Poverty of Imagination: Growing up humble
Rummaging one afternoon through some paperwork that I obviously shouldn’t have had access to, I came across my parents’ marriage certificate.
Funny thing: I couldn’t tell you where my own marriage certificate is right now.
I assume it’s around.
Anyway, second grade, I find my parents’ marriage certificate. And then do some quick math.
I was born on June 22, 1972. The marriage certificate had my parents getting married on Feb. 22, 1972.
A second-grader isn’t supposed to know that his parents only got married because his teenage dad had knocked up his teenage mom, but now I knew.
And honestly, things started to make sense.
I researched my family history for a college paper, and traced the Graham name back to the 1730s, to where the first Graham to appear in records in Augusta County, also named Chris, settled on a plot in Deerfield, not far from where my dad and his brothers and sisters grew up two centuries later, and where I spent the first three years of my life.
Because of those early roots, the Grahams had a leg up for generations, with land and wealth emanating from the land.
The era of good feelings was bound to come to an end, and the next generations were to face a harsh reality.
I don’t visit the old homeplace as often as I did when I was a kid, but I remember warning my wife when we made our way out to the cemetery where my dad was buried in 2008 not to try to think too much about how many of the headstones would read Graham.
The hills between the mountains are still full of us, and when you do the math, it doesn’t take much to figure out why the postwar generations were doomed.
The family farms got broken up into smaller plots: that’s it, in a nutshell.
But there was also this odd juxtaposition of basically dirt farms being located behind stellar antebellum homes that felt to me as a kid to be like mansions. Beautiful structures with courtyards and spiral staircases, the kinds of homes that you see used as location sets for period movies.
My dad was born into this, in the early 1950s, the youngest surviving child of John and Mary Graham, growing up on a farm located up a dirt road from one of these mansion-like houses.
Mary would have one more child, Marty, who would die at the age of three, and whose death would haunt her to her final days.
My mother had a job at the Western State Hospital, and after I was born, my grandmother was my babysitter, and the story was that she took to me to the point that she felt I was the spitting image of her Marty.
Which saddens me to think about, because at age three, my parents broke away from living in West Augusta and moved all the way to the other side of the county, meaning she lost me, too, at the age of three.
Mary would die of an aneurysm a year later, and I don’t remember her at all, an awful footnote.
John, to us grandkids, Granddaddy John, to the world, Big John, a 350-pound behemoth, until he suffered a stroke in his mid-70s, would live on until the mid-1990s.
My dad, born William, was Billy to everybody, which is something I have fun with when I tell people that I’m the son of Billy Graham, but, no, not that Billy Graham, as in, not the evangelist.
And actually, as a kid who would become a pro wrestling fan, there was another Billy Graham, Superstar Billy Graham, a big muscle guy who took on Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.
In order, I would have taken the wrestler as dad first, if only because, come on, feather boas, main-eventing Madison Square Garden; then probably my actual dad.
The preacher guy would have been a distant third, because it would have meant that I’d have to count among my brothers the idiot televangelist Franklin Graham, who isn’t doing the name any good at all.
The other, other Billy Graham, then, my dad, quit school in the ninth grade, which I don’t take as a sign of laziness or lack of intelligence. My dad wasn’t book smart, but he could build the engine of a car from scratch, something that he got a lot of practice doing.
Dude was fascinated by cars, and then bored by them at the same time. I lost count of how many times he’d promised me that his latest reclamation project would be mine when I turned 16.
My favorite was a ’57 Chevy, candy-apple red, that he sold to the father of one of my elementary-school classmates.
My parents would end up being a married couple for 14 years. My mother kept track of how many cars my father bought, restored and then sold over that period, and the total came to 46.
This would be among the flash points between my parents over the years. Dad landed a job at the General Electric plant in Waynesboro, which was one of the motivating factors for the move across the county, to an unincorporated town named Crimora, about 10 miles north of the plant.
They first set themselves up in a trailer park, though within a year, things were going well enough that we went house-hunting, in a new subdivision, Belaire, in the middle of the county, near Verona.
I remember walking through the house. It was Carolina blue, not huge, from what I can piece together from my childhood memory and now through my adult eyes, but it was a house, with a foundation, and it was going to be ours.
Except that the guy who ran the trailer park blocked us from getting it.
I learned later in life how: Virginia law gives the owners of mobile-home parks wide latitude over who their tenants can sell their mobile homes to.
Basically, yeah, you own your trailer, but if you want to sell it, and neither you nor the buyer can afford to have to pay to have it moved, the landlord gets a legal cockblock, and this guy exercised his on us when we were trying to sell so that we could buy the house in Belaire.
I, of course, couldn’t have known this then, but it would be more than 30 years before I would ever live in an actual house.
Also couldn’t have known this then, but my future wife would grow up in Belaire.
Her identical twin sister would end up being a close friend of my sister, in middle school.
Yeah, small world.
I never would be close to my father, who was basically never around, working a second-shift job at the GE plant that had him working from 3:30 to midnight, then spent his weekends back at home in Deerfield or wherever else he’d end up.
I’d find out later that he’d had a string of relationships, ranging from one night to a few months, with various women, before he finally left my mother when I was 13, their divorce becoming final when I was 14, at which point good ol’ dad was assessed a modest amount in weekly child support, forty bucks a week, which he paid when he wanted to, which wasn’t often.
Maybe having Franklin Graham spouting off about Trump at Thanksgiving wouldn’t have been so much to endure after all, looking back.
I’m skipping ahead. The split that was to come was almost inevitable from the time they first hooked up, doing some more math, in the fall of 1971, my father by that point already a couple of years out of school, my mother a recent high-school graduate.
My mother, nee Kathi Decker, was born in Lancaster, Pa., though her family roots are also very much Augusta County.
Her mother, birth name Margaret, Peggy to friends, Granny, to the grandkids, was from Vesuvius, on the Augusta County-Rockbridge County line, and her Brooks and Cash family lineage has a similar dated history in that part of Augusta as the Grahams do out in their part.
My grandmother was a spitfire. Like the Grahams, she was born and raised on a small dirt farm, and how she ended up in Pennsylvania had to do with World War II.
She became a real-life Rosie the Riveter, leaving home to find work in a war munitions factory, in Aberdeen, Md., to make money to send back home to support her family.
It was on the adjoining Army base that she met my grandfather, Paul Decker, who’d enlisted in 1940 after doing some wise calculus based on the newsreels from what was going on at the time in Europe, and deciding that he’d rather choose where he ended up by enlisting as opposed to leaving it up to the draft board that he was pretty sure was going to be coming online in short order.
Paul, Granddaddy to the grandkids, had worked his way out of an orphanage, where he’d ended up by the oddest of reasons.
His mother had left his father, basically, obviously unheard of for the time, and his father had tried to raise his kids, Paul being the oldest, on his own.
Except that, mores of the day, men just didn’t raise their families on their own, scandalous as that thought might be.
So, again, wisdom of the day, it was determined by the courts that it was better for all involved that the kids be placed in an orphanage.
My grandmother was Rosie the Riveter, sending money home to the farm; my grandfather was the guy at the age of 12 earning money building chicken coops for local farmers, and after the war he was the hardest-working small homebuilder in southeast PA.
And dude was strapping. Old photos showed him in his late 20s looking like a bodybuilder, 215 pounds on his 5’8” frame, a living, breathing Atlas, who had his hands on every 2×4, every block, everything that went into his houses, which he also designed for his clients, despite having no formal training.
Even in his late 60s, he could outwork any two men a third his age, as I came to know personally, working summers on his crew in my teens, by a wide margin the hardest I will ever work at anything, and I train for and run marathons.
But before any of that could happen, Peggy and Paul needed to dance, and that almost didn’t happen.
As my grandmother told the story, she had gone to the PX for a dance on that particular Saturday night with one of my grandfather’s buddies, and her first impressions of him weren’t what you’d call positive.
The best she would concede was that he was cocky. She didn’t quite know how to process this guy who was openly hitting on his buddy’s date, but, hey, it worked, and the war being the war, the times being the times, they were married two months later, and would be for the next 67 years.
The first few were spent on the Army base. I never could get Granddaddy to talk about the war, one of my great regrets, but Granny said he was part of a munitions-delivery crew attached to the Aberdeen base, while she worked in the weapons factory.
Because he had foreseen the American entry into the war and picked his spot, he had been able to secure as good a spot as possible to serve, one that gave him some time on the home front in between trips back and forth to the front lines.
One story that my grandmother told me in bits and pieces dozens of times illustrates how tense things were back on the home front.
In between trips to the front, the newlyweds were home getting ready one evening for dinner, which my grandfather decided was going to be sausages warmed up on a hot plate.
Except that they didn’t have a hot plate, so his plan was to stick a fork into an electrical outlet in the kitchen to warm it up, then put on a plate to in turn warm it up, which would warm up the sausage.
The way it was told to me, as many times it was told to me, it always made sense.
But the plan hit a snag when the fork shorted the outlet. And then that short in turn somehow cut power across the base.
The way my grandmother told it, this sent people in every direction, sirens blaring, alerts going out, the assumption being, the base had suddenly come under attack, the war had finally come ashore.
Amidst all this commotion, my grandparents had to play dumb, and as far as I know, they never fessed up as to what had really taken place, though, good news, the Germans had not infiltrated Aberdeen, and – spoiler alert – the Allies went on to win the war.
They settled after the war back in PA, where all six of their kids would be born, my mother being the second-youngest.
The home place, Lancaster, was for me a legend, mainly, growing up.
I visited as an adult, and it was underwhelming, to say the least, sorry to those reading who hold it in higher regard than I do.
Way too much conservative religion, way too many buffets, is about as charitable as I can be.
Family-wise, there used to be a tradition of an annual trip up I-81 to visit, and stock up on Lebanon bologna, but I didn’t remember any of those trips, which stopped at some point, maybe as my grandmother came to realize, we moved away from there for a reason.
It was on one of those trips that I don’t remember that my own legend, such as it came to be, was birthed.
Again, I don’t remember any of this myself, want to be clear about that, but from what I was told many times over the years, the summer that I turned two, my grandmother, my mother and two of her sisters were on a drive up to Lancaster, and I was in tow.
It’s about a four-hour trip from Staunton to Lancaster on 81, and from the story, this one was a particularly hot trip, on a humid summer day.
We were apparently about 30 miles outside of Lancaster when somebody asked aloud, How far are we from Lancaster?
At which point, it has been reported that I answered, 30 miles.
How does he know that, one among the women asked.
Because that’s what the sign back there said, I am said to have replied.
Incredulous, the women then took turns quizzing me on what the upcoming signs on the interstate said, and, story goes, jaws dropped when I was able to tell the others in the car what was on the signs.
The way my mother told the story, she came to realize as this was playing out that I had been reading road signs aloud to her for weeks, but she had written it off because she said I was always asking her, when we’d drive by a sign on the road, what this one said, or what that one said, and she had come to think that I just had a good memory when we’d drive by them again, and I’d tell her what they said without having to ask.
Somehow, just having turned two, I had taught myself to read.
For as long as I can remember, I have carried with me expectations based on this precociousness.
My mother, to her credit, did her best, given her limited resources, to foster my potential.
She had herself planned to go to college after high school, but my dad and, then, a baby, came along, so that was that.
Our household never wanted for books. We had every Dr. Seuss book in the collection, and multiple titles from the Little Golden Books series.
And Mom herself was always reading, mostly romance novels, but she always had a book with a bookmark sitting on her chair in the living room.
She had to read two, three books a week.
We also had newspapers as part of our lives from my earliest memories. The local paper for us was The News Virginian, out of Waynesboro, where I would later get my first journalism job.
I started reading the paper daily, I think, at the age of three, and I only wish there were photos matching up to my memories of reading the paper as a kid.
Think: kid at three reading a broadsheet newspaper. Now imagine: the paper sprawled out on the floor, and the kid, half as long as the broadsheet, crawling from section to section, and having to stand up to flip the page.
Mom also indulged me in making sure that I was able to watch the nightly news, which, yes, I was already addicted to as a 3-year-old.
Not that I always understood what the anchors were saying.
I remember getting really upset at one report, about a guerilla war, mainly because one of my favorite early-childhood toys was a stuffed gorilla that I called Brother, and I was bothered by the idea that people would fight a war against gorillas.
Apparently, I so dominated the TV that my Christmas present at age five was a seven-inch black-and-white TV for my bedroom, which my mother confirmed for me many years later was part of a concerted effort on the part of her and my father to wrest control of the TV viewing back from the kid who wanted to watch the news, football, baseball, sitcoms, whatever, but if he didn’t get his way, it was hell for Mom and Dad.
Who were otherwise putting themselves through a special kind of hell. Around the move from Deerfield to Crimora, the screwjob over the trailer that kept us from buying the house in Belaire, probably also the normal growing pains that come for teen parents as they start to grow up and realize that what should have been a summer fling is now a cold, hard reality, you see where I’m going with this: tension manifest itself into health issues.
First, it was my dad, who ended up in the hospital with an ulcer that nearly killed him, though all I knew at the time was that Mom and I got to stay with Granny Decker for two weeks, and I got to eat a lot of ice cream.
A year later, it was my mom’s turn for a lengthy hospital stay that would nearly kill her, after she suffered a collapsed lung. That time, an aunt and uncle stayed at our trailer to watch me, and my sister, a few months old at this stage.
The sister came along, I’d find out as an adult, as part of a reconciliation effort between Mom and Dad.
This is apparently something common among couples trying to decide whether they’re committed to each other or not.
Seems odd to me: Hey, we’re not sure if we want to be together, let’s bring another kid into the world, that’ll smooth things over.
In any case, no, it didn’t work. The collapsed lung was the result of more stress. Now they had two kids, still lived in a trailer park, had no options for getting out of that, Dad was working a second-shift job and spending his weekends away from home, Mom was a stay-at-home mom with two kids and no money because Dad was spending whatever was left over after groceries on auto parts.
I don’t know how it was that I recognized all of this at an early age, but I did.
I’m reminded of this by one story from when I was four. It was the one time that my father tried to discipline me, spanking me for pestering him while he was working on one of his cars.
For weeks after, I led a campaign to have Mom divorce Dad and marry a midget, the idea being that if she married a midget, and the midget would try to spank me, I could take a midget, in my 4-year-old mind.
I think of that story from my adult eyes and think, yeah, I had no respect for my father, and when he finally left my mother the summer that I turned 13, I felt what should have been, but wasn’t, an odd sense of relief.
But that liberation was still years into the future.
In the interim, my saving grace was school, at tiny Crimora Elementary School, which according to a sign out front, had been Established 1927.
What seemed to me then like a huge building, now as an adult, it feels barely bigger than a Moose Lodge bingo hall.
Sign of the times of the 1970s: my walk to the bus stop in kindergarten was a half-mile, through woods, from our trailer-park lane to a back road.
Any of a number of opportunities for child predators to snatch kids on this trek, right?
Crimora was growing in the mid-1970s, to a point where the county school system had to add extra classroom space with modular trailers, which for me was my kindergarten classroom.
Our incoming kindergarten class was so big that they had to split us into two classes, the other still located in the main building, which for those of us kids who got to go outside to go to class, we thought that was pretty cool.
The baseball diamond for the local little league and Babe Ruth was outside our window. We also had a good view of the basketball courts on the blacktop behind the school, where kids got to play before school, at lunch, at recess, after school.
There was an indoor auditorium/gymnasium on the other end of the school, down near the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms. The cafeteria was back near our end of the school.
I still remember the smell of the first day of school, and the smell was fresh bread coming from the first steps inside the door at lunchtime.
It is not rare for me to smell fresh bread and think about that first day at Crimora Elementary.
The teachers and administration had no idea what to do with me. First grade, for instance, when the other kids were playing, I was reading ahead in the reading books, to the point where the teacher decided that the best course of action was to just let me go at my own pace, the result being that by the end of first grade, I had finished all of the reading books through the end of third grade.
So, naturally, when I got to second grade, the second-grade teacher, not interested in having to deal with a kid with special needs, would have none of that, and had me go back to the second-grade books, and made me work with the rest of the class.
Not surprising at all that I came to hate school in the second grade as a result of being bored out of my mind, and tried everything I could to come up with excuses to miss school.
The act got old quick: one morning in early October, I awoke Mom and Dad early to say that there wasn’t going to be school that day, because it had snowed.
The day before, now, for context, had been a warm, sunny day, probably mid-70s.
You’re going to school, Chris, was the terse message back from Mom.
Until she woke up and looked outside. It had snowed, close to a foot, the freak fall snowstorm of 1979.
It was all melted by noon, but we had no school that day.
I spent my time second grade printing from memory in my notebooks the baseball standings from the newspaper, wins, losses, winning percentages, games behind.
I kept that habit up into fifth grade, when the principal, Mr. Landis, happened to take a seat next to me in math class one afternoon, and looked over my shoulder.
A new plan was quickly improvised that modeled the first-grade reading plan: my desk was moved to the back corner, and I was allowed to go at my own pace.
I finished the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade math books on my own, and by seventh grade, I was teaching myself algebra.
It wasn’t all hand Chris a book and let him figure it out for himself.
A saving grace for me in elementary school was the TAG program, the acronym standing for talented and gifted. I was pulled out of class in that otherwise awful second-grade year to go to the library, where the librarian, Mrs. Smith, was tasked with the responsibility of dealing with a group of about six of us bored smart kids.
Once a week thereafter, we’d all head to the library from our classrooms. By fourth grade – our school went through seventh grade then – I was the oldest kid in the group.
We did things like brainstorming exercises, putting together a school newspaper.
When I was in sixth grade, we organized a Patriotic Day that included a school assembly, and a public speaking contest, the one where I read the MLK “I Have a Dream” speech.
The next year, we organized a mock presidential election, and I campaigned as the stand-in for Walter Mondale, hoping against hope that we could pull out a win over Ronald Reagan, who I didn’t like because, among other reasons, his administration had cut funding for school lunches, and famously declared ketchup a vegetable for nutritional purposes.
First hard politics lesson for me: Reagan won in a landslide. I think it was something like 84 percent of the vote for Reagan.
I’d learn later that kids usually fall in line politically with their parents.
I’d come to joke that I was Crimora’s only Democrat, and I wasn’t exaggerating by much.
One other positive experience came the next spring. Mr. Dixon’s social studies and math classroom became home to a bank of computers, maybe six or eight of them, that we would get to use, for a six-weeks grading period, learning BASIC programming.
This is 1985, mind you, and, to reinforce, it was Crimora, population roughly 2,000, school population maybe 225, most of them trailer-park kids.
That six weeks would be life-changing for me.
I mean, we did basic BASIC, writing code that would make the screen display an American flag, do math problems, simple stuff.
But for me, it opened my eyes to a bigger world.
I won the school science fair that spring, my project being a model of a nuclear reactor, inspired by a TAG field trip to Lake Anna, which I followed up by writing to the Department of Energy asking for books and documents on how nuclear reactors worked, before building a plaster of paris model with tubes and wires and detailed explanations.
Best-in-show meant a $50 first prize, which I used, along with money I made helping Dad with his lawn-care business, to buy a Commodore 64, to continue tinkering around learning BASIC.
Fast forward 25 years, and I’m running a business offering website-design and online marketing services to clients.
So, if you wonder about the impact of education on at-risk kids, I think you have an answer there.
One other impact from my TAG experiences: Mrs. Smith thought it was important to expose us Crimora kids to the fine arts, which, to me, back then, was a colossal waste of my time, going to all these museums, plays, musicals.
One of our web and marketing clients is the Wayne Theatre, a community theatre that puts on musicals, concerts and lectures. Crystal and I each took turns serving on the board of directors of the Wayne during the development phase of the project.
Among our favorite things to do outside of work is to attend Broadway shows. Our first came during a trip to New York when I was covering UVA basketball in the Sweet Sixteen.
We’ve seen Hamilton twice, and listened to the soundtrack a million times. I could act it out, is how much, and I’m holding out hope that when the Wayne puts on a community production in 20 years, I will get to play King George III, my favorite character.
All of this from a kid who grew up in a trailer park and might not have left the county of Augusta until college, if college would have even been in the offing, if not for this TAG program.
Again, education, sparking imagination.
But back when I was in the middle of all this, I didn’t foresee a career in the creative sector. What I really wanted to do, harkening back to the doodling in my notebooks in second grade, was become a baseball star, and for a time, I thought it was maybe in the cards for me.
I made the all-star team at age 10, hitting home runs in back-to-back games, as it would turn out, the only two games my dad ever watched me play.
A game late that season still haunts me to this day.
My team, the Reds, were playing the Green team from a nearby school, Cassell Elementary. Cassell was located maybe five miles toward Waynesboro from Crimora, but it was a different world, man.
Most of us kids from Crimora lived in trailer parks; the Cassell kids were from nice subdivisions located just outside of the city.
Our parents worked hourly at the factories, General Electric and DuPont; their parents were the engineers, physicists and front-office people.
We hated the snobby rich kids from Cassell; they hated the poor white trash from literally the other side of the railroad tracks.
The rail line ran along our ballfield, and our buses had to cross every day to get us to school.
The Greens had taken a 17-5 lead after five innings of our six-inning game, but our Reds rallied. I hit my only career grand slam to cut the deficit to 17-10, and the line kept moving. I batted again with the bases loaded later in the inning, and cleared the bases with a three-run double to tie the score, and we’d go on to take a 20-17 lead into the bottom of the sixth.
It was the most amazing thing I think I will ever be a part of.
The noise from our bench and our parents in the stands is something I will never forget.
Nor will I forget what happened next.
There were dark clouds in the distance, and after we got the first out of the bottom of the sixth, the Greens coach called time to talk to the home-plate ump.
After conferring, the ump called us off the field, which we thought odd, because it wasn’t raining.
Our coach huddled with the ump and the Greens coach, and started yelling, though, still, we had no idea what was going on, why the coaches and ump would be talking, why we were being directed off the field.
Some of the parents seemed to sense what was happening, but us kids were still thinking that we were winning 20-17, and as the skies continued to darken ahead of the storm still well off in the distance, OK, we can finish this one out next week and get the win.
That wasn’t to be the case. The coach had pulled out a rule for games interrupted by rain dictating that if the game were to be called, the score would have to revert to where it was at the end of the final completed full inning.
So when he requested a delay for the storm clouds, and the hint of thunder, though I don’t remember there actually being any sound of thunder, that meant a half-hour at least while we waited for whatever weather was coming to come, and since it was the early 1980s, and none of us had mobile phones with radar, the assumption was that it was going to rain, meaning the game would be called, and the final score would have to be 17-5.
Until that point, I had thought the world was on the up and up.
I mean, I knew the kids in the Cassell school district lived in nice houses, but they had three outs in their half-inning just like we did, right?
I didn’t think of myself as being disadvantaged for living in a trailer park. That didn’t even occur to me.
I was the smartest kid in my school, and I figured being the smartest kid in my school, I’d go to college and get a good job and buy a nice house like those kids lived in.
I had big plans: baseball, then law school, then running for president.
That night was a jolt.
As it sunk in that we had officially lost that stupid baseball game, it was becoming apparent that there were different sets of rules at play depending on who you were, that in the case of a meaningless little league baseball game, the official scorebook could show them winning in a blowout when they actually had just gotten their sorry asses beat, and there was nothing that you could do about it if you weren’t one of the rich kids but complain.
I believe this is what the political analysts refer to these days as economic anxiety.
That game was played in 1982. There aren’t many days that go by where I don’t think about it.