When Amy and I left Washington, DC, in 2004 and moved to Floyd County, I expected to lose track of many of the government and political contacts that were part of my life first as a political operative and late as a journalist covering government, politics, and the news.
The move to Floyd was a return for me to the county where I lived during my high school days, arriving right before the opening of the new county-wide high school in 1962. My mother was a Floyd County native, a graduate from Willis High School in the 1940s, and met my sailor father in Norfolk during World War II when she was managing the gas stamp disbursement office at the Navy Yard.
After the war, my father came home from the war in the Pacific without a scratch and asked my mother to marry him. They relocated to his home in Gibsonton, Florida, just south of Tampa, I arrived in 1947 but my dad died in 1949 in an industrial accident at U.S. Phrosphurus in Tampa.
In 1952, my mother and I took a long train ride from Tampa to Roanoke, Va., arriving on a Norfolk and Western string of rail cars pulled by one of the legendary 611 steam engines. A photo of five-year-old me standing dwarfed by one of the engine’s gigantic wheels is still in one of her scrapbooks that ended up in a storage box at our house after she died in 2012.
We lived in Floyd until I was eight when she married a divorced Floyd Countian living in Farmville, and we moved there with his three kids. Two more came along before he left the county after the racist school board closed the public schools rather than integrate and replaced them with the private, county-supported all-white Prince Edward County.
Living in that racist hell-hole led me to sneak up one night on a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan and shoot a black-and-white photograph that the editor of the Farmville Herald was told its owners would not publish, so he sent the photo to the Richmond News-Leader, which did publish it. From that point on, at age 11, I decided that I wanted to be a newspaperman.
Our family moved to my step-dad’s family farm on Burks Fork creek and started high school as a freshman at Floyd County, became the school photographer, and graduated a year early after going to summer school and taking classes instead of study halls. After five years as a reporter-photographer for The Roanoke Times, I joined the staff of The Telegraph in Alton, IL, just up the Mississippi River from St. Louis, where I met Amy and we left the area after 12 years to move to Washington.
My mother’s failing health was one of the reasons we left Washington in 2004. Another was a request by Amy that I not accept an assignment to ride as an “embedded” news photographer and reporter on the upcoming raid into Iraq.
“I have a bad feeling about this one,” she said of the assignments. I had been to Afghanistan previously after 9/11 and had worked in many hot spots around the world as a contract photojournalist without injury but I learned long ago to trust her feelings.
The replacement died in Iraq, one of the too many journalists killed in that ill-conceived war based on lies by then-president George W. Bush. We had no way of knowing that I would have been in that place or that time when the Humvee he was in plunged into a river in Iraq but her feelings turned out to be a prophecy.
For the first few years in Floyd, I would drive back up to Washington each year to participate in discussion sessions hosted by the Washington Journalism and Politics group and also went back to visit friends and colleagues. I also took part in the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in the Capital on Memorial Day several times before the pandemic, and a decision by organizers to drop the rally silenced the roar of engines.
An early morning phone call from an assignment editor on April 16, 2007, sent me to Blacksburg to cover the shootings and massacre at Virginia Tech. My photos were used by newspapers all over the world, including some that were part of the Pulitzer Prize won by the Washington Post.
I also met up with old friends and colleagues, some of who wondered why I was still in the Blue Ridge Mountains and not back in the National Capital Region. I told them that I wasn’t missing the 23 years we spent with the possible exception of not having a Hard Times Chili restaurant but we did get Five Guys Burger outlets in Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Roanoke.
“Be glad you left,” one said. “No one should be in Washington when democracy dies.”
I told him that the last political event I attended in Washington before leaving was a gathering of Republicans at the Hyatt Capital Hill when Republicans took control of Congress, putting Newt Gingrich of Georgia in line to become speaker.
I encountered Gingrich many times during our time in Washington. Each encounter left me feeling like I needed a shower.
In a classic case of karma coming around, Gingrich had to resign from the Speakership and left Congress after word of his affair with a committee staff member, who is now his latest wife, emerged along with revelations of using a book to fraudulently raise money.
I was glad to leave scum like Gingrich behind.
However, my former life continues to draw me back into their news and political world. I’ve fired up my MacAir laptop to connect with CNN and MSNBC as a guest on issues about Virginia politics. CNN asked for footage of a governor candidate whose son attacked him and later committed suicide. I had shot the young man playing at one of the Jamborees at the Floyd Country Store.
I shot additional footage for use in a theatrical film shot in Floyd. The director needed shots of the town of Floyd at night, which I provided. I was called out to shoot photos of politicians like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump when they visited Roanoke plus I was asked to shoot footage of massive hurricane flooding in North Carolina.
The number of “be glad you left” missives continued to increase in recent years.
None of that, however, matches the number of emails, texts, and phone calls received since the Jan 6 Capitol Riot and the aftermath that has put Trump in a legal mess after he was caught hoarding top secret classified documents at his estate in Florida and the widening investigation by the Justice Department. One of the police officers filmed in the Capitol riot,
Many emails and phone calls concerned Floyd County native Thomas Robertson, who was arrested and jailed over his participation on Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Riot and illegal hoarding of guns and explosives at his home in Ferrum. He is now in federal prison after conviction on several charges.
An email this morning wanted to know if I had photos or video of then Vice President Joe Biden several years ago when he visited the Floyd Country Store. Sadly, I could not comply. I was on another assignment for The Floyd Press when Biden came to town. I suggested they contact the photo department of The Roanoke Times.
In recent weeks, the stunts and pending indictments of Trump have had me writing several columns for various media outlets, some online. His lurid presence hangs over the midterms like a death shroud that threatens our democracy and way of life.
The late Congressman Manual Lujan of New Mexico, my boss when I served as his Special Assistant on the Science and Technology Committee back in the 1980s, told me that the “true definition of politics comes from combining ‘poli’ the Latin word for ‘many’ with ‘tics,’ which of course are bloodsuckers.”
Yep. That sums it up. Case closed.