A novel by George Byron Wright
Edmund Kirby-Smith’s life is in ruins. He thinks the way back from his rage and despair is to find Richard Vickerman, a man who used to have answers. Set in the northwest, Driving to Vernonia is a penetrating story of deprivation, laced with love and anger, violence and self-discovery.
Mentor Lost, Mentor Found
The Motivation for a Novel
DRIVING TO VERNONIA became the germ of an idea when I rediscovered a man of great importance in my life after a twenty-five-year lapse. I first met Richard VanOsdol in 1955, when I was fifteen and we were both working for Bergs Supermarkets in Salem, Oregon. Dick Van, as he was nicknamed, was produce manager for the store where we both worked: I boxed groceries at the check stand, stocked shelves, and, among other duties, packaged eggs.
When sorting eggs, my companion in that back room was a tall, gangly young man who sorted and processed fruit and vegetables. He was ten years older than I was, had attended Willamette University in Salem, and would regale me with his insights on philosophy, the Civil War, and other heady topics. There, among eggs and eggplant, we had great discussions and became great friends.
Then I graduated from high school, attended college in Eugene, Oregon, and Dick and I lost touch. However, when I married and returned to Salem looking for work, Dick, who had since become store manager of one of the Bergs stores, hired me on as a grocery clerk, and we were reunited for the first time.
It was during the next three years of working for Dick that he became a mentor and role model to me. Being a mentor is not something anyone plans: mostly the person isn’t even aware of his or her role in someone else’s life. And I’m sure it was like that for Dick Van back in those early days of the ’60s. Dick’s impact on my life was absorbed day by day: no lightning bolts, but moments of strength, empathy, guidance, humor, and above all-generosity of spirit and a giving of self.
I left the grocery business for good in 1965 and saw Dick only once more before losing track of him for over twenty-five years. I never thanked him for his impact on my life-an omission that haunted me for years. I would try to find him every once in a while, but without success. I didn’t know where he was. Finally, I devoted the time and energy to really do the job and found Dick Van back in Salem, right down the road from Portland, where I lived. Our reunion was a high point for both of us-and I finally got to thank him personally. We soon began having monthly lunches, and afterward, we would sit in his car and have long discussions about life: its challenges, its highs and lows. Most of all we deepened our friendship.
Shortly after finding Richard again, I was intrigued by the odyssey of searching for someone misplaced but not forgotten. And, soon, I began drafting a novel in which finding someone long lost is vital to salvaging a life gone awry. Thus emerged Edmund Kirby and eventually DRIVING TO VERNONIA-all thanks to Richard “Dick Van” VanOsdol. I must caution that this novel is not about Richard VanOsdol; it is a work of fiction, but it was inspired by my lifelong friendship with him-though many years lapsed.
Are there people in your life whom you have misplaced and perhaps never got around to thanking for whatever it was they did to make your life better? I encourage you to find them. If your mentor has since passed on, thank his or her spouse or offspring.
Driving to Vernonia