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Of Times Gone By

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Back in the 80's when I was still laying brick most of the year and cutting, splitting and selling firewood through the coldest months, I lived in a sleepy little town of 2000 souls called Purcellville, Virginia. It was nestled in the foothills between Washington, DC and Winchester, Virginia.

The, then top secret, underground facility known as Mount Weather - run by FEMA, was just a mountain ridge away near Bluemont, Virginia. In the event of all-out war, elite civilian and military leaders were to be taken to Mount Weather's cavernous underground shelter on the eighty-five acre facility to become the nucleus of a postwar American society (boy is that a scary thought – the establishment of a purely sociopathic society...)

Many of my fellow church members worked there. If they were hesitant to talk of their job, you knew that they worked either there or the equally top secret and guarded AT&T communication tower which would telescope up out of another mountain ridge after a nuclear blast. On a couple of occasions, our masonry company performed work at Mount Weather on the above ground barracks - you know where the expendable Army folk resided...

Maury Safer blew the lid off of Mount Weather in the late 80's for a 60 minutes episode and almost got his helicopter shot down in the process, as he hovered taking pictures of the obscure blast door that blended in so nicely with the mountain side. News people...

As a side note: On December 1, 1974, in heavy fog a TWA Boeing 727 jet crashed into the side of Mount Weather, killing all ninety-two persons aboard. It also knocked out power on Mount Weather, which started as much alarm as when one stirs up an ant hill. Getting to the wreckage to put out the fire and clean up the mess, became a top security issue and ordeal, which really slowed down the process. One of my fellow seminarians was fire chief then and dealt with awful nightmares for years after that incident, as there were so few willing to deal with the carnage for more than a day or so. We used to drive the scenic road that went the length of the ridge of Mount Weather from Route 7 to Route 50 on our way to church, and always paused to see the trees all mowed down by that jet and the huge boulder that it slid into. If it had not been for that boulder, the survival rate might have been different. It was always a somber moment as we drove by that spot.

The downtown area of Purcellville consisted of about four blocks of commercial buildings including a lumber yard and hardware store, a restaurant called the White Castle, and a few other offices. The waitress at the White Castle, Florence, was in her sixties and could serve the entire restaurant and never write down a single order. She was amazing.

At the other end of town was a newer strip shopping center (1960's) with a Safeway and a few other stores. Between those two commercial areas were lovely four square homes once owned by doctors, attorneys and store owners. From the center of town, two roads forked around a magnificent field stone Methodist church with an equally magnificent bell tower and steeple. The road to the right led to Middleburg and Upperville, where the rich and famous hob knobbed and the road to the left went down to North Fork, which was nothing more than an intersection and an abandoned Primitive Baptist Church. A fellow bought that church and used grant money to renovate the main part of the building, which would be open to the public, as an historic site, and converted the choir loft into a residence for him and his wife. I re-pointed quite a bit of the brickwork and restored its two deteriorated masonry fireplaces.

Middleburg, was where "old money" resided, with last names one might see on a candy bar package, in the rolls of Congress or on a the front of a bank. You could always tell the "old money" wealthy of Virginia from the "want to be" rich. I'd often jokingly tell visitors, "See that fellow over there in the coveralls and gum boots getting into that thirty year old Mercedes? He's rich." So rich he paid someone else to worry about and keep track of how rich he was. He didn't occupy his time with such trivialities. Suits were for church, weddings, funerals and little else. Khakis and a button down shirt with loafers was dressed up for that gang.

The Safeway in Purcellville was like the bank back then. Most folks brought in their paycheck to the grocery store where Safeway was thrilled to cash it knowing that a great deal of it was about to be spent right there.

One day a dump truck, trailer and backhoe appeared at the top of the Safeway parking lot. It sat there for several days and no one really thought much of it. But, after the grocery store closed on Friday night, the owner of that truck and backhoe executed his meticulously thought out scheme. He began by going to the police station, where he flattened the tires of the off-duty patrol car. Then, he went just out of town a bit and flattened the tires of the on-duty police car, which was parked in front of a home it wasn't supposed to be in front of and the officer was busy inside doing something he DEFINITELY wasn't supposed to be doing with someone he wasn't supposed to be doing it with. [:-party]

He returned to his backhoe and drove it off the trailer and right through the Safeway storefront – bricks, glass and all. Back then the office was nothing more than a few free-standing cubical walls, which he pushed aside with ease. He then neatly scooped up the safe, put it in his dump truck, loaded up the trailer and headed for parts unknown. He was never caught and the amount of loot he got was never disclosed.

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