1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


David Shields  June 28, 2010

I was in West Virginia through a weekend last month, May. The wife’s high school in Ronceverte had an “All Class” reunion and she wanted to go so I drove her up there. Neither of us felt up to it, but we did all right and we’re glad we went.

Around 350 showed up for the reunion and I got to see a lot of folks from Ronceverte that I haven’t seen since 1958, including some old football and basketball rivals who played at Greenbrier High School while I was matriculating at Alderson. Of course, the only thing I’m remembered for up in that area are my sports exploits. I wish I could say there was something else, but there isn’t. At least I was remembered and I really enjoyed seeing those people.

Of course, I spent a good deal of time in Alderson while Diane was visiting with classmates in Ronceverte and so forth. Some of my friends knew I was coming and had planned one of their infamous “summit” conferences. They hold these high level, expansive, problem-solving sessions every few weeks. I’ve always been invited but health problems have kept me from attending for the past couple of years. In fact, my seat at the table (actually lawn chairs out in the yard of the host or circled up on a small porch/deck) has lost a few of the privileges and rights usually attendant to membership in this august assembly, and I was thoroughly admonished and instructed as to how much time I could expect to have the floor if, indeed, I was struck with the dubious notion that I could possibly add anything to their enlightenment. And I was reminded by our host that they “use big words” at these things sometimes and that I shouldn’t let that throw me.

Although this group is rather large and many of the members live in other towns and states, an official meeting doesn’t draw that many. The commonality, of course, is that they at one time lived in Alderson and went to school there before the Big School movement resulted in consolidation and the loss of all the smaller high schools, not only in Greenbrier County but all over the nation.

Eight were at this particular meeting, including me. There was the host, Ivan the Terrible (not his real name, of course, for obvious reasons explained below), he resides in Richmond, Virginia where he coached football and later became a big time residential contractor. He inherited his parents’ home in Alderson and he has it up for sale. He’s asking at least twice what it’s worth and justifies it by proclaiming, “I ain’t giving the damn thing away.” He’s clearly a Republican and refers to the more liberal-minded of the group as communist.

Up from Nashville, Tennessee was Clarence Darrow, a well-spoken attorney at law. He presents at these conferences as a conservative. He’s aloof and gives the impression, consciously or sub-consciously, that he is above the fray. He would much rather tell stories about the people and times of old Alderson than engage in the discussion about world politics that have a way of dominating at these gatherings. In fact, he’s written a book called “Tales from the End of the Bridge” which is all about Aldersonians he encountered during his youth. Needless to say, most of the conferees are mentioned by name in this book and every one of them is trying to figure out how to sue the wily lawyer for defamation of character to which Clarence responds by saying one can’t be sued for telling the truth. In point of fact, in the book he paints Ivan as a Nazi and intimates that he went to great lengths in the book to say that he presented his friend as a real live German at school and in the community when they were growing up during WWII, a dastardly deed that Ivan argues deserves a handsome compensation which to this day has not been forthcoming.

Another member in attendance was the arithmetic teacher, recently retired from Eastern Kentucky University as a professor of mathematics. He is writing his second or third mathematics textbook. He leans to the left in his politics and claims he has taken frequent beat downs at these gatherings because, as the consummate scientist, he often challenges the group to articulate some solutions rather than constantly dwelling on the problems of the world. He swears that he was traumatized so badly at the last meeting that he required psychological counseling. Somebody even brought him a hard hat to wear during this meeting.

The official Ambassador of Alderson was there, too. He’s been a close friend of mine all our lives. He still lives in Alderson and comes by his title of Ambassador legitimately and richly deserved. He describes the frequent return of the Sons of the town as a real pain in the ass, “driving through in their rented cars, trashing up the streets and then leaving us to clean up all the horseshit!” He inputs to the discussion very little because, as he says, nobody knows what they’re talking about anyway and chooses not to shake their psyches with a good dose of verisimilitude. The Ambassador may be the brightest star in this constellation.

The elder of this gathering was a guy who was a faculty member at Alderson when most of us were going through. We’ll call him Socrates. His daughter graduated with me in 1958. He is perhaps one of the most intransigent men I’ve ever known. He remains so. He takes the Socratic approach to almost any subject and simply asks questions one after the other until he gets you to answer one the way he wants you to and slides back in his chair as though he’s won the argument hands down. But he is a gentleman in every sense of the word.

The youngest member of the group is the son of the late football coach who coached us all and whose positive impact on all of us defies adequate description. His mother was for many years the warden of the Federal Prison for Women in Alderson. He did his stint in the military, was in Viet Nam, served in the Peace Corps and finally retired from West Virginia state government after working under six (6) different governors, each one the best to ever set in the big seat of the Mountaineer state. Believe it or not, he tends to embrace conservative ideas. Or he may be just trying to fool us all, given his long history in West Virginia politics. He, too, has written a book called “Where the Rhododendrons Grow” which is a compilation of anecdotes about his life and the people with whom he has rubbed elbows and who, he says, “helped shape him as well as kept him working…”

Finally, we had the Judge in attendance. He was a year or two ahead of me in high school. After a stint in the military, he worked as a West Virginia state trooper. He went to law school and then became a West Virginia Circuit Court Judge, the equivalent of what we in Georgia call Superior Court Judges. With confidence only the black robe can give a man, he readily admits that he is a Democrat, voted for Barack Obama, declares he would vote for him again and smartly defends national healthcare for “all Americans,” claiming that the typical conservative ignores the fact that we already depend greatly on the government in our lives, not the least of which is Medicare.

So there you have it, on the surface a group of motleys but bound and bonded by their common experiences enjoyed in the company of one another in Alderson, West Virginia and still very much drawn back to the home place of their youth. The interesting thing is that they pretty well represent the American electorate, polar opposites in many respects on politics and in their belief on what role the government should play in people’s lives. Their views mirror those we hear in South Georgia. The arguments are the same. The barbs and epitaphs they hurl at one another sound the same, except it’s done there with the certain knowledge that nothing said or believed will undermine their common bonds of friendship.

If only the nation could learn to disagree so amicably!