Life is a continuing journey driven by ‘What if…’

At 71, my memories go back close to seven decades. I remember a lot about my early childhood in Gibsonton, Florida, my home for the first five years of what has become a long life.

My father, William Douglas Thompson, Sr., died in 1948 in an industrial accident.  Seven years later, my mother decided it was time to return to her home in Southwestern Virginia.

I remember the long train ride from Tampa to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1952, with the last segment pulled by the venerable Norfolk & Western “611” locomotive.  My mother took a photo of short me dwarfed by the giant wheels of that sleek coal-fired locomotive built just across Williamson Road from the station where my mother’s parents, and grandparents, picked us up and took us to Floyd.

An apartment over Hoebacks Furniture Store in Floyd became our first home.  She worked as a bookkeeper for the store before changing jobs to work in Roanoke for attorney Alex Apostolou.

If we had remained in Florida, I could have started school in 1953.  That state’s law allowed anyone who reached age six by the end of a calendar year to enroll but Virginia law required a youngster to turn six earlier in a year and I was born in December so I was closer to seven than six, when I started at Floyd Elementary School.

Because I had enough credits at the end of my sophomore year in 1964, I skipped a year and became a senior when school started in September of that year, so I graduated at age 17.

Thought about that recently when an old classmate asked why I went from being a member of the class of ’66 to the class of ’65.

“Normally, students change class year numbers forward, not backward, it’s because they have to repeat a year,” she said.  “You skipped a year. Were you that smart?”

“No way,” I said.  “I replaced study hours with credit courses and went to summer school one year so I could graduate so I could head out into what I then thought was the ‘real word.”

Graduating early led to a full-time job at The Roanoke Times in 1965 — my second full-time job since I had worked fulltime at The Floyd Press during my last two years at Floyd County High School.”

Remembering those periods of life bring back many pleasant memories.  It also makes me wonder what might have happened if I had been able to start school in 1953, which Florida would have allowed but Virginia did not.  If I had started in 1953 and skipped my junior year, I would have graduated from high school at age 16.

Would the Times have hired a 16-year-old as a fulltime reporter?  I had an academic scholarship at The University of Virginia that I used to attend classes at what was then The Roanoke Center as a freshman and sophomore while working for the Times.  Would Virginia have given the same scholarship to a 16-year-old?

I remember these times vividly, just as I remember my years as an elementary school student from the third to seventh grades in Farmville — the early years at Farmville Elementary School and the at Prince Edward Academy after the racist board of supervisors and school board closed the public schools to avoid integration.

The racism I saw in Prince Edward County drove me to write an essay about living there as a kid and to sneak through the woods to a field not far from Farmville to witness and photograph a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan — my first article and photos published in a newspaper, which led me to become a newspaperman.

That was a big “what if” in life. What if my dad had not died in that industrial accident.  I probably would have grown up in Gibsonton.

What if I had not dropped out of college after two years, which did not fulfill my agreement with The Roanoke Times to get a college education in five years as a requirement to keep my job there.  When Managing Editor Woody Middleton hadn’t told me “no degree, no job,” I would not have flown to Alton, Illinois, for an interview with The Telegraph, where managing editor John Focht hired me on the sport for a salary $55 a week higher than I was getting in Roanoke.

I clearly remember the first date between me and Amy in Alton, Illinois in 1978.  She had resisted going out with me because of my “reputation.”  Granted, I was someone who considered a three-day weekend as a “long relationship.”  She blamed the white Russian drinks I ordered for her for the outcome of that date.

I remember proposing to Amy while we were sitting in a circular dining table under a rotunda skylight in the restaurant of the Famous Barr Department Store in Alton, Illinois, in 1979.

If I had not come to Alton, Amy and I would never have met.

After turning down an offer from Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois to become his press secretary, what if I had agreed to meet with him a second time and accepted the job.  Our 23 years in Washington allowed us to witness history, report much of it, travel the world and have many cherished memories.

But what if Amy had not talked me out of going to Iraq in 2003 after I had spent time covering the war in Afghanistan?  The guy who went in my place to Iraq died there.  Would I have been in the same place at the same time?

The horrors of 9/11 and the aftermath soured us on life in Washington.  That, and my mother’s declining health led to our decision to move to Floyd in 2004.  More “what if’s.”

So many memories over so many years, months, weeks and days. What if we hadn’t been in the right places at the right times to live those memories?

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