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The Blacksburg that I know

Hindsight being 20-20 and all, I kinda preferred it when nobody had ever heard of my hometown.True story: My dad gave the 18-year-old version of me this sign when I left for college as one of those don’t-forget-where-you’re-from things. I always used to keep it on my desk at work (along with a little tribute to Jeff and Jake MacNelly and a picture of Eminem dressed up as Rimbaud, flipping – me, I guess – the bird). Something prompted me to go looking for it a couple of weeks ago. It’s a cartoon of a sign:”Blacksburg:Founded 1824Elevation 2,030Population 32,120Speed Limit 25Total: 35,999″People in college would ask me where I was from, and I’d respond. They’d ask, “Where?” and I’d point to the sign.That certainly beat three weeks ago, when I was riding up from the Denver airport in a Colorado Mountain Express van that fell into an awkward hush when I told them I grew up in Blacksburg, Va.I guess I don’t need to use the sign anymore.Don’t expect any profound thoughts – I didn’t go to Virginia Tech, I was back in Blacksburg for only a few days, and this is the first thing I’ve written since I semiretired from reviewing movies a year or so ago. But I did practically grow up on the Tech campus, spending 18 years in Blacksburg – far more time than in either town where I actually did attend college, and more than most Tech alums.It didn’t seem any less surreal when I was on campus looking at the memorials two Mondays ago. In a town with, what, 25,000 students and maybe about 15,000 full-time residents, it’s unthinkable to get off so lucky: My mom and dad are both retired (my dad from Tech; his office used to be in Randolph Hall, across the street from Norris). My mom’s best friend’s husband was wounded; two of my Indian friends and their families saw Dr. Loganathan – the first victim, they say – as almost an uncle. That’s as close as it got.Well, sort of. In another, less precise way, they got my hometown: My first two real jobs were at Tech: earning $2 for each tray of 20 Cokes I sold at football games back when the “Chokies” sucked; I unscrewed every smoke detector in West Ambler Johnson (and every other dorm on campus) to blow out the dust during the summers after my first two years of college. Now West A.J. isn’t just the dorm where my friends on the moving crew would pile up a shipment of mattresses and jump off the roof on their coffee breaks. Three Mondays ago, I was laying out a Nation & World page with locator maps illustrating downtown Blacksburg the same way they usually do downtown Baghdad.Everybody from Newt Gingrich to the Roaring Fork Peace Coalition guy has weighed in on what happened in my hometown. The only bones I have to pick are with the replacement column in the May 10 edition of The Aspen Times that Javier Marias wrote, probably from Madrid.First, if he thinks Blacksburg is an ominous name, I can’t imagine what he’d make of the weather and what we natives called it as a result – “Bleaksburg.” Second, he scoffs at the idea that “it was freelance militiamen wearing Daniel Boone hats who defeated Hitler.” Now, I’m about as close to a walking-stereotype flaming red liberal as they grow in southwest Virginia, but I’d suggest Javier read “Band of Brothers” – or better yet, check out the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, about an hour north of Blacksburg on his way to brave those ominous streets for another column.Third, and I guess maybe the closest thing I have to a point, Marias makes references to the shooter as “the Blacksburg nutter,” and other writers have cast him in the same vein. He’s just as much the Chantilly shooter (where he grew up), and that’s maybe one subtle difference between Tech and Columbine: I probably wasn’t the only one to think, briefly, “Dude – what is wrong with Littleton?” (Michael Moore did it for a couple of hours and called it “Bowling for Columbine.”) Blacksburg’s a little different: tiny town, big college that draws its enrollment from everywhere, so it’s hard to draw the line and call the shooting a product of Blacksburg.While I found the memorials heartbreaking (and the Scientologist handing out pamphlets at the corner of Main and College ominous), I guess I still don’t think of Blacksburg as a bad or a sad place to be from. Maybe because my family and friends got lucky, but maybe because it existed for 183 years before it became ominous.Now if they could just do something about the rain …Dan Thomas is a native of Blacksburg, Va., a copy editor at The Aspen Times and never once used the word “idyllic” in this column.


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