Tag Archive for Manassas

A Day at the Manassas Antique Car Show

I have to hand it to the folks at Manassas City Hall — they sure know how to fill a calendar. Just this past weekend, they had Old Town playing host to a Greek Festival on Friday, the Manassas Antique Car Show on Saturday, and the Latino Festival on Sunday. My boys and I made the latter two events.

Real rod and poseur rod... guess which one my boys liked best?

I love old cars. I picked up that love from my father, who always seemed to manage to drive something interesting, whether a 1962 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible or a 1969 Buick Riviera or his current car, a 2003 Lexus GS 300. Now I’m trying to pass along that love to my own sons. I’m not having to try too hard, either. They love anything with wheels, particularly monster trucks. But they also showed they were willing to spread their love to more vintage iron. Not always with the greatest of discernment — faced with a genuine vintage Ford hot-rodded coupe from the early 1940s and its knock-off, a Chrysler PT Cruiser tarted up with flames painted on its flanks and some mild engine mods, they “oohed” and “ahhed” over the Chrysler. Oh, well. They still have plenty of time to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Or, considering that it’s now out of production and will be a presumably cheap first car by the time they hit their high school years, maybe my boys will develop a lifelong fondness for the PT Cruiser, the car they will have taken their girlfriend to the junior prom in. It’s not a bad vehicle to drive, by the way. My dad bought one, then passed it on to my sister, who still drives it. Shame it gets such lousy mileage for a compact car.

Ford Falcon Ranchero--my high school dream machine!

Now, here we’re talking — a 1965 Ford Falcon Ranchero! This was my dream car in high school, the trucklet I desperately wanted so I could cart around sets for one-act plays my club, the Pioneer Players, would put on in thespian competitions all over Florida. I did end up buying a Ranchero my senior year, but the one I found was a 1975 edition, a bloated monstrosity based on the 1975 Torino made sort-of famous by Starsky and Hutch. It had a 351 cubic inch Windsor V-8, so choked with smog control equipment my Ranchero risked being humiliated at stop lights by a Toyota Tercel of similar vintage. The truck’s bed had rust holes in it big enough for me to stuff grapefruits through, so my buddy Keith Johnson and his dad very kindly laid down a layer of fiberglass over the rust. Good enough! And yes, I took my girlfriend Ilma to the senior prom in the Ranchero, after spending an afternoon hand waxing it.

Corvair Monza Spyder--Judah says, "Where's the engine?"

Another car which immediately caught my eye was this gorgeous 1965 Chevy Corvair Monza Spyder. The Corvair really got a bum rap thanks to Ralph Nader; once GM made a few fairly minor adjustments to its suspension (rather than relying upon drivers to keep the front tires inflated to a different psi setting than the rears), it handled as well and predictably as any of the other, more conventional GM compacts. I think the styling is timeless (I also like the earlier “bathtub” Corvairs, of which there was one at the show). Of course, I played the “where’s the engine?” game with my boys. They’d never seen a rear-engined car before (I pulled the same stunt with a mid-1950s Volkswagon Beetle parked nearby).

Not an optical illusion--my 7 year-old son really IS as big as this Crosley

This Crosley was a definite oddity at a show mainly devoted to humongous 1950s-1970s American cruisers and performance cars. I’d like to compare the measurements of this Crosley to that of one of the modern Mini Coopers. The Crosley looks so much mini-er, but I’d have to see the figures to know for sure. Levi looks like an escapee from Land of the Giants next to the Crosley. That propeller in the center of the grill really spins, by the way. Levi was having a grand old time spinning it until the owner cried out in horror, “The chrome! The oil from that kid’s hands means I’ll have to replate the chrome!” Sorry, buddy… but your car looked like a big toy to my son…

They sure like that big motor...

The show featured lots of 1960s Camaros and Mustangs, plus some Mopars, too. One of my favorite cars of the afternoon ended up being a 1968 Dodge Charger. I’d never had an opportunity to take a look inside one before. It turns out that, just as they’d done with the original Plymouth Barracuda, Chrysler Corporation added the really nifty feature of a fold-down rear seat that extended the trunk all the way to the back of the front seats. Given the first generation Barracuda’s bubble-back rear glass and the Charger’s swoopy fastback, both cars allowed drivers to turn their trunks and back seats into servicable beds. I wonder how many Americans in their late thirties to mid-forties owe their existence to the convenience of these “Mopar Murphy beds”?

Boys, don't touch the car--don't TOUCH--!

Never Trust a Weatherman

Weather.com, you’re on my Double-Secret-Probation List (and maybe that other list, too).

Now and then you find yourself planning an entire weekend around a weather report. This was the first weekend of the Prince William County Fair, Virginia’s biggest fair, a Major Event in our household. We do not miss the fair. Sunday was Half-Price Day, when both fair admissions and ride bracelets were half the normal price. When you’ve got three little boys who are all crazy for carnival rides, half-price ride bracelets are a big deal, particularly when even the puniest kiddy ride on the midway will cost you three bucks per ride, per kid, if you purchase ride tickets. So I knew we would be attending the fair on Sunday. I also knew that the long-range forecast called for thunderstorms. But I thought we might be able to finess the weather, get the boys’ rides over and done with between rainstorms, then concentrate on the fair’s indoor activities.

As soon as I woke up on Sunday, I checked weather.com. On our two prior visits to the fair, we had gone in the late afternoon and evening, to avoid the hottest, sunniest part of the day. But weather.com told me to reverse my usual plan. The hourly forecast for our zip code predicted a high of 81F (not at all bad for Virginia in mid-August), overcast skies early, and then 70%-80% chances of rain from 3 PM on. The fair’s gates would open at noon. I figured I could gorge the boys on rides for three hours, and then, at the first sign of rain, the family and I could duck into the animal husbandry displays and pet the goats and sheep and cows under a good, solid roof.

So, we headed off the to the fair sans hats and sunscreen. What did we need hats and sunscreen for if it was going to be cloudy and rainy all day?

We rushed through breakfast to arrive at the fair soon after the gates opened. It was muggy. It was bright. It was hot, a good ten degrees hotter than the forecast predicted. Still, since we got there relatively early, the fair wasn’t crowded, at least not at first. The boys went on the Chinese Dragon mini rollercoaster and the Flying Swings/Raging Funnel and the Flying Dumbos (I’m sure Disney doesn’t let hinky-dinky carnival operators call it that, but that’s what I call it) and bumped their noses against the glass panels inside the Monkey Maze. They rode the Crazy Bus together, crammed into a miniature school bus with twenty other riders while huge pistons hurled the bus through the air. The older two went on the Parasail Rider (kind of like the Flying Swings, but with a sail-like panel which riders can swivel to make them bobble up and down while swinging around). I took my littlest, Judah, on a couple of those kiddy motorcycle/ATV merry-go-rounds and let him jump in a bounce house. His big disappointment was that the one ride he’d been talking about all week, Quadzilla, where he could ride a four-wheeler on tracks through a spook house, was temporarily closed for repairs.

Dara and I stood out of the direct glare as much as possible and waited anxiously for the few dark clouds spotting the sky to cover up the sun and provide us some relief. I watched the crowds linger in front of the games of chance and thought about Ray Bradbury, whose first story collection had been called Dark Carnival, who had written one of the greatest dark fantasies set on a midway, Something Wicked This Way Comes, whose childhood imagination had been fired by visits to fairs probably much like this one.

for laffs under the blazing sun, it's hard to beat a guy with a weather balloon stuck on his head

After two and a half hours of putting the kids on rides and taking (costly) beverage breaks, we decided to catch one of the 3 PM shows. A few more darkish clouds dotted the sky, but it still didn’t look like the thunderstorms the forecast had called for were anywhere near. We headed over to The Magic of Agriculture: Agri-Cadabra show, which we had seen earlier versions of the prior two years. The managers of the Prince William County Fair must like this guy, and he does put on a good show (even if his jokes disparaging West Virginia get a little stale after you’ve heard them a time or two). His grand finale is inflating a giant green weather balloon with a leaf blower, then inserting most of his body into the balloon, where he creates an elaborate balloon animal before emerging from his rubber cocoon. What can I say? It might not be Ray Bradbury’s idea of a proper show for a carnival midway (I think he prefers his magicians a bit more traditional and somber), but for me, it never gets old. My kids invariably get a charge out of it, perhaps akin to the charge the young Ray received from the fingertip of Mr. Electro, his earliest mentor in the ways of the fantastic.

Unfortunately, I had trouble concentrating on the show because I felt myself cooking. My wife reached over to touch my dark brown hair. “Touch your hair,” she said. “You could fry an egg on your hair. Mine, too.” Yup. She was right. My fingers came away smoking. And it wasn’t a magic trick.

unlike me, Black Locust had sense enough to stay out of the sun

Immediately after the Agri-Cadabra show, I herded my crew under the livestock barns, then went to refill our cup of $6 lemonade with water from the bathroom (there was still a little sugar and a couple of squeezed-out lemons at the bottom of the cup, so the tap water acquired a vaguely lemonadey tinge). I peered again at the sky. Where was this rain I had been promised? Where were the clouds to mask that brutal sun? We petted the goats. I made friends with a goat named Black Locust. I tried to figure out the reason for her name. She was black, yes, but not remotely insectoid. Perhaps she’d acquired that name due to her eating habits? I looked over at Dara. She was hors de combat. No more sun for her. But the boys were still clamoring to go on more rides.

I decided to take the bullet. I volunteered to lead the Midway Death March. Dara would remain behind with the goats in the shade. The boys hustled back to the Monkey Maze. I pressed myself as close to the wall of the ride as I could, clinging to whatever shadow was available. We ran into one of Asher’s friends, Maggie, and her grandmother. The kids all wanted to go on different rides. The lines had gotten much longer. The sun remained fierce overhead. Maggie’s grandmother and I decided to divide and conquer. We split the little group. Her half headed off to the Giant Ferris Wheel. Lucky her; the line was in the shade, and the gondolas had canopies. I got to stand in line for the Flying Swings. No shade there.

My older two boys went on the bumper cars. Judah had a mini-meltdown when he learned he wasn’t tall enough to ride. I yanked him over to the side of the bumper car pavillion, where the unused cars were stored, where there was a smidgeon of shadow to stand in. I pressed my index finger onto the skin of my forearm. The impression remained ominously white for a few seconds. I recognized what I had to look forward to that evening–squirming uncomfortably in bed while my skin reminded me incessantly what an idiot I had been. The boys wanted to ride the bumper cars again. I lacked the energy to deal with a renewed Judah meltdown. I told the boys they could pick one final ride before we went to pick up their mommy at the goat barn, but it had to be one they could all ride.

We saw that Quadzilla had been reopened. Judah began jumping up and down and flapping his hands. We got in line. The line didn’t move. The operator seemed to be taking forever to get the children out of the cars and seat more kids in their places. I shouldn’t get too angry with the man for not hustling with greater alacrity under that brutal sun; in conversations with other carnival employees, I learned they are housed in trailers, are paid an average of $300 a week, and have to buy all their own meals at the fair, which leaves them about $15 per week to spare. They do this from February to November, taking only a six-week break around the holidays to return to wherever their permanent homes are. So the man moved like a camel beneath the desert sun, conserving his energy and his internal moisture. If I were in his place, I suppose I would, too.

I felt my epidermis about to ignite. I yanked the boys out of the line. “No Quadzilla!” I thundered, substituting for the overhead thunder which had never made its appearance. “Maybe next year. Pick something else! Something with no line!” I shoved them toward a lame-o kiddy ride that none of the other fairgoers evinced an interest in. They dutifully boarded it, then rode it with blank faces. I could see they were all done in, too.

I marched them back toward the goat barn. On the way, we passed a row of standing wooden cutout figures, the kind that have oval holes cut where their faces are, the kind that invite you to put your own face in the oval and have a picture taken of you as a farmer or a fireman or a race car driver. One of the cutouts was of King Kong holding Fay Wray; you could opt to be either the gorilla or the maiden. All of the cutout figures stood unutilized when we passed. No one was taking pictures beneath the broiling sun.

I stared at those holes where faces should be, those voids, and I thought about Ray Bradbury again. Grandpa Ray, Master of the Dark Carnival, who had finagled ways to see King Kong in the theaters dozens of times as a kid. Ray had always been around for me; I’d watched his Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms and It Came From Outer Space at least as many times on Creature Features as a kid as he’d seen King Kong, and his A Medicine for Melancholy had been one of the first science fiction books I’d personally owned. My novel The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 owes an inestimable debt to Ray’s Fahrenheit 451. He had always been around, and he seemed to go on forever, as though he would live forever, just like Mr. Electro had commanded him when Ray had been a boy–“Now go and live forever!” But he wouldn’t live forever. One day, I would live in a world without a Ray Bradbury. It would be like staring at those cutout figures with oval holes where faces should be.

the Master of the Dark Carnival won't be with us forever

I made myself a promise. Next year, when the Prince William County Fair comes around again, we won’t go beneath the blazing midday sun. We’ll go at twilight, the time Ray Bradbury tells us is the perfect time to walk within the neon glow of the midway’s dark lights.

My Civil War Sesquicentennial

Confederate emcampment on the grounds of the Manassas Historical Museum

This past weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, known as the First Battle of Bull Run to all you Yankees out there.  First Manassas was the earliest major land engagement of the Civil War following the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter.  My new hometown of Manassas celebrated its history in a big way, with a reenactment of the battle, two huge living history encampments, a parade of soldier-reenactors through Old Town Manassas, and a recreation of the 1911 Peace Jubilee headlined by President Taft (I would’ve liked to have seen who the local organizers found to portray the 300 pound-plus president, but the event conflicted with work for me).

field kitchen and wood pile

lanterns and paring knife

Several of the afternoon events had to be cancelled due to temperatures in the low triple digits.  Sweltering July temperatures in this region aren’t just a recent phenomenon, however.  Nearly a century ago, at the Great Reunion of Civil War veterans held at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from June 29 to July 6, 1913, temperatures also soared into the hundreds. More than 53,000 Union and Confederate veterans attended the event, all of whom camped out in tents on the battlefield. Three hundred and nineteen of those vets were admitted to local hospitals for heat exhaustion. Considering that most of the vets present were between 65 and 75 years old, and only half of one percent suffered heat exhaustion, I’d say that was a pretty hardy collection of old men.

Confederate soldiers and Union civilians


I brought my boys on Saturday to the Generals’ Row set up on the big lawn in front of the Manassas Historical Museum, across Prince William Street from the Manassas train station. Actually, Generals’ Row was two rows of tents, one for Union commanders and the other for Confederate commanders. I had previously stopped by the Union side on Friday morning, prior to boarding my commuter train into Washington, DC. The reenactors hadn’t yet donned their heavy woolen uniforms or cumbersome hoop skirts; they were hanging out on chairs in front of their tents, drinking their morning coffee. I spoke with a man from Charleston, West Virginia named Barry. I told him my mother’s family had come from Charleston. I experienced a touch of cognitive dissonance, listening to his thick Southern accent and registering that he would be portraying a Union officer; but then I reminded myself that West Virginia had seceded, not from the Union, but from the rest of the State of Virginia so that its people could remain within the Union. We chatted for a while, mostly about how polluted Charleston used to be back in the late 1960s and about Carol Channing (my Grandpa Frank from West Virginia had managed Broadway road shows during the 1950s and 1960s). I told Barry I’d try to bring my boys by to meet him over the weekend.

Levi and Asher with friend

learning a new old game, the graces


On Saturday, with the high temperature climbing to about 102 Fahrenheit, I waited until almost 6 P.M. before bringing the boys out. Barry was still in uniform, but nearly all the crowds had fled. That was fine by me. My three kids were delighted with a collection of 1860s toys and games in front of one of the Union tents. A very obliging young lady named Hannah explained to them about each of the toys, and then she demonstrated how to play a game with sticks and a hoop called the graces, originally meant to help teach young women proper posture. My boys don’t care a fig about good posture, but they enjoyed flinging the hoop around.

We wandered over to the Confederate side, where I noticed the men tended to have a gnarlier mien than the reenactors had displayed over on the Union side. Asher, my middle son, thought one reenactor had “creepy eyes;” the man was definitely well grounded in his part, and his facial hair wouldn’t have been out of place on a wild goat. He noticed Asher giving him the wall-eye, then made him laugh with fright by chasing him down the row of tents with a mean-looking pistol, saying he looked “too much like a Yankee.”

a Johnnie Reb in green (with a horse's ass)


I was impressed that the man had that much energy, given the heat and his wool uniform. Another reenactor pointed out what he called the “emergency tent,” an air-conditioned tent with medical supplies, ready to receive any reenactor on the edge of heat exhaustion. He said he’d been drinking gallons of Gatorade all weekend. The danger sign, he told me, was when you stopped sweating. Then you knew you had to park yourself in that air-conditioned tent.

Union fighting men


I told him about the Great Reunion of 1913. It had been just as hot then, but not even the hospitals had had air-conditioning.

I had wanted to see the parade through Old Town Manassas or the reenactment of the battle, but it had just been too darned hot to stand around outside without shade. At least I can console myself that this weekend was merely the beginning of four years of sesquicentennial Civil War observances to come. Next year we’ll have the 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run #2). Maybe the weather will be a little more moderate then?

Say, with all this interest about the Civil War, you wouldn’t think some author would happen to have a steampunk adventure novel set aboard Union and Confederate ironclads lying around on his computer’s hard drive? Any possibility of that? Nawww

God, I Love This Country

Charlie Bob's Market and Deli in Manassas, Virginia

Dispatches from Exurban America (another in an occasional series)

The Great American Melting Pot is alive and well. I have seen it with my own eyes.

My family and I moved to the outskirts of Manassas, Virginia two years ago. The closest store to us was a place called Propp’s Grocery, a non-corporate, no-name convenience store, deli, and gas station which looked like it had been sitting there on Dumfries Road since the Roosevelt Administration. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt’s Administration. I took my boys in there once for soda pops and chips, just so we could get a look at the inside of the place. They sold live bait in there. The worms were a big hit with the boys, who like digging them out of our front yard. I admired the owner for his ability to stay in business with a 7-11 just two blocks away.

About eight months ago, Propp’s Grocery changed hands. The old sign came down. A new sign went up. Now the place was called Charlie Bob’s Market and Deli. I liked the old name better. The name “Charlie Bob’s” sounded like it was trying too hard to appeal to local sensibilities. Whereas the name “Propp’s” had been straightforward, honest, and simple… homespun and local without reaching for it.

I watch Charlie Bob’s prices on gas each time I drive past, which is often. When his price is good, I’ll stop there and fill up my Rondo. It’s one of the few places I stop for gas that qualifies as an aesthetic experience. There’s a big, abandoned Victorian house next door that has an old barn and silo behind it. The house is hanging in there amazingly well, a testament to its solid construction. There’s no For Sale sign. I’ve never seen a soul on the property. It might be haunted (that’s what I tell the boys).

I stopped there for gas this morning. The price was $3.69/gallon, not the best in the area, but not the worst, either, and I was running on fumes. The little digital screen on the pump told me I would have to see the cashier to obtain my receipt. I hate when that happens. The whole purpose of being able to swipe your credit card at the pump is so you don’t have to go inside. But this morning I wasn’t in a rush. I resigned myself to spending an extra minute and a half retrieving my receipt.

Walking to the front entrance, I noticed that half the building’s interior had been closed off and was in a state of reconstruction. There was nobody at the cash register when I went inside. I called out, “Hello? Hello?”  A South Asian man walked through a temporary door from the portion of the building being renovated. He asked me which pump I had pumped gas at (there are only two). He apologized that the pump hadn’t given me a receipt and said he’d been calling the company about that problem and would call them again. He introduced himself as Mr. Singh.

Where was Charlie Bob, I wondered? Was Mr. Singh an employee of Charlie Bob’s?

It quickly became clear that Mr. Singh was Charlie Bob. Or rather, there was no Charlie Bob. Charlie Bob was a false front. A mask.

I asked Mr. Singh what would become of the other half of the building. He told me, proudly, that he was completely redoing his deli area. He would sell fried chicken “just like Popeye’s.” I asked if he’d be serving breakfast, since the boys and I like going out for breakfast on weekends. He said yes, yes, eggs and everything, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

He told me he was from India. He also told me that, eight years ago, he had owned this place, and then he had sold it to the people who ran it as Propp’s Grocery. When they decided to sell out, he couldn’t bear the thought of some strangers running it, so he bought it back. And renamed it Charlie Bob’s. I neglected to ask him what it had been called before it was called Propp’s. Maybe it had always been called Propp’s. But now it was Charlie Bob’s. Not Singh’s. Charlie Bob’s.

I found that oddly endearing. In this multicultural age, Mr. Singh had opted to go native. Maybe he had done so a little clumsily. . . after all, in the more rural parts of Virginia, “Charlie Bob” was about as stereotypical a local name as “Boudreaux” was in South Louisiana, where I’d come from. But it made me smile, as did his insistence that his fried chicken would be “just like Popeye’s.” Not better than Popeye’s. And not Tandoori chicken, either. But just like something he obviously considered to be a quintessentially American favorite.

My grandmother had come over from the Ukraine.  Her village had been burned down by Cossacks, and she and her family had fled across a frozen lake.  I remember seeing an old photo of her as a teenager, holding a little American flag.

I told Mr. Singh I’d bring the boys around for some eggs some Saturday morning.

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