Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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Rural Terrors

                    Rural Terrors

                                                                      By Harry Henson


          When the real and imagined foes of America plot, what targets do their schemes immediately focus on striking?

          Rural Virginia communities know. The evil ones target them right away.

          In  mid-1917, shortly after the beginning of the war against Imperial Germany, fire broke out in one small Rappahanock river town. Before the conflagration was brought under control, most of the town's wooden structures had been destroyed. Later, the residents decided that a cow in the backyard of one house had alerted the inhabitants by ringing the barn bell once she saw the flames.

          I am not making this up.

          If she was a patriotic cow, she doubtless knew like all other loyal citizens that agents of the Kaiser must have caused the disaster. Soon, a posse set out after two foreigners who had been in town for several days and apprehended them a few miles away.

          Luckily, lynching was not a habit in rural Virginia at the time, because it was soon discovered that the two, despite speaking with what sounded to the locals like thick Tuetonic accents were in fact Norwegian, not Prussian.

          Norway, sensibly enough, was a neutral power during the suicide of the West.

          Ninety years later during one Thanksgiving week, this same town was equally convinced that Osama bin Laden had sent operatives to blow up the bridge across the Rappahanock. Traffic backed up for miles as random vehicles trying to cross underwent equally random  searches by the so-called department of Homeland Security, who, as you might surmise, appear to have stopped only cars driven by elderly ladies or full of small children.

          Sensible people shook their heads about this hystria, but I was not surprised.

          I well remember the consternation that afflicted the entire area after the King assassination in 1968. Everybody seemed convinced that mobs of infuriated inner-city residents meant to strike back by desending 90 miles to the Northern Neck and destroy such places as Tidwells and Chatam village.

          We could see red-tinged clouds to the north, Washington on fire from the rioting. Smoke was visible for days. Paranoia spread unchecked. People began to go around armed. Rumors proliferated. In my own house, we barred the doors, and my father oiled his weapons in preparation for trouble.

          Much to my annoyance, none of this meant I didn't have to go to school. But the next morning, we got off the bus there, how exciting it was!

           The latest rumours said rural schools and students would be attacked by the rioters. A state policeman had been sent to protect us. We saw a machine gun in the back seat of his car.

          And that, by the way, during a time of riots and war and assassinations and actual domestic terrorism, was the sole policeman I ever saw in any public school during my 12 years as an inmate.

          Needless to say, no normal educational instruction went on that day. Fear mounted, not only at school but throughout the community, and parents began arriving to remove their children from the danger.

          Our teacher, a tough farmwife who had biceps thicker then Muhammad  Ali's, and  I can testify,  an equally devastating punch, was undaunted and meant to stand with her students. She sent for National Geographic films to entertain those of us who remained.

          The boys excitedly told one another that these films would display nude native women strolling around in their native habitat.

          Of course, at this critical juncture, my mother arrived to fetch a neighbor kid and me home.

           But once on the scene, she did not insist I go with her to supposed safety.

          She allowed me the option. One of my friends tried to talk me into staying.

          "It will be exciting when they come," he insisted. "You don't want to miss that! Or those naked ladies in the movie."

          They never came, nor, I heard later, were there any naked ladies in the movie.

          Offered a choice between freedom or staying at school, even with the terror about to descend, I knew what choice to make.

Harry Henson is a writer in Richmond County. Contact him at



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