebook. She knew what it meant, and so did I.

The intervening years have taken me far from Monticello, and farther still from Walton’s Mountain. That’s not a bad thing, perhaps. One must grow — one must “put away the things of a child” — one ought not be too happy to see one’s earliest dreams come true. But here in these hills, I remember a time when the idea of growing older made me happy, and the idea of being tall and proud, honorable and pure seemed just within my reach.

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