Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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Thawing Out in Virginia

by Mary Combrink

     How could a young girl from glaciated  Indiana be so drawn to Virginia? (“Glaciated” is this word I picked up when I was living in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is glaciated, but the Hocking Hills, just south of it, are not. When I think of the word, I imagine a glacier, flattening the hills like a steam iron pressing out wrinkles.)
     Virginia is most definitely “un”glaciated, with enough peaks and valleys to rival a cardiogram. We went to Virginia several times on family vacations, and something about the mountains called to my heart. Maybe it was the mystery of not knowing what was just over the next ridge. Or the feeling of looking out over the entire world after our old station wagon dragged itself to the top of a local peak. Or maybe it was the history. When I sat in my classes back in Indiana, I was fed a steady diet of dates and events. But in Virginia, I could feel the ghosts of the past. There were stories behind those boring, memorizable facts and they tantalized my imagination as I looked out the car window at the passing Virginia road signs:  Jamestown,  Monticello, Mount Vernon. (Who was Vernon, anyway?) 
    When I was given the privilege of choosing the family’s vacation destination at the age of 16, I picked Williamsburg. I stared longingly at the campus of William and Mary and decided that I would go there. I wandered around the Colonial town and mentally put myself in the 18th century. Oddly enough, I never cast myself as a well-to-do Lady of the Manor. Instead, I became the scrappy, smart, street-wise urchin who proved both her intelligence and loyalty through feats of such daring that even the most powerful  men of the day would take me as confidante and consultant. (This was long before the movie “Yentl.” If I had seen that, I probably would have reinvented myself as a girl dressed as a boy who single-handedly saved Roanoke from losing itself.)
     Now that Internet makes history so easily accessible, I’m able to find the anecdotes that make historical Virginia come alive for me and my students. Did you know that John Smith returned to England before the starving time, because some of the men were tired of his leadership?  It seems that a group of them didn’t like the decisions Smith was making. The story goes that, while Smith dozed under a tree, a disgruntled colonist took a shot at him. The colonist’s shot hit the gunpowder resting near Smith’s leg, it ignited and Smith was badly injured. He had to return to England for medical treatment. After he left, the colony was thrown into chaos and was woefully unprepared when winter set in.
    Speaking of Smith, we all know that Disney got it wrong in the first movie, that Pocohontas was only about 10 or 12 when she met Smith. She may have enjoyed singing her way through the forest, but it would have been alone, not in the company of a man nearly three times her age. (Powhatan was suspicious enough of the outsiders.  Imagine if the self-proclaimed leader of the colonists was wanting to play footsie with the chief’s pre-pubescent daughter.)  We know that Pocohontas married John Rolfe, not Smith, and went to England.  We know that Rolfe was the one who started the tobacco industry in the colonies. These are the basic facts. But, did you know that Rolfe shunned the local tobacco that the Native Americans grew? The most popular tobacco in England at that time was grown in Trinidad and South America, under the watchful eye of Spain.  They had such a strong hold on the market’s tastes  that they forbade the sale  of the tobacco seeds to anyone who was not of Spanish descent.  Somehow, John Rolfe managed to get some smuggled seeds and bring them to America with him. The pilfered seeds grew and turned into the first large-scale cash crop in the New World. The idea that the colony eventually flourished because of stolen seeds fascinates me. I’m sure there’s a moral in there, too, or, at the least, a metaphor for America. 
    Virginia taught me when I was young. I learned that history is not just dates and events; it’s people and their stories.  It’s  important to learn about the past so that when we are faced with life’s inevitable challenges, we have historical precedents to follow – or shun.  Are you a teenager who wants freedom? The history of the American Revolution can provide some do’s and don’ts. (Go ahead, try telling your parents you’ve withstood a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” you’re mad as hell, and you’re not going to take any more.)  An entrepreneur with a dream? John Rolfe can teach you a few tricks.  (But if you choose to smuggle the start-up materials out of another country, accept whatever consequences may befall you.)  A charismatic leader who has to make tough decisions for the protection of your people? Emulate the self-confident swagger of Captain Smith.  (But,  fall asleep with the modern-day equivalent of  a bag of gunpowder at your side.)
    Even now, living in Texas, I still have my moments of longing to be in Virginia.  It is a state rich in history and filled with the spirit of the men and women who created America.  One day, if I’m lucky, I will be part of Virginia’s history, too.


Mary Combrink is a writer and teacher living in Burleson, Texas.
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