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On This Memorial Day, I Remember A Total Stranger. Again.

Every Memorial Day, for the last nine years, I dig up an old copy of a story I wrote on Memorial Day in 2009. It involves a young man I had never met, and who would forever be a total stranger to me.

He was a hero. A husband. A Dad. And a big fan of the Washington Capitals. If he were alive today, he’d be 35 years old and probably doing what the rest of us will be doing tonight: glued to a television set, wearing an Ovechkin jersey, and cheering on the Caps along with his two kids, who by now should be teenagers.

Here’s the story:

On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking of a Marine I never met. And never will.

His name was James. R. McIlvaine. He grew up in Olney, Md., and his mother lives in Purcellville. He was killed in Iraq on April 30 while saving the life of another. He was 26 years old, and the father of two children.

Unfortunately, most of us see news like this every day in the newspaper. We pause, read the details, feel for the family, then turn the page and move on. We don’t dwell on it for too long, because it is inevitable that another face, another name, and another set of circumstances regarding a battlefield casualty will be in the paper in a few more days.

This one was different, because not long afterward my phone rang. McIlvaine had a rather large immediate family, including three sets of grandparents, and the local VFW wanted to make the trip from Purcellville to Arlington Cemetery as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Four SUVs had been secured (two donated for the day by Ray Glembot at Star Pontiac GMC in Leesburg) and a police escort would be provided.

What they needed was one more driver. Could I spare the day, I was asked, to drive one of the vehicles?

The answer, obviously, was “of course.”

My SUV included McIlvaine’s grandmother, uncle and sister. During the drive to Arlington, I learned McIlvaine was a huge hockey fan and a big Redskins follower. He loved being a Marine. He had lost his own father at a young age, and as his uncles, aunts and grandparents reached out to fill that void when he was young, he had taken a similar leadership role in the lives of younger members of his extended family.

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Back In The Day, You Could Disagree & Still Respect Someone

One of the great things about having a child is realizing they have no idea what you’ve done in life. It’s as if they think you’ve never left the house, and if you did, you certainly didn’t meet anyone interesting.

Such was the case Sunday when my daughter was reading The Washington Post Magazine. The cover story was about a businessman and gay activist by the name of Mitchell Gold, and I mentioned I’d like to read it to see how he was doing.

“You KNOW him?” my daughter asked, as if I had just grown a second head.

“Of course I do,” I replied, as apparently my daughter didn’t notice I had left the house for 25 years and worked in the furniture industry, allowing me to meet a lot of interesting people, including one Mitchell Gold. “He and I never got along, but he’s a good guy. He even built a piece of furniture for us that he customized just for you.”

Since she was 5 at the time, I suppose it was fair she didn’t totally recall all of that. So I began telling her the story of Mitchell Gold, and it immediately bought to mind how different times are from way back then. These days, you couldn’t disagree with someone the way Mitchell and I did back in 2000 and survive.

That’s because according to the rules of social media today, it seems that if you disagree with someone, they have to die. You have to destroy them. There is no middle ground. They need to lose their job, lose their career and be branded with a scarlet letter if you have a different view. Disliking them and respecting them at the same time is not allowed.

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I Guess I've Put Off Writing This Story Long Enough...

Well, it’s been about 10 days, and I guess I’ve put off writing this long enough. It’s a tough story to write, but if you’re a dog person, you’ll understand.

My wife and I have always been dog people. We both had dogs growing up, and shortly after we got married in the early 80s, I struck up a conversation with the neighbor’s golden-german shepherd mix. We had a deal. When I got out of my car (where we lived you parked on the street) “Happy” would let out an adorable half-growl, half-bark, and I in return would come to the fence and hug her head.

Over the next few months, snacks and conversation got mixed into the deal, and her owner seemed to notice. One day there was a knock on my door and the owner asked a favor. She was moving, she explained, and could not take the dog with her. Would I like to be Happy’s new Dad?

For the next six years, Happy was our dog. Her passing was one of the sadder days in our lives, but a month later, we got a call from a friend who had a fraternity brother who had just graduated college. He had a 1-year-old black lab, and he too was moving to a place that wouldn’t allow dogs. So “Butch” came to our home and quickly healed a few broken hearts.

Butch came to us well-trained. Tell him to stay, he’d not move for hours. He had been raised in a fraternity of guys, so he immediately reacted to my male voice. You could walk with him without a leash because he was so obedient, as a simple expression got him to do what you needed him to do.

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Guest — Marta Palos

Beautiful story

Dave, my condolences to you and your family. You're correct, as a dog person, I totally get it. My little guy is turning 16, and ... Read More
Wednesday, 17 October 2018 00:39
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These Are Not Autographs You Will See For Sale On Ebay

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about Mitchell Gold, and in it I mention that I ended up getting a chair autographed by both Mitchell AND his dog. Some found that a little unusual.

“That’s not the only thing unusual about my Dad,” would be my daughter’s response.

But I will grant you that I do look at the whole autograph deal a little different than most. I have some sports memorabilia – an autographed picture of Julius Erving in a Virginia Squires jersey, a throwback Redskins helmet (the gold one with the big “R”) signed by Sonny Jurgensen, and a Virginia Tech helmet signed by Frank Beamer and Michael Vick.

The first one I ever pursued was Erving. I grew up in Norfolk watching the brief tenure of pro basketball in the area, and Erving was amazing. At the same time, Jurgensen was the quarterback for the Redskins, and at the age of 13, I thought he was the best quarterback of all time (still do, for that matter).

But it was Erving who soured me on any further sports hero worship. Later in life in the late 1990s, a great friend and business partner knew one of the then-minority owners of the Orlando Magic, and Erving worked for the team at the time. My friend and I were in Orlando, so he arranged for us to get tickets to the Magic game that night and meet my childhood idol.

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The Story Of Jack Hemingway and "Fact Man"...

Ernest Hemingway seems to be trending these days due to the Ken Burns series running this week on PBS. On Twitter, my friend Rick Snider (@Snide_Remarks) described the series as “both brilliant and boring and both things can be true” and at least for me, that’s a perfect description of the man himself.

Burns has done a great job in capturing Hemingway, but one of my greater memories in life is having a front row seat of Hemingway’s life with someone who knew the subject better than anyone: his oldest son.

At the time back in the mid-1990s, Jack Hemingway (who passed away in Dec. of 2000 at the age of 77) and his family decided they wanted to license a furniture collection based on the works of his father. They came to my company, Thomasville Furniture, and as it turned out, we had a collection already designed that we were debating what to do with. It was an eclectic mix of materials and styles from factories in the Phillipines, Viet Nam, China and other places in Southeast Asia, and a story could easily be woven about Hemingway from these pieces.

Thomasville said yes, and a few days later, the president of the company (who loved Hemingway) came to my office with a big box of books. “Listen, I’ll be honest,” he started off in a tone that suggested I wasn’t going to like what I was about to hear. “You’re a writer and you read a lot. Someone has to go through and read everything Hemingway has written so we can develop stories around each individual piece. Nobody else will do this right. So until this is done, this is your job, and I’ll get you anything you need.”

We had a huge showroom built into our offices, so invoking the “anything I need” clause, I went there, picked out the softest leather sofa I could find, a couple of nice pillows and had them moved to my office. Then for the next month, I sat on that sofa with my feet up and read the works of Hemingway. People would walk past my door and think I was taking a nap at times, but I didn’t care. The boss said become a Hemingway expert.

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Recent Comments
Guest — Ames Flynn

Fond Memories

Dave Thanks for the great memories of the Hemingway collection and the success it brought Thomasville. A brilliant idea and execu... Read More
Thursday, 08 April 2021 07:55
Dave Scarangella

That Was A Pretty Magical Time

Both for being in the furniture industry and being at Thomasville. Some of my favorite memories were from those times. Great to he... Read More
Thursday, 08 April 2021 10:38
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A Story Of Hiking, Determination And Giving Others Hope...

Nothing could have been more breathtaking than the view of Sharp Top and Round Top on a recent April morning.

It was worth a stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where a story was unfolding that easily could have been missed.

Willing to share her tale was Elizabeth Pearch, a 56-year-old grandmother from Eagle River, Alaska who was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

She had taken a break to adjust her equipment at the Taylor Mountain overlook, where the elevation on the east side is 2,340 feet, high enough to view the Peaks of Otter to the east in nearby Bedford County.

Her trek had started in the fall, when she flew across the country from Alaska to Raleigh, N.C., where her daughter, Josie, lives.

Josie subsequently joined her mom and they hope to arrive in Waynesboro in the near future.

After that, mom Elizabeth has plans to hike the remainder of the way to Maine.

"Southern Virginia is no joke," said Elizabeth, whose voice was muffled by Taylor Mountain's whirling wind during an impromptu interview. "There are a lot of 4,000-[foot] peaks there. It's kind of nice being in central Virginia."

She had started out in March at Massie Gap in Grayson County.

"When I first started out, I was lucky to go four miles a day," continued Pearch, who says she was 100 pounds overweight when she started her journey and subsequently has lost 20 pounds. "Now, I can do between eight and 11 miles [a day]. I'm really progressing well."

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One Taught Me Piano, The Other Made Me A Musician

In doing my usual scrolling through Twitter this morning, I noticed a small tidbit wedged between the thousands of Mother’s Day messages: Today is also Billy Joel’s birthday. He’s 72.

In my world, I will confess, the two events together have personal significance.

I grew up in a house where you were going to learn to play a musical instrument whether you wanted to or not. We lived in a modest house, but it had two pianos, a large dual keyboard organ better than most you’d see at the neighborhood church, and a bunch of guitars, violins and other stringed instruments.

They were not there for decoration, either.

My mother was a self-taught music teacher, so at the age of 5, I was ordered to get up at 6 AM, practice for two hours, then get dressed and walk down the block to school. Another hour of this occurred right before dinner, and punishment was immediate if you chose (or tried to choose) not to practice. It was not a coincidence these practice sessions occurred right before a meal.

This went on until I was 13. To be honest, I hated it. My mother wasn’t very good at piano (she could teach but she could not play very well herself) and as we all go through that stage of our lives when we challenge authority, being forced into a piano-playing gulag for several hours a day seemed to be extremely worthy of being challenged. I tried a few times, but ended up meeting a large wooden spoon my mother kept around for cooking and discipline. I relented.

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Wondering Where All These Stories Are Coming From?

Yesterday, we posted five stories on this site, covering topics such as the Nationals, Orioles, Capitals, Virginia Tech basketball, and Doug Doughty’s College Notebook, which is the longest-running weekly sports feature in the state. I even had two more stories I could have run, but I figured I’d save something for the next day.

Given where this site was six months ago, I’m justifiably proud. And just a little bit shocked how far the site has come in such a short period of time.

It all has turned, at least for now, because of reaching out and trying to help someone.

To give you some of the backstory, I started the site 15 years ago. Back then, everyone started sites with visions of glory, huge traffic and advertisers, and we were all going to be rich writing stories in our spare time on the sofa. That, of course, was temporary until the day we could quit our day jobs and be sportswriting ninjas who never shaved or even wore pants half the time.

That never happened, and at some point my focus changed. For a while, it was to write about local sports to fill the void of many weekly newspapers disappearing (the site is named after the local high school sports district), but I learned a hard lesson about parents of kids in sports: some are never satisfied.

Even though I was cranking out stories, statistics and live scores on Friday nights, parents who read a site that never charged a penny still thought it was OK to email me and tell me what an awful thing I was doing by not paying more attention to their offspring. In 2012, I even shut the site down for a few months I was so fed up with it.

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Your Greatest Source Of History May Be On Old Devices

I think when we all started becoming aware of the internet in the late 1990s, there were three things we believed: It was a safe place to go surfing (it wasn’t), when we deleted something it was gone (it wasn't, as the internet is in pen, not pencil) and that researching stuff that happened in the past was going to be a lot easier.

Search engines, we believed, would find everything ever posted on the internet. As I used to tell my friends, the answer to all of life is on the internet. The hard part was figuring out how to phrase the question.

Two weeks ago I realized even that’s not true. I’m not talking about censorship or anything similar (although in the future, that’s probably going to be an issue too). But while writing about the anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech back in 2007, I mentioned on social media that a lot of college football teams wore Virginia Tech decals on their helmets for their spring games.

To illustrate this, I posted pics from Ohio State and Penn State’s spring games, and got several comments from people saying “I never knew that.” My reaction was that there were many more who did similar things, so I went to Google to find examples.

My search to do so failed.

After trying all sorts of phrases, the only two I came up with were the two I had posted myself on social media. Those same two were also in a story Virginia Tech did concerning the April 16 anniversary, and they showed up as well. But the rest that I distinctively remembered couldn’t be found.

Some of that made sense because in the early days of the internet, there were millions of items to be indexed, but now over 20 years later, that number was probably hundreds of billions. To search that many – despite how much Wizard of Oz gibberish the Einsteins of Silicon Valley utter about algorithms and magic potions –  would probably still mean the farther you go back, the longer it’s going to take. Which means the search engines are going to return more recent data rather than let you sit there for 10 minutes waiting for results.

It then dawned on me that the next best source for such history was sitting in my own house.

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What Happened 14 Years Ago Is Ingrained In All Of Us

I had a bad day yesterday.

I won’t get into the details — we all have our own issues that we deal with on a regular basis. Sometimes we handle it well. Sometimes we don’t. At 26 years old, I’ve been through my fair share of good times and bad, and yesterday wasn't a good one. So as I sat there on Thursday night, I threw back a strong cocktail and tried to make sense of it all.

Then I looked at the date — April 15.

April 16 holds a special place in my heart, as it does for anyone and everyone associated with Virginia Tech. I was just 13 years old when 32 Hokies were taken from us on that tragic day, but I knew well what was happening. As a kid who’d been raised a tried-and-true Hokie, it was pretty devastating.

I've spent 14 years now grieving for those 32 families as well as the others on campus who escaped unscathed.

But to be real, they were unscathed in name only. They will carry what happened on April 16, 2007 for the rest of their lives and will never be able to truly escape.

For 14 years now, the Virginia Tech community, and to an extent the Commonwealth and the country, have spent this day in mourning. The three years I was a student at Tech, I spent the few minutes before midnight on April 16 and the next hour or so afterwards standing outside huddled around the memorial in front of Burruss Hall with my Hokie brothers and sisters, all of us mourning the loss of those 32. Through the rain, the stinging wind that whips across the Drillfield on an April night in Blacksburg, we stood silently as each of the 32 names were read aloud. We walked through the memorial, spending time at each stone, trying to make sense of what had happened.

What happened on April 16 is now ingrained in who I am. It’s probably ingrained in who you are, too. It’s become a part of who we are. Even if you weren’t there on April 16, you feel like you were.

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I'd Be OK If They Removed April 16 From The Calendar

Tomorrow is April 16, and for me, if anyone wanted to start a campaign to remove the date from the calendar, I’d be all for it. Every April 16, I wake up and hear the same two phrases and can't get them out of my mind.

The first involves two words I heard on a police scanner on the morning of April 16, 2007: “31 Black.”

It was a Monday, and I was the general manager of a local radio station called WAGE in Leesburg. Immediately that morning, phone calls started coming in from parents who had children at Virginia Tech, asking “what is going on in Blacksburg?”

We were clueless. There was nothing on the news yet, but the frequency of the calls and the nervousness in the voices indicated something big was going on. We all started making calls and soon word came out that there had been a shooting at the Ambler-Johnston dorm. One dead, shooter on the loose.

Thanks to a suggestion from friends in Blacksburg, we soon figured out how to listen in on police band transmissions at Virginia Tech. I connected with it on one computer and turned the sound up as loud as it would go. I then grabbed another computer and was able to pick up streaming video from a Roanoke television station so we might be able to hear or see things as they were happening.

While monitoring these, I selectively listened to each for a few moments at a time. I’d walk back and forth between there and the studio to see if they heard anything, and just as I came back to my desk, I heard the end of a transmission with a voice saying “31 black.” Nobody at the station knew what it meant. All we knew was police were only reporting one fatality.

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Recent Comments
Dave Fulton

All In

Regardless our persuations on other days, on April 16, 2007 we were all Hokies.
Thursday, 15 April 2021 15:03
Dave Scarangella

Amen

Will always remember seeing this the next morning... Read More
Thursday, 15 April 2021 15:31
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