Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


If I make it to my 90s, I hope some younger scribe squires me around my boyhood haunts for some history-invoking reminiscing.

I recently spent an afternoon in the car driven by Arlington homebuilder Scot Harlan, scribbling snippets from running commentary of his father Jack, age 92, and mother Jean, 90.

These true-blooded Arlingtonians gave a personalized look-back at the Old Dominion neighborhood off North Glebe. It’s a section known as Livingstone Heights – built in the early 20th century as stops on the pre-automobile Great Falls and Old Dominion Railway – billed as the highest point in Alexandria County.

Residents included Admiral. Presley Rixey, Frank Lyon (who built Missionhurst), William Ames of Murphy and Ames Lumber, and General Lewis Hershey who ran the Selective Service. They were doubtless drawn to what the brochure called “homes for cultured and refined people desiring cool, healthful and artistic surroundings.”

During the Harlans’ trip down memory lane, I witnessed them resurrecting memories dating to the 1920s.

When Jack Harlan’s parents moved to a now-demolished wood house at 26th and Old Dominion (where the county-owned mulch pile stands and where only the home’s stone steps remain), Glebe Road was two lanes, George Mason Drive a stream, Lee Highway still gravel. What is now the Marymount University library was bramble, the Yorktown Blvd. underpass and modern homes were open fields where his pals played baseball, football and marbles.

The house had a grand view of Washington’s skyline. Jack’s parents raised chickens that had to be protected from raccoons and snakes. Milk was delivered in quart bottles.

Jean’s parents built their dream house off Military Rd. in the area called “Rural Retreat” near Gulf Branch Nature Center. In the 1940s, she took the bus in to Swanson Jr. High. He went to Washington-Lee, she to Western.

Jack recalls the long-gone Carnes School and knowing the sexton of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. He grew up seeing the tank where the county still stores road salt.

Nor has he forgotten the “iron-fisted principal” at the four-room Marshall School (now a medical building) who slapped a classmate who “gave her lip” for carving on a desk. Jack’s mother hosted the principal for tea, so he had protection, he says with a wink.

Students became safety patrols posted at 25th and Glebe with color-ranked badges thanks to the American Automobile Association, Jack said. He first learned of racial tensions from the police Officer Carson, recalling that this Spanish-American war vet lived in a building near Walker Chapel that contained a long-vanished market.

Jack was taught to shoot rifles by a World War I submarine commander. His friends included the Kolakoski plumbing family, whose son was a pilot killed in World War II. And he also knew the Puglisi family that for decades ran the Country Club Market. Charlie Puglisi rose early to cross the Potomac to buy vegetables, his son deputized to pluck chickens.

Jack recalls bobsledding at 60 mph on Rock Spring Road beside the country club golf course. As a youth he spent summers caddying. The going fee for 18 holes was 75 cents, but most players paid a dollar, Jack said. The exception was a banker who happened to be the father of Jean. Jack would marry her in 1950.

Their Arlington adventure continues.


I recently witnessed another’s life-changing moment.

A piano tuner, a Mr. Reliability who kept my notes precise for three decades, showed up for my 88s’ regular check-up and balked. After setting removing our framed photos and bearing the Yamaha’s innards, he tested a few taut wires and grimaced.

The job was too taxing, he said, and he’s no longer up to it. No charge, he insisted, and walked out. I learned through a competitor that he retired.