In late autumn 1989, I was asked to start writing a weekly column, the subject of which I could choose.
I decided to write about local history, the more obscure the better. The first Yesteryears column appeared on Nov. 12, 1989.
After more than 1,200 editions, this will be the last. I’ve written many more feature stories, but I see Yesteryears as my signature accomplishment at The Daily Progress.
Every story I have ever written has taught me something about life. My column has taught me things of the heart.
Not long after I started writing it, an elderly woman came up to me. She told me about a relative who had brought dishonor to her family’s name decades before.
She knew it was just a matter of time before I learned about it. All she asked was that I consider the pain it would cause innocent members of her family if I brought it back into the light.
I didn’t mention that I already knew the story, had gathered all the information and planned to run the piece within a few weeks. I never wrote that story, but it taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life.
That lesson: Just because I could didn’t mean I should. One person’s history can be another person’s pain, and it’s a hurt that can last for more than a lifetime.
After I came to that understanding, I always thought of how my own family would react if a particular story was about one of our relatives, living or dead. That guideline caused the death of more than one story, none of which I regret.
My goal for Yesteryears was to provide you, our readers, with an enjoyable way to learn about our local history, and celebrate the people who created it. If I had to choose one story to personify the column, I would select the one I did on Hobert William Clements.
I was told about the World War I veteran in February 1990. I reached the Albemarle County farmer by telephone and said I’d like to write a story about him and his war experiences.
Mr. Clements told me that he never talked about the war. I told him I was an Army combat veteran, too, and that I completely understood his position.
Then I added that, in my view, he owed it to history to speak on the record about what it had been like for him. The silent pause that followed lasted so long I started to think he had walked away from the telephone.
Finally, I heard him say, “All right; let me give you the directions to my place.” The afternoon I arrived, many members of Mr. Clements’ family were there, none of whom had ever heard him say a word about the war.
What followed was one of the most moving and amazing examples of raw, human emotions I have ever witnessed. As the retired farmer told us about the horrors of trench warfare, it was so quiet in the room that I heard a muffled gasp.
“I remember advancing over people, wounded and bleeding, who were probably going to die,” Mr. Clements had said. “Oh, yes, I’ve seen a lot of death.
“Horrible things, like arms and legs hanging in trees. I remember my gunner, who was firing our machine gun, got shot several times. It’s a terrible feeling to have to pull a man off his gun.
“If there’s such a thing as beauty in war, it was when I saw the French cavalry charge the German lines. No one cheered along our lines. We all just watched in silence, because of their bravery.”
The family members were surprised when Mr. Clements brought out a box containing medals they hadn’t seen. He told them that he had never gotten over the war, and sometimes he would go off by himself and cry.
“I was happy to be home, but sad, because of what I’d seen,” the quiet-spoken man had said. “It changed me, but I can’t explain it. I think it softened my heart more than anything else.
“I’ve seen things on the front that would make an iron heart melt.”
At the end of my visit, Mr. Clements asked me to do something for him. He put on his red wool coat and walked out into a cold, stiff breeze blowing across his front yard.
He took me to a large boulder, above which flew an American flag. Fastened to the face of the rock was a polished granite plaque bearing words that the veteran had penned himself:
“Dedicated to those who fought in any war and to the thousands of broken-hearted mothers all over the world.”
Then Mr. Clements called us to attention, and together we saluted the flag.
Now, I salute you, our faithful readers, for the kindness and loyalty you have graced me with for all these years. Yesteryears became for me something much more than a weekly newspaper column.
It became a link that connected us to the past, and to each other.