Friday, October 17, 2008

Road Trip Report, Part 3

"I don’t know

if Jesus

could straighten

this mess out."

--Barry Strong,
retired educator
Searching for the
reel America:
pay dirt at the drive-in

Not every day do you meet an educator who can laugh about slapping handcuffs on his students.

That’s Barry Strong, a retired teacher and principal we found Thursday in about the unlikeliest place – a drive-in movie theater, in broad daylight.

We’d been driving south on Interstate 81 from Harrisonburg, Va., and turned off on what you might call a blue highway in search of some real America. We found it a bit past noon along Route 11, on the outskirts of the town of Lexington.

The marquee said it was closed, the season ended, but there was a pickup truck parked inside the fence and no barricade at the entrance lane, so we rode in hoping for my wife Bonnie to get some pictures of the empty place that might be symbolic of a dying but of Americana.

The truck belonged to the 61-year-old Strong, who was methodically waving a fancy metal detector over the dirt and grass in a back parking row searching for stray coins. Not that he needed the money for gasoline or anything; it was just a little pastime that sometimes turns up an old silver dime or half-dollar, but more often worthless debris.

“It’s been metal-detected before, but nobody gets it all,” he noted. “The trouble with metal detecting in a place like this is there’s so much junk in the ground, like pop tops. But it’s like fishing – you never know what you’re going to catch.”

Strong said he’s a Hull’s Angel – a member of a group of supporters and helpers at the drive-in, which remains a popular place around Lexington on warm summer nights. “They bring their blankets and get out on the grass. It’s a family-oriented place.”

The conversation quickly turned to politics, as I asked his views on the campaign. He says he expects to vote for John McCain, despite -- not because of -- his selection of Sarah Palin as his running-mate. For Strong, the choice is because he sees McCain as the most experienced candidate for president.

“I watched most of the debate last night,” he said. “I think McCain did a little better.”

But he acknowledged that “I got tired of hearing Joe’s name,” a reference to now-politically ubiquitous Ohioan Joe the Plumber, and lamented of that profession that “they won’t come out to see you for less than a hundred.”

“I read the Roanoke Times – I read the editorials every morning. They said they ought to vote all the incumbents out and start over. They couldn’t do worse than that. I don’t know if Jesus could straighten this mess out.”

Now about those handcuffs:

Strong said he started his career in 1970 as a sixth-grade teacher at Hartman Elementary School in Clarksburg, W.Va., at a salary of $6,000 and a classroom of 46 children. (Bonnie noted she had started her career in Baltimore in 1967, at then-Ben Franklin Junior High, making all of $5,800.)

Strong had some wonderful tales of those early days, like teaching the twin brothers Neil and Don, and the hot day in the un-air-conditioned school when Neil fell asleep at his desk and was directed out into the hall for the then-customary punishment: a paddling.

“He was crying and said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Strong. It was hot, and we just ate....’ And he was right. So we went back in the classroom and I apologized to him in front of all the other children. And I handed him the paddle and told him to paddle me.”

Did he? You betcha.

“He reddened my ass,” Strong chuckled.

Later in his career, Strong said he became a teacher and administrator in juvenile detention facilities, including an assignment as assistant principal at the juvenile correctional prison in Beaumont, Va., where some of the students “were murderers.”

And that part of his career pretty much explains why “you could handcuff the students.”

Coming tomorrow: Outrageous roadside attractions


Diane Stewart Parke said...

I was a student of Mr. Strong's at Adamston. That was almost 30 years ago and he was a very important person in my life. I'd love to let him know that. Diane Stewart Parke Bristol, VA

David Ettlin said...

I don't have his address -- our chance meeting having taken place two years ago -- but suspect you could find him in the area of Lexington, Va. Can't be that many folks named Strong there.
And thanks for visiting my blog!