Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

Pieces of my past, 1987-1992: Oakton, Virginia

Spring 1987. I was surviving, I mean attending (I mean surviving) seventh grade in junior high — many of us, at best, survive the weirdness, frustrations and drama of junior high — at Thoreau Intermediate in Vienna, Virginia. My family had been renting. Mom and Dad then bought a house, farther west, in Oakton. A part of Oakton where my junior high and my brother's high school had jurisdiction. The goal, which we achieved, was to let us go for all four years of high school to the same high school (me, Class of 1992; him, Class of 1989).

We almost didn't get to: the Navy reassigned Dad to an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, which is some hours away from Oakton. Dad spent much of 1987 working during the week on the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy while it was in dock, then coming home for the weekend. He sailed on his last Navy cruise from mid-1988 to early 1989. During this, we stayed put.

I said the Oakton house was farther out. One day while my folks were buying the place, we drove out Stuart Mill Road to visit it. And drove. And drove. Stuart Mill was, and mostly is, a winding, tree-shrouded road running through a creek's small valley — while we lived there, it was a big deal that one of the road's one-lane bridges got replaced with a two-lane bridge — and that first drive to the house seemed to take forever. I exaggerate. Half of forever. It feels isolated, too: it's a long road with relatively few access points from other roads, plus several stretches were undeveloped.

While living there I half-expected to look towards the creek, Little Difficult Run, and see Civil War encampments. Though then you'd pass McMansions like this:

(That's definitely post-Civil War. So was our house. It was built in 1978.)

Our house was in a two-road neighborhood. On Bree Hill Road, which connects to Ayreshire Road which connects to Stuart Mill. Yes, one street had a Tolkien name (Bree-Hill is a location), the other an almost-Tolkien term (there's the Shire, not "Ayreshire"). And the house was, by my standards, big.

It had our first half-finished basement! More than half-finished, in fact. Our nice family room was down there, with a fireplace, space for Dad's well-built entertainment system, and one ground-level window up high in one corner. From there was a room near the fireplace where we put a PC (and, for a while, one of those Balans kneeling chairs), then a tile-floored area where eventually we had a TV and exercise equipment, then finally a storage/laundry room.

One of the main floor amenities was a screened-in porch: chairs, a hammock, and speakers connected to the sound system downstairs. The hammock was Dad's on the weekends, especially when he'd spend weekdays down at the ship; he'd earned that rest. The porch overlooked our large backyard, which abutted a greenbelt and had room for a cute little path around that porch, some trees and bushes and, later, a hot tub. Among those bushes was a small batch of snapdragons that I planted. If I was going to help maintain that yard by raking and mowing and weeding, why not also make it look a little nicer?

It was a nice house. A good amount of interior light. Built-in shelves in the den next to the porch. A good-sized kitchen, a good-sized living room, a decent-sized dining room. A circular path on the main floor that visiting children would find, and run and run and run around. A half-bathroom (toilet and sink) next to the entrance, an amenity that surprised me at first but which I got used to.

A lot of my dreams are set in a version of this house. Very matter-of-fact dreams, usually, though occasionally the dream-versions of the house have unexpected stairways or ladders into semi-secret rooms. This house didn't. I think.

As a present, the family gave me an amazing wall decoration: a photo mural, from a 1980s space shuttle mission, covering the north wall of my bedroom. The Columbia, flying above Sicily. My older brother put it up while I was gone on a trip. My bed and my desk both were against that wall; the shuttle and the Earth dominated my view. (No, I didn't also add those glow-in-the-dark stars you can stick to ceilings.)

My bedroom window overlooked the deck and backyard. The deck was "covered" by this wood latticework — not a full-fledged roof — as a bit of added flair. That wood latticework was also strong and sturdy enough to walk on. Meant I could get onto parts of the roof. Somewhere in our photo albums is a picture of me sitting on the roof of the porch, reading a paperback novel.

Once at Bree Hill, I adapted to a longer commute to school. It was a 45-minute bus ride each morning from my neighborhood, down all of Stuart Mill, and onto Vale Road then through Vienna, to my junior high on the east side of town. I started early each morning (using the radio alarm that I still use, 30 years later). The afternoon ride home was, thanks to traffic timing, quicker. Then high school (James Madison High) was on Vienna's west side, which cut down on my bus ride.

In this more stable (thank goodness) situation and environment, I had room to learn more about myself, to — as I've put it before — "figure out my front end from my ass end." I became a faster reader, though that was by necessity: one time I started late on reading The Grapes of Wrath for an English class and needed to catch up by reading 100 pages a day.

I read fast another time, for different reasons: one day in February 1989, I was feeling low, and I was doing something that wasn't helping: hanging out in a mall. I've never been a mall rat, and malls at the time exacerbated how I was frustrated in general. (By now I'm more agnostic, as it were, about malls. They're there, I can use them, they don't rub me the wrong way or harm my mood the way they used to.) But I walked past the Waldenbooks at Tysons Corner Center and was surprised that, at the front, was a Douglas Adams novel I hadn't even known was coming out. (The store had released it slightly early, in fact; it was scheduled for U.S. release that March.) I bought it immediately, and powered through it in one weekend. Douglas Adams' work has often helped people feel better when they're low; though in retrospect The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul is probably my least favorite Adams book, I made good use of it at the time. And read it fast.

There, my thoughts were growing up, as were my dreams. I was figuring out more about my (admittedly straightforward) sexuality; I was opening up to the possibilities of sexuality, of seeing more of the world through sexuality's filter. I fulfilled one cliché by sticking a special issue of Playboy (the Playmates of the Month for 1991) under my mattress for a time. I had my high school crushes: Kathryn, Jenny, Carmen, my lingering thing for Nicka, my first crush from years earlier. I didn't date during high school; I probably would have been a lousy partner back then. Some people teased and (especially in junior high) bullied me; it took ages for me to realize that some of the bullies and teasers were acting as if I were gay. (True story: in college someone else thought I was gay, but in context of I'll tell him about the LGBT group I run and he might join us and that might help him; it finally wasn't something to tease or bully about.) I simply, quietly, figured out more about myself.

One time while there, I helped a bird. Some non-winter day, a bird fell into the chimney and wound up in the flue just above the fireplace. Poor thing was scared. We were worried at first that we couldn't do anything for it and would simply have to let it die; but listening to it try to get out while I tried (the far less trying job of) working on the computer, I decided to at least try to help. Mom and I got the bird into the fireplace, unhurt. The bird then took off...and flew into the deeper part of the basement. So then, "trying to help" led to me going into the storage area, broom in hand and Dad's old flight helmet on my head, to scare the poor thing out of there and to the family room and its one window, open but small. The bird, I'm happy to say, got out, and had (I hope) a happy life outside.

More amusingly, I remember another time in the basement, at the computer with Dad and my brother, one of us sitting, the other two hovering nearby, having a conversation. A conversation where it took us over a minute to figure out that the three of us were each talking about separate subjects. Each of our responses, though, kept sounding right to the other two people who were talking, and it spun into weirder and weirder corners of conversation until we figured out that no, we weren't all on the same page. Communication. Important.

Bree Hill was also where I met our dog. She was a surprise: the folks hadn't told me. I was up in their master bedroom one afternoon in February 1990, either watching TV or folding laundry, when I heard this BOOM DE BOOM DE BOOM of excited running: a 76-pound yellow Lab named Sophie was exploring her new home. She came running in, saw me, sniffed me, and was excited about all of it. AND SUDDENLY WE HAD A DOG. (She'd belonged to a colleague of Dad's who was getting divorced and moving into a condo that had room for one Lab, not two, and for years Dad had wanted a Yellow Ksb so...) We had Sophie for 14 of her 16 years; she was my first pet who wasn't a goldfish (and my parents' first pet since before I was born). She was an adorable force of chaos, not the brightest dog (her name means "Wise One." We hadn't chosen it.), but lovable. There was maybe one person in those 16 years who met Sophie and didn't like her. Good dog. She was.

She was also a 76-pound lap dog. We accepted that and went on.

I was lucky: I didn't have much drama while living at Bree Hill. 'Course, I was a teenager, so I often felt drama was about to happen, threatening to happen. Teens often feel like that. (And keep in mind I said "much." I had some.) Drama came to the house via the news: the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The space shuttles returning to flight. The World Series earthquake. The Berlin Wall falling. Iraq invading Kuwait, then, months later, me hearing in the background a White House spokesman talking about "Desert Storm" and thinking You mean "Desert Shield"; I didn't know yet that the shooting war had begun. Nelson Mandela's release from prison. The LAPD beating of Rodney King then, later, the L.A. Riots. Meanwhile, my life kept going:

School. Writing more (I joined the school paper my sophomore year and worked there for three years). Reading and clipping from newspapers; it became my job to handle the paper recycling, so I could go through one more time to find articles to save. Becoming a more aware, defensive walker, because I still walked but most major roads in our part of the suburbs (very rural-seeming suburbs) had no sidewalks. Adapting, finally, to summer humidity. Learning to drive. Getting into a car accident (getting hit in the side of my car while I made a left turn) only months after getting my license; I and the people in the other vehicle came out of that fine, but the sound of their vehicle hitting my car's right side is still one of the worst sounds I've ever heard. First jobs (temp work in summers: basic office help, schlepping books for a warehouse sale, and volunteering at the National Air & Space Museum, which was a gooooooood idea). Cementing my fondness for Monty Python, Douglas Adams, David Lynch (this was when Twin Peaks debuted), and film music. Getting old enough to go to any movie on my own, and getting to do so during the damn good film year of 1991, since I'd turned 17 in November 1990. (No, I wasn't a sneak-into-theaters kid.)

Something neat and dramatic did happen to me during this time in my life: I got to join my Dad and his dad, my Grandpa Irv, for a few days on the Kennedy for what the Navy calls a Tiger Cruise, a few days at sea for invited relatives of crew members. I may have mentioned it in the blog before, but I think only in passing; this recent write-up gives a sense of them. That was the closest I've ever been to the military.

Also dramatic: a 17-year cicada brood, taking over Northern Virginia in spring 1987, soon after we'd moved to Bree Hill. And it really felt like "taking over": the cicadas were large, slow, clumsy, and overwhelming; they were everywhere. The noise of their singing was alternately unreal and surreal, this omnipresent high-decibel din that you could start to slightly, barely, differentiate if you got close to them. All around me, many animals were eating the cicadas, really feasting on them, but there was no way to eat more than a fraction of them so they came back, in 2004 (though I wasn't in Virginia for it; I missed by a few months), and will come back again in 2021, four years from now.

Four years can be a long time. Long like high school. (See what I did there?) That likely requires its own entries, looking back. It was a period where I slowly came a little bit out of my shell, with writing and clubs — if you call the volunteer aluminum can-recycling group a club — getting me slightly more engaged with the world. And I learned. I hope I learned well.

High school ended, so it was time for a new school (there aren't any combo high school/colleges, right?); and though I could have stayed in Virginia and gone to James Madison University, I realized I wanted to be closer to my Oregon roots, and decided on the University of Oregon. That started September 1992, and so did cross-country trips at holidays and in summers. Christmas Break 1993 was my last time in Bree Hill. We had snow that month. By summer 1994, Mom and Dad had sold the house and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a closer-in part of Oakton, preparing for both Dad's retirement and for their own move back to Oregon, to the Dundee house where they still live.

I'd been in Bree Hill for six-and-a-half years. That would be the longest I'd live in one house or apartment until 2002-2014. It was — likely still is — a solid, foursquare house in a lovely spot. Its screened-in porch is now a room with windows and, presumably, AC. (Of course the house has AC.) I like to visit Virginia, though I'll likely not live there again, and in fact it's been a while since I've visited: last time was June 2006. I reached a good place, though.

All of the homes where I grew up had their "good place" qualities. Luckily.

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