featuring the writing of Virginia Tolles

Train Spotting on a Friday Night

We would sit out at the train station in Manassas, Virginia, on Friday nights, watching the trains come through -- six Virginia Railway Express trains, two Amtrak trains (the northbound Cardinal and the southbound Crescent), and invariably one or two Norfolk Southern freight trains.

One couple would go into Alexandria on the afternoon Virginia Railway Express train, take photographs of even more passing rail traffic, then ride the last train out to Manassas. Now, that would have been fun!

The most fun of all was the Friday night before the Manassas Railway Festival, held in early June. Then, we would see private cars attached to the back of Amtrak's Cardinal as participants arrived for the big event. Amtrak invariably would have dropped off one or two of its newest cars to be toured at the festival.


The Washington DC Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society would have dropped off its heavyweight parlor car, the Dover Harbor, also for public touring. The regional model railroaders would be setting up their layout under a large tent in the parking lot of the train station.

And, then, we would walk across the tracks and into the City Cafe. There, Chef Robert would prepare some of the best cuisine we could have hoped to find. For many years, he was a chef in DC. Tired of the commute, he opened his own cafe in Manassas. His wife sold Mary Kay cosmetics and was aiming for the pink Cadillac! I wonder if she ever earned it???


I wrote this on June 7, 2017

Bug Out!


What a confusing storm! The weather map looked brutal, showing the storm as a large, deep-red mass in the Gulf of Mexico. The forecasters predicted it would move slowly ashore and dump two feet or more of water with damaging winds. Living on the ground floor with large windows and surrounded by large trees, we did the only logical thing: We bugged out!

To avoid those on exodus from New Orleans, we avoided I-55 and went up old Hwy 61. Beautiful, leisurely drive. The road has four lanes, now, but back in the day, when we traveled it to visit relatives, it had two lanes with ravines filled with kudzu. As we neared Port Gibson, the road narrowed down to two lanes, and the old scenes came back into focus. Delightful!

Port Gibson is a beautiful little town, offering the epitome of southern charm. In fact, Ulysses Grant refused to burn it during the Civil War, saying it was too pretty to burn. He was right. It is. The First Presbyterian Church is a beautiful Gothic Revival. At the top of its spire, instead of a cross, is a gold hand with the forefinger pointing up to Heaven.

Saturday morning dawned sunny. What was blooming right outside the window but beautiful rose bushes! Who could have asked for a nicer welcome to the new day? It was short-lived, though; within an hour, the clouds had moved in and were spitting raindrops. We continued east and obtained a pleasant hotel room east of Jackson. Quite unexpectedly, we were entertained by a M*A*S*H marathon that was airing on television. Hawkeye and pizza: a most relaxing way to while away a rainy night.

We drove back home in the rain yesterday -- spitting drops and sprinkles, until we reached the city limits. Then, ooh! What a downpour! We got off the highway and came in the back way. The only damage we found were a few downed twigs and a whole lot of gumballs. Such was the storm that defied prediction.

Was our bug out a waste? No. It gave us a chance to get away from our routine, enjoy beautiful scenes set amidst gently rolling hills, and "chill out." In fact, C said we need to take such a short trip every month. I'd like to go to the Gulf Coast next month -- but only if there are no hurricanes in the area.


Note:  The hurricane in question was Barry, which hit the Gulf Coast in Mid-July 2019.

I wrote this on July 15, 2019.

Keep It in Perspective


The most difficult thing for a writer is using the delete key - or the eraser end of a pencil, if that is your weapon of choice. Manuscripts are an author's baby. A woman I once worked with received a promotion out of editing and into management. As such, she was required to give up the newsletters she had created and maintained for many years. She was not a happy camper.


We feel the same way when we are called upon to tell in a one-page proposal what our 90,000-word book is about. "How can I omit that part?" we ask ourselves. "No! I can't leave that out! That's the best part!" And, yet, we must. If the publisher wants to read the entire manuscript, he or she will ask us to send it. That's a long way down the line from the proposal. They will ask for sample chapters, first.


I'm given pause to remember something that happened while I was editing in DC. I went to the office supply closet for some long-forgotten item. What did I see stacked on a shelf but the previous edition of a document I had just finished editing. It stood a foot tall -- and it was covered with a thick layer of dust. How sad, forlorn, and forgotten it appeared. A year earlier, people had stayed awake nights, worrying about that document.


My point is that we need to keep it in perspective. Yes, the project is our baby. Yes, we've spent sleepless nights worrying about it. Yes, we want it to be the earth-changing piece of literature that all authors dream their works will be. The truth, however, is that, in a very short period of time, it will be just another dusty document on just another shelf or just another forgotten file on just another hard drive. So, give it your best shot, but remember: Sometimes, love means letting go. If you have to cut part of the document to make it work, then cut it.


I wrote this on June 3, 2020.

Riding the Hills and Mountains

Oh, how I miss the hills! Mountains are even better. I remember a time, when we still lived in Virginia. We were driving over the Blue Ridge on Route 50 and coasted down the western side of the mountains. We were in Missy, of course, and she would tell us how many miles per gallon we were getting based on the driving conditions. Going down that glide path, we got 99 miles per gallon!

Most of all, I miss riding on Route 29, between Culpeper and Charlottesville -- the way the road was before they reworked it. The two-lane road had been four-laned with the addition of two more lanes. The old side was steeper than the new side and was almost like riding The Mouse at the carnival. Up and down, up and down. Route 69 between Tyler and Lufkin in Texas has some of that, except that the hills aren't as steep as they are on Route 29 in Virginia.

The stretch on Route 69 that rises from prairie land and into the hills is steep and winding and very much takes me back to Old Virginny -- but not as much as riding on old Route 71 in northwest Arkansas, between Bentonville and some ten miles inside the Missouri state line. I feel like I'm riding on Route 522 in West Virginia, along the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

Some places do resemble other places, like that. The twinning that most stands out for me is Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, as it sits on the banks of the Potomac River, and Jefferson City, Missouri, as it sits on the banks of the Missouri River. The steep climb up the hillside is very similar, but the colonial architecture is absolutely striking. Maybe the same people settled in both places? That's a possibility, for old Route 40 and newer I-70 run within a few miles of both locations. The western expansion, you know.



I wrote this on April 25, 2017.

The Typewriter and Beyond

A few days ago, the Farmer’s Almanac honored inventor Christopher Latham Sholes for the patent he received on June 23, 1868, for the first “type-writer.” Being in my wiseapple mood that day, I commented, as follows:

"Little did he realize the enormity of the Pandora's Box he was opening. First, the new invention put veteran scribes out of work. As if that wasn't enough, trees were chopped down to provide paper to roll over the platens of the confounded gadgets.

"And, then, when it seemed as though both the economy and the forests had recovered from the shock of it all, another man invented another contraption known as the personal computer. With borrowed keyboard technology from the typewriter, the personal computer put the secretaries, bookkeepers, draftsmen, and others out of work. If any advantage came from the personal computer, it was that fewer trees were felled with the advent of the paperless office."

As I wrote those lines, it occurred to me that the invention of the typewriter must have been seen as an unwelcome intrusion into the lives of those 19th century citizens. In a day and age when beautiful penmanship was valued highly, along came a clattering contraption with irregular letters that were made more irregular by the varying strength of the fingers that typed them.

Similarly, the personal computer might well be said to have helped to foster the women’s liberation movement. No longer were support positions available for those who needed to work. Now, those working women were pushed into the professional ranks, where they still would have to type; albeit, their own reports. Women who came along before women’s liberation and had too many responsibilities of home and family to go back to school to study for one of those professions were left out in the cold – much as those 19th century scribes were a hundred years before.

A Pandora’s Box, indeed!


And, yet, we know that, besides death and taxes, the only thing that is constant in life is change. Today, even personal computers are passé. Except for a few of us who came up on typewriters and feel we can only type on full-sized keyboards, typists have come to use smaller and smaller computerized keyboards. Indeed, typing has reached the point where the touch typing method developed by Frank McGurrin is reserved for serious typing, while most daily typing is done with two fingers on hand-held, flat-screen images of McGurrin’s QWERTY keyboard.

Yes! The two-fingered method of hunting and pecking has returned!

Where will written communication go from here? We can only imagine, although one suggestion is the improvement of voice-activated typing. Instead of hunting and pecking or touch typing, one would simply speak into a microphone and leave the typing to a machine. The technology has been around for several decades, yet it remains grossly imperfect in its search for familiar words not necessarily the words spoken. The problem is that no two people speak alike, and the machine cannot discern the different enunciations. Until a system is devised that makes that distinction, it seems likely that voice-activated typing and its applications, including closed captioning, will not emerge from beta testing.

This article was typed using Frank McGurrin’s touch typing method upon a personal computer using a full-sized keyboard.


I wrote this article on June 25, 2016.

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