Personal Essays

Credit: Chris Price

Blacksburg and Biography

It stunned the nation that the Virginia Tech murders took place; it shocked Virginians that they occurred in Blacksburg. A former longtime resident traces his connections to the tragedy.

I drove home from Charlottesville in confused panic after cancelling my afternoon class. Noah Adams was on NPR talking about the stark clash of nature and humans, setting and event. It was the visual, sensory contrast between Blacksburg, the bucolic valley town in southwestern Virginia, and mass murder news story. That this human tragedy could happen there, in that natural majesty. From all the 11 scattered years I lived there, before moving to the University of Virginia last year, the bucolic descriptor is one that sticks. It’s exaggerated, I know, but it works. And it’s the one the media evoked all week: Blacksburg, a quaint, off-the-beaten-track bucolic college town nestled in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Being “nestled” also seems key, the town cradled by the mountains, the students by the valley. I walked that nestled town too many times to count, and ever after have the image of my son cruising down Draper Road sidewalks wearing his red Keds and pushing his toy lawnmower.

Adams apparently had written about the New River a few years ago—a river paradoxically named, since it’s in fact one of the oldest in North America, if not the world—and thus knew the area. He was speaking in the first phase of tragedy, when people confront the fact that senseless things don’t make sense. This was before the pre-spin spin phase, when people talk about what people will soon be talking about: too many guns, not enough guns, no Bibles in schools, too much God in schools, moral decay, media glorification, video games, actual worldwide wars, daily death in Iraq, numbness, surveillance cameras will save us, mental illness is awful, failure of health-care system, campus judicial systems, parents, society, it’s “society’s” fault, and however else Nancy and Greta might try to understand it. After 9/11, they gave us, what, a three- to four-day opening phase? The duration is apparently proportional to death count; this time it lasted three to four hours.

I didn’t know any of the victims, but everyone I know knew one or more. From this, I found there is only one direction with things like violent tragedy: It isn’t that I was fortunate not to know any of them directly, but that it was unfortunate so many did; you can’t feel better, you only feel worse or more worse.

It’s not only my biography that is interlaced with the town and the school, but my children’s as well.I went to Virginia Tech because its application didn’t require an essay. When I graduated, I had no idea why I’d chosen my major (chemical engineering), and I wasn’t even particularly fond of the school itself. But Blacksburg was significant to me. In this way, I have always been critical of an institution that has also come to define me; I placed the natural setting of Blacksburg as one thing, the human institution of Tech as another, as if they were separate, which they are not. So yes, I finally admit it, my adult identity was born there. There’s that. My biography’s tightly intertwined with the town, the valley, the school.

I met my wife there. She had been a freshman in West Ambler Johnston Hall. Three months after graduation, we got married in the chapel on the Drill Field at the center of campus. I played wiffle ball out there all afternoon on my wedding day, getting a slight sunburn in the calm afternoon sun. The sunburn shows in the wedding pictures. The Drill Field is that seemingly fabricated collegiate setting, the only one admissions folks want you to see—frisbees, wiffle ball, rugby, picnics, sunbathers, dogs and tennis balls, kites. It’s also a good place to hold candle-light vigils.

If anything, Blacksburg was known in the mid-’90s because of the Blacksburg Electronic Village. (It was the first “wired” town. Soon, obviously, everyplace was a wired town, so I guess it didn’t really matter anymore.) Yes, Axl Rose supposedly once stopped by The Cellar after a concert in nearby Roanoke, but I never found out if that was really true.

When we, my wife and I, came back for graduate school later in the decade—for something called “science studies,” something explicitly not engineering—Blacksburg had become a football school. Plus, one year Outside magazine said it was a great place to live. So much hiking; the Appalachian Trail close by; lots of mountain biking; did you know they filmed Dirty Dancing in a mountain retreat just miles away? Yes, everyone does; rolling hills; serene sunsets; a great vegetarian restaurant downtown; cows, horses, sheep, farms; tubing on the same New River that enchanted Noah Adams. One summer I lost a T-shirt in that river, and my keys and a shoe. It wasn’t until reading the New York Times last weekend—”Students Recount Desperate Minutes Inside Norris Hall”—that I remembered my classes had been in Norris Hall that summer.

Once when my wife was an undergraduate, there was a peeping Tom incident at the dorms. It was unsettling. That such a thing could happen in that little town. By the time we returned for our graduate stint—living the next county over, a few mountains to the west, in fact, not even in town—Blacksburg was a football school, and there had been a shooting at a local bar, several stabbings, and other violent incidents downtown. This added to my ambivalence about the school and the town and my place there. I didn’t see how I was tied to the area in the way I do now.

Someone asked if I’d heard about Virginia Tech. Yes, I’m from there, I said, misunderstanding what she was asking me.My graduate department was likely the most liberal-leaning one on the generally conservative campus. Our offices were in the middle of the ROTC quad. We’d be talking about ethics and technology and social structure and the military-industrial complex inside; they’d be doing roll call and formations and hut-hut-huts outside. In further contrast to this, a fellow graduate student friend was an activist organizer in town. Her friend, another grad student and probably the most visible and active of the activists, was murdered by yet another peace activist, an unstable married man who was having an affair with her. His subsequent suicide kept the motive unclear. Unsettling, in that case, is a disrespectful understatement. It was horrific.

Our children were born in Blacksburg. We lived there for 11 of our first 15 post-high school years: adulthood, education, dating, marriage, education, jobs, family. So it’s not only my biography that is interlaced with the town and the school, but my children’s as well. During the third week of my first semester teaching, after a lecture about the U.S.’s history of involvement in the domestic affairs of other nations, I walked back to my office and was stopped along the way by a friend who said only that “they hit the towers, they hit the buildings.” I had no idea what that meant. Sitting on the front porch of our building, the one facing the ROTC quad, on an amazingly crisp, clear, solid blue-sky day, someone else was the first to quote Fargo—“And it’s such a beautiful day,” she said, in disbelief. In such a placid town, nestled in the mountains of Virginia, we watched New York and the Pentagon burn. All of this, three months before our son was born. We had a lot of those “what kind of world…” conversations, all set against the backdrop of bucolic Blacksburg.

When we moved into Blacksburg for our last year of studies, as a way to be closer to campus and friends and to live by foot more than car, we walked the mile from our house to downtown many times a week. Then we were true Blacksburg residents, with all the trappings, including first-name greetings at the coffee shop and that vegetarian restaurant and the credit union and the bookstore and the Greek restaurant and the farmer’s market. Our son pushed his toy John Deere lawnmower in front of him every time we walked downtown. He became “that adorable kid,” the one with the lawnmower in the red Keds. At the coffee shop, I recognized, though didn’t personally know, all the regulars. The one we called Stay-at-Home Dad always seemed odd, and my wife didn’t think he was really a father for the first year. (He was; we eventually saw his children.) Weird-Kid-Who-Should-Probably-Have-a-Job was always there too, usually playing backgammon with Stay-at-Home Dad. Unfriendly-Hippie Couple saw us every day for years, never once saying hello. Scowling peaceniks always confused me.

A year after we moved to Charlottesville in 2005 after all that time in Blacksburg, that weird kid at the coffee shop was arrested, then escaped from jail, killed two people, and caused a lockdown on the Virginia Tech campus on the very first day of the semester. We watched the news from afar, absolutely stunned, completely silent that this was actually in, as the now-well-worn moniker has it, bucolic Blacksburg. College kids were being interviewed on CNN, terrified that this was their greeting to their new world.

I still work with colleagues from Blacksburg. I spoke to my doctoral adviser, himself in the history department at Tech, days before the massacre last week, and had heard there’d been bomb threats over the past month. That’s eerie. Because of my own biography there, I knew what others there were already going through before this happened—another adviser was dealing with her husband’s death last year; a classmate had a devastating miscarriage a little while back; another friend’s younger brother had unexpectedly died in February. And then, as I was leaving my second of three classes Monday afternoon, here at the University of Virginia, someone asked if I’d heard about Virginia Tech. Yes, I’m from there, I said, misunderstanding what she was asking me. I fast-walked to my office and saw all the news.

After I called my wife, hurriedly cancelled class, found my car to drive home, heard Noah Adams on the radio, scolded myself for being irritated by trivialities like CBS’s calling it Virginia Tech “University”—after that, I got home to find my family in the yard, the kids wanting to take a walk around the block. Though he hadn’t given it a second look for several years, my son grabbed his old toy lawnmower from the shed. Then my daughter got her baby stroller, and we walked around our peaceful violent American society.

Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at Lafayette College and lives in Easton, Pa., with his family. He is the author of Notes From the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (2009) and Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (2019). More by Benjamin R. Cohen