On that far-off night in August of 1962, the moon floated huge and yellow over dark Virginia forests that stretched away and away to the glittering broad Potomac River. Chip Thompson and I trudged along the shoulder of US Route 301 from the Circle toward Dahlgren. We were sixteen. The county—King George County in the Tidewater—was mostly woods and creeks, less populated than now, simpler. Three-Oh-One was still two-lane, the main drag from Maine to Florida. Before us it ran like a determined snake up and down the hills to the Potomac River Bridge into Maryland.
Chip was a country boy with no sense or particular prospects but we both had the wildness of our years on us and sometimes adventured together. He was broad-shouldered and buzz-cut and had a rural economy of expression that Twain would have recognized. “Come on, Ricky,” he would say (I was then called Ricky), “You’re slower’n dead lice.” Or, “Damn, my granny’s slow, but she’s dead.”
I guess it was two a.m. Traffic had long since died except for the big semi rigs on the interstate hauls. The Circle, really a wide spot with a few stores, had shut down. Chip and I had gotten there in my ’53 Chevy, a rounded and matronly barge, two-tone dirt brown, and in need of rings, where she had mysteriously quit.
We decided to walk the ten miles or so home to where 206 intersected the highway. He lived up the hill past Owens, I to the right toward the navy base. The distance was no problem. We were both basketball tough and spent our days on or in the creeks. The pull of the dark countryside was on us. In the spring of life the night appeals powerfully to young bucks, being a time of freedom and vague portent of you didn’t know what, which was the appeal. It was a big feeling to be alone in the world, rocking in the windblast of the trucks and the singing of the tires.
We hoofed it, gravel crunching underfoot in the silence.
In those days, boys early got cars of sorts. The county was a place of distances. The nearest real town was Fredericksburg, 27 miles from my home, the Circle ten, Colonial Beach 17. The country kids lived in farms and side-roads betwixt and between. We lived in our cars too, and loved them. On a Saturday night we might drive to Freddyburg to cruise Hojo’s, back to Colonial Beach just to keep moving, down to Gus’s Esso to see who was working the graveyard shift. If you had a date you parked in one of various isolated spots known to all, and did much less than you let on later. Otherwise you drove endlessly through the night for the sheer independence of it, for the feeling of being alone and left alone.
We knew the roads and we knew each other’s cars. We reveled in the odd comradeship of winding along the wooded narrow curves of 218 and having headlights come out of the night and it was Charlie Peyton’s ’57 Chev, baaaad 283, and disappear into the evening. With a two-second glimpse of grill or tail we could tell you the year, make, most probable and biggest engine, and prospects in a drag race.
But the Pluke Bucket—for so my tired Chevy was called—had expired.
On and on Chip and I walked in the silence. Bugs hollered in the trees, but bugs don’t count as noise. Our talk was mostly of girls and cars, yet once he said, “Ain’t it great, Ricky? Bein’ so free and all?” It was. The night brooded around us, full of hunting things and lives that had nothing to do with us. We started into the hills that rise and fall before the river. Soon we could hear the eighteen-wheelers as they reached bottom, double-clutching into low gears for the up-haul, then the roaring and thudding of diesel stacks. It was a grownup sound in a grownup world which we were on the verge on entering.
Cresting a hill, we looked down the dropping highway to the valley of the next. The road at the bottom was shining. In the brilliant moonlight, yes, the cooling asphalt lay speckled with a gleaming that made no sense, like drops of mercury or glowing dew. We had never seen anything like it. Nor would again.
Consumed by curiosity, we finally reached the outliers of the strange luminescence. I looked down and saw…a pickle-jar top, such as you find on jars of pickles in stores. Thousands of them lay on the dark asphalt, shining in the moonlight.
Understanding came. Back in the other direction, past the Circle, was what we called the Pickle Factory. It was a bottling operation for Mount Rose Pickles, where the stronger county boys sometimes worked. Apparently a delivery truck carrying jar tops had jackknifed in the road and flipped. The truck was gone, but the pickle tops were everywhere.
It had never occurred to us that pickle tops had to come from somewhere and that whole trucks full of them might exist. In some distant state people spent their lives making pickle tops just as inhabitants of the county fished and crabbed. Here was the industrial belly of the pickle business.
For ten minutes we kicked at pickle tops, scraped them with out feet, picked them up and threw them saucerishly into the woods. No trucks came. We were alone with a thousand pickle tops glowing eerily at the moon with bugs keening in the black foliage. I think we both knew that here was a moment never to be repeated, something that maybe had never happened to anyone before.
Then we kept on down the highway. Dawn lay ahead and I wanted to be in through my window to avoid explanations. In those days you could still see the stars. They gave a sense of mystery to the great universe arching over the dark land. We could hear water trickling in low boggy spots toward Machodoc Creek and there was nobody else in the world. Just us.