A Memory of Fox Hill and Grandview



Robert Flournoy





 
Copyright 2019 by Robert Flournoy   
 
Photo of Chesapeake wetlands.

I have often wondered if luck is something that is doled out individually in our lives, some getting more than others, some getting none at all. Looking back, it seems that I was extraordinarily lucky as a boy and later as a young man, surviving experiences that had scant chance of turning out on my side. It was like I was front loaded with a life time of luck, not to last forever, but there in the beginning, when I most needed it.

We lived on a canal when I was in high school in Hampton, Virginia. The canal ran perpendicular to and behind the row of houses that was our neighborhood, called Grandview Shores. The canal was about 12' deep and 25 yards wide. On the other side was a vast marsh of hundreds of acres of ponds, dikes, and coastal plant life that was to be a rich playground of hunting and crabbing in the years to come. It was surrounded by the Chesapeake bay, which was accessed by winding one's way through it on our canal as it snaked around for several miles, emerging into a back tidal river which ran around a point of beach and into the big bay itself. You could also just get out on the road in front of our house and walk a mile to the beach of the bay. Any way you looked at it, it was a potential paradise for a 16 year old boy whose parents agonized over the staggering price of $23,000 for the house that they eventually opted for, recognizing the opportunity for a life style that they had never anticipated before moving to Virginia, and simply being unable to say no. The 1962 November day that we moved in was bitterly cold and windy, but I took my 16th birthday present out to the sea (canal) wall in back of our new house, and cast with it for hours, unsure of what type fish were in this water, but deeply content just to be there. Our neighbors had small boat docks, with various sizes of sail and power boats moored in their back yard, and my dad was to surprise us with a small outboard motor boat, on a trailer that sat beside the house until we could "build our own dock". That was done by spring, and our boat bobbed merrily alongside of it, with its' christened name painted on its' stern for all to see...."At Last". We were to have an oyster bed under that dock which we harvested for years, and the canal proved to be a treasure chest of Blue Crabs, which we caught with chicken necks tied to the end of a string. My mother's passion was fishing, so she, too, was in high hopes of sunny spring and summer days ahead. Life was good.

It took only a few days for boys my own age, living on either side of me, to discover the new arrival. Steve Mathews and Bronson Westfall were to become my bosom buddies, with whom I would fish, scuba dive, sail, water ski, and, well....do everything else that teenage boys did in the days before cable TV and X Box. Steve had recently moved into the neighborhood, but Bronson was a local native, whose family had been one of the first to build a house on our street. He was to teach us many things that involved that marsh and the water, and he would prove to be as reckless and fearless as he was charming and handsome. My spirit was not to ignite for some years to come, but Bron's was burning brightly in 1962, and it was to get him killed half way around the world in 1967 in a place that none of us had heard of when first we played together. The staggeringly brutal journey that we were about to embark on from those earliest days in Grandview could not be imagined at the time. But, our laughter and love rang loudly in the neighborhood during our first two summers before we all moved away. My last memory of the 3 of us together was on a summer evening in 1964, strumming a guitar on our dock, singing "Blowing in the Wind", and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", haunting new ballads, popularized by a new troubador whose songs were to be a prelude to the chaos and madness that awaited us all. I have often wondered if we were the last generation of innocent, unembarrassed teenage boys, singing sweetly to each other like that. It has been a long time, but I am going to try and truly remember how it was, and tell you about those last days of my childhood.

*****

"You won't catch a damn thing in the canal."

I turned from my frigid casting to see a boy of my age, same height, a little chunkier, sauntering across the lawn with a knowing smirk on his face, and didn't believe him for one second. "Where there's water, there's fish", was my lame reply. He simply grinned and said, "name's Steve Mathews. I guess we're neighbors."

"You never caught a fish out here?" I asked.

"Nope, but I never tried either. I just know there ain't none. Lots of crabs and jelly fish, but no real fish. Gotta go down to the pier or boat out to Back River to get anything. Out there are flounder and rock fish. A little cold for that right now."

"You caught many out there?"

"I caught some, and gigged some with Bronson. He lives other side of you, but is off to military school."

"Why's he in military school?"

"Well, my mom says he's high spirited and needs some discipline. Bad grades, sneaks out at night, stuff like that. Saw him chug a beer once, and smoke a cigarette. Cool guy."

“Sounds like it.” Silence for a few minutes as I cast my lure into the cold hard wind, until my new friend really got my attention…

“You hunt? Got any guns? Lots of ducks and geese out in that marsh. Only lived here a couple of weeks myself, but been meaning to go out there and see what I could get.” He was now singing my song.

I had grown up hunting in the rural south as a young boy, was trusted by my parents as being safe, and took for granted walking into the woods with a shotgun. In no time at all, Steve and I were walking off into the marsh with weapons at our side, loaded, looking for anything that flew. Utter insanity, as it turned out, and only luck would keep us alive in the years ahead as we practiced this ritual almost daily, dusk until dawn. The number of accidental discharges and reckless events that could have ended tragically are too many to recount, but they were fresh enough in my mind many years later to not even consider letting my own son use firearms as serendipitously as we had. But, guns were treated in a much more cavalier fashion then, and it was only natural that we used them for many hours of pleasurable companionship. We had no idea what the art of duck hunting entailed, and, quite frankly, never did figure it out. We simply walked around hoping to scare one up, or have one fly over us. We managed, over the years, to bag a couple of black ducks, which were good eating, a widgeon or two, and lots of coots, but never a prized goose or even a mallard. On our first foray, we got lucky and brought down two Merganzers, which turned out to be fish eating ducks that stunk the house up when my mother gamely cooked them for us. I bullied and embarrassed Steve into chewing their tough flesh with a smile on his face so as not to nullify the legitimacy of our hunt, or my mom’s smiling enthusiasm as she cooked them. I believe she pressure cooked them, trying to invoke some semblance of tenderness into their flesh, but there was no escaping the foul smell of fish and marsh that enveloped the house, and probably the neighborhood. Steve was to forever nibble gingerly whatever ensuing game we brought home in the coming years, so strongly embedded was the memory of those fish ducks in his mind, and nostrils.

Bronson came home for Christmas from Hargrave Military Academy about a month later. His arrival was much anticipated, such was the legend that he had left behind. I was to be bitterly disappointed due to a stroke of very bad luck. The day he came home, he took his family’s Volkswagon Beetle to the store for his mom, and, as luck would have it, he passed my dad on the only little country road that led to our neighborhood. Whatever the speed limit was, Bron exceeded it in spades as he accelerated around dad and swerved back into his lane just in the nick of time to avoid an approaching truck. When my dad arrived home, there was the offending VW parked in the driveway next door. Guess who was forbidden to get into a car driven by old Bronson, when having a driver’s license was tantamount to the highest echelons of freedom at sixteen years old? I had not gotten my license, yet, nor had Steve, so Bronson was our only gateway to freedom. A bleak despair that I remember to this day would grip me when Bron and Steve drove away to, well, damn near anywhere. My dad was to come to love Bronson, but he would have to prove himself first, and my own father had undoubtedly known many Bronsons in his life who had taken others into risky places.

The winter of 1963 quickly turned into spring, and then the most glorious summer of my life. In those days, you said good bye to most of your high school friends in May and saw them again in August on the football field, or after Labor Day as the school year began. Living several miles apart was like living hundreds now. Even if you did get a driver’s license by the end of your sophomore year, cars were scarce, and a family that had more than one was a rarity. So, it was Steve, Bronson and I, mowing grass and doing chores in the mornings to buy gas for the boat to sally forth in, in the afternoons, and on the week ends. We would ski out the canal to the bay, and scuba over the rocks of an old collapsed light house some 10 miles out. “York Spit” was the name of that legendary place, and it was marked by a single buoy that allowed us to find it in the middle of the bay, out of sight of land. Amazingly, once again a reflection of the times, I had saved for my air tank and flippers, and just jumped into the sport of scuba diving blind, with 2 other 16 year olds as “teachers”. In those days you could get your tanks filled at various sporting goods stores, and no one had ever heard the word “certification”. I just went down 50 feet my first dive, as happy and expectant as I had ever been in my life, learning by experience, unconcerned or afraid, as only teenagers are. Steve’s parents also had a power boat, so we took turns, and there was much bragging and arguing over whose outboard was the best; my Johnson or Steve’s Scott. Bronson’s family were sailors, true Chesapeake people, and they had a racing sloop, the style of which was known as a “Hampton One”. Maneuvering a sail boat, tacking and coming about, was something that was second nature to Bronson, and it took many years for him to teach Steve and I the rudiments of controlling something that used the wind instead of a propeller. Sailing did not really suit our mentalities at that time, as we preferred speed and all of the benefits associated with 30 mph, rather than 5, most of which was spent going back and forth, but there was that pesky problem of paying for gas that always hung over our heads. So, sometimes, we settled into that old flat 18’ sail boat, and made the best of it. One particular occasion, where we did not have the ability to outrun weather, or power head first into large swells, found us many miles from shore, and almost cost us our lives, although we did not realize how close we had come until many years later, when our more mature minds looked back and asked , “we did what !?”.

We had caught a stiff breeze that allowed us to run straight and fast at a right angle to the shore, which of course translated into maximum distance from terra firma. The sky was blue, and the tide and wind were running against one another, making for a pretty smooth ride. The wind picked up, and as our speed increased, the 3 of us leaned farther and farther over the same edge of the boat, balancing the weight of the air that was straining through the main sail and the jib, both of which were getting dangerously close to horizontal. We were flat moving; spray in our face, sunlight dazzling the rushing water around us, Bronson and Steve braced with their legs into the far railing, pulling as hard as they could on the rope that kept the boom from whipping away from the boat and releasing the massive volume of air trapped in the sail when a large swell reared up in front of us, it caught the boom, and stopped it dead in the water, although the rest of the boat kept on going. The boom snapped, and the torque of its’ sudden loss of momentum twisted the mast to the breaking point also. In the blink of an eye, the boat’s stern shot into the air, driving the bow into the rising swells, the mast cracked in half, the drag of its’ weight hitting the water, resulting in a complete corkscrewing capsize. In one second we had gone from racing wild eyed and free to flying through the air over a suddenly exposed keel, sails and equipment under water. Miraculously, no one was hit by anything other than the deep blue sea, and we were able to quickly swim to the upside down boat and cling to the keel. Stunned, it did not occur to us that somehow the boat was staying afloat, not exactly as it had been designed to do, and as I got my bearings, all I could hear over and over again were Bronson’s agonizing words, “My dad is going to kill me this time,” This all being said before we even really knew what had hit us. Flat to the horizon, more in the water than out, and trying to grip the slippery bottom of a sail boat 10 miles from shore in an increasingly choppy sea, we were invisible to the rest of the world. I remember clearly thinking that I could not lie in the ocean all night with my hands scratching for a slippery hold on the bottom of a boat that more than likely was going to sink pretty soon. So, when the fishing boat pulled up along side of us in the middle of a darkening ocean, and towed us to shore, it seemed like the only reasonable thing that could have happened at the time, lucky as I had always been. But, that is exactly what happened. A grizzled old salt and his son, dragging a sean net, came upon us, and saved our lives. Well, I should say that as we were being pulled to safety I knew that no one was going to die from drowning that day, but Bronson’s fate when he got home was anybody’s guess. Unfortunately, I never knew my own fate on many occasions when I myself returned home, from anyplace. But, life went on, and I lost Steve and Bronson, both Marines, far too soon. I have gone back to the neighborhood, but found only thoughts that I could bring to no conclusion.

The houses of our youth are empty now, not even the echoes of our passing sounds within those walls. No ghosts to whisper, so far away were the inhabitants when they died, leaving a return trek too far for even a soul to make. Nothing happened, anywhere, anytime, unless there was someone left to remember. I do not dwell on these things anymore, although sometimes late in the evening, in front of my fireplace, dozing off, I think of those long ago events, and listen to those muted sounds out of the past that more often than not now leave me with a small wistful smile on my face. Who could ask for more.

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