Summer Journeys: Flying in summer

Officially, on the calendar, summer is sticking around for a couple more weeks. But with another Labor Day now in the past, the summer vacation season has indeed passed. Fun and carefree getaways, yes — and we all need those. But often journeys lead to unique, unexpected, meaningful experiences far beyond what was on the itinerary. This summer, by happenstance, Rappahannock residents shared such tales with this newspaper…

By Stephanie Slewka

Halfway through his concert, Lyle Lovett strolled center stage in shirtsleeves and in a deadpan drawl quizzed musicians in His Large Band. He asked Brad Leali, professor of jazz saxophone at the University of North Texas and an African-American, how the future looked from the vantage point of someone who interacts with young people every day. “The future looks bright,” Leali replied.

It’s hard to say whether that comment jangled the nerves of Charlottesville residents. The sweltering night air was tight with the fear, if not the possibility, of violence. Heather Heyer was killed not far from the concert during a white nationalist rally. Her funeral had been held that morning a few blocks away.

Lovett told the audience that resilient Charlottesville residents were a testament to the country’s citizens. He ended his concert with hymns belted at full volume, a touch of balm for the crowd.

The next morning, hymns ringing in my ears, I boarded a plane from Charlottesville bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. Scrunched against the window of the small commuter jet was an African-American man from central Louisiana sporting a new University of Virginia t-shirt. With his wife, who was in the back of the plane, he had helped their eighteen-year old son settle in his dorm at UVA. The pro-white rally that had turned violent was not something he wanted to talk about, at least to a stranger.

The father spent near on two decades working in a cardboard factory making laundry detergent boxes. The son had graduated from a new program at the local high school that gave him a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. The boy had a scholarship to study aerospace engineering and French. He could have gone to college closer by family in Louisiana but chose UVA where he did not know a soul for its superior aerospace program.

The idea of studying French seemed a bit puzzling to the father, but aerospace was a given. “He wants to be the first man on Mars,” he announced with pride and awe and the glint of possibility in his eye.

On my next flight from Charlotte to Denver, a white preacher from South Carolina was stuffed into the middle seat. A nervous flyer, he needed to talk to distract himself. I indulged him.

We talked about hunting and dogs — he got a lump in his throat showing pictures of the Labrador retriever he had to have euthanized the month before. We talked about the opioid epidemic that had touched even his family, and politics.

A proud son of the South from a town that was a supply hub for the Confederate Army in the Civil War, he had voted for Donald Trump because he could not bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton. She embodied corruption, he thought.

It would be a long flight in tight quarters so I decided to ask questions rather than engage in debate. His town was almost half African-American. The preacher said that his church had “embarrassingly few” black parishioners.

“We’re trying to find ways to change that,” he added. Almost in the next breath he said he’d discovered that a relative was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. “There are more of us than you know,” the relative had admonished him. It sounded like a threat.

I told the preacher about the African-American kid from Louisiana who wanted to become the first man on Mars. The preacher nodded and sincerely wished him luck.

Maybe the future does look bright for the next generation.

Slewka is an award-winning television producer and writer who lives in Woodville.

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