Northern Virginia in the 1950’s — the northern Virginia that I grew up in — was not very much like northern Virginia in the early years of the 21st century. Nowadays we’re so yankeefied that the rest of the Commonwealth doesn’t even want to claim us (except when it's time to pave a road somewhere and they want our tax dollars). A gentleman who lives out in the Shenandoah Valley suggested to me not too many years back that we wouldn’t be missed very much if we decided to take another run at secession (just leave them out of it, thank you very much). As much as it pained me to hear him say that, I had to acknowledge that there was more than a grain of truth to it. We’ve become home to think tanks, dot.coms, a professional sports team whose owner changes coaches faster than most people change their socks, transient military families, and government officials who ebb and flow with the tide of each new administration. No one stays around long enough to put down roots in the red clay of the Commonwealth or to develop anything more than a passing interest in the rich historical and cultural traditions that have been our stock in trade since 1607.

When I was a child, we celebrated Lee-Jackson Day as a bona fide holiday, and no one thought too much about it if we sang “Dixie” as part of our grade school day. We were, after all, Southerners — and Southerners from Virginia at that. We could claim Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and JEB Stuart as our own. Who else could come even close to matching that Holy Confederate Trinity? Sixty percent of all the battles fought during the War Between the States were fought right here in the Old Dominion, and you couldn’t drive too many miles down any State road without seeing a highway marker commemorating some event from that tumultuous four-year period. Nowadays, the Department of Historic Resources won’t even let you put the word “Confederate” on one of those markers. In our desire to avoid giving offense, the “Virginia” half of our geographical designation has taken a decided back seat to the “northern” half.

When I think about how much we’ve lost and how far we’ve strayed from the Virginia I knew when I was growing up, my mind invariably turns to thoughts of a favorite childhood Christmas present. It wasn’t complicated like the playthings today’s children favor. It had no batteries, no moving parts, and no movie tie-ins. It was a horse and rider made from molded, painted plastic and standing about 10 inches high. The rider could be removed from his mount and played with separately, even though his permanently bowed legs bothered me a bit when he was new. The horse and rider were part of a series that depicted famous Americans from all walks of life and their mounts. General Robert E. Lee

My sister was the proud possessor of a pair of these horses and riders from the popular TV series The Lone Ranger. I was far enough ahead of her in school that my parents felt historical figures would be more appropriate for me, so I was given two of Virginia’s most famous generals. First George Washington and Ajax appeared beneath my Christmas tree; the next December brought Robert E. Lee and Traveller. Although I was very fond of General Washington and the magnificent Ajax, the attraction when I unwrapped General Lee was immediate and electric. Washington’s fall from favor was swift. By day’s end, he had gone into presidential retirement on the top of my bedroom bookshelf. General Lee, on the other hand, could be found on any rainy afternoon taking on the Lone Ranger and Tonto single-handedly in pitched battles fought in the upstairs hallway.

George Washington might have been the hero of the Revolutionary War and the father of his country, but Robert E. Lee was the Virginia gentleman who had put the Confederacy on the map and made her a force to be reckoned with. As far as I was concerned, his accomplishments were every bit as remarkable as those of his fellow Virginian, and he was my choice for man of the hour. Clearly, Hartland — the Midwestern company that made these marvelous toys and sold them for the princely sum of $2.98 apiece — thought so, too, since it saw fit to include Lee in its heroes series along with Washington and Davy Crockett.

No toy company with an ounce of marketing savvy would make such a toy today, for all the obvious reasons. And no toy store would sell it if they did. Yesterday’s heroes are today’s goats, as those of us who are descended from the goats are constantly being reminded. The days when a man could be honored for taking a stand in defense of his country, his family, and his beliefs seem to be as gone as the innocence of my childhood in a vastly different Virginia.

I’ve often thought about venturing into the attic of the house where I grew up and where my mother has lived for almost 50 years and looking for the General. But I haven’t yet, and I may not. In my mind’s eye, he’s still up there astride his horse, riding tall and riding proud, and still my hero. And that’s the way I’d like to keep it.

Copyright ©2003 Kathie Rankin
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