Once, Never Twice, Upon a Time


Crestwood–the Birmingham neighborhood where I lived during my four years at Woodlawn High–was indeed, once upon a time, a wooded crest at the tip of the very southern-most Appalachian Mountains. Baby boomer demand for houses turned it, in my childhood, into a sprawling brick-ranch suburb on the flanks of the Atlanta highway.

I clearly remember on one of those sloping lots arose the “house that was built in a day”–as new houses popped up like mushrooms on a wet lawn and Woodlawn slowly became the old part of town.

On the Saturday morning of my recent weekend reunion event, I drove the perimeter of memory–English Village, Highland Avenue, Avondale, East Lake, Crestwood, Gate City, Irondale, Woodlawn–thinking about that instant house; thinking that you can build a house in a week, but home takes a lifetime.

I was intent that morning to go as slowly as possible. I had made the mistake the day before when I arrived of taking the quickest route to my motel -the interstate, new to me, driven for the first time since leaving my last residence here in 1989. Memories blurred past at 70 miles and hour–a two second snippet of East Lake disappeared in the rear view mirror and it was gone. Familiar blocks of my childhood are now Flyover Country. There is no there there. But you get someplace else really fast. Eminent domain brooks no nostalgia.

So I’m back in my time machine Saturday morning before the tour of the high school where you can never go home again; back in my time machine that navigated the once-familiar, less between landmarks than people marks; less visible the architecture and road names than the stories of my personal WHEN in that where.

Block by block, the characters stepped out of the morning shadows into the cool morning air, giving up only fragments of entire memories. Fragments. I am happy for them, however incomplete. And there were very many, even after all these years.

Once upon a time. Never twice. Time’s cursed (or merciful?) arrow never rests.

With a half hour to go before the high school tour, I drove past a ball field where I had found arrowheads–many hundreds of years old– and from another vacant lot (across from what used to be the popular upscale Gulas’ Restaurant, now boarded up) I had once filled my pockets with crinoids and blastoids–fossils from before the era of the dinosaurs.

Once–here were Indians and dinosaurs; graduations and houses built in a day. There is nothing else in time available to us but once-s. We seldom cherish them as we might. There were more of them compressed in the amber-memory of the high school years for me than in any other four-year block of my life.

And so my classmates from 1966 had come to participate, I explained to myself, in a kind of archeological reconstruction of a whole narrative of a special time, built together from our private fragments–those odd and very personal shards of memory and meaning.

The hours passed quickly. They always do. We cobbled it together, best we could–the story of our youth,  once upon a time.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Interesting reading. I did not attend for a long list of reasons. Enjoyed the pics and saw yours. The one thing I would most have liked to see, even more than the people I can see daily on Facebook, was the high school tour. Nobody posted pictures of the inside of WHS. Would like to have seen the room I was in when I heard of JFK’s death, other classrooms, too. Maybe I’ll make the 60th or 70th reunion, if I’m still around. Franklin Wingard

  2. I asked if anyone had seen you. Thought you were on the list of attendees. Sorry to have missed you but we will plan on a long chat at the 60th or 70th then. I feel sure pix will be posted from inside the school. I don’t have any. I seem to have made a point to NOT be a slave to the camera in my hands but rather the one in my head. Others had cameras. Let it be known at FB that you are hoping to see those interior shots. Next time… Fred

    • Reflections on old neighborhoods. It really saddens me to see my old neighborhood. Houses that were the pride and joy of my parents, and who knows how much work keeping it looking nice. Last time there was for our 35th WHS reunion. Junky neighborhood now, cars in the front yards. Heart breaking. You mentioned Gulas (my father called it Goulash’s) restaurant boarded up. I heard that Eastwood Mall is falling apart. Crestwood is now 60 or 70+ years old. I remember when the houses “across the highway” were just being built. I even remember when 10th Avenue was a gravel road. Ah, the memories.

  3. As always, you bring me to tears with your words…that was a beautiful piece, and I did the same thing with driving slow in my old neighborhood and remembering what was happening in those wonderful years soooo many days ago. You and I don’t get in town much, so all I could think of on this week end past was “those days”. Growing up I never thought of “can’t wait to get out of town” . I’m not a writer like you, all I know was I wish everyone had the sweet memories I have. Thanks again for your grand words…..

  4. Great post! Beautifully written first off, I could feel your emotions through your words. Nothing is more nostalgic than visiting where you grew up. Somethings have changed, while other things remained exactly how you left them.. Returning to where I went to high school is always a bittersweet feeling. I like to drive by my old house and see what the current residents have changed about the yard and the paint.