Charlie Clark is a combination of Arlington County’s ultimate “home town boy” and an ink-in-the-veins journalist. That becomes clear from reading the collection of 106 of the more than 150 weekly columns (and counting) that he’s written for the Falls Church News-Press since 2010 that he’s compiled into a single volume, Arlington County Chronicles. The paperback hit regional book stands last month.
Published by the History Press, the work deviates from normal area histories by not being a chronological narrative, but by being a loosely-categorized set of columns, all with different subjects and themes for weekly column readers. When taken as a whole they provide an exhaustive panoply of historical incidents and vignettes covering the county’s collection of rich personalities, including some national celebrities, and its evolution from a sleepy southern town to a cosmopolitan, high-growth and affluent extension of the nation’s capital just over the Potomac.
While there is not an entry on where George Washington’s legendary silver dollar landed, almost everything else is there, replete with interesting photographs that were chosen by Clark for their historical, familiar and offbeat contents.
Today, Arlington sports the image of a young, energetic and progressive urban center, an adjunct to the wider urban area of the D.C. Metro region. But that’s a very recent development, centered around the nightlife and relatively affordable housing along the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor.
But it hasn’t been like that until recently, now a far cry from what it was like even when Charlie was growing up there in the Clarendon, Cherrydale and Chain Bridge neighborhoods, attending the James Madison Elementary, Williamsburg Junior High and graduating in the Yorktown High School Class of 1971. (He picked up a lot of stories and clarifying details from old timers attending Yorktown’s 50th class reunion of graduates from 1962 and 1963 last November).
In the six columns devoted to the chapter title, “Local Folks Make Good,” for example, he worked intently to resolve the mystery of contrary accounts about where the legendary rock star Jim Morrison grew up. It turns out his military parents, like so many of them, came and went from the Pentagon, and therefore he had multiple addresses in Arlington, Alexandria and even Falls Church.
In his column entitled, “Jim Morrison Slept Here” first published in the News-Press in May 2011, he cites impeccable sources to identify three locations where Morrison lived in Arlington, including one where the current occupant of his room on a house at 4907 North 28th Street swears that she experienced Morrison’s restless spirit in her room on three occasions, “real enough, she told me, to leave a dent in the mattress,” he wrote.
Clark’s interest in Morrison stemmed not only from the Arlington connection, but, as he wrote, “the first journalism I published for money was about my visit to Morrison’s freshly dug Parisian grave in December 1971.” Like all true lifelong journalists, Clark remembered his first paid-for work, and in fact, his inscription to his volume is dedicated “To local scribes everywhere.”
The collection of columns range from the historical, “Our Rich History” section including the hiding of U.S. founding documents there during the War of 1812 to the Clay-Randolph Duel, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rides, and the lunch counter sit ins in the battle for equal rights, to a dozen columns devoted to Clark’s memories of his own childhood, to a rich section on local personalities from astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn to Washington Senators baseball legend Frank Howard. Howard, at 6 ft. 7 in., a rookie of the year in 1960 came in 1965 to the hapless team from Washington (who Clark noted it was known as “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”).
Clark caught up with Howard speaking at age 75 to a local athletic awards banquet. Charlie wrote, “I asked him if that celebrated seat in RFK’s center-field upper deck was still painted yellow to mark the longest blast from the hitter known as the ‘Washington Monument.’ Howard said it was now painted over, recalling a fellow All Star Frank Robinson, ‘If you can’t hit it to the upper deck, you don’t belong in this league.’”
Another section of columns was organized under the title, “Landmarks and Hot Spots,” that included the classic Mario’s Pizza House,” still around after 54 years as “the venerable Wilson Boulevard pit stop for all with late night munchies,” open from 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. all these years. Recalling its radio jingles from the 1960s, Clark played in the Mario’s Little League team and grew up three doors down from Mario’s owners, the Levine family.
Clark doesn’t try to hide his mixed feelings, at best, about the explosion of development that has occurred in his hometown and while making it prosperous, has also happened at the expense of the old home town feel. Little does anyone today know that at the center of the high rise Ballston District once stood a proud Putt-Putt mini golf course as late as 1988 (that is, until the Metro line no longer ended there, but passed through there). “Some feel that Putt-Putt was, at one time, the center of Arlington,” Clark wrote.
The columns include current political fights in a jurisdiction famous for them, including spats over construction noise, the use of public lands, the future of East Falls Church, “Arlington’s Desire for a Streetcar,” and “O’Connell’s Stadium Lights.”
While gainfully employed as a journalist in downtown D.C., he says he’s loved the “pleasure of a column” where ideas don’t have to be run by an editor, first, and new thoughts come to you to develop at your own speed
He says he usually commits two hours on Sunday to putting his thoughts down, and then sleeps on them before finalizing the week’s contribution. “I also love to be able to add my personality to it,” he said.
“I am happy to compile these columns into a single volume where it can enjoy a long shelf life and be accessible to a lot of people who didn’t read my works as they appeared in the News-Press,” he said.
Methinks it will only be a matter of time before a Volume 2 appears, and then more still.
Arlington County Chronicles is available for purchase from One More Page Books in Arlington, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and other online retailers. The Arlington Historical Society will host a reception and book signing for Charlie Clark on Thursday, May 15, at 6:30 p.m.