By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
In a few days, many West Virginians will celebrate the state’s 150th birthday. June 20, 1863, was a critical moment in U.S. history. Americans of both the North and the South had been fighting a bloody Civil War for more than two years at that point. Just 41 days before West Virginia became a state, the Confederate Army lost one of its most successful leaders, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. At about that same time, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was closing in on Vicksburg and two great armies were inching closer to the pivotal battle of the war that started on July 1, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pa., just 10 days after the 35th state entered the Union.
My family was among the hundreds of people who sat on small bleachers at the Manassas, Va., battlefield and suffered through 100-plus degree temperatures to observe the July 21, 1961, anniversary of the first Battle of Bull Run. A photographer from the Washington Post took a picture of my dad sitting in the stands and it appeared in the paper a day later. Dad had put a white handkerchief over his head and stuck its tips in the corners of his mouth to keep it from blowing away. The caption read: “Carl W. Archer of Claysville, Penna., shows how to beat the heat at the re-enactment of the Battle of Bull Run.”
We were there for the national reunion of the 94th Infantry Division, the outfit dad served with during World War II. I was 12 years old at the time and running a 58-acre farm with a dozen head of cattle, 30 sheep, 30 chickens and one horse. The three-day trip was an escape for me after we put up our first cutting of hay. I don’t recall anything else about the trip except the ride home when a service station attendant pointed out that dad’s picture was in the paper. We bought a copy, and I still have it in a metal box where dad kept important papers to protect them from fire.
Two years later in 1963, I traveled with a bunch of cigar-smoking men in the Washington, Pa., Civil War Roundtable to the 100th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. I recall that it was not an overnight trip and, I also recall, it was much more pleasant temperature wise than the Manassas trip. It was a time of transition for our family. A few months later, we would move from our farm on Beeham Ridge to a house in town. I worked on farms after that, but I only worked for pay and not my daily bread.
Five years later, June proved to be a life-changing month for me again. I didn’t do well during my first year in college. I had been told by the doctor who operated on my knee that I would never be eligible for military service, and I was generally adrift in my life. I didn’t want to work after seeing my failing college grades, so I took a Greyhound bus from Stubenville, Ohio to Nashville, Tenn., and prayed that God would show me a sign and give me a direction for my life.
Instead, when I saw no sign on the streets of Nashville, I walked to the nearest entrance ramp to I-40. The first person who stopped for me said he stopped because he saw “West Virginia” on my gym bag. It was just a gym bag. I had never given it much thought before. He told me that as long as I showed that sign, people would always help me get back to West Virginia.
The guy drove me all the way to Cedar Bluff, Va., and from there, I hitched and hiked through Bluefield and Princeton to Charleston. I passed through Morgantown on my way to Wildwood, N.J., and returned to Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., where the reception I got was less than cordial. A gentleman I met at the gate said I needed to pay to get into the grounds. Instead of paying, I sat outside the entrance, wrote poetry and eventually met some University of Maryland college students at a free Jerry Butler concert. The Terrapins took pity on me and carried me back to College Park with them. We dined in a fine restaurant where we ate roast duck and drank wine — a first time for me on both counts.
They said they were nice to me because of my West Virginia gym bag, and after flunking out of college and getting reinstated as a probationary student, I started my quest to discover why West Virginia the state had been willing to accept me when I was mostly a misfit everywhere else. I wasn’t born here, neither was my dad, and his parents immigrated from Russia. However, my mom graduated from Bethany High School in Bethany, W.Va., and something about being here made me want to strive to be worthy of the acceptance I have received through the years.
My dad found his identity in the U.S. Army, and he taught us to revere Memorial Day because of what it means to the military. I still hold that date as sacred just like I love Christmas, Easter, Independence Day and Labor Day, but I also love June 20th — West Virginia Day. It’s the date that the state that accepted me was itself, accepted into the United States. To me, that makes it one special day.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.