Baking Christmas Bright

By no means do I consider myself a “baker.” In fact, on my list of culinary skills, I would probably put baking near the bottom, perhaps just above “candy making.”

But there is something about the holidays and having grown up with a “we’ll just bake a few pies for Thanksgiving” Mom, that I tend to feel overconfident when it comes to Christmas in the kitchen. 

We have several friends who have taken cookie baking and decorating to new heights, an Olympics-level of skill that I could only hope for in my wildest dreams. Jennis, Leigh-Ann, and Jennie seem to effortlessly produce art with flour, sugar, and butter and their decorating often leaves me in awe. Whether birthdays, weddings, celebrations or holidays, they constantly amaze me with the photos shared on social media. My “Groovy 70s” cookies were made by Jennis Horn and they were a highlight of my birthday party. Her Christmas cookies are always amazing, you can see more of them on her FB page here.

But I digress. I stay away from cookie baking much like I would avoid trying to create French macarons. But I have found that simple quick breads are more my style. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve made nearly two dozen mini pumpkin spice breads; throw in a couple of pies for Thanksgiving and I might begin to consider a career switch. Along with a few packets of instant hot chocolate mix they have made great gifts for our neighbors. 

With Christmas approaching I’m considering switching up my recipes. Flipping through my copy of The Joy of Cooking” cookbook, I found a few handwritten recipes from over thirty years ago. My sister-in-law had shared a Bishop’s Bread recipe that might be fun to try again. There is a cranberry walnut bread that sounds like it would make a great appearance on a Christmas buffet table. I would love to find something pepperminty, though I suppose I could just sprinkle candy cane pieces on a chocolate-chip bread. That sounds tasty! 

Happy Holidays friends. Whatever you make, it’s better shared with friends. And don’t forget the neighbors! 

The Forbidden Forest

Harry Potter, A Forbidden Forest Experience is currently engaging fans and friends of the Wizarding World at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. It’s hard to imagine the scale of the amount of effort that has gone into this production, from creating the animated props to laying gravel paths lined with Bose speakers, fog machines, and theatrical lighting through the forest of the park. 

As we walked thru it, all I could think of was, hats off to the designers and other creatives (and the IT Department!) who had managed to produce something this massive, involving so many people and cross-disciplines, during the time of Covid.

The Forbidden Forest Experience operates on two entirely separate levels for me. There are enough vignettes—Hagrid looking out into the dark night with his dog Fang next to him for instance— that a fan of the books will be happy, lead along the trail hoping to discover what’s next around a bend or over a hill. But I’m more drawn towards the production side of the experience. LED lighting in the trees, gobos along the paths, the enchanting lighting effects of the field of mushrooms for instance. 

Walk-thru experience have become more common recently. Christmas lighting displays are hugely popular and have grown in complexity the past few years. And really, aren’t we all fans of dinosaurs and the recreations of them? The Jurassic Encounter (https://nova.thejurassicencounter.com has plenty of dinos but they are the main attraction, not the environment.

The aspect that sets the Forbidden Forest Experience apart from any other outdoor adventure I’ve experienced lately is, literally The Forest. There are activities, vignettes, owls, spiders, centaurs and unicorns placed along the trail for everyone to enjoy. But it is the forest that becomes the main character in this drama. Dark, spooky, mist-shrouded or brightly lit in reds, greens, and blues, fallen trees or clustered oaks, white sycamores etched against the moonlit sky: the Forest is the King here. Playing throughout the experience is music from the movies and it really enhances the overall effect.

After searching online for the design group responsible for this adventure,  I came across Thinkwell Group. The tagline on their website really spells it out, “creating custom, content driven experiences in the physical world.” Lighting effects were created by Adam Povey Lighting. I was surprised to learn that there are several other locations of the Forbidden Forest Experience currently available to see, one in Westchester NY; one in Cheshire UK at Arley Hall and Gardens; and one in Belgium.

There is food available and a merchandise tent at the end of the trail— it is Harry Potter and Warner Brothers after all.  This isn’t a recreation of the Harry Potter World at Universal Studios (no theme park rides) but you can get butterbeer and a souvenir mug, t-shirts and hoodies, and of course adorable stuffed animals. We took home one of the Nifflers; keep an eye on your jewelry! If you consider going, ticket prices seemed a little high for what we are used to, certainly cheaper than Wicked tickets at the Kennedy Center, but more than what you would expect for an experience where you are doing most of the work, or at least the walking. There are family ticket prices. Take a lot of pictures: many of the participants came in costume and really added to the excitement. It is a non-cash event (credit only), something they do announce on their website. The parking lot as well as the road leading into the event area was well marked and well lit. Parking was an additional fee.

When we were there the evening temperatures couldn’t have been better. It was the day before the full moon in early November and a light jacket (wizard robes) was all we needed. The flashlight I had brought was unnecessary and the path could easily accommodate strollers. 

Plaid Shirts and Wrangler Jeans

I’m living between two worlds these days. Our present, which includes Starbucks coffee, Korean BBQ restaurants, and trips to our local Saturday Farmers Market. But I’m also drawn towards my — mostly reimagined — past and it’s rural roots. Pickup trucks, country music on that truck radio, home-canned foods and venison stew. 

Our life on an actual ranch was brief; I was born in a small hospital in Lyon County not far from the ranch on which my Dad was forman. We moved into town later that year when the ranch-owners son returned from the Korean War. 

Dad with pheasants

Dad’s college degree was in animal husbandry. He must have been preparing for the country life even then, though he seldom spoke about it years later and he seemed content with how his change in careers turned out. But we were in the mountains outside Reno whenever possible, either after firewood during the summer, camping, or deer hunting in the fall. I never took to hunting, Dad would go for a week to Elko and the Jarbidge Mountains with several of the men he worked with. That’s Phil Martinelli’s jeep next to my Dad’s chevy pickup in the photo below, their camp gear spread out in the foreground. 

1960 Chevy

I spent most of the day yesterday cutting up tree limbs and wrestling with logs too heavy to lift, sections of three trees we had taken down back during the summer. The leaves are all off now and it’s a little easier to see what I’m dealing with: these things are a lot larger lying down than they first appeared! Too close to the house, my concern was that they would come crashing through our roof in the first winter storm. So I had the experts come in and take them down.

But I had been overly confident in my ability to limb branches off walnut and tulip trees with my little electric chain saw. I’ll have to wait until I get a bigger chain saw before I can cut the trees into smaller sections, until then they can lie where they fell.

I’m wearing a plaid long sleeve shirt today with imitation pearl snaps, two pockets; wrangler jeans from Walmart. No boots, sneakers from our local Sketchers outlet. I drive a grey pickup truck: it’s a Nissan, not a Chevrolet. Probably underpowered if I were to ask Dad. I’ve tried my hand at canning recently (mostly jams and jellies, a few bottles of pickles) but we haven’t been too successful yet in growing food. The neighbors have chickens who have stopped by. I’m hoping they will have enough eggs to sell. Dad often wore plaid “cowboy” shirts. Jeans of course, and boots. It seems we are more alike than I thought.

Meet the neighbors

Second Chances

I know, I know. I said that we were downsizing. And if that means anything, it means decreasing what we own and definitely NOT buying more stuff.

But since I discovered online estate sales last year, I have definitely taken a turn for the worse.

Today I went through my invoices to see exactly what all I have been bidding on (and winning). I’ve lost out on any number of things by not bidding high enough to secure them as the timed-bidding ran out. But I’ve won quite a bit, some things of value; some things I think (or thought) I needed; some items I just thought would be fun to have.

A few things, after I’ve picked them up from the home where the estate sale was being held, turned out to be, shall we say, not quite what I had expected. To be sure, nothing online has been misrepresented and for all of the auctions we have followed, there has been an in-person preview period. Those I generally forego as I don’t want to drive the distance twice. But wheels have needed to be replaced. A Nikon camera I bought wasn’t a digital format, that one is on me. The deer-antler-handle carving set was a win.

Over the past year it looks like I have concentrated on indoor furnishings, vintage furniture or decor. But more recently I have looked for garden tools, garden furniture, cement planters or garden sculpture. There is a wide variety of just stuff available through online estate sales. The company we have been bidding through will list everything in your home, from the contents of the silverware drawer to everything found in an outdoor shed. And under the deck as well. And the linen closets.

I’ve come to realize that, while there are many good deals to be had (we just recently picked up an unused toaster oven), there are also things that have left me scratching my head and wondering. Why? Why did l bid on that? Hmm?

The savvy collector will seek out comparable items to determine the worth of an item. I found myself bidding on something when luckily I was outbid and thought, “Did I really want to spend that much for a used item?” and Heaven help you if you have bid more than what an item is worth new because you hadn’t done your homework. But I’ve also let a few things get away that I hadn’t set an appropriate upper limit to my bid. Bids generally increase by $2 but at some point that increment can jump up to $10 or more. And I have lost out on something by $2 simply because I had set my max bid too low.

Over the year I’ve bought several mahogany picture frames, an antique Lane cedar chest, an antique Victorian mahogany wash stand which I refinished; several tables; a couple of wingback chairs; a beautiful sleeper sofa which we ended up taking to the dump; binoculars; a handpainted floor lamp; a metal detector that needed a new set of batteries; concrete garden planters; iron garden table and chair set; garden carts and a wheelbarrow and more I’m sure.

Have your participated in any online estate sales? Or perhaps have been thinking that a sale (really it’s a silent auction format) would be a great way to downsize? I look around at all that we have and shudder when I think how little our stuff might actually be worth. On the other hand, I’m pretty excited to get a nice garden cart–in need of new wheels– for only $15. It’s all relative.

A few of the fun things I’ve purchased over the past year. The gorgeous Victorian mahogany frame is still waiting on a decision to paint it or leave it natural. And I have a couple of tables that are waiting on refinishing, other than that we are in a good place. But maybe it’s not quite the time to really downsize.

Learning to Drive

Taking the tractor for a spin

When did this happen?

I’ve been watching carefully, noting the approaching birthdays on the calendar, celebrating holidays and vacations away, attending ballet lessons and cheer practice. But somewhere, at some point, our first granddaughter seems to have grown up. 

This year she turns 15. I don’t think we will celebrate a quinceanera, we will likely wait until next year and celebrate that Sweet Sixteen party. But at some point between this fall and next spring, she will likely begin driving lessons. 

The thought is at once intimidating and liberating.

I was 15 when I began learning how to drive. My Dad had a 1960 Chevrolet pick up truck, three speed manual transmission on the steering wheel column (remember those? Classic H pattern). I doubt that it could do 60 mph on a good day but it was a work horse. When it wasn’t outfitted with the camper shell, we would use it to haul firewood back from the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. Long stretches of gravel roads were an opportunity to learn how to steer a truck without the distraction of other vehicles on the road.

We practiced parking in the vehicle storage lot that my Dad had access to on the weekends. That, and driving in circles to kick up a little dust really was the extant of my supervised learning. Again, no distractions and I seriously don’t remember if the truck even had a radio at the time. I never took a driver’s training course in school since that would have been an elective. And who had time for that?

Dave and the red Corvair

My older brother Dave purchased and drove a Corvair after high school graduation. Later, after he had joined the Army, he left us the vehicle. It’s unclear whether or not we were “gifted” or sold his car; I don’t believe money was ever exchanged but I drove that car throughout our high school years as did my younger brother.

Reno didn’t have any freeways back in the mid-60s. Heck, we didn’t even have an overpass until 1968 from what I remember. But somehow I learned enough to be able to negotiate the mountain roads around Northern Nevada, the long empty stretches of desert highway out to Pyramid Lake, and eventually the freeway traffic of Sacramento and San Francisco in California. I survived all those miles, and years, with a minimum of tickets and I believe only one minor traffic accident. But the traffic here in Northern Virginia? Oh that is something else.

Copilot

I’m looking forward to one day being driven around by our granddaughter, my sitting in that copilot’s seat watching her take the curves. I no longer have the PT Cruiser convertible but I think we will find something fun to drive. Somehow it feels like I’ve come full circle.

What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up

Cowboys

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” Or maybe the question was, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”

Thinking back on our conversation, I’m not really sure I heard the question correctly, or maybe I just heard what I thought was being asked. Nevertheless, I found it an odd question to ask someone who had recently turned 70. So I answered as truthfully as I could, that I am who I wanted to be when I grew up.

So is the question, if asked of a much-younger me, what do you want to Do with your life? Or should the question more appropriately be, what kind of person do you want to Be when you’ve “grown up,” at whatever age that seems good to you?

A Fireman. A Doctor or Lawyer. A Soldier. A Pilot. A Pharmacist. A Cowboy. A Rancher. A Teacher or a Counselor. We have at least one of these professions represented by someone in my extended family. But that really isn’t the question to ask anymore, is it? Because we all know that these professions don’t often last a lifetime, that our career paths may change at some point, and that wanting to be a Fireman as a young boy might actually lead one to a career as an EMT. 

But what do you want to Be when you grow up? that is really the question we try to answer for ourselves if we are at all self-aware.

Recently my wife and I took a communications course through our church. If you haven’t been exposed to the temperaments vs. personality discussion before, I can not more highly recommend this course. Information about the workbook along with accompanying videos are available online here, but I would say, take it with a group through your business, church, or other social group. 

I Said This, You Heard That” really helped me begin to understand some of the differences between personality (that which is changeable and often what we present to the world) and temperament, that which is hard-wired in and not changeable.

I bring this in to the discussion because what we do, and who we are, flow from our temperaments more than our personalities. So for instance, I am sanguine: I am an extrovert who enjoys people more than tasks. But for a great deal of my career I was employed in creative, yet very task-oriented professions. For years I had thought that the “what do you want to be” question could only be answered with a “what do I want to do” statement. I want to Be an Artist is not the same answer as I want to do art. 

So back to my friend and the question over our Starbucks. My answer to him was essentially, I am who I want to be when I grow up. I want to be kind, caring of others, not entirely focused on myself. I want to be a person who knows Jesus and the scriptures, who has a desire to lead others in their discovery of Him. I want to be a person who cares about the environment, and politics, and upcycled furniture, and flowers in the garden, who enjoys the world God created. I want to be a person who is generous with his time, knowing that all that we have is a stewardship and not owned by us. 

Have you given it some thought what (or rather who) you want to be when you grow up? Where are you on your journey of discovery? Or are you at a place in your life now where you want to pivot, less doing and more being? I raise my vanilla latte to you and say, all right, let’s talk!

What Goes Up

There is a general adage, perhaps an aphorism, that aptly describes much about our modern life. “What goes up, must/will/eventually come down.”

The price of gas goes up one week; it comes down, a little, a week later. Unemployment goes up, gradually it comes down. Home prices in our area seem to be the exception, and there are perhaps other exclusions. But what strikes me is how dependable the phrase is. It doesn’t just describe our experience with gravity: watch the kids on a trampoline, for instance. Thankfully they always return to the ground and don’t go drifting off into space somewhere. What goes up invariably comes down.

During my lifetime I’ve seen a number of things go up, buildings primarily, and for the most part they are still standing. But that’s not always given. Growing up in Reno I watched a small town transformed into an entertainment destination, not on the scale of Las Vegas, but still impressive. After having been away for several decades, I was amazed at the number of new hotels which were built during the boom years of the 80s.

But not all of those are still standing. I’ve been following the story of Harrah’s Hotel & Casino in Reno. Opened in 1937 as a small venture, Harrah’s eventually grew to a billion dollar entertainment corporation with more than 15 venues across the US. While the rest of the corporation’s investments seem to be doing well, the original building in Reno was closed permanently in 2020 and is now being converted to apartments and retail-office space. 

I was in grade school when the original Park Lane Mall in Reno was constructed. In the 70s, following the pattern of many outdoor malls, it was roofed over and became an enclosed mall. But times and peoples’ shopping patterns change. In 2018 the mall was demolished and paved over, eventually to be revitalized as an urban living construction named the Reno Experience District RED.   https://redreno.com   From what I’ve seen, it closely parallels our One Loudoun urban community. Change. What goes up. 

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River was begun in 1958 and finished in 1961. The original bridge, that is. I wasn’t here for that project, but I was living in Virginia when it was torn down and the new  twelve lane bridge began construction in 2000, completed in 2009. More change https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodrow_Wilson_Bridge

All of which brings me to today. 

This week I drove past a building in Ashburn where I had once worked. Back in the late 80s, Ashburn was still a small village surrounded by turf farms and the beginnings of new suburbs. AOL (remember them?) moved to Loudoun County in 1996 and began the transformation of Loudoun County into a Data Center empire. Years later, AOL abandoned the property. In 2015 AOL was acquired by Verizon and eventually all of their properties here were sold off, later to be developed into data centers. But in 1990, there was virtually nothing out here other than acres and acres of fields.

The properties along Beaumeade Circle remained undeveloped for years. When Explus moved from Fairfax County out to Loudoun in 1990, we were the first tenants to occupy the large concrete-walled structure. I bought a townhouse nearby in Sterling the same year and was able to watch our building go in, from the initial pouring of the concrete floors to the final installation of the HVAC and the buildout of the interiors. I worked with the company for a total of thirteen years, most of that time at their third location closer to Dulles Airport.

Christian Fellowship Church purchased the property in the mid-90s, added a worship center, classrooms, and a gym for their school, parking areas and recreational ballfields. In 2018 we started attending CFC, 28 years after I watched the same building go up. In 2020 the church sold the building and moved to a new location in One Loudoun. The old building stood empty for two years until recently when demolition began in preparation of constructing another data center. What goes up, inevitably comes down.

Get a Map

Virginia’s 57,867-mile state-maintained roads system is divided into these categories: Interstate – 1,118 miles of four-to-ten lane highways that connect states and major cities. Primary – 8,111 miles of two-to-six-lane roads that connect cities and towns with each other and with interstates. Secondary – 48,305 miles of local connector or county roads. Frontage – 333 miles of frontage roads. (VDOT)

And Google maps (Apple maps) has most of them readily accessible on your car’s navigation system or smart phone. 

But there are just times when only an old fashioned printed map will suffice. Or save you from wandering endless backroads thru hills and hollows without internet reception. 

A weekend drive to a recommended winery gave us an afternoon of exploring some of the most pastoral landscape I’ve yet seen here in Virginia. Climbing hills, green pastures outlined with white-painted fences, cattle at rest in the shade of oak trees or standing belly deep in a pond, a tiny church across from a well-tended cemetery—the type of scenery you might only come across in a Charles Wysocki 1,000 piece puzzle. 

But on the way back, looking for another winery we knew to be located nearby, the road we had previously traveled seemed a little unfamiliar. Had we turned left at that intersection? Have we already gone past the farm with the two llamas out front? Did we go across this narrow bridge, I don’t remember following a stream (ooh that looks great for fly fishing!).

All the while the late afternoon sun is hidden behind a grey overcast sky and the road has continued to narrow. When the pavement turned to hard packed gravel, I knew it was time to turn around. “We’re not lost,” I thought, “just exploring the backroads of Virginia!”

I grew up with a map in my lap, calling out turns, intersections, bridges and land features as my Dad or Mom drove the family car on our family vacations. Long before an interest in aerial photography and the layed-out landscape would lead me to Army cartographic school, I was fascinated with the relationship between the constructed landscape and the natural. The patchwork of farmlands we drove thru as a youngster resolved into magnificent tapestries of colors and shapes bounded by roads or water features when I finally saw them for the first time from an airplane window. Those patterns and colors eventually found their way into my pencil drawings and water colors years later in college art courses.

Learning to drive, or rather, to navigate with the digital map on my iphone has been challenging. In the Boy Scouts and later in the Army, we were taught to orient the map to Magnetic North, then find your location and proceed. I find it confusing then to be following the moving locator on the screen’s map, it heading towards the bottom of the screen, when I am driving forward (up on the screen?). When my wife calls out a turn to the left or right, I’m tempted to ask if the map (digital screen) is oriented properly. My left? Your left? The iPhone’s left? I’m confused!

With a full tank of gas I’m not as concerned as I used to be with directions-eventually we’ll get there. Though in the case of the winery, well, we are saving that for another day. But I am concerned about my friends who drive EVs.

I talked on the phone to my brother the other day about his Tesla. Don’t you get Range Anxiety, I asked him? After a long discussion about batteries, the dual motor capabilities, the growing number of charging stations, and the rundown on their last bi-state road trip, he replied: No. His vehicle gets about 326 miles when charged up (nearly the same mileage as my Nissan Frontier, truthfully). Surely that’s sufficient to glide along any of the backroads of Virginia without worrying about a fill up, I thought. But still, aren’t you concerned about your onboard map/guidance system? What if the satellite coverage drops out? What if line-of-sight is obscured by mountain driving? What if, what if? From their website, I take some reassurance: As updated maps become available, they are automatically sent to Model S over Wi-Fi. To ensure you receive them, periodically connect Model S to a Wi-Fi network. OK.

Thinking about our transitioning to the new, all digital age: does anyone remember getting letters in the mail? Finding a collection of old letters carefully ribboned together and saved in shoeboxes, perhaps for generations? They were our maps and guide to the past, connecting us to people and places a text or an email never can. I’m looking at you, Major Sullivan Ballou (https://www.nps.gov/articles/-my-very-dear-wife-the-last-letter-of-major-sullivan-ballou.htm)

I wonder what we will leave behind in the way of ephemera, love letters, birthday cards, train stubs and such. Or will our future be one of the now, driving along our digital highways and not looking back. Never lost, always here.


If you are a map or data junky, Virginia Roads website has an amazing set of tools designed to create apps, or maps which incorporate their data. Again from their website: Build exciting new apps with no code. Story Maps are a great way to share your message interactively. Quickly combine your maps, analysis and data int a purposeful app – with no code!

That’s pretty exciting for me to see, the cartographic world was just beginning the transition to digital environment when I left the Army in 1986.

A Wonderful Life

The holidays bring no end of opportunities for musical and dramatic presentations. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol seems to never run out of venues, whether performed at community theaters or touring companies. So it is also with The Nutcracker, or holiday sing-alongs to Hansel’s Messiah

If, like many families, you have your collection of DVDs, then by now you may have already watched White Christmas or A Christmas Story. Or you may be more partial to new favorites such as Elf; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; or Home Alone. The Hallmark Channel serves up an endless supply of 25 Days of Christmas movies to get us all into the spirit!

It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in December 1946. It was not a commercial success by today’s standards (initial box office release places it near $3.5 million) and doesn’t fall anywhere near the top 50 highest-grossing Christmas films. (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018), at $512 Million takes first place, followed by 1990’s Home Alone $496 million. https://screenrant.com/christmas-movies-highest-grossing-box-office-mojo/

Yet it has taken its place on many Christmas movie lists as one of the most-loved holiday movies. Due to an oversight by the copyright holder Republic Pictures, It’s A Wonderful Life came into the public domain in 1974 and was shown repeatedly on television for many years. For many of us “boomers” White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life are the definitive holiday movies.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (full-length version)
It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and was adapted by Joe Landry in 1996. This past week we saw a wonderful performance of this charming holiday favorite by the Four County Players in Barboursville VA. The building is a beautiful historic school building from the 1930s filled with character. The stage of the auditorium of the Barboursville Community Center (formerly Barboursville High School) was transformed into the Manhattan radio station WBFR and side wings served as a “green room” during the play’s intermission.

The Players have been putting on a wide range of shows for over 40 years now. Looking through their website, musicals, comedy, and dramas abound and titles such as God of Carnage, The Laramie Project, and Chicago emphasize the wide variety and challenging pieces they have taken on.

It’s A Wonderful Life performed as a live radio play adds an extra depth to a story that has become very familiar over the years. The idea of watching actors, who are themselves portraying actors, who are telling a story set in the postwar 1940s makes this show both familiar and fresh. It’s as if we were being treated to a contemporary podcast, yet here the actions and expressions of the people on stage carry even more emotional weight than would a sound-only podcast.

Frank Kapra directed the movie, based on the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, at the end of WWII. James Stewart had just gotten out of the Army Air Corps and the themes of faith and family, along with deep emotional trauma, surely resonated in his performance. It is a strange coincidence that this play takes the stage again 75 years after the movie’s premier, also at a time when the US has returned home from war.

Yet just as moving was the poigancy that Ken Wayne brought to his portrayal of the drama’s character Jake Laurents, voicing the play’s character of George Bailey. John Holdren’s portrayal of the radio show host was very impressive, switching from host to numerous characters seemingly at ease. Using only their stage scripts as props, or perhaps fussing with the fit of a garment, the cast brought multiple characters to life on stage. Very impressed by Sara Conklin and Katie Hutchins! A great delight was the onstage presence of two Foley artists producing an array of sound effects–from the sound of shoes crossing the floor; broken glass; wind effects; doors being slammed; to the swoooooshing sound of deep waters rushing under the bridge our main character finds himself standing upon.

I had expected the drama to be a bit more “staged,” the actors perhaps just sitting around their microphones in a sound booth. Director and scenic designer Kerry Moran has laid out a beautiful set with the actors front and center. The actors were on their feet at the microphones most of the time, true, but the camaraderie and playful banter exhibited by their onstage characters brought a great deal of additional life to the drama. The action moves along at a quite lively pace. Our director knows there is an audience watching these performances: subtle yet at times dramatic lighting effects coupled with musical backgrounds fill in what could have been a staid production. And those costumes! Welcome to the 1940s.

This was our first time attending a Four County Players’ performance; what a great introduction to theater in Central Virginia and a start to the holiday season.

George Bailey returns a changed man. “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.”

Book illustration by Scott McKowen from The Greatest Gift, published 1996 by Viking Penguin

Old School

Sometime back I became interested in learning a little more about our family’s heritage. Not quite a deep-dive into research genealogy but something more akin to a survey of the places we had lived, the homes and schools we attended. Along the way, the faded photographs my Mother had saved of her childhood prompted me to try and find her homes and schools.

Mom was born in Colorado and before moving to Southern California (where my own family’s story begins) she and her growing family lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When they moved, my Grandfather’s Aunt Belle wrote in her journal at the time “Quite an undertaking with the car, trailer, six children, goat with two kids, canary bird, and cat and dog.”  

The photo of children sitting with my Grandfather Orlo Willis in front of a small home launched my search for the house and school they had attended in the 1930s. Were those buildings still standing? Or had they been demolished only to be replaced by larger and more modern structures?

My Grandfather Orlo Willis with Mom and siblings, 1930

Not to my surprise, Mom remembered the street address of their home and the elementary school they had walked to. The 1930 census, available online, confirmed their street address. A quick search on Google maps revealed that the home is still standing, while further searching on Zillow showed pictures of a “charming Victorian home” built in 1892.

An online search for photos of the original school building came up empty but I did come across a fascinating website, http://coloradopreservation.org

Writing about their mission, the organization began as “43 citizens interested in preserving (their) state’s built heritage started this organization to encourage preservation efforts statewide.” An email requesting information on the elementary school was answered cordially but proved fruitless. However that lead me to finding a small publication, surprisingly available through Amazon, entitled “A History of the Colorado Springs School District 11”, by Harriet Seibel, published in 1975, with quite a bit of information regarding the school I was hunting.

The two story brick building was originally constructed in 1898 with additions coming in later years. It was torn down and replaced with a single-story building 74 years later in 1972. No doubt infrastructure problems (heating and cooling, electrical wiring) contributed to the decision to replace rather than renovate. However, knowing that the school had been rebuilt, Google supplied the address and contact information of the school’s Principal, who forwarded my request for information on to the school’s Library Technology Director. He was kind enough to send me several photos of the old Columbia School as well as photos as it exists today.

But what has happened with those schools built in the early years of Reno where I grew up? This summer on a visit home with family, I drove by all four of the schools I had attended. And surprisingly they are all still in use! All of them were built around the same time, from Greenbrae Elementary in 1955 to Wooster High School in 1962. They all share similar characteristics of mid century modern design: single-story concrete block construction, small windows, flat roofs with protective overhang. Most are devoid of any ornamentation and look like they were designed to last for generations.

Washoe County School District published “A History of Schools from Past to Present,” with detailed information and a photograph of nearly all the schools built in the area, from 1955 until 2012. Several schools have since been opened, but the comprehensive list builds on an earlier list compiled by Rose Bullis of schools built from 1857-1912.

Reno has several school buildings of great historical and architectural interest that are still standing. One of the oldest schools built, Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School in Sparks, was built in 1917 and is still in use today as a commercial building. Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks NV was rebuilt in 1937 as a single story brick building. The art modern building, still in use today, is a far cry from the original two story structure that had been built in 1906. The original multi-story building bears a striking resemblance to my mother’s elementary school: both share the same style of imposing brick edifice that was later replaced by one story buildings. (photos from 4th Street Prater Way Project)

Writing about the superiority of the smaller building style, “State Superintendent of Public Instruction reported to the Nevada Legislature in 1915 that mission architecture was chosen as it “is especially adapted to one-story buildings,” and he added “there is nothing better for school purposes than one-story buildings. The one-story plan eliminates the stair climbing so destructive to the nervous strength of pupils and teachers, and also renders danger from fire impossible.” (from Renohistorical.org) Reno built four of the Spanish Mission-style schools between 1910-12, two of which remain standing, one used as a school today (Mount Rose School)

Have you had any success in tracking down your family’s schools? I would guess that few remain from the early part of the 20th century unless they had a committed group of individuals determined to keep the buildings open, either as schools or repurposed as office space or commercial sites. In the case of the Nichols School, the fact that it was designed by Nevada’s premier architect Frederic DeLongchamps went a long way in securing its future. A 2002 Registration Form was filed with the Unites States Depart of the Interior, National Park Service, to place the Mary Lee Nichols School in Sparks on the National Register of Historic Places reads in part “Mary Lee Nichols School is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A for its role in the educational history of Sparks, Nevada, and criterion C as an excellent example of a modest educational building designed by Nevada’s pre-eminent architect Frederic DeLongchamps in the Mission architectural style.”

Any number of the schools recently opened look like they will stand the test of time, but as we all know…only time will tell.

Mary Lee Nichols Elementary School was built in 1917 and though smaller, it shared the more modest mission-style of Reno’s Four Sisters. (photo credit)