A return trip home
Note: This is the Introduction from my upcoming book, “Cakewalk Summers: Growing up a West Virginian.”
By Michael M. Barrick
My memories of growing up a West Virginian contradict most stereotypes commonly applied to The Mountain State. I grew up in Clarksburg, an urban center in the northern part of the state. My family is steeped in coal mining, but I did not grow up in the coalfields or that environment. This memoir is therefore a snapshot of my experience of growing up a Mountaineer in a manner rarely portrayed by outsiders. While times have changed, this is no time for laments – for elegies if you will. I have traveled my beloved home state more hours and miles than I can count. When not in West Virginia, I am almost always somewhere else in Appalachia. What I experienced were loving, hard-working, hard-playing, sometimes hard-drinking, but always joyful family and friends.
I attribute that to our parents. Their home was anyone’s home. It was everyone’s home it seemed, as it’s where the socializing began and was ongoing.
Growing up, there were sights to behold. But I’m not talking – at the moment – about West Virginia hills or country roads.
In my childhood, there were penguins on bicycles riding on our cobblestone street in Golf Plaza of Clarksburg. Actually, they were nuns enjoying a summer picnic in our back yard in their habits. There were priests kneeling at my dad’s homemade bar, lifting up their shot glass for the next round.
There were countless W.V.U. football games every year. My dad was raised in Morgantown and we would stay at my grandmother’s house for the weekend, walking to the game on Saturday. In fact, it was Foxy, Dad’s mom, that taught me independence. And, she was a relentless patriot and pacifist. I always looked forward to the school year’s end, for I knew that about a week after that, I’d be boarding a Greyhound bus for the ride from Clarksburg to Morgantown to spend a couple weeks with her.
There was the required annual West Virginian pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach.
We took trips to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates play when Roberto Clemente was the team’s star player. One such trip though was more about a father’s loving patience than it was the double-header we enjoyed in 1969. I also saw Mickey Mantle play.
As a Boy Scout I learned just about everything one needs to know about how to live a life of citizenship. Then, as an Explorer Scout I learned to scale mountains and witnessed, in person, Gerald Ford being sworn in as Vice President. In the two or so years of starting and operating that Search & Rescue Post, we were exposed to thrilling experiences with the U.S. Army Special Forces, some of the state’s most beautiful locations, and men just a few years our senior that pushed us to heights (literally and figuratively) we couldn’t have reached without their support and encouragement.
Catholic education was central to our lives. I was an altar boy (fun story there; again, lots of good also). Anyway, Catholic elementary and high school was my life until I actually began to adopt the “subversive” theology I had been taught. It turns out that, in theory, the school believed in Teaching Like Jesus Would. In practice, it turned out to be inconvenient. So on to Washington Irving High School I went for the last year-and-a-half before graduating in 1974.
Mass on Sunday was a given. Meals afterwards at Grannyred’s house – our mom’s mom – was as well. The Catholic Church gave me one of the most important people in my life, a priest 12 years my senior, whom I first met when he was assigned to our parish. He, too, didn’t fare so well with the church authorities. Thankfully, my parents liked that and entrusted me to him. He was our Explorer Post advisor, an adopted member of our family, and has kept me from going over more than one cliff. Other times, because I gave him no warning, he’s had to catch me at the bottom. We still are fortunate enough to meander around the back roads of West Virginia.
I learned that pepperoni rolls from Tomaro’s Bakery and pizza from Twin Oaks pretty much provide all the nutrition one needs. Along with the occasional hot dog.
There were trips to Maple Lake on summer days, when the sun seemed to hold still for us.
Several of our great uncles and aunts from mom’s side lived in town. I especially enjoyed visiting Aunt Maddie and Uncle Dorsey. In many ways, he treated me as a grandson. In hindsight, I value that more than ever since I never met either of my grandfathers, which is also a story with a moral worth learning.
Of course, most important and formative was our nuclear family. There were five of us. Mom (Sparky), Dad (Mike) and my two sisters, Mickey and April. I was the unfortunate kid in the middle. Only Mickey and I remain, but that only enhances my memories of us all together, such as the time at the West Virginia Game Farm when I was bitten by an otter. My pain was greeted with far more laughter than concern. But, that was and is our family. What the heck. Might as well laugh through pain, especially if it isn’t yours. Another lesson.
I remember picking out my school clothes. Not really. We went to Catholic School, so every August we would go to the Workingman’s Store, where we bought my school uniform of navy blue pants, clip-on matching tie, sweater and white shirt. The only suspense was what size I would need.
Sunday drives to visit with my great uncle and aunt in Parsons were highly anticipated. They owned Parsons News & Novelty, which among other things, had rows upon rows of candy bars and orange pop. Their back yard was an enormous natural playground, with the Blackfork River at its back edge. Aunt Lorraine – a World War II WAC – would guide the three of us across the short but swift river, all of us in tennis shoes and using walking sticks.
From their home, we would all pile into the car and make the short trip up the mountain to Blackwater Falls State Park, trips that our family continues to make to this day. In fact, the West Virginia State Park system spoiled me. On my first trip to Grandfather’s Mountain in North Carolina, I was stunned to find that I had to pay to get in, which I refused to do. In West Virginia, I learned, the natural world is for all to enjoy.
Sadly, I also learned the opposite when my boyhood home was taken by eminent domain and destroyed in 1974, which is where this chronicle ends except for a final meander or two.
I am under no illusion that the period from 1956-1974 was idyllic. It was a turbulent, unfair and even violent time for many Americans. I’ve not forgotten the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, or Watergate. Indeed, these time periods inform me. You see, despite all of that, and despite more family “dysfunction” than I can recall, my memories of growing up in West Virginia are more than precious to me. They are also, I believe, a testimony to some values and principles that just might come in handy at this point in history.
It was in Parsons – where Uncle Joe and Aunt Lorraine lived – that the community there had the cakewalks on the Court House plaza. I would spend a couple of weeks each summer with Joe and Lorraine. The Saturday night cakewalks were simply a joyous gathering. Though but a small time of my youth, the memories of what I experienced and learned at those simple little gatherings of neighbors and friends in a tiny mountain town is the inspiration for the title of this book. With the benefit of time, those years are now compressed into a few important lessons, underscored by memories. They’ve melded together into a simple, happy parable – my childhood was like a collection of Cakewalk Summers.
Though most of those voices that speak through these pages have grown silent, the echoes of their lives have not. So, I invite you to listen. We might find that in many ways, we need to return to where we started.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2021.