by James J. Geary
December 7, 2008
Guess what! I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a very old man. And lately I’ve been feeling my age.
I read that the Czech novelist, Franz Kafka, wrote that the meaning of life is that it ends. Well, as I near that end, I’ve been looking back at the various periods of my life. The period of my grade school years, is one I wish I had the power of memory and of words to describe to you. It was a time you can’t imagine, it was so primitive compared with the world of the late 20th and the 21st centuries.
I entered the first grade in 1920. The school was in an ancient two-story brick building. The principal’s office was off a landing half way to the second floor. It was a terrifying place with a frightening smell of iodine, or linament, or something that signaled it was a place for scrapes and cuts, of stuff that burned, and bandages by that formidable old maid.
Perhaps you’ve seen relics of the cars of those days. They had no streamlining, no automatic gear shift, no radios. Some were open except for isinglass that you could button on either side to keep out the weather. Dimmers were hand operated and they only reduced the brightness.
The roadbed of U.S 11 between Roanoke and Christiansburg was packed earth and gravel, no blacktop. Later when there was blacktop, I have seen places on U.S. 11 where the edges had so crumbled there was hardly room for two cars to pass. There was no striping.
Transportation in the early 20s was a far cry from what it is today. I never heard of a limited access highway, I never saw a four-lane highway, and the Interstate system was not even a dream so far as I know. There was no commercial airline travel. Inter-urban buses were not yet available. If you went to another city you drove or took the train. The telephone number in my uncle’s photographic studio was 253. There was no dial system.
The Ku Klux Klan in the early 20s was in full flower, and was very secret. I watched them, hundreds, perhaps thousands, march up Roanoke’s main business street with their faces hidden behind their white robes. They burned a cross one night at some ceremony in a vacant lot on our suburban street. It was like a military encampment. They had blocked our street and we had to take a steep, abandoned, deeply rutted road to our home. It wasn’t until later that we learned our neighbor, Murrel, who lived across the street, was the imperial wizard for Roanoke.
Well, all that doesn’t have much to do with the title of this talk, which is Fate and Finis. Finis means end, conclusion. I am virtually sure this is my last talk to this fellowship – oh I know, I’ve said that before. But this time I am 95 percent positive that this is the last. It’s getting too hard, I’m losing my hearing, and besides I think, that after today, I will have said about all I have to say.
Now, as I begin my talk on fate, I want to mention a fateful conversation I had with my professor and close friend, Wade Wheelock. He said he thought I might find a common interest with a group that was forming. So I went with him to a meeting, joined the group, and here I am, 19 years later, a member of HUU. Thank you Wade.
I want you to know that my belonging to HUU has been a great boon to me in my retirement years. Many of the friends I have now are in this fellowship. Belonging here has afforded me a situation I have always wanted, a chance to meet with my intellectual peers and discuss with them some of the great questions concerning our existence. I have learned a lot, and while my basic philosophy has not changed, it has been fine tuned.
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I find that in previous talks to this fellowship I mostly talked about me, my philosophy, my emotions, my appreciation of nature. My excuse is, I suppose, that I am the subject I know most about. I’m afraid that today’s talk is again autobiographical. Bear with me. I hope I can make it interesting.
I think everyone believes there are times when fate steps into our lives and changes our course – a chance meeting, a good turn of luck, a bad turn of luck. As you know, I believe fate controls us all of the time. But you don’t believe that; so I am not going to beat that dead horse.
Today I am going to cite specific instances of fate that were so evidently random, and that changed my life
The first fateful occasion, one that determined who I am, was a general one I share with each of you. We are each the result of the chance absorption of one special spermatozoon by one special egg, each with its own DNA. So here I am. And here you are, each of us a unique individual of which there has never been, and I don’t think there ever will be, an exact duplicate.
In the Navy during World War II, I had a chance meeting that changed my Navy career and may have saved my life. I had been commissioned an ensign from civilian life, had spent two months in Chicago in indoctrination, and was then ordered to an amphibious training unit in San Diego, CA.
My duty in the Pacific theater would have been to command a group of personnel landing craft as we made our way into an enemy beach. We considered ourselves virtual suicide squads. So for that scintillatingly beautiful San Diego month of October 1942, I and a boatload of sailors puttered around San Diego Bay and then out to the ocean beach in a personnel landing craft. We were learning to back our relatively small craft off the beach without broaching, which in the surf would be life threatening.
But it just happened that while in Chicago I had made the acquaintance of another officer, who was one of 1400 in our 14 story building. He was not even on our floor, or “deck.” And there was virtually no intercourse between decks. So it was a completely random meeting when we were all outside on some training exercise, or on a recreational trip, like playing softball in the now famous Grant Park.
He and I had something in common; we had both learned to fly. He told me of a special flying program the Navy was offering to officers who had at least 50 hours of flying time, and also were too old for combat training, or were married, and I was both. I had the requisite 50 hours of flying time that I had acquired in a CAA program at Roanoke College. So I applied, took the physical and psychological tests, and then forgot about it.
Then low and behold, on Halloween in San Diego, I received orders directing me back to Chicago for transfer to a flight training program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Oh joyful day!
Well, to make this long story short, I was in the program for six months. We trained to be flight instructors. I went through the acrobatic segment of the program in a 240 horsepower bi-wing airplane, and through the cross country segment. I had accumulated at least another 100 hours of flying time and was about to enter the instructor training phase. But I got an infection for which I was given sulpha drugs. I developed a case of nerves, couldn’t land the airplane, and washed out. I hade always wanted to fly. It was very traumatic.
I asked the Navy to assign me to an aircraft carrier. I thought, with my expensive training, I could be of some use on a carrier. So the Navy, in it’s wisdom, ordered me to huge Farragut Naval Training Center in the panhandle of Idaho as assistant communication officer, a subject of which I knew nothing. But I learned, and after a few months, when my boss got orders, I was made communications officer.
The base was on the shore of beautiful Lake Pend Oreille that winds for 40 miles between towering Rocky Mountains that come right down to the shore on both sides of the lake . I lived a year in Coeur d’Alene, about 30 miles from the base, with my wife and baby daughter. The second year I was lucky enough to rent a little house just outside the base looking down on that beautiful lake. A second daughter was born in the Navy hospital, which was part of the base. So, because of a causal meeting in Chicago, instead of storming enemy shores, I spent the last two years of the war with my family in my Shangri-la.
Then, in 1958, I had another career-changing casual encounter. I had been working for the Associated Press in Richmond for 12 years, and I was tired of it. For the past several years I had been assigned the bureau’s only reporting job, covering Capital Hill, which meant all State offices, including the governor’s office. As part of my duties I covered the organizational meeting of the newly created Virginia Civil War Commission. I called in my story and went on my way.
That afternoon, as I was returning to the office, I ran into Sen. Curry Carter of Staunton, who was a member of the commission. We chatted a minute or two, and then I observed that the commission had decided to hire an executive director. “That’s right,” he said. Off the top of my head, I said: “I don’t guess I’d be qualified for that job.” And he said “I don’t know why not.” And that was about all that was said.
I went on vacation and forgot all about that brief conversation. On returning to Richmond, I learned I was one of 12 applicants for the position. Well, I eventually got the job, and spent the next seven years as a State department head, a department I had to organize and administer, hiring all the staff of about a dozen or more persons. My assignment was to create and administer a five-year State-wide observance of the Civil War in Virginia. It was a complete change of careers, all because of a casual meeting on the street.
My luck hadn’t stopped. I didn’t know what to do, and there was no one to advise me. I gradually formed a broad-brush idea of what the program should do. But, how to bring it about? I was thinking small. Then a couple of friends, at lunch one day, suggested I contact exhibit designers and builders for ideas. So I wrote to several, in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. A couple of them came up with outlandish proposals.
But the head of one in New York named Master Craft, called me and said: “Mr. Geary, I think what you are trying to do is too big for us. I want to put you in touch with someone I think can help you.” He turned the phone over to Bob Blood, a designer for Walter Dorwin Teague Associates, the oldest industrial design firm in the US. They designed the interiors of Boeing aircraft.
It was my lucky day. I went to New York and they offered, for $2000, to design something I could accept. Eventually we settled on a plan.. It would be a unique building, circular and domed, that would carry out my ideas – a motion picture on the war in Virginia, electric maps that would trace the five Union invasions of Virginia, another electric map that would pinpoint the major Civil War sites in Virginia, and exhibits with artifacts and interesting statistics. Blood would be our designer, his firm would be our contractor.
Incidentally, in a phone call to New York, I told Walter Dorwin Teague Jr., the son of the founder, that I thought our film should be narrated by someone with a slight Southern accent, say, like Joseph Cotton. “Oh, I know Joe,” he said, “he was in my wedding.” Teague was the kind of guy who ate tartare at the Four Seasons restaurant, where he took me to lunch. He got Cotton to narrate our 32-minute film for $1000, a pittance for him. Another instance of fate.
The building was only part of our overall program, but in the five years of the Centennial, more than 540,000 persons visited that building, which we called the Centennial Center. So, as I was floundering, wondering how to carry out my ideas, I was rescued by that one call from New York. Mastercraft, as I expected, had the low bid to construct the exhibits that Bob Blood designed.
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That job led to my being appointed by VMI as the first director of the proposed New Market Battlefield Park. Then one day a couple of years later, while I was away, the president of the Society of American Travel Writers toured the park and was impressed. He told my friend, Bob Harnsberger of Luray Caverns, that the park should apply for the so-called Connie award, named for Conrad Worth, director of the National Park Service. The award, given each year, was for improvement of an historical site. Well, we eventually got the award, and that led to my applying for and being elected to the society as an associate member.
The SATW held its annual conventions outside of the United States. Now at the time, it was 1972, I was 58 years old. I had never been anywhere outside the US except for six weeks on Guam just before I was discharged from the Navy in 1946. I have now been all over the world, on all continents except Antarctica. I have been to 26 countries, at each of which they rolled out the red carpet for those travel writers. All because of one man’s casual visit to the battlefield park, I became a world traveler..
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Well, those were the major changes in my life due to random occurrences, except for the most important one of all. That was an invitation to a reception at Luray Caverns for travel counselors from the several Washington area Triple-A offices. There, at a chance meeting with the person in charge of the counselors, I got acquainted with, to me, the most wonderful woman in the world. And we were married and are still married 28 years later.
I believe in luck. I believe in fate.