Virginia, 1977-2009

7/5/13 - On this day in 1991, Ted and I were married. We did so for practical reasons. Ted's agreement with Bailey, who bought Pappillon Cycles when Ted retired, was about to expire. That meant Ted's medical insurance would also expire. I was furious with my employer, who balked at letting me telecommute, so--in violation of my deeply held beliefs about the evils of cars--I was commuting by car and van pool the 107 miles (each way) to work. I was leaving the house at 3:30 a.m. and didn't get home until 7:30 p.m. I was cuckoo with fatigue and rage. The employer had a pretty darn good medical plan and it wouldn't cost me anything to add Ted to my insurance, but would cost the employer plenty, which felt like a satisfying vengeance. We had to be married to include Ted, however, so that's what we did.

It was one of those steamy Virginia days when the clouds will burst in the afternoon, but until they do, conditions are miserable. The house we were building in Heathsville was finished on the outside and had electricity and indoor plumbing, but it still lacked amenities like drywall, flooring, and air conditioning. Ted's mother drove down from the luxury geriatric concentration camp where she lived in Annapolis. She was a good sport about our primitive habitat.

My wedding hatWe all trooped to the courthouse to buy the marriage license and to make an appointment with the magistrate for a civil service at 3:30 that afternoon.

In those days I was wearing a Panama hat I picked up in Key West and had a yen to decorate it with a bright little bouquet. We went to Callao to the florist's shop, which was owned by a neighbor who was tickled to help out. She added a hatband of white lace to the design. We took the hat home and put it in the refrigerator to keep the flowers fresh.

I went outside to work in the garden. Ted and Madine occupied themselves with the industrial-strength talking of which his family is capable (except for Ted's father, who was of the taciturn persuasion, perhaps in self-defense). Ted's father and I had in common an inability to keep up--or perhaps a lack of interest in doing so--our end of these conversations, which always dealt in jaw-breaking detail with topics that had been covered countless times. It was a private joke between us. It could have been considered rude of us, but the fact is that the talkers never noticed, or if they did, they didn't complain. Every chatterbox needs a listener, I suppose, and both Ted's father and I were pretty good at pretending to listen.

As Ted's and my fateful hour approached, everybody showered and dressed up in the finest outfits we could devise for the jungle mugginess of a July afternoon in the extreme northern reaches of tidewater Virginia. We piled in to Madine's brown Ford four-door and drove to Burgess, a tiny village at the crossroads of the only two roads that actually go anywhere in Northumberland County.

Burgess was the home of the magistrate who would perform our marriage ceremony. His name was Llewellyn Beatley, of the far-flung Virginia Beatleys, whose members included such nobility as a mayor of Alexandria, who was said to resemble a rooster in speech and manner. Llewellyn Beatley was a portly fellow whose brick house was set back from the highway and was fronted by one of those weedy, patchy, brown lawns that characterize a climate totally unsuited for turf grass.

Mr. Beatley was waiting for us in the garage attached to his house and waved us in, which was a thoughtful gesture since the afternoon rain was hammering down in umbrella-piercing drops, capable of stripping the wedding finery right off our backs.

Ted and Cindi get marriedOnce inside the Beatley residence, Madine assessed the situation for its flirtatious potential. She saw a shelf full of porcelain gimcracks (right down her alley) and asked, "Does your wife collect these?", which was her coy way of finding out if Mr. Beatley was married. He replied that his wife passed on the year before. Madine assumed an expression of appropriate sorrow, while simultaneously batting her eyes. It was all I could do to keep from snorting.

Mr. Beatley opened his book and performed our ceremony, which I gather he must have memorized because he kept looking through the window at the rainy racket outside while he spoke those sacred civil words.

The deed was done. We signed the papers and headed back to Heathsville for a wedding dinner. The venue was a formerly dignified two-story frame house on the verge of falling to ruin but not bad enough to invalidate its occupancy permit. It was operated by the sister-in-law of our electrician, Chris Bliley (of the Richmond funeral-home Blileys and the charming alcoholic nephew of Virginia senator Tom Bliley). Chris's sister-in-law had spent a year or two in England and flaunted a fake British accent while she served as waitstaff, chef, and cashier for her restaurant, which was open on an unpredictable schedule. Ted had made reservations at Chris's suggestion, and the lady put on a very nice meal for us, her only customers for the evening.

A year following our wedding, the creaky white frame building of the Fairfields Methodist Church in Burgess, of which Mr. Beatley was treasurer, burned and collapsed into the smoking hole that used to be its basement. The investigation revealed that the treasurer had been embezzling church funds and knew his misdeeds were about to be discovered by the church authorities.

The solution? Burn the books! Mr. Beatley ended up doing a couple of years in the Northumberland County Jail. The county sheriff later worried, as Beatley's sentence was coming near an end, that the elderly gentleman had adapted quite well to jail living and might have trouble taking care of himself following his release.

Beane Family Cemetery, Miskimmon VirginiaMr. Beatley died in 2000 and rests in the Beane Family Cemetery because the Fairfields Methodist Church didn't want him in its own graveyard. The Beane Cemetery, near the town of Miskimmon, sits in the middle of a farm field. In years when the field is planted in corn, the stalks grow tall over the walls and the cemetery essentially disappears for the summer. The harvest occurs in October, when the corn is cut down and the graveyard reappears just in time for Halloween.

11 Long Days - 9/27/13 - Trees, even those with enticing fall color, and waterfront living were over-rated by Ted and me when we first aspired to waterfront property. We had recently purchased a sailboat, you see, a tiny one, just 11 wet feet in length. The little lateen-rigged boat was lots of fun and hooked us on sailing like a Marlin on 130 lb test Dacron line towing a head boat. Anybody so enthralled with boating sets his sites on a bigger boat and starts shopping for a place to keep it. We found 3+ acres on deep water north of Heathsville, Virginia, bought it, and let the property sit for 13 years.

Chafing gearDuring that time we sailed from rented slips in Alexandria, Annapolis, Edgewood, Mayo, and Cobb Island, where somebody else was responsible for making sure the boats were secure. The marinas were miles and miles up the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River from the big water farther south. Big storms left these rented harbors mostly unharmed and our due diligance when storms threatened consisted of having good insurance on the boat, stowing all the canvas below deck, stripping off anything else that might blow away, tying on extra lines and protecting the lines with chafing gear. If a storm shredded trees, or if ice uprooted the piers, somebody else cleaned it up.

Our 20 years in Heathsville provided abundant personal exposure to coastal storms. The storms themselves are fun and thrilling, so long as you tie everything down beforehand and stay away from falling trees, high water, windows, and downed electrical wires.

Isabel's trackHurricane Isabel thrashed the eastern US from Cape Hatteras to Lake Erie for two days in September 2003. During the day on September 18 at our sheltered hurricane hole on the Coan River, the sky clouded up, the wind rose, the power flickered and went out--normal hurricane stuff, nothing to be concerned about.

The storm's windiest quadrant bellowed over Heathsville throughout the night. I spent the evening reading by battery-powered lamplight, listening to the wind, and checking the display on the wireless wind gauge whenever the blow achieved a certain roar. Tree limbs thumped onto the ground when the wind speed reached 45 knots, but the gusts never exceeded 55 knots. Ho hum. The ceiling over a popout window on the east side of the house leaked the way it always did in a heavy southeast blow, in spite of Ted's repeated efforts to seal it. I put a bucket out to catch the drips and joined Ted upstairs (snoring already in progress). Although I was aware we would face a mess in the morning, I slept well, knowing nothing could be done about it anyway.

Normal high tide at the Coan River HousePost-hurricane tideThe morning was cloudy and drippy when we peeked out the kitchen window. The river, shown at left during a normal high tide at high tide, had flooded the pier deck (right), but hadn't been high enough to float the dock lines off the pilings.





The yard was covered with the usual debris, perhaps deeper than normal, but nothing we couldn't clean up.

The water garden before IsabelThe water garden after IsabelI stepped onto the back porch to see how badly flooded my water garden was. It was located in a marshy place and I expected it to be flooded now and then. I didn't expect it to disappear altogether. It was buried under fallen trees layered like pick-up sticks and God knows what else that blew into the marsh during the night. The clean up would require chest waders, chain saw, and hours of labor in the muggy air.

We began work immediately. Put on sturdy clothing with long sleeves and long pants. Put on gloves.

Start anywhere. Find the end of a tree branch. Pull it somewhere, anywhere with relatively clear space to begin a brush pile. Find another branch and drag it to the pile. Stack the brush so it all lies in the same direction--stub ends on the right; bushy, leafy ends on the left. Leave the biggest branches in place for subsequent reduction by chainsaw.

When all the debris in an easy distance of a pile is collected, return to the pile and reduce its branches with pruners and loppers. Restack the parts in piles of similar sizes.

When the pile is reduced and sorted, fetch the wood chipper and feed branches into it. Rake and shovel the chips into the lawn cart and haul it away with the tractor to dump up by the compost heap.

Fetch the chainsaw and battle with it to get it started. Cut up the logs so they'll fit in the cart. Toss them into the cart. Haul them away and dump them in a ravine.

This work continued eight hours a day for two sweaty weeks in Virginia's steamy late-summer air.

The positive aspect of all this labor is that it builds upper body strength and passes the day so you don't notice the power is out. The down side is that the power is out, a disappointment when you finish outside and look forward to air conditioning and a cleansing shower.

No power means no A/C, no lights, no water, no refrigeration, no microwave oven, no TV, no stove, no dishwasher, no clean laundry, no cleanliness or godliness of any kind. It means hauling buckets of water up from the river so you can flush the toilets. It means the whole region turns into a third-world country. It means the racket of generators banging through what remains of the usually quiet woods. It means no Internet access, no ability for a telecommuter to put in productive time at the home office. The novelty of such an adventure wears thin after the first hurricane. By the time Isabel came along, we knew what to expect and were resigned to our fate. We didn't know it would last so long, though.

Isabel damageOur personal storm-related problems were merely annoying; the outside world was impaired to the point of paralysis. Everybody was cut off from all but the most rudimentary news reports. Radio transmitting towers were toppled. Roads and bridges were washed out. The rescue squad of which I was a member at the time had to interrupt transport of a laboring mother to clear trees from the highway several times both en route to the scene and en route to the hospital. Another squad couldn't mobilize its vehicles because fallen trees blocked the doors to its ambulance bays. Downed power lines crisscrossed the highways. Both landline and cell telephone service were out. Emergency services could communicate only through a radio frequency shared by three counties. Gas stations couldn't pump. Grocery stores couldn't operate and lost tons of frozen and refrigerated food. Erosion and 90-knot wind gusts out by the Chesapeake Bay destroyed homes.

Damage to hauled boatsThat our boat survived the storm without even a tiny leak through a cabin portlight was something we didn't appreciate until later. The boats of friends rode so high on the storm tide that their dock lines floated off the pilings and sent the boats adrift. Acquaintances who took the precaution of having their boats hauled didn't necessarily fare well.

Damaged ferry pierDamage to the marine infrastructure--something you don't think about unless you live on the water--was dramatic. River crossings served by ferry were out of commission. Watermen lost private boathouses and piers.

Damaged boat house in DeltavilleIt was the trees that suffered the most damage, though, and I felt sorry for them. The leaves on trees still standing were shredded on the windward side. They looked battered and exhausted. Extended drought in years before Isabel had weakened their roots and shrunk the soil away. These gentle and patient sentries lay toppled in the woods like chimneys following an earthquake, their roots exposed to the moldy air and their root holes filled with tannic water. Chainsaws moaned through the woods, debris-filled vehicles traversed the highways, and tree-related injuries kept the rescue squads busy for two years following the storm.

The strategy for restoring power after an event like hurricane Isabel is to give priority to places where the greatest number of customers can be served. Areas of Richmond had power within a day. Nobody in Northumberland County saw any power trucks for six days, during which time information (usually erroneous) about water and ice distributions from FEMA spread through the county over the wobbly emergency radio network. Our house was the last one down Forrest Landing Road and, after 11 powerless days, we were among the last households whose power was restored. After our road was cleared, we relied on facilities at the generator-equipped resuce squad station for showers and hot meals. The only storm damage we sustained personally was a shingle on a lean-to shed, punctured by a wind-driven stick. Our chipper was undamaged in the center of a triangle formed by three uprooted trees.

High tide during Ernesto in 2006Other storm tides and high winds visited us after Isabel (Ernesto in 2006, for example), but their damage was minimized, we speculated, by the fact that Isabel blew away or flooded so many trees and structures that little remained to ruin.

Waterfront living was fun and interesting, but I relinquished it with abundant enthusiasm for the static electricity and dust of desert climes, where trees are too short to block the road when they fall and where water can't be taken for granted.

I'll take the threat of wildfire over a hurricane aftermath any old day.