when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Virginia Valentine

with one comment

Image

The forecast promised clear skies on Friday the 14th, but it was hard to see how. We’d driven up to Richmond on a lark Thursday, only to discover that there’s a magic line somewhere between here and there — the snow hadn’t stuck for more than a few hours in Hampton, but Richmond was just peeking out from under a heavy wet blanket. Which is not to say the main roads weren’t clear and buses weren’t running — they were. But the Library of Virginia — the reason we’d come — was inexplicably closed. (Really, Richmond? Where’s your “rebel” spirit now? Stashed away in all those monuments, I suspect!) Happily, Lamplighter was not. We spent the afternoon huddled over our laptops in the chilly porchlike part of the café as dense gray clouds gathered. At one point, there was a flash of lightning (which I somehow missed) and a huge clap of thunder (which I did not), and snow blobs, not flakes, began falling soon after. It was already starting to accumulate as I headed for the car, and by the time I’d circled back around to pick Brian up, it was coming down thick and fast.

I’m not sure how long it took us to get to Williamsburg (a journey of about 50 miles), but somewhere along the way the snow stopped and the rain started and the road was miraculously clear. The next morning, when I cracked the blinds in our bedroom, the church steeple across the street was glowing pink through the bare branches — sun! We emerged blinking into the unfamiliar glare and headed back up the highway to Williamsburg, hearts aflutter. No, not because it was Valentine’s Day (Brian says, It was?), but because we were finally going to be allowed back on Camp Peary, a nearly impenetrable fortress, albeit one with a see-through fence. After much wrangling with the public affairs officer, Brian had been able to secure permission for us to visit again — for 30 minutes, with no cameras of any kind, and with a maximum of three other family members.

We had asked the three siblings pictured above — Lieutenant Palmer Jr., Ann Jones, and Dot Harrold — to join us, and we met at June’s house after lunch at Pierce’s Barbecue. Like Brian, they too are great-grandchildren of Mat and Julia Palmer; their grandfather was John Frank Palmer, Brian’s great-uncle. Both Ann and Dot were born in what used to be known as Palmertown, which was swallowed by the U.S. Navy in the early 1940s. John Frank lived there, and so did Big Daddy, Brian’s grandpa Lewis, along with other Palmer aunts and uncles. All were evicted when Camp Peary was built — collateral damage of the war effort and the defense of our great nation. The fading house you see in the picture below stood outside the perimeter of the new base and so narrowly escaped destruction, until a fire burnt

Dot and Ann in front of the old house, Williamsburg, Va., circa 1941.

Dot and Ann in front of the old house, Williamsburg, Va., circa 1941. Courtesy of Ann Jones.

it down years later. A new, brick house was built in its place, where the youngest sister lives today.

Ann and Dot climbed into June’s pickup truck, and we followed along behind. The entrance to Camp Peary is only about 10 minutes from June’s house, just down Rochambeau Drive and across 64. I was more aware this time of the military trappings through the minivan window, and I couldn’t help but notice the scary-looking automatic weapon lying on a bright blue pad on the ground. The cemetery we’d come to visit is tucked away in a wooded clearing next to a firing range; “operations” had apparently been under way when we got to the gate. These were stopped, obviously, before we were allowed anywhere near the place.

All was quiet when we arrived. Our minders stood back as the five of us entered the burial ground, which has been fenced in since our last visit (February 2012 for me; the summer of that year for Brian). In the two years that have elapsed, I have come to regard the people buried there as “our people.” Mat Palmer has come to life in our minds (and before our eyes — there’s a picture of him on the wall of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist church, which he helped build). He died in 1927, before Dot and Ann were born, but their daddy knew him, and they know of him. His wife, Julia Fox, has remained more elusive. According to marriage records, she was born in Gloucester County, just across the York River from where Camp Peary stands today. She was most likely a “contraband,” one of the thousands of enslaved people who flocked to Union-held territory during the Civil War and in so doing emancipated themselves. Her parents and her two siblings appear in the 1865 Census of the Colored Population in York County, but she is nowhere to be found — she would have been about 10 years old at the time. Where was she?

I’m fairly certain now that she, too, is buried on Camp Peary, right beside her husband of nearly forty years. The gravestone is cruelly blank, which hadn’t struck me two years ago. I don’t think I even saw it. At that time, Mat and Julia had only just become real on paper — we had visited the York County Court House the day before and seen their marriage record, dated July 17, 1873 — and I didn’t yet realize the turn our lives had taken. This time, though, I felt a bond between us and would have liked to sit and stay awhile.

Instead, we climbed back into the van and were driven the short distance to the exit. Rather than heading back to the library, we asked Ann, Dot, and June to show us where Palmertown used to be. Ann had told us you could still see the shadow of the road that ran through it, and sure enough, there it was on the other side of the fence, clearly visible through the trees at this time of year. It’s called Samoa Road now (is that supposed to be a secret?). A little farther along, we came to their stomping grounds, to use Ann’s words. That’s Daddy’s truck, they said, laughing and pointing at an old white Ford half buried in brush. And down the old driveway is the wooden garage, ramshackle now, and the remnants of a small barn where the cow and pigs were kept and the mailbox discarded. Keep going down the hill and you’ll come to the swamp, where they played as children, swinging on vines across the water.

The stories started to burble up as they stood in the woods, remembering. The black snake coiled in the corner of the garage that spooked June as a boy. The thigh-high snow that came right before Dot was born. The aproned midwife, Mary Jones, whose house is still standing, over by where June lives now. These are the stories we hope to share before their outlines dim. —EHP

Daddy's old mailbox, Williamsburg, Va., 2014. Photo by Brian Palmer.

Daddy’s old mailbox, Williamsburg, Va., 2014. Photo by Brian Palmer.

Advertisements

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. That’s beautiful writing; I felt like I was there (except with regard to temperature; it’s pretty cold here).

    Phil Neisser

    2014/02/19 at 16:00


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: