(The following feature story originally appeared in The TReehouse Magazine in October 2010. Many of the photographs published here did not run at the time, but were taken during my reporting.)
SUFFOLK, Va. – Driver Variety Store came apart when a tornado tore through Suffolk in April 2008. Inside the store was a man named Leroy Schmidt, already known locally as a leading commentator of goings on at City Hall. Now he is also a man whose life is an example of the strange mercies that sometimes walk hand in hand with destruction. That day, buildings came open like books, roofs peeled away, boats and cars and refrigerators took to the air, and millions of dollars in damage was done. Yet no one died, not even Schmidt, a regular who was minding the store while Craig Parker made a Food Lion run. Schmidt had the TV on, which he figures saved his life. After hearing the tornado warning, he stepped out front and looked west. He saw a black sky and thought about driving away, but didn’t. Everything seemed still and dark and quiet. He couldn’t hear birds, and the trees in the distance appeared to be opening up. Back inside, he dove into a pile of clothes and lay flat as he heard a sound that resembled a jet engine reversing. Then the building exploded. When the roof came off, there was a whistling noise and a crash. But within seconds, it was over. He was pulled, dazed, from the rubble by the owner of a neighboring business. Much of the downtown business district—built, in a way, around business run by the Parkers, was damaged.
Over the last two years, a mix of gumption, elbow grease and insurance has returned Driver to its former self, minus the trees. Most businesspeople I spoke with recently said they hoped the trees would be replanted. But now, a new storm is brewing for Suffolk, which has grown in population and average income due in part to high-tech jobs situated in the city’s north near Joint Force Command. On one of my visits to Suffolk in August, the front pages of the two local newspapers that cover the area regularly, The Virginian-Pilot and The Suffolk News-Herald, proclaimed the bad news for the possible closure of military command: “6,000 JOBS AT RISK” and “ON THE BLOCK.”
Not all blows are so heavy as the potential shuttering of a military command, but the destruction of Driver Variety is significant in its own way. Craig Parker’s business, run for years with his father, the late Red Parker, stocked ammunition, hardware, military surplus, and fishing and hunting supplies, among other things. Driver Variety was a meeting place that drew villagers, bikers, retirees, veterans, shipyard workers, and was among the many businesses where this land-rich city, seeking to reach its far-flung residents, used to deliver copies of proposed budgets for convenient public review.
Though it is uncertain whether it ever will return to its former glory, Driver Variety has managed to survive in a smaller form. Craig Parker, who recently turned 61, began selling from a tent on the spot where the building once stood, and then, roughly a year ago, relocated into a smaller space diagonally across the intersection. This is just across the street from Arthur’s General Store, another longtime Parker family business run by Craig’s 56-year-old brother, Gregory A. Parker. When I visited, the new incarnation of Driver Variety featured an old sign resting in the grass and against the front wall of its present home, beneath an air conditioner that dripped on the army green sandbags holding the sign fast. This sign shows the address as 3056 Kings Highway, where Driver Variety stood for nearly 100 years, though the present address is one half of 3117 Kings Highway. Consider it a kind of hope.
The possibility of rebuilding Driver Variety may rest downtown, in the courthouse, where the variety store’s civil suit against an insurance company and an insurance broker will be decided. Well over two years after the tornado, Craig Parker’s insurance claim is unpaid, and the suit, which had been in a judge’s chambers when I viewed it, seems to rest on details of the policy and whether the tornado “exploded” Driver Variety. Parker hopes it will be resolved soon. A hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m., Oct. 19. As if these challenges were not enough, he is also fighting cancer.
Craig Parker and his loyal customers have continued to congregate in Driver, one of the many places in our region where people come together and form communities. Craig Parker has gathered the threads of this place that means so much to him into three notebooks, penning a kind of autobiography told through this place and the people it has brought into his life. As my former colleague at The Pilot, Phyllis Speidel, once wrote:
The Parker family have been merchants on the crossroads for almost a century.
The book Craig Parker has written tells a piece of that heritage through the people at those crossroads, neighbors all.
Driver was once an agricultural center with a rail line that ran into downtown. Like other communities now within the boundaries of modern Suffolk, it has seen its share of the residential growth that has come to characterize areas of the former Nansemond County. Yet after decades of change, Driver retains a country character by design. It does so despite two financial setbacks, one universal and the other local: the poor American economy and the 2005 closure of the Kings Highway Bridge, a major route into the village that carried thousands of cars between Chuckatuck, another village, and here. Nature, too, has had her moments, particularly the tornado in 2008. Today, the former site of Driver Variety Store is now an empty lot at the crossroads of Driver Lane and Kings Highway. It would be the last business to recover.
Businesses radiating from this intersection anchor a community of churches, schools, and a relatively nearby fire station and postal office, as well as subdivisions such as Driver Station, and generally they speak to the character of Driver. Urban Design Associates, a city consultant whose fingers have touched up the maps of many Hampton Roads cities, designed a 2002 Driver Village Initiatives Plan. Strengths identified by Driver locals during that process were telling. They cited friendly, concerned residents; a strong sense of community; quaint small town living, and the Driver Days festival that draws people to the village. (The 17th annual festival is scheduled for Oct. 23-24, 2010.) Craig Parker, who helped found the festival, chaired the steering committee for the plan.
But Driver is more than a collection of businesses and houses with an annual festival. For Craig Parker, this is home because of family and friends. His experiences of the larger world, too, are informed by this village and by its villagers. To enter Driver Variety, as it exists now, is to enter a gauntlet of men in chairs, facing each other as they talk, laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Many of them are older than Parker—men who once congregated across the intersection, some of them for decades.
“I miss the store,” Craig Parker said. “I miss it a lot. It’s been a big lifestyle change. … As Hank Williams Jr. said, a family tradition. My father’s friends. Now my father’s gone. They’re my friends.”
Parker introduced me to one of those men during an August visit.
“Mr. Cobb, he’s 88,” Parker said.
“I’m what?” asked Carlton Cobb, retired from the shipyard.
“You’re 88, right?”
“I’ll be 89 next month,” Cobb said. “Let me tell you about people in Driver. They’re different. I hope a little of it will rub off on me. Nice people. They don’t go for frills or anything like that.” He motioned to Craig Parker. “And he’s one of the kings who needs a crown for being up here.”
The men spoke of a neighbor who had a tent, the tent Craig Parker sold his wares from after the storm and before moving in here.
“I guess we didn’t go out of business,” Craig Parker said.
The men talked about the old heavy wood-burning stove, a centerpiece at Driver Variety that not even a tornado could take away. The stove is now in another business for safekeeping.
“There’s been many a tale told around that stove,” Craig Parker said.
It’s a bit tough to describe what the variety store looked like inside before the storm, as it was truly packed with a wide variety of merchandise—sometimes it seemed incongruously so. Al Hollis, a regular, put it best. “You couldn’t focus on anything, they had so much in there,” he said.
“You ever decide what your title is going to be?” Cobb asked Parker.
“Yeah,” Craig Parker replied. “‘Cobb is a Goofball.’”
The men in the store laughed.
“These guys are in there,” Parker said, speaking of the book.
On one visit, Parker let me read sections of his manuscript. They were written in longhand, in one notebook. A friend is typing the contents of another notebook into a computer. Parker told me his gathered stories go all the way up to the tornado. It is episodic in nature, and at times the lives of people he know are the episodes.
Writing it has been therapeutic, he said. He has written about death, about people who are gone but so clearly remembered. His grandmother when he was a child. His parents, lost within months of each other. A sister, Sherri, killed in a hit and run accident in 1993. His daughter, Heather, who died from cancer in 1995 when she was 22.
He sang a piece of one of his late sister’s favorite songs, by The Beatles:
Some are dead and some are living / In my life I’ve loved them all.
He wrote to keep busy and to keep his mind off of things, he said, and because it is said you should write what you know.
“Unfortunately, I know about losing people,” Craig Parker said.
In Arthur’s General Store, which bears the name of Craig and Greg Parker’s grandfather, Irvin T. Arthur, Greg Parker showed me a piece of Driver’s past, one section of the old mail boxes from when the general store was also the post office and the late Mr. Arthur was Driver’s postmaster. It was a handsome wood creation with individual boxes that used two alphabetized combination dials to unlock. Now a bit of decor, it stood near a window so light shone through the open back, where mail would be placed for pickup.
In its heyday, the store employed as many as a dozen people. Though only two people were working there when I visited, the store retains a country feel, with various provisions, goods, an ice cream counter and a deli.
“Things like this are getting to be fewer and farther between,” Greg Parker said. The Parker brothers worked together in the store, before Craig joined their parents at Driver Variety, across the street. Greg Parker’s business was hit by the storm, though his has been rebuilt. The roof was peeled off, and winds blew through the front of the store, effectively dumping stock in the back section, with candy racks settling in the deli. “We held up better than most,” Greg Parker said, estimating the damage at $75,000. He is among the many Driver community members who are trying to maintain interest in the village through events. A musician, he has held musical gatherings outside many evenings.
Norman Pearce, the 44-year-old owner of Suffolk Appliance, opened in Driver in 1997, in the space where Driver Variety presently operates, and moved to a larger building across the street, which also is owned by the Parker family. Over the years, he has survived flooding during Hurricane Floyd, a city sewer backup that pushed muck through the sink and toilet and out to the street, and Hurricane Isabel winds that rolled the roof back and destroyed office equipment.
“I miss it a lot,” Pearce said of Driver Variety. “That’s where I used to get my hunting supplies. We used to go over there and get fittings for work.”
Pearce can commiserate with Craig Parker in another area: insurance. With Floyd, Pearce had no flood insurance; with Isabel he lacked coverage for winds over 75 miles per hour; with the sewer backup, Pearce said, insurance said it was an act of nature and the city’s responsibility.
“I bet you didn’t know those loopholes,” Pearce said.
Down the street, in the old village train master’s house, Joan Mayo co-owns The Knot Hole Station Ltd. (www.knotholestation.com) with her son, Ken Parsons, who in a workshop across the street builds the lovely furnishings filling their spacious country store. Said Mayo, regarding the bridge, “It’s very hard for the customers who live in Chuckatuck and Smithfield. … It’s been a lot slower since then, and of course the economy hasn’t helped any, but we are still here.”
Mayo, whose store opened in 1976, wishes more people would come here, of course. “It’s out of the way anymore – we hear that a lot,” she said, again regarding the bridge. “The economy is the big thing. People are just not out to spend money.”
Craig Parker, too, cited the economy and the bridge, which cut off Chuckatuck from Driver.
“I don’t believe anybody’s doing the business they used to do,” he said.
A country store, and antique store, a variety store, a general store, etc. – these are sources of Driver’s character. In 2002, when residents told the city how they wanted Driver to evolve, priorities included caution regarding commercial development that might clash with the village character. The bridge, the economy, the twister aside, that survives here, even if some of the people who used to support these businesses are having a tougher time finding it.
“We would like to see some more people come out and not forget that we’re here,” Mayo said. “You don’t want to be forgotten.”
During one visit, shortly before I read sections of the book, Craig Parker played track number six from the CD Surry Tunes, in which a local musician performed a song called “Red’s Variety Store.” “This song is written about my father,” he said, and the song captured images of Red Parker in his environment in a methodical and unhurried tune.
After the song—and after a customer seeking a green military-style sweater was assisted – Craig Parker had something else to show. It was a relic retrieved from the debris of Driver Variety, a book from the wedding of a great uncle. In the book, among other things, it is a note that was hanging on the door of the store the day of the wedding, Nov. 27, 1947, as the family store was closed. Among the guests listed beside the ledger of their wedding gifts is Miss Virginia Arthur, Craig Parker’s late mother, who contributed a fork. She married into the Parker family herself the following February.
Craig Parker handed over part of his own book, written in longhand.
The stories generally were about people he has known or events, organized by topic.
There is a Mr. Strickland, born to humble roots in the hills of North Carolina, who killed Thanksgiving and Christmas birds with a slingshot because his family could not afford ammunition.
There is Brian Beverly and Tony Collins, who “pulled up to the Driver Variety Store on their motorcycles one afternoon six years ago. The two friends are now in their 70s and they are still riding their Harleys.” Parkers gets “worried if I don’t see Brian for a few days and I call him at home. It is enjoyable to spend time with someone like Brian because he is the same person every day and he is satisfied with his life.”
Charlie Taylor, Parker wrote, “is a good example of the service people who sacrifice a tremendous amount of their lives so we can enjoy the freedom we have in our country.” Noting that Taylor does not back down from challenges, Parker added, “I am very glad he is my friend.”
He commemorates the late Stretch, a seven-footer whose nickname came rather from “the outlandish tales he would tell.”
And a friend who wanted to be a farmer “is happy wearing bib overalls and talking to his customers.”
Craig Parker has a section on going through radiation with his daughter, and on many other losses of loved ones and friends. Such as the variety store.
“Goodbye old friend,” he told me, reciting part of that section. “I felt like you almost felt like it happened and I wasn’t there, like I let the place down.”
This was his father’s old variety store, after all.
“I always felt safe with him,” Parker told me, speaking of the late Red Parker. “I think we’re here because he used to be here.”
Craig Parker had work at the Navy yard, but said he came back to the family businesses as a younger man because his mother asked him. “I don’t have that Navy yard retirement, but if I had stayed with the yard I would not have had the time with my daughter, especially when she was sick, and I know I wouldn’t have had that time with my father.”
Parker said he wanted to commemorate things that mattered to him, things that have taught him a meaning of life. The lesson, despite losses, is clear.
“There is always hope,” he said.
Shortly after the tornado, Dave Forster of The Pilot reported that winds had reached about 160 miles per hour, and that the initial damage estimate was more than $20 million in Suffolk. As the extent of damage became clearer that number rose, and some relatively minor damage had been sustained in neighboring cities. There were some 200 injuries from the tornado, and six of them were serious or worse, but no deaths. More than 1,000 homes were damaged, and nearly 150 homes were uninhabitable. “We were lucky,” Mayor Linda Johnson told Forster. The word on many lips was not luck, but miracle, particularly given the utter destruction of Driver Variety Store and, as seen from here, the survival of Leroy Schmidt. (Schmidt and I caught up at Driver Variety in August. He said he has been away from City Hall for years, but may head back to give them a piece of his mind.)
Craig Parker may never rebuild Driver Variety to what it once was, but the stories he has gathered are a kind of reclamation of that place, and one that is as much about people as it is commerce. Among the stories that caught my attention was Parker’s reflection on the death of Buddy Holly. I asked Parker about this and he said, “I write about people I don’t even know. I know enough about them. I’ll put it this way: you don’t know Beethoven but if you read enough and study it it’s almost like you know them.”
And he never forgot the day Buddy Holly died.
“The thing I remember most about … Buddy Holly’s death is how sad all of the teenagers looked that day. Every teenager looked as if he or she had suddenly lost their best friend.”
I was only nine years old, but I felt the same way the teenagers felt. I knew the three rock n rollers were not that much older than the teenagers I saw on the school bus headed to Chuckatuck High School six miles away. … (Buddy Holly) was a shooting star with a brightness.
Once when he visited his sister’s grave, a Buddy Holly song came on the radio. It may be coincidence, but Parker sees it as a moment with meaning.
“I always felt I had an easier time wearing glasses because Buddy Holly wore glasses,” Parker told me.
What struck me about the passage on Holly was not just Parker’s affinity for the musician, but how he experienced that universal loss through Driver and the reaction of the older kids of his community. We are shaped in many ways by the places we come from and the people these places bring into orbit around us. When I asked him about his love of Driver, he spoke repeatedly of other people.
“I like it here,” he said. “I used to tell myself I didn’t want to leave here. I’ve got no ambition to live in Los Angeles.”
He spoke of his village while he sat behind the desk in the place that carries the Driver Variety Store name and its memories. Recessions, bridges and winds do not kill these things. They live in what we reconstruct, either with bricks and mortar or with the words that survive us.
“The Indians, the Sioux, when a child was little it was like the child belonged to the tribe,” Craig Parker told me, sitting beneath a photograph of his father, among friends, within his village and his city, in what is left of the store that was the epicenter of many of the little stories that comprise a greater story. He is telling that story even now, how it is only through others we find everything that breathes life into a place.
“Maybe, in a way, we were a tribe,” he said.