Sometimes on my way home to Nelson County from California, I fly to Dulles Airport, rent a car, and drive down Route 29. It is a lovely drive through old towns where the lights are just beginning to come on as night falls across Virginia. State Historical Markers point out where this or that Civil War battle took place.
At Manassas the old fought-on-landscape is dotted with cannon and fencerows, and ghosts lurk in the shadows. Over a rise in the highway, the Blue Ridge Mountains come into view, and my heart lifts. At such an hour the mountains are fringed with rich crimson sunsets that fade gradually to purple and then to a dark blue.
I stop in Charlottesville, park my car, and walk along The Mall where once Main Street was busy with street cars, country people, horse drawn wagons, and buggies.
It is usually late at night by the time I arrive there, and I go looking for the boy I used to be. He is twelve years old, and he has a quarter burning a hole in his pocket. He in the grips of The Great Depression and a quarter is a treasure.
He is tall for his age, a freckled boy wearing knickers, mended many times at the knees, ankle socks in a brown argyle pattern worn thin at the heels, and his “good” shoes which have been freshly polished in observance of this trip into the city. It is the third year of use for the “aviator” jacket he wears, and since he has grown alarmingly in the past year his wrists stick out inches below his sleeves. His short sandy colored hair is covered by an imitation leather “aviator” cap that fits snugly around his head.
He is a country boy in town, so he moves tentatively. This is Albemarle County, after all, and foreign country. By nature the boy is shy, but he is also unsure of himself because he doesn’t know city ways.
People move more briskly here than they do out in the country. Everybody is nicely dressed. Many of them are students at the University, wearing saddle shoes and good tweed jackets.
The boy stands in front of the Woolworth Five-and-Dime, his nose pressed against the glass. He feels the quarter in his pocket. He tells himself that he must not spend it. He had made a promise to God.
He had been working hard to save his soul that year. At church he has been taught that a sin of thought is as evil as a sin of deed. Try as he might he could not prevent sins of thought from swarming through his head. He knew that he would burn in Hell.
But then he reasoned, What if he could buy salvation? What if when the Devil came to throw him into the Eternal Fire he was able to say that he had given his fortune to the church? The thought gave him momentary peace.
It may have been the newfound peace that caused him to revert to his willful and ignoble nature. Was it necessary, he asked himself, to donate the entire quarter to the collection box? What if he tithed? Would ten percent buy full salvation, or only a percentage? Looking for any excuse to hold on to as much of the money as he could, he did the arithmetic and calculated that ten percent of twenty-five cents is two and a half cents. Who by rights should get the half-cent God or him?
Now looking through the window at Woolworth’s and savoring the luxuries inside he feels his will weakening. The quarter would buy several Big Five writing tablets and he needs a new one for the journal he is keeping. Secretly he yearns to be a writer and has kept a journal almost from the time he first learned to write. The quarter would also buy a pair of socks. He needs them badly. He enters Woolworth intent on simply pricing the socks. On the way to the sock counter he passes Stationary. Almost in a trance he selects a tablet. He hands over the quarter and receives twenty cents in change.
All caution, all conscience has been thrown aside. Back on Main Street, carrying his tablet in a sack, he wanders. In front of Timberlake Drug Store he stops. He has never ventured in, but he has always wanted to see what it is like inside. Recklessly he enters. A waiter indicates a round marble topped table and indicates it is free. The boy sits uncomfortably in one of the wrought-iron chairs. A couple at the next table are sharing with straws something dark and interesting looking.
The waiter arrives and asks to take his order. The boy is confused by the menu, and finally he points to the couple at the next table and says, “What’s that they’re drinking over there?
“Chocolate malt,” answers the waiter.
“Can I have one of them, too?”
The waiter disappears and the boy attempts to look as citified as the other customers, but his is ill at ease and his posture becomes withdrawn as if he is trying to become invisible. He fixes his eyes on the marble top of the table in front of him and waits.
But then his order arrives and a look of the purest pleasure spreads across his thin freckled face. In a single moment in those pinched and poverty-stricken days, this Young Prince of the Baptist Church has given in to yet another temptation. The Devil has won! The boy has spent all but pennies on drink.
It is his first chocolate malt. The rich, smooth, frosty, malty, chocolate creaminess of it is more delicious than anything he has ever imagined. He will remember it all the days of his life, and he will also remember it in Hell where there is no doubt he is soon to become a citizen.