Why Roanoke, Virginia Is An Example To Our Nation

On August 26, at approximately 6:46 AM, Alison Parker and Adam Ward were gunned down in a cowardly and terrorist act, in a supposed retaliation for another cowardly and terroristic act: the Charleston shooting. But, this article is not about that.

I love to write. Most of the time, I write about food, about beer, about fun, and life. Sarcasm and attempted wit dominate my printed words. As I sit here and ponder my own thoughts, I realize that, for once, my writing will take a serious note.

Tuesday morning was nothing out of the ordinary. I awoke, made some coffee, and sat down to catch up on the world news. I try to steer away from the negativity that dominates the news in my own country, and the news around the world. My twitter feed is a good source of the news I enjoy. Someone rates a Leinenkugel beer; the ten best burgers in Austin; how to get great smoke rings on your Boston butt. As I pulled up the news, I saw a story that immediately struck me. The words rang clear. Moneta. Bridgewater Plaza. Smith Mountain Lake. WDBJ. Roanoke. I frantically searched for more and as I read, I sat stunned. Two of Roanoke's shining stars had been snuffed out. Killed, on live TV.

After the initial shock, I began to think what I could do to help. Food. Food is what I know. So how can I get some food to the staff members of WDBJ? I didn't want to order pizza. I wanted to give them a piece of my heart to relieve the pain in theirs. I immediately began calling Roanoke's food trucks.

The first I called stated that she couldn't help as she had already committed somewhere else. The second phone call set things in place. Steve Baum answered. I began to explain what I wanted to do and immediately, he agreed. This was at 1:00 p.m. The next call was to Sam's Club here in Roanoke. They agreed to donate food for us.

At 2:30, I met Steve for the first time inside Sam's. Steve has already gotten there, shopped, and had a cart full of groceries. Hot dogs. Hamburgers. Plates. Drinks. The order came to well over what Sam's allotted and Steve paid out of his pocket. I then went to WDBJ to find a place to set up.

When I arrived, the site was buzzing with news crews. Vans with huge satellite dishes began to show. Staples in national media emblazoned with their logo were parked in the station lot, as well as the side road leading to it. A large lot across the street was already packed with overflow vehicles. I pulled into the bottom part and waited. Around 30 minutes later, Steve showed up with his rig. This was a truck-pulled trailer and the smoke was already rolling out of the smoker. Steve hurriedly set up while we unpacked.

We started cooking the hot dogs around 3:30. By 5:00, we carried the first round of hot dogs and fresh, hot, seasoned fries into the station. I believe we sent sixty or so, with several extra dishes of hot fries. Steve had several volunteers show up and we began to form a plan. I called my local Kroger and they offered far more than I ever expected: one hundred pounds of chicken. One of the volunteers hastily went to pick it up and seemingly immediately returned.

While we continued, news crews would walk past and ask what we were serving. At the time, we had only hot dogs and small, easily cooked food. But, we had just seasoned the wings and drumsticks with Steves own rub and put them in the smoker. Fortunately, the wind blew perfectly into the news crews reporting on the day's events. Hungry crews began to get in line and man, did we jump into action.

Around 7:00, we began to serve pulled barbecue chicken on buns with scratch-made red beans and rice, fries, as well as a few other sides Steve managed to make. We asked only for a donation. At this point, it was around 8:00 and beginning to get dark. We noticed crews speaking foreign languages. News crews from Japan, the Ukraine, England and other parts of Europe, and Australia. Outside of the fact that this was under horrible circumstances, I was in heaven. I was cooking. I was talking to people from all over the world. My absolutely two favorite things is food and culture.

As darkness set in, we never left the truck. We were able to contact management at Food Lion and they provided us with a gift card to purchase more groceries. It was then that we decided to stay and cook through the night and serve the staff of WDBJ a hot meal first thing in the morning. We served our last customer around 1 a.m.

That day, we raised over $700 for the families of the victims. Funny part is, after moving and shaking all day long, the first time we sat down outside, Steve and I began to talk our favorite thing: food. We sat there for another hour and a half and talked about barbecue, Cajun, and methods of cooking. Steve then went to clean and restock his truck and returned about two hours later. I stayed to keep an eye on our setup.

At 4:30 a.m., Steve returns and we began cooking again. As I walked back to the truck, it struck me how eerie it was. In my home town, where I was born and raised, a beacon shone in the darkness. We had little light, other than the light inside. It was early morning and the buzzing across the street of reporters was minimal, but still apparent in an otherwise unremarkable town. The truck was soon backlit by the sunrise, coming over the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains Roanoke is so well known for. By this time, we had hot sausage gravy and biscuits with bacon ready to go. I walked it into the WDBJ office to make sure the staff had a hot meal before their broadcast.

Nearly immediately, we began to get busy. We served fresh coffee and a homemade meal to anyone. I called a local station, Q99, and told them what we were doing. They put me on live radio and continued to mention us through the morning. A teacher pulls in, drops a twenty and hurriedly leaves to get to her job. Chris Cuomo, of CNN, got a cup of coffee and dropped a $20 in, asking for no change. The NBC news crew put $50 in. An old gentleman with a cane stuffed some $1's in. But most of all, the most memorable were the group of kids that made the first donation. I would guess they were teenagers. They watched as we originally setup the food truck. We had no food, yet these four asked if they could donate. One gave $7, a lot for a teenager. Another put some money in. I took a picture with all four, fighting back the tears. And this, this is the true purpose of this article, and why I am so incredibly proud of my town and its residents. These four teens were black. I'll explain:

In my time across the lot of WDBJ, I talked to a lot of people. And I watched a lot of people. A crazed black man killed two white people. In my town, there was no burning of buildings. There was no looting of property. There were no riots and demonstrations. No tear gas. My town surrounded their TV station and embraced it with love.

Most importantly, there was no mention of blame.

Flowers were placed at the entrance by residents and out-of-towners. Television stations from across the country sent crews and equipment. In my town, there was anger, confusion, and then acceptance. I spoke to many residents who told me of their interactions with both Alison and Adam. I also spoke to staff who would tell me stories, such as having coffee with Alison at 5:30 a.m. How wonderful these two people were. I saw many residents hug and cry. Black residents and white residents embraced one another — tears streaming down their faces as they locked on to others they cared about to grieve for this loss.

An early memory I have of race is during my high school graduation. Ricky, I am calling you out here. I had a double breasted jacket I wore to my graduation. I looked sharp with my new tie and suit. However, I didn't know how to properly wear it. Ricky, an African American teen, was on the football team. I have no doubt he sported a letter on his jacket. Often, after a game, you would read about him and others on the team in the small Vinton paper. Ricky and I "ran" in different groups, so we didn't know each other extremely well, but we were friends. Ricky came over to me and adjusted my jacked. He unbuttoned it, and I had left one of the buttons unbuttoned, leaving the jacket to sag just a bit. Ricky, experienced in wearing suits, fixed my jacket and buttoned it correctly, patting me on the chest and smiling with a "There ya go." Off I went to graduate.

At the time, I thought nothing of it. A few years later, I left Roanoke at the tender age of 26 and went out of my valley to experience the world. It was then that I first experienced racism, in Memphis, Tennessee. In my town, growing up, I didn't see the color of another. I just wasn't raised that way. Throughout my life, in certain moments, I would reflect back to Ricky adjusting my jacket as a genuine act of kindness. To me, he wasn't a black guy. He wasn't African American. He was just Ricky, a friend.

Another example is one of my mother's best friends, Earl, who happened to be African America n. I've now known Earl for over 30 years. My mother would gladly give Earl her bank passwords, keys to her house and cars, etc. Earl is infinitely wise in the ways of the world, but coyly placing his knowledge to leave you always pondering. His isn't the knowledge of schooling, his is the knowledge of experience, which is far more valuable. Earl has worked hard in this valley his whole life and raised an amazing family. One of his children went on to secure a law degree and has a very prestigious firm in D.C.

Other examples I can think of, living in Southaven, Mississippi. For a period of time, I built a house there in a small neighborhood. Directly across the street was an older couple. Through the years, they became very dear to me. My mom would send down homemade strawberry jelly and they always got a jar. Through the years living across from them, we'd always meet in the street and talk about things, moving to my yard or theirs, discussing the world around us.

The husband was a preacher and profoundly patient and wise. I respect him to this day and for years after that, we would speak on the phone. When I would leave to go out of town, I would give him a key to watch my house. Oh, by the way, this was a black family. I almost forgot to tell you that.

Recently, life took me to Atlanta where I rented a home for a period of a year. Beside me was a busy family with the matriarch and patriarch being grand parents, William and Idella. From the first moment my Uhaul pulled in, Idella had the most beautiful and welcoming smile. A few days after I moved in, William gave me some dog treats he bought for my dogs. Over the next year, I watched their family come and go. This was a home  — not just a house — full of warmth. We'd often see each other in passing and stop to talk. I will never forget the kindness they all showed me. Never. Yes, they got some home made strawberry jelly. Oh, I almost forgot. They happened to be black.

My town is a shining example to the rest of the country on how to conduct yourself in times of tragedy. We had no presidential attendance. Although, Roanoke was absolutely international news. There were no fires, other than the one in our smoker, as we cooked through the night collecting donations for the victims' families. The only time tear and gas was used together was a woman crying on my shoulder in memory of our fallen, near our loud generator using gas to power the food truck.

I have no doubt the families of the two victims are still in shock. Roanoke prevailed in that we came together. But, we were already together. We were already a community that cares and isn't afraid to show it. My experience isn't uncommon. The world could learn from this small Blue Ridge town. Its distant mountains always in view. Maybe that's it. Maybe these mountains protect us and keep out the negative. Maybe the bad can't wash past Ol' Stoney or Poor Mountain. Maybe our Mill Mountain Star absorbs any hate that may seep into our town and then projects its light over our city as a watchful neon beacon. Or maybe, we were just raised different.

I assure you, if you look for something hard enough, you will find it. Here in Roanoke, we prefer laughter over hate. Love over spite. We love to "festival," where you can be around different people of many colors of skin, all enjoying themselves with each other. This tragedy taught me why I am proud to be a Roanoker. A Terrier. This community, as it has evolved through the years and has developed a worldly culture with tremendous food and a growing craft beer community, never lost what was important. It's ability to remain true to itself in the direst of circumstances. I bleed Virginia blood. The mountains surrounding me are in my DNA. And I am proud to have returned to this town that I love.

And, as always, #westandwithyouWDBJ.