Our literate community is chockablock with memoir writers. And as my fellow baby-boomers enter their twilight years, I suspect more will put fingers to keyboard and look back on how their lives unfolded.
With permission of my childhood friend Steve Dryden, I’ve pulled some gems of our shared Arlington past that he wrote up eloquently in his just-completed memoir of his father, titled, “The Man Who Held the Bible.”
The illustrated paperback is privately printed for Dryden’s extended family. Parts are bravely intimate. But many passages are deserving of a broader audience who lived their wonder years of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when Arlington was hardly your average American suburb.
The Bible in the title refers to the one Steve’s father held at the Jan. 20, 1961, Inauguration of President Kennedy, when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as vice president.
Kentucky-bred Franklin Dryden, as a key aide to prominent lawmakers, had helped plan the historic event held on that freezing Friday in the nation’s capital. He appears not only with LBJ as he took the oath, but standing behind JFK in photos that appeared on the cover of Time magazine and are still seen on TV and in the Kennedy Center foyer.
Through Steve’s memoir, we learn how the Northern Virginia Sun sent a photographer to the Dryden home in the run-up to Inauguration Day to capture Steve’s dad dressed in his tails and top hat — his wife, son and daughter gazing in awe. Steve reproduces his own ticket to the Inauguration, during which, as a seven-year-old in a limo, he caught glimpses (appreciated later) of former presidents Hoover and Truman.
Re-assessing his childhood as a grownup, Steve describes Capitol Hill machinations of such lawmakers as Kentucky Sen. Earle Clements and Arizona Sen. Carl Hayden.
He details his dad’s career as deputy director of the Office of Emergency Planning.
Many who grew up here recall vacationing in Ocean City and driving past “Bobby Baker’s Carousel” hotel and nightclub. Baker was the infamous LBJ aide and on-the-QT corporate lobbyist who fell into heavy debt from shady loans.
At age 10, Steve and his younger sister Susannah stayed at Baker’s 75-room hotel before his career collapsed. They “played hide-and-seek in the morning darkness of the basement-level bar-room.”
Steve, who worked as a Senate page on his way to a journalism career, writes about “Washington Merry-Go-Round” columnist Drew Pearson’s occasional snipes at his father.
For flavor of an Arlington boyhood, Steve recalls playing “spy games” on the grounds of the Knights of Columbus historic house, his mother dancing as a “flapper” at Washington Golf and Country Club and the drama of his races for student government leader at Yorktown High School (he won one, lost a second). And he describes his return from college in the early 1970s to see his parents had moved from their detached home behind Williamsburg school to Tower Villa at Virginia Square. “It is likely no Roman Villa had such small rooms and low ceilings,” he opines.
Recalling his dad’s career-capping work as a lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute, Steve pulls no punches on the moral issues of the cancer wars. Frank Dryden had late-life regrets. But Steve remained loyal. At his father’s eulogy in 1994, Steve declared, “So many of the things I am, and love, have antecedents in his life.”
Spellcheck for our historic community: North Arlington’s Nelly Custis Dr. is named for the step-grand-daughter of George Washington, who was raised at Mount Vernon. (Full name: Eleanor Parke Custis.)
But google the street and you find a slew of real estate ads and personal address listings that spell her nickname “Nellie.” You also find references to the defunct South Arlington elementary school spelling it “ie.”
Thankfully for us hard-liners, the official street name has it right as “Nelly,” the childhood name used in her 18th-century correspondence.