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Column: The ballast stone

By Jefferson Weaver

jeffersonweaver@nrcolumbus.com

There’s a large stone on my desk that reminds me of rare and priceless road trips with my father.

The Old Man and I didn’t really go on that many truly planned-out voyages; he worked too much, so there was usually a reason behind our journeys.

I recently ran across a photo of Papa, his Grandfather Traylor, and a boy we think is an uncle. It reminded me of Papa talking about what he half-jokingly called “The Grand Tour.”

Grandfather Traylor, my great-grandfather, was a hale and robust septuagenarian when my father was born. He was an old man who had been a young soldier in the Confederate forces of Virginia. Papa grew up around some of the last veterans of that most horrible war, as Grandfather’s friends came to visit and reminisce (and yes, being so close to the Mason-Dixon line, there were a few Yankees in the social circle).

Grandfather still swam in the Potomac, rode horses, walked the farm and the streets of the city, and was a big supporter of what we would call youth programs today. A yellow newspaper clipping carries a much more blunt description of his favorite, the Young Men’s Chorale, which required “references of high moral character of its participants” and was designed “to keep young men out of mischief.”

Mr. Traylor’s friends were apparently not so robust as he; as they died off, he became more aware of his own mortality.

And that was what led to the Grand Tour.

My Old Man was eight or ten when Grandfather took Papa on a series of trips; none were overseas, or far out of state. They started in a Packard touring car and later shifted to what I think was a LaSalle.

They went to the battlefields where Grandfather fought, of course – sixty years after the War Between the States, that was what one did, although there were fewer markers, no park rangers and fewer tourists back then. The soft-toned sepia pictures show Grandfather lounging beside a stone bridge near Sharpsburg, investigating a grassed-over rifle pit on another battlefield, and smiling through a bristle-brush moustache as my father and (we think) a younger cousin climb on a marker made from a cannon at Petersburg.

They didn’t just relive the glory days of Mr. Traylor’s youth. At various times, they visited Stratford Hall, Williamsburg (where we had relatives), Mount Vernon and Monticello. They visited Appomattox, a visit that would eventually inspire my father to join the fight to save poor Wilbur McLean’s farm.

They haunted ancient side streets in Richmond, and visited backwoods crossroads that were forgotten as quickly as they were passed through by Mosby’s Raiders, Cornwallis’ foraging Redcoats and Powhatan’s Blackhearts.

I was about the age of my dad in those photos when for some reason, the Old Man and I had our first father-son journey of note.

We had made the usual family trip to visit Grandmother Covert in Colonial Beach, and Aunt Eleanor in Arlington. For some reason, Mother was staying a few days longer than Papa could, and arrangements were made for Uncle Bob and Aunt Doris to bring her home.

The fruit trees were blooming; that much I can remember. We skipped church to hit the road, and beat the traffic coming out of Washington City and Richmond. We were driving in his beloved Chrysler, with the windows down, and I had a snapbrim hat very similar to his.

Papa and I made a rapid trip through history that sunny Sunday; we visited the spot where John Wilkes Booth died after guaranteeing the South would suffer under the traitorous Andrew Johnson. We searched a street in Petersburg for the Traylor family homeplace (we never found out for sure if we located the right house.) We had a soft drink at a country store that defied community standards and was open on a Sunday afternoon.

Papa and I made many such trips, but none were ever as extensive as that longer-than-necessary ride home from Virginia. We didn’t hit every historic spot, nor even every historic spot where our ancestors had trod, but we did make a few through the years.

Most of our trips, however, were short: interviews, taking photos for the paper, scrounging parts for cars or my truck, and just “showing the flag” – visiting country stores and country people, listening and visiting and learning and discovering, letting folks know they were appreciated. Sometimes there was a souvenir of some kind from the trip, a memento of no real rhyme nor reason save that it was special to me or him or us at the time.

Books, old bullets, the occasional soft drink bottle, a pocketknife or fishing lure, a piece of hardware whose purpose has long since become part of history. They were just tangible pieces of different memories born on a thousand back roads.

Oh, and the rock?

Grandfather Traylor was an historic rebel, and I don’t mean just because he wore the Confederate gray. He was a member of the group of professional and amateur historians who were determined that the original colony of Jamestown was not located where other historians had decided it had to have been. This disagreement elicited dueling letters to newspapers, books, magazine articles and according to legend, a fistfight between a couple of otherwise staid, well-respected intellectuals.

I do not know how vigorous a role Mr. Traylor played in that particular war, but I do know he took Papa to a spot where the dissidents swore Jamestown was actually established. The rock on my desk was a ballast stone from that disputed locale, retrieved by my father as a boy. Through the years, I have held onto that stone as I have a ballast rock from my mother’s birthplace, up on the Potomac.

Mr. Traylor passed away when Papa was a teenager; Papa was close to his age when we received a copy of Smithsonian magazine in the mail with an article on “Jamestown Rediscovered.” Idly flipping through it, Papa stopped on a page showing an overlay of an early archaeological dig and the presumed place of Jamestown.

Turns out that the rebels were right after all.

Modern digs have proven that the place my great-grandfather and his friends swore was the first permanent settlement was, indeed, the right spot.

I’ve never been to Jamestown, but I hope to visit someday. Maybe I can find the marshy little beach where my father and Mr. Traylor picked up their stone. I’d really love to do so, but until I can, I have my stone.

It may just be a rock to some folks, but to me, it’s more. It’s a simple souvenir, but it’s also a special memory, one of many born on a thousand back roads, and passed down through the generations.

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