I'm back in Arlington today after eight days in Virginia Beach, which was probably the longest stretch of time I've spent there since I left for college in August 1982. We moved to Virginia Beach when I was seven and I left when I was sixteen, but it's still the closest thing I have to a hometown. My two brothers live there, Mom's grave is there, Dad still keeps an apartment at Chicks Beach. Since Mom's death, though, holiday gatherings tend to be at my sister Peggy's, outside Richmond, and it was usually too much for me to drive the extra 90 miles from Richmond to Virginia Beach.
Now, however, it's 200 miles door to door from my house to James and Sara's, so there'll be a lot of the Southside in my future. In fact, I'll be there on April 12 to see Bruce Springsteen, and I expect to be back a lot over the summer. (Summer traffic is a nightmare, but my work is flexible enough to let me travel at off-hours.)
The City of Virginia Beach has transformed itself in the 30+ years since I left. For one thing, its population has nearly doubled. Construction is constant, a little overwhelming. Most of it looks shoddy, houses of siding and polymer shingles next to my childhood neighborhoods of red brick. (Brick is cheap in Tidewater Virginia, or used to be. The land is clay, and ships from all over the world carried bricks as ballast, and left them behind when they sailed away with tobacco, whiskey and hams.) The whole south half of the city used to be farmland, and some farms remain, but most of the farmers sold out; the money was too good, and everything was cheaper in North Carolina anyway.
Not everything has changed, though. The Virginia Beach SPCA is exactly where it was when my Girl Scout troop visited it, out on Holland Road; back then it felt like a trip to the country, and now it's right off a major intersection. The Willis Furniture sign is still a landmark on Virginia Beach Boulevard, welcoming visitors to the gracious neighborhood of Thalia. The planes over Dam Neck are still deafening, and I still wonder how anyone lives in that flight path. (Lots of people do.)
And a few things I had forgotten, and was glad to remember.
1. Virginia Beach is huge. It used to be Princess Anne County; they turned the whole thing into a city. It's 497 square miles, of which about half is land and about half is water. By comparison, the entire state of Rhode Island is just over 1,200 square miles. "Around the corner" in Virginia Beach means about five miles away.
2. The Virginian-Pilot is a damn fine paper, especially its military coverage. My brother and sister-in-law still get home newspaper delivery, and I had forgotten what a luxury that feels like.
3. It's not all Navy. The Navy is the single largest employer in Virginia Beach and its sister communities of Norfolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth (Hampton and Newport News too, but they're on the other side of the bridge). If you don't work for the Navy, chances are good that you work for a Navy contractor (as my brother and father do), or for an organization that serves Navy personnel and their families. But the serious money in Hampton Roads isn't Navy, or Navy-related. It's real estate, and some of it goes all the way back to the bad old days. The powers that be in Virginia Beach were there before the Navy and will be there after the Navy is gone. I can't say whether that's good or bad, but I went to school with some of them. It was a good school, with an honor system and a weighty sense of history.
4. Virginia Beach has a lot of churches. A lot. My brothers and sisters and I fought a lot as kids, and my mother would quote her own mother: "See, how these Christians love each other." Well, the sheer number of independent churches in Virginia Beach is pretty good evidence that no matter how much humans might love the Lord, the first thing they're going to do is fight about it. It's kind of impressive that so many individual communities can support so many places of worship, but it's hard not to remember the Tower of Babel when you drive past a whole row of them.
5. Pollard's chicken is still the best. No contest. When I was engaged, we were going to have Pollard's cater the wedding reception. I may never get married, but maybe they can cater my funeral.