Old Vienna

Hal Howland

© Copyright 2020 by Hal Howland

406 Dove Circle, Vienna, Virginia, ca. 2015. Photo by Bill Bartlett
I know what you’re thinking: Here comes another ode to the city of Mozart and the Waltz King. I missed that tour, unfortunately, though my parents and older sister lived there for two years shortly before I was born in 1951. Dad, a high-school principal and teacher of science and history in his native Pittsburgh, had been sent to Austria by the federal government to supervise an innovative student-exchange program. From there he went to Washington to continue in this capacity at the State Department. Apparently my parents’ happy Viennese tenure inspired them to choose as their D.C.-area home the neighboring town of Vienna, Virginia. This, then, is a random collection of memories of a once charming village that today survives as a baby boomers’ Facebook page.

Vienna was little more than a dirt crossroads when Mom and Dad bought an aging two-story house on Old Courthouse Road. Nearby Tysons Corner, that is, the intersection of State Route 7, called Leesburg Pike, and State Route 123, known as Chain Bridge Road or Dolley Madison Highway in McLean to the east, Maple Avenue in Vienna itself, and Ox Road to the west, was marked by an ugly brick building called Tyson’s Locker Plant. Behind a façade advertising Meats! Meats! Meats! the Gadell family served what then was the middle of nowhere; dressed venison was a specialty. Today Tysons is part of a sprawling commercial eyesore that continues consuming farmland out past Dulles Airport and nearly all the way to the old town of Leesburg itself. The indoor shopping mall called Tysons Corner Center, built in 1967, was among the first of its kind in the United States. Throughout the sixties and seventies Dad had lamented selling the Old Courthouse Road house, since keeping it would have made us millionaires. As recently as 1999, the spot where the house stood was a Merrill Lynch office, the good news being that someone had been kind enough to retain the old oak trees that had shaded our front yard.

Our house on Old Courthouse Road was a lovely unpainted stucco building with gables, heavy forest-green doors, indoor archways, art-deco fixtures, a flagstone patio, and other features reminiscent of the Truman administration.

Eisenhower was the first president of whom I had any personal awareness. One sunny afternoon Dad said hello to Vice President Nixon and his family as they toured the quiet area in their convertible. Years later Dad would remember Nixon as “a good president who simply got caught.” That’s when I gave up arguing with Republicans.

The house was surrounded by woods—Dad liked to repeat the story of the time he was burying an old pet dog and was spared a copperhead bite when the snake went for Dad’s shovel instead of his leg—and our nearest neighbor was about a block away.

I saw my first example of poverty just across the street: a large, dirty family squatted in the basement that was all that remained of an unfinished house. My brother and I played with their kids and learned quickly not to repeat their vulgar vocabulary.

When I was about six I witnessed a fistfight one afternoon, between, oddly enough, two women: the matriarch of the squatter family and another woman I didn’t know were going at each other in the middle of the street. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen and seemed to happen in slow motion. I remember noticing that the weak sounds of their wild, ungainly blows didn’t match the choreographed Foley punches I’d heard on early television shows such as Broken Arrow and The Lone Ranger. The fight lasted a few minutes, until the two participants just stopped and walked away from each other.

Around the corner was a small general store that delivered our groceries. The owner and my mom became friends. Since we had plenty of space for people and other creatures, Mom impulsively agreed to adopt one of the grocer’s white baby goats. Mom eschewed the obvious name Billy in favor of the far more imaginative name Willie. Willie was great fun for a few weeks, until he contracted some disease and refused to eat. Sitting on the floor in my bedroom one night with tears in my eyes, I watched Willie die in Mom’s arms as she held a milk bottle to his quivering pink mouth.

Next door to the “hole” across the street lived my first “girlfriend,” D., a blonde my age. Next door to her lived a toothless old woman named Effie who sold Mom eggs and cucumbers, the latter pronounced kyoomers. I don’t remember a single other resident in that neighborhood. A mile or so down the road in the opposite direction from the general store was another, slightly larger general store. The day my family inadvertently drove off and left me there for several minutes provided many a chuckle around the old Thanksgiving table.

Also in that direction was Freedom Hill School, where I began elementary school. Dad chose the school parking lot in which to give my sister her first driving lesson in our powder-blue 1953 Chevrolet four-door sedan. For reasons unknown, they agreed to let me ride along in the backseat. Carol did so well that Dad let her drive home. Turning back onto Old Courthouse Road, Carol misjudged the curve and went off the road, bumping into a neighbor’s mailbox. To me this fender bender seemed positively apocalyptic. I ran the block or so home, meeting Mom at the end of our driveway and sounding the alarm: “We crashed, we crashed!” Completing the cycle years later, I would take my own driver’s test in Carol’s powder-blue 1967 Mustang convertible and would barely pass because the cop in the passenger seat took stop signs more literally than anyone with whom I’d ever ridden.

There apparently was a Battle of Vienna on June 17, 1861, centered on the railroad that would run through the center of town until my teens. We attended a reenactment in the early sixties; I can still smell the gunpowder that local historians fired in the general direction of an old locomotive and passenger car they had parked on the tracks between the Community Center and the Safeway store. Today the track bed, named the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, is a paved bicyclist’s paradise that runs forty-five miles from Alexandria to the east all the way out to the piedmont town of Purcellville.

Throughout my childhood we employed a middle-aged black housekeeper named Estelle who was as much a part of the family as any of us. With quiet dignity she deflected the embarrassing racist comments some of my less enlightened acquaintances uttered in her hearing; most offensive was one of my first bandmates’ calling me a “n***** lover” as we rehearsed pop songs that owed their existence to Africa. We visited Estelle’s home once when she was too sick to get out of bed; I was amazed to discover a whole section of town devoid of white people and of whitewashed houses. Estelle attended a local Pentecostal church and often hummed gospel tunes to accompany endless beige wicker baskets of ironing. When those baskets were empty we’d sit in them in the laundry room and pretend to row them down the Potomac.

In the days before Maple Avenue emerged as Vienna’s main commercial artery, the center of town was where Church Street intersected the railroad tracks. Facing the tracks were the stately Vienna Trust Company, then the only bank in town, a feed store, a smelly chemical lab, an automotive repair shop, and a small quarry whose dusty red silo rose high in the air. Two blocks of Church Street comprised a few other establishments: the Full Cry Shop, a women’s clothing store that catered to the equestrian community of nearby Oakton; Curly’s, the working-class men’s outfitter where we bought our jeans, flannels, and winter boots; the post office; and of course the Family Music Centre, where I took my first drum lessons and became a regular and not altogether welcome researcher. At the corner of Church Street and Lawyers Road sat the old wooden Knights of Columbus Hall, where my band would discover the thrill of natural echo. Just across Lawyers Road was the private home from which we would be ejected one night for drowning out the insects with electric guitars. On the hill behind Church Street rose a cozy neighborhood of neat brick houses and majestic old trees.

We had an attic that I never saw and a basement that, with its many dark, mysterious features, was one of my special places. We called this room the cellar and for some reason didn’t begin using the word basement until we moved across town in 1959. My favorite memories of the cellar are of private moments with Dad, building and operating electric-train layouts and watching him tinker with tools. My green-and-yellow diesel locomotive clickety-clacked around corners, disappeared into snowcapped tunnels, and flew past miniature shops and lampposts, accompanied by the unforgettable smells of a warm transformer and damp concrete.

We had no air-conditioning in those days, and I remember many a sweaty night upstairs in my bed, shifting constantly to find a cool spot, soothing myself with the drone of the impotent window fan. The Beatles would already have conquered the world by the time Dad splurged on a single window AC unit, mounted in the dining room of our next house.

Our move in the blazing summer of 1959 to the new planned community of Vienna Woods, another pathetic nod to the real Vienna, was well timed in one respect and not so fortuitous in another: (1) our beloved cellar was prone to flooding, and I suppose my parents got tired of hoisting one valuable thing up on blocks after discarding some other thing for which it was too late; and (2) that also was the year Dad was appointed cultural attaché to Israel. We rented our brand-new house, for which Dad paid $13,000, to a family that showed the place considerably less respect than we had, and would, on our return three years later.

We took a circuitous route home from Israel in 1961, stopping in Cairo, Athens, Rome, and Paris. During several days in Egypt, we visited Luxor, museums, the Nile, the Valley of the Kings, and other popular destinations. At the Pyramids we met a Coptic guide who let tourists ride his camel, which, thanks to American advertising, he had named Canada Dry. The beast’s placid demeanor and undulating gait would help inspire my jazz tune “Bedouin Song,” on the Howland Ensemble CD 10 Years in 5 Days.

At the age of twelve, back in Vienna, having absorbed my share of Wild West folklore, and having missed no opportunity to ride both real and mechanical ponies, I was pleased to learn that Blackwelders Farm, located about a mile from our house, offered equestrian lessons.

At my first session, a cute brunette of about fifteen walked us around the shady barnyard and steered us away from low tree limbs under which my horse could knock me out of the saddle. In the throes of puberty, I was as interested in this mysterious “older woman” as in the tutelage itself. After the lesson, she taught me not to walk a certain distance behind a horse that might decide to kick me in the head.

At my second and final lesson, the teacher thought I was ready for a longer ride and perhaps a bit of trotting. She assigned me an old mare that she promised was as gentle as a kitten. We climbed to the red-clay roadbed that in a few years would be Interstate 66, running from D.C. to Interstate 81 near Front Royal, Virginia.

Things were fine for several minutes, until my mount started looking back and nibbling my left shoe. The teacher said, “Don’t let her do that; she’s just testing you. Give her a gentle push with the stirrup, and she’ll behave.”

As soon as I did so, the animal suddenly reared up, spun eastward, and took off galloping toward the District of Columbia. It happened so fast that I lost the reins and held on only by grabbing two fistfuls of the horse’s mane and clinging to her rocking neck. After about half a mile, the old girl slowed down and pretended to let me regain control of her.

The teacher caught up with us a minute later and arrived at my side laughing hysterically. She told me how proud she was that I’d managed to stay on the horse, but by then my cowboy fantasies had gone the way of those electric trains.

In the early sixties a new shopping center was built on the opposite side of town, across from my junior high school, Henry Thoreau Intermediate, and near the old town of Dunn Loring. The parking lot was shaped like an amphitheater, rising on the hill above the building, and in the months leading to the grand opening it was a great place to indulge my short-lived enthusiasm for skateboarding. For many kids a skateboard still consisted of a two-foot plank and four metal wheels cannibalized from a pair of clip-on roller skates. I considered my new commercial version, polished oak with cushioned red rubber wheels—still a miniature by today’s standards—to be the Stradivarius of skateboards. But the finger-conscious musician in me abandoned this dangerous diversion well before the strip mall’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

This decision coincided with a friend’s developing interest in photography. Kodak Brownie in hand, he would pose several of us around a fire hydrant, a telephone pole, or some other obstruction and stage elaborate skateboard accidents, complete with “borrowed” lipstick for blood. One of us would stand aside wobbling a skateboard several feet off the ground so it appeared to be sailing through the frame.

Vienna boasted two swim clubs, each with its devoted membership: the older, Olympic-size Vienna Swim Club, located in the middle of Vienna Woods, and the smaller Vienna Aquatic Club, on Marshall Road near the intersection of Nutley Street. Our family belonged to the latter because it was nearer to our house on Dove Circle, but we kids often visited VSC as friends’ guests or to attend parties.

I first heard the best band in Vienna, called Us, at VAC. Their drummer was my local hero, Jeff Steele, with a lovely old Gretsch kit in Black Diamond Pearl; their skinny, precocious lead guitarist, Teddy Speleos, played the heck out of a Gretsch Country Gentleman just like George Harrison’s—it looked even bigger on Teddy—and ruined the finish by jamming his harmonicas between the bridge and the tailpiece; and their virtuoso bassist, Steve Gilles, would eventually join one of my own bands, the Cambridge Blue. The band Us was known for its authentic arrangements, but my main memory of the guys was of the night they were holding forth under the starlit suburban sky at VAC and Teddy flew into a rage when the club manager said the neighbors had demanded they turn down the volume. I still find myself siding with the neighbors whenever this subject comes up.

Both VSC and VAC were the sites of numerous teenage romances and pranks. My favorite of the latter was the time several of us broke into VAC late one night and I got the brilliant idea of diving off the high board—something I’d done a hundred times during daylight hours, not assessing the accompanying noises of rattling board and splashing water—thus announcing our presence and necessitating a hasty retreat in our soaked underwear as the authorities pursued us through woods infested with poison ivy.

The mid-Atlantic region enjoys a temperate climate with four distinct seasons, each with its charms and irritations. Like most children, I loved snow and all its possibilities, especially the thrill of sledding at top speed down our hill. I experienced a surprising moment of claustrophobia one day inside a low igloo I had built a bit too solidly in the front yard. But of course I lost my enthusiasm for the white stuff when I began driving. Since we lived on an elevated circle—an arrangement that a Native American documentary filmmaker would one day tell me was considered the ideal community—the municipal snowplows generally made a bad situation worse when they took their cursory stab at our street. You’d spend half the day shoveling out your sidewalk and driveway and the other half extricating your just-freed car from the glacier the plows had left behind. Late one night years later, when a gig on which I was hired to play bass was canceled at the last minute because of an ice storm, I had to leave my car at the bottom of the hill and crawl home on my hands and knees, instrument slung onto my back. I developed a theory that the perfect year would be two weeks of light snow for the holidays, followed immediately by eleven and a half months of summer.

Maple Avenue had firmly established itself as the main drag by the time I reached my teens, and our hangouts expanded accordingly. One of my favorites during the early fashion-conscious years was Normford’s Style Shop, in the shopping center that featured the Giant supermarket. I loved the scent of the place as much as the clothes themselves. It was in that parking lot one summer afternoon that two freshmen girls who’d attended Thoreau Intermediate propositioned me, an offer I was too naïve and too nonplussed to accept. Another teen fave was Pizza Fair, a tiny chrome-plated dive in another shopping center closer to the old section of town. We’d go to Pizza Fair for weekend lunches and to play the jukebox. To this day, the songs “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Help!” evoke the aroma of tomato sauce and the taste of root beer. The original shopping center on Maple Avenue, at the corner of Lawyers Road across from the Money & King Funeral Home, featured an old-time drugstore with a soda fountain, where I consumed many a sandwich and chocolate milkshake after my weekly drum lesson on Church Street.

In future decades Vienna would be home to several excellent ethnic restaurants: Afghan, Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Turkish, and other cuisines were available many minutes closer to home than the parking hassles of Georgetown.

In 1967 Dad was appointed consul general to Amsterdam, and I embarked on the most memorable chapter of my youth. I returned to Virginia in 1969 for college, and my folks returned to the Dove Circle house, further degraded by careless tenants, in 1972. By then Vienna resembled any other town blighted by urban sprawl and had lost nearly all its charm for me. In 1989 I inherited the house, made it my own, and lived there more or less happily, give or take several feet of snow, until I escaped to Key West in 2000. The last lesson I learned there was never to sell a house to neurotic fair-weather friends. I haven’t visited Vienna in twenty years and have no desire to see what else has become of the place.

Every generation treasures its version of the good old days, which for most of us comprise our carefree teens and early twenties. I feel immensely fortunate to have finished elementary school in Israel and high school in Holland—college, back in the culturally illiterate U.S.A., was a bit of a letdown—but I remember “old” Vienna just as fondly. More reminiscences appear in my book The Human Drummer.

Mostly I envy those pioneers’ kids who knew the future nation’s capital as a riverside oasis on the eastern edge of the New World.

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