Valley Pike: Growing up in ‘Happy Days’ Hedgesville
Posted: January 30, 2013
“Everyone has at least one book in them, and it’s your life. Start writing it down now.”
— Roger Engle, at the Winchester Rotary Club on Jan. 3
Not only has Roger Engle’s delightful book about growing up in Hedgesville, W.Va., sparked a re-examination of my own childhood — which I had been doing somewhat sporadically anyway — but it also conjured up a recollection of my first Valley Pike column, written nearly 16 years ago.
In that maiden “Pike” from March 24, 1997, I quoted a certain John Kennedy, who, as local historian of Batavia, N.Y., once wrote: “Grandfather’s chair may be a very humble piece of furniture, but it’s prized beyond all price because it is grandfather’s chair.”
Well, let it be said that Roger, a retired high-school biology teacher and latter-day resident of Martinsburg, W.Va., has taken proper occupancy not only of “grandfather’s chair,” but also those of his parents, siblings, a number of uncles and aunts, and many childhood chums. In doing so, he’s made mid-20th-century Hedgesville come vibrantly alive.
The book, unassumingly titled “Stories (From a Small Town),” is about nothing much, and yet everything special about coming of age in the halcyon “Happy Days” of the ’50s and early ’60s, told from a perspective of years in a loving, endearing, and often funny way.
But here’s the thing: It’s a book Roger never planned to write and, from remarks delivered to the Winchester Rotary Club, was “reluctant” to pursue even when the project achieved a life of its own.
“Close your eyes,” he told us Rotarians, “take a moment and picture your childhood home. That’s what this book is about. But I never intended it to be a book. It just snowballed.”
It all began, Roger said, “about eight or nine years ago,” when memories “started popping in my head.” So often did they come that he took to writing them down, two or three key words at a time, on legal pads. “I literally had hundreds of them,” he said.
One cold, snowy winter’s day a few years back he commenced putting them to paper. The project gained true impetus when his daughter, a graphic designer, discovered a computer file with about a dozen of the stories. She made a small book and presented it to her dad at Christmas, and then asked him to “read us a story.”
Roger did so and then asked his daughter, “Why these stories?” He quickly surmised she was unaware of the many others he had written. She said, “Dad, you have a book here.” The rest is recent history.
So what does Roger Engle see when he closes his eyes? A self-contained little town with one general store (Poisal’s, “our Super Walmart”), a barber shop (George’s), a little “greasy spoon” (Grace’s, with its jukebox, pinball machine, and “burp burgers”), two schools, and, a bit out of town, Kate’s Hollow, where he could lose himself for an entire day exploring.
What I found most fascinating were the memories universal to folks fortunate enough to have grown up in that era — no matter where you lived. Like the unique ground rules at every “stadium,” er, backyard you played Wiffle ball (“Hit it above that bedroom window and it’s a home run”). Or plotting the best path to an optimal candy haul on Halloween. Or the vagaries of dressing for a day of sledding, and then thawing out in front of a radiator or atop the heat vent.
“It was a time of innocence,” Roger said, “spent not under the eyes of your parents. You could leave at nine and come home at supper, and nobody worried . . . It was a wonderful time, and a wonderful place, to be a child.”
Yes, those were the days — Roger Engle’s . . . and mine.
The Winchester Book Gallery will hold a book signing for Roger Engle on Saturday, Feb. 23, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.