Author: Steve Watkins

Review Issue Date: February 1, 2016
Online Publish Date: January 20, 2016
Pages: 256
Price ( Hardcover ): $17.99
Publication Date: April 26, 2016
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-7636-7155-6
Category: Fiction

Two brothers try to flee their demons on a canoe trip. Seventeen-year-old, 6-foot, 210-pound linebacker Shane Dupree is a high school football star waiting for a sports scholarship. His older brother, Jeremy, was just as celebrated: he had ace football skills, was the valedictorian of his class, and is beloved by everyone in their community. Jeremy has other accolades too, including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, and after three deployments in Iraq, he’s back home with his family. Jeremy came home with more than medals, however. He carries and cleans his 9mm wherever he goes. He sleeps in the basement of his parents’ house, away from his wife and daughters. He is clearly suffering, and things take a turn for the worse when he enlists a concussed Shane for a frightening camping excursion with a canoe, a deadly assault rifle, and plenty of beer and whiskey. Watkins’ latest (Juvie, 2013, etc.) rings with the truth of the plight of veterans who’ve struggled to return to their daily lives after having witnessed what no doubt is sheer horror. Shane’s present-tense narration is fast-paced, full of blunt, uncompromising, sometimes-shocking cruelty. Readers can’t help noticing how Watkins plays Shane’s football prowess against Jeremy’s war stories. Both are battered warriors making sense of what they’ve been taught to do. A gripping, moving, disturbing tale of homecoming. (Fiction. 14-18)


Great Falls

Steve Watkins, Author

The true cost of war comes back to haunt a family as a teenage football star faces his veteran brother’s slow self-destruction. Shane Dupree used to idolize his older brother, Jeremy, but Jeremy has become a paranoid, alcoholic mess ever since he returned from his deployment, suffering from PTSD, nightmares, and more. When Jeremy asks Shane to join him on a trip to the family’s hunting cabin, it seems like a chance to bond and talk sense into his older brother. Instead, they embark on an impromptu canoe trip down the Shenandoah River, with Jeremy getting progressively more reckless as the full scope of his trauma is gradually revealed. Watkins (Juvie) delivers a powerful, emotionally raw tale, heartbreaking in its portrayal of damaged veterans, the price some pay to serve, and the toll it takes on their friends and family. It’s also a raw coming-of-age journey for Shane as he struggles with his own feelings, especially toward “the Colonel,” the brothers’ emotionally abusive, micromanaging, ex-military stepfather. Ages 14–up. Agent: Kelly Sonnack, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Apr.)


Watkins, Steve. Great Falls. 256p. ebook available. Candlewick. Apr. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763671556.

Gr 8 Up–Shane’s brother, Jeremy, is a Marine just back from three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Jeremy saved himself and a private from grueling gunfire when they were separated from their unit. When Jeremy returns, his behavior is erratic, though his family makes the excuse of an adjustment period. Instead of living with his wife and two daughters, Jeremy lives in the basement of his childhood home. Some things about Jeremy are certain: he’s constantly on edge, is always drinking or drunk, and is usually cleaning his 9mm or M16. When Shane suffers a likely concussion on the football field and scores for the other team, he takes Jeremy up on an offer to get away, resulting in a brief stay at their stepfather’s cabin, where Jeremy is gored by a wild pig. What follows is a canoe trip up the Shenandoah River to Harper’s Ferry that ends tragically at Great Falls. Jeremy’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is apparent and manifests through his short fuse, nightmares, jittery anxiety, trouble sleeping, and fits of violence. Jeremy doesn’t know how to ask for help, and his family isn’t equipped to look for the signs. This stirring untold story sheds light on issues that those in the military face. The gritty language underlies the young men’s continuous struggles. VERDICT Watkins portrays family life with a returning veteran with PTSD in a way that will appeal to reluctant readers, especially those who like war or adventure stories.–Adrienne L. Strock, Nashville Public Library


Great Falls.

Watkins, Steve (Author) Dec 2015. 256 p. Candlewick, hardcover, $17.99. (9780763671556).

Shane’s older brother, Jeremy, is never still. After tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he suffers from PTSD and is always vigilant, looking for enemies that aren’t there, while compulsively cleaning his M16 rifle. Following a misadventure at a football game (long story), the two brothers—at Jeremy’s direction—find themselves in a canoe on the north fork of the Shenandoah River, with Shane missing school, and Jeremy confronting an unauthorized absence from a military training mission. Shane knows they are in big trouble, but he has always obeyed his older brother, and now is no different. Then Jeremy makes several irredeemable mistakes, and suddenly all bets are off and the Great Falls are looming. Watkins’ treatment of the troubled Jeremy is unsparingly honest yet deeply compassionate, and his fastpaced, suspenseful story is a searing indictment of war and its impact on those who are trying to do a job in the face of unforgiving tragedy. In the end, Jeremy’s quoting from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness sums it up well: “The horror. The horror.” — Michael Cart



Two news Ghosts of War books from Scholastic–AWOL in North Africa and Fallen in Fredericksburg–and a new YA novel from Candlewick, Great Falls. Here are the covers and publishers’ blurbs.









One brother home from war. The other desperate to save him. A gripping journey together to the river’s end.

Shane has always worshiped his big brother, Jeremy. But three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll, and the easy-go-lucky brother Shane knew has been replaced by a surly drunk who carries his loaded 9mm with him everywhere and lives in the basement because he can’t face life with his wife and two small children. When Jeremy shows up after Shane’s football game and offers to take him to the family cabin overnight, Shane goes along — both to get away from a humiliation on the field and to keep an eye on Jeremy, who’s AWOL from his job at Quantico and seems to have a shorter fuse than ever. But as the camping trip turns into a days-long canoe trip down the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Shane realizes he’s in way over his head — and has no idea how to persuade Jeremy to return home and get the help he needs before it’s too late. In a novel at once gripping and heartbreaking, Steve Watkins offers a stark exploration of the unseen injuries left by war.

And check this out: Early review (Great Falls won’t be out until April 2016) and advance recommendation as Best Boy Book of the Month.


Anderson and his friends Greg and Julie have been doing everything they can to avoid the battered trunk full of old military things in his family’s junk shop basement. Only, staying away seems impossible, and this time Anderson discovers a dusty World War II medic’s bag inside the trunk. But who does it belong to? Because if the friends have learned anything, it’s that they are about to be face-to-face with a ghost.

When an army medic ghost appears, Anderson’s not sure how to help him. Or if he should help him. The ghost claims he was stationed in North Africa during World War II. But as far as Anderson knows, World War II was fought in Europe. So what’s the real story behind this ghost?

Can Anderson, Greg, and Julie solve the mystery, or have they become part of a dangerous haunting?


After three ghosts, it looks like things might be going back to normal for Anderson and his friends Greg and Julie. It’s been a while since any ghosts have shown up, and the most annoying things lately are the loud barking dogs at the Dogs and Suds pet-grooming shop next door to the Kitchen Sink. They’ve been barking nonstop for days, and it’s making band practice impossible. But maybe the dogs know something the friends don’t . . .

Because suddenly a ghost does appear! From what Anderson can tell, it looks like the ghost is a teenage Union soldier from the Civil War, and he looks terrifying. But this ghost is different from the others: He’s demanding to know what happened to his brother, who was also enlisted in the Union army. It’s a mystery that’s over a hundred and fifty years old, and there are very few clues. What will happen to Anderson, Greg, and Julie if they can’t solve this one in time?




This is a series of articles I recently wrote, published in the Fredericksburg, VA Free Lance-Star, about a local Marine family and their struggles with multiple deployments. PTSD, and Traumatic Brain Injury. The photograph above, by FLS photographer Dave Ellis, is Marine Capt. Jason Haag. A photo essay by Dave accompanies the three-part series, which you can link to below.

Part I not available in Free Lance-Star archives at this time

Part II: Am I Some Kind of Monster?

Part III: Healing is Elusive for Combat Vet

“Just because you’re not guilty doesn’t mean you’re innocent”

JUVIE [STARRED REVIEW!] Author: Steve Watkins
Review Issue Date: August 15, 2013 Online Publish Date: August 3, 2013 Publisher: Candlewick Pages: 320 Price ( Hardcover ): $17.99 Publication Date: October 8, 2013 ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-7636-5509-9 Category: Fiction

Once you’re in juvie, it doesn’t matter if you’re a good girl.

Sadie’s the good sister: taking care of her mentally ill, shut-in father; raising her party-girl sister Carla’s 3-year-old daughter, Lulu; making good grades; and playing basketball in hopes of a scholarship that will get her out of her crummy Virginia town. One night, while Sadie tries to keep Carla out of trouble, the two of them are caught in a sting. Carla’s on probation for shoplifting and possession, so Sadie agrees to take the fall, thinking she’ll get off with some community-service hours. But she’s caught before a hanging judge in the mood to make an example of drug-dealing minors, and the next thing she knows, she’s spending six months in juvie. Neither the guards nor the inmates in juvenile detention are interested in rehabilitation. Demeaned and degraded, her schooling reduced to pointless GED-prep workbooks from apathetic teachers, barred from the simple comfort of human contact, Sadie doesn’t see how she can return to her outward-bound trajectory when her six months are over. She wants to make friends, to avoid trouble and to protect those weaker than her, but none of that is as simple as it seems. In the midst of the terrible reality, realistically tiny glimmers of hope shine like candles fighting the darkness.

A bleakly optimistic reminder to hold on to what is good. (Fiction. 13-17)

From the Candlewick Press Fall/Winter 2013 Catalog:

JUVIE tells the story of two sisters grappling with accountability, sacrifice — and who will be there to help you after you take the fall.

Sadie Windas has always been the responsible one — she’s the star player on her AAU basketball team, she gets good grades, she dates a cute soccer player, and she tries to help out at home. Not like her older sister, Carla, who leaves her three-year-old daughter, Lulu, with Aunt Sadie while she parties and gets high. But when both sisters are caught up in a drug deal — wrong place, wrong time — it falls to Sadie to confess to a crime she didn’t commit to keep Carla out of jail and Lulu out of foster care. Sadie is supposed to get off with a slap on the wrist, but somehow, impossibly, gets sentenced to six months in juvie. As life as Sadie knew it disappears beyond the stark bars of her cell, her anger — at her ex-boyfriend, at Carla, and at herself — fills the empty space left behind. Can Sadie forgive Carla for getting her mixed up in this mess? Can Carla straighten herself out to make a better life for Lulu, and for all of them? Can Sadie survive her time in juvie with her spirit intact?

Release date: October 8, 2013.

Angie 2, Cancer 0

February 3rd, 2013, 11:20 am

Local woman fights cancer one workout at a time



Five days before Christmas, Angie McCormick’s phone rang. It was 8 a.m. and she was home making cookies for an office party, while her kids slept in. It was her oncologist’s office calling—to tell her to go to the ER immediately.

The doctor’s office had just gotten the results back from a blood draw the day before. McCormick’s white blood cell count was 176,000; normal is at most 11,000.

McCormick had been tired lately, and bruising easily, but otherwise feeling great. After a bout with thyroid cancer in 2009, she’d committed to an intense routine of exercise and vegan eating. She was in the best shape of her life.

But a few hours after the doctor’s office called, a second blood draw at the ER confirmed the dangerously elevated white blood cell count, which can be a sign of cancer.

McCormick’s oncologist, Dr. Charles Maurer, came in almost immediately to do a bone marrow biopsy, an extremely painful procedure made worse due to the density of McCormick’s bones from months of weight-lifting and running.

Maurer had the results within hours: chronic myeloid leukemia. Phase 2: Accelerated. That explained the easy bruising and fatigue McCormick had recently been experiencing.

The good news: The leukemia was not yet in the advanced blast phase, which would make it tough to treat. The bad news: Aggressive treatment would be required to try to get it into Phase 1 remission and keep it there.

McCormick was stunned. The 34-year-old Fredericksburg woman had already beaten cancer once, almost three years before. She had taken control of her life since then, swearing off junk food and binge eating and shifting herself and her family over to a strict vegan diet. And not just any vegan diet, either, but one rich with foods proven to fight and ward off cancers.

“It’s a cliché, but when I got cancer the first time it was a wake-up call,” said McCormick, a call center manager for a national polling firm. “I ate all the wrong foods, and for the wrong reasons. I was a compulsive overeater. I’d given the cancer everything it needed to succeed.”

After changing her diet, McCormick liked how she felt—not only physically, but emotionally. But just changing her diet, she decided, wasn’t enough. Though a lifelong hater of exercise, she took up distance running at the urging of a co-worker.

“At first I just didn’t want to be fat anymore,” she said. “But once I got started, I wanted to keep going.”

After a year of mostly just running, she started taking exercise classes and lifting weights. Last summer she began working with Chris Innocenti, a personal trainer at the Massad Branch of the YMCA. She also joined his Boot Camp and was soon devoting at least nine hours a week to exercise.

In two years’ time McCormick lost 103 lbs., dropping from 249 to a strong, fit 146. She was healthy and happy and thinking about her next big challenge. Maybe graduate school. Maybe a marathon.

Instead, just a few days before Christmas, she found herself lying in the hospital, her body swelling from edema, a side effect of Gleevec, the first drug therapy she was put on for leukemia.


Gleevec and other drug therapies, developed in recent years, are designed to combat the bone marrow’s excessive production of unformed cells called blasts, or leukemia cells. These cells grow quickly and crowd out normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets the body needs.

Leukemia can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including certain viruses; exposure to Benzene or petrochemicals; or even some chemotherapy agents used to treat previous cancers.

Whatever the reason for her leukemia, McCormick knew she had not come so far for everything to go back to the way it was before.

“I can’t describe what a huge thing that was for me to lose a hundred pounds and beat thyroid cancer,” she said. “It was about overcoming an entire lifetime of being disappointed in myself. Never feeling good about myself. Never liking how I looked. Never feeling happy or successful.”

McCormick got out of the hospital on Saturday, Dec. 23. And at 9 a.m. the next morning, she showed up at the Y parking lot with the other hardcore Boot Campers, ready to lift a few tractor tires.

“I did a whole lot of not much,” she recalled.

“Not much” included an intense series of squats, extended wall sits and a forward sled drag, among other challenges. Not bad for someone who couldn’t even sit down because of the biopsy, and who still wore her hospital bracelet, just in case.

McCormick hasn’t let up much since.

“I’m not about to stop working out,” she said. “It’s another weapon in the arsenal. It’s literally helping me fight the cancer. Research has clearly shown that it boosts your immune system. And it’s another opportunity for me to prove to myself that I can do things I didn’t think I could do.”


Two weeks after she got out of the hospital, McCormick was doing just about everything she’d been doing before: pushups, kettle-bell swings, sled pulls, sledge-hammering and working with her fellow Boot Campers to flip a 666-pound tractor tire they call “Buttercup.”

By Jan. 9, McCormick, who had gained 22 lbs. the first week after starting her treatment, was back to her pre-diagnosis weight.

Dr. Maurer, her oncologist, was happy she was keeping her weight down—something he told her he wished more of his patients could do, since it made the drug therapy much easier to manage.

“Because [McCormick] is so well-conditioned, there is a much higher likelihood of responding well to treatment, and a much lower risk of complications from the drug therapy,” he said.

McCormick hasn’t had to have any blood transfusions. Her white blood cell count has stayed down. There’s no talk about a bone marrow transplant.

And, in what a surprised Maurer told her was “remarkably fast progress,” McCormick said her leukemia has already gone into first-level remission.

The goal, with drug therapies, is to achieve that level in three months. McCormick did it in three weeks. The goal now is to continue progressing into deeper remission—chronic, but asymptomatic and no longer spreading.

“She’ll be on a regimented drug program for the rest of her life, which can induce a complete, sustained remission,” Maurer said. “The challenge now is what we call ‘Survivorship Care.’ Once you’ve finished treatment, there is more and more data showing the importance of staying fit, exactly as she has done, which will help in preventing a recurrence.”

McCormick celebrated her first-level remission by buying a new pink and blue T–shirt with the words “Suck it up, Buttercup” emblazoned on the front.

She wore it the next day to Boot Camp.


Angie McCormick’s workouts are holistic, focusing on strength, stamina and diet. Her sessions with personal trainer Chris Innocenti emphasize functional fitness exercises with such exotic names as the Bulgarian Split Squat, Sumo Dead Lift and Blast Strap Row.

She has recently added yoga once or twice a week to her workout schedule. She also has begun run-ning again, taking spinning classes and lifting weights.

She continues to follow a mostly vegan diet, with a few modifications to increase her protein level and combat the anemia that comes with her leukemia. McCormick remains a steadfast believer in the importance of exercise and diet to combat illnesses—especially cancer.

There’s reason for her to believe.

“Only 5 to 10 percent of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90 to 95 percent have their roots in the environment and lifestyle,” a team of researchers wrote in a recent article published by the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Biochemical Information.

“The evidence indicates that of all cancer-related deaths, almost 25 to 30 percent are due to tobacco, as many as 30 to 35 percent are linked to diet, about 15 to 20 percent are due to infections, and the remaining percentage are due to other factors like radiation, stress, physical activity, environmental pollutants, etc.”

McCormick said much the same thing in a Facebook message for her friends last spring about her thyroid cancer, adding her own call to action:

“Three years ago at this time, they were telling me there was an excellent 5-year survival rate, and I thought, ‘In 5 years, [my son] Liam will be 7 and [my daughter] Lara will be 13. That’s not enough time.’ I resolved to do anything I could to help fight it, and I did. So here is my annual soapbox statement:

“You are not ‘too young’ to get cancer, or heart disease, or Type 2 diabetes. … So wake up and stop making excuses. … Stop eating crap. Get some exercise.  … Cancer is preventable, up to 95 percent of the time. Wrap your head around that, and then get moving.”


Chronic myeloid leukemia, the kind that Fredericksburg resident Angie McCormick has, is “a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. It then moves into the blood and can spread to other parts of the body,” the American Cancer Society says.

The leukemia cells tend to build up over time in CML patients, but CML can “change into a fast-growing, acute leukemia that invades almost any organ in the body,” the society says.

CML is one of four main types of leukemia. Learn more at cancer.org/cancer.

Dead All Over?

The Haunting of 307 William Street

Steve Watkins

Fredericksburg Free-Lance-Star, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2012

The noises at Read All Over Books in downtown Fredericksburg started a year ago. Two employees heard the same thing, though at different times and on different days.

Chloe Lafollette and Austin Echelberger both turned off the lights upstairs at the end of their shifts. They both returned downstairs at 307 William St. to continue switching off lights and shutting down the store.

And they both heard footsteps walking from the front left corner of the store–above their heads on the second floor—over to the top of the stairs. The footsteps were so distinct that Echelberger hurried back upstairs, assuming that he’d turned the lights off on a customer. But the room was empty.

Both shrugged it off at first. Maybe they’d imagined it. Maybe it was just the creaking, settling sounds of an old pre-Civil War-era building

But it happened again. And again.

Echelberger, who has since left Read All Over and moved to Charlottesville, finally told bookstore owner Paul Cymrot. Echelberger said he felt that he was being watched from the top of the stairs, and it became such a regular thing that he would simply say hello to whomever it was and go on with his business.

Lafollette got so freaked out that any time she had to close the store she would run upstairs, hit the light switches, then run back down.

She, too, finally told Cymrot.

“The odd thing was that neither of them had corroborated their stories first with one another,” Cymrot said. “They’d never discussed what they’d heard at all. Yet what they reported to me was almost exactly the same.”

Built in 1830, near the intersection of William and Princess Anne streets, 307 William St. has been a grocery, a tin shop, a high-end knick-knack emporium, a day spa, and now a used bookstore, among its many incarnations.

There have been so many unusual occurrences there since the noises began—and questions from patrons—that Cymrot finally hung up a sign which said, “KEEP CALM. THIS BOOKSTORE IS PROBABLY NOT HAUNTED.”

A first-time customer recently came into the store, and after walking around for awhile stopped in front of the sign. Lafollette was working at the time. “He said, ‘I guess that explains why I just saw a book flying off one of your shelves,’” she recalled.

The Ghost Upstairs

Skeptical at first, Cymrot eventually had to concede that there was something strange going on at Read All Over.

“We’re operating with the hypothesis that this is the ghost of a teenage boy,” he said, “We have no idea what era it might be from, but Chloe [Lafollette] did say that the day of the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the store was especially active. We also had a customer one day who told us, without any excitement or surprise, that there was a ghost upstairs which he thought belonged to a teenage boy.”

Lafollette, who attends Germanna Community College and has worked at Read All Over since September, confirmed Cymrot’s account. “About four in the afternoon, on December 11—I didn’t know until later that it was the date the Battle of Fredericksburg started—I just had this weird feeling that the store was mad,” she said. “There was a weird noise in the back room, like when wind is whipping through somewhere but it sounds like howling. But there was no wind.”

Anna Lincoln, who started working at Read All Over in March, said she’s never seen or heard the ghost, but she’s pretty sure he’s there nonetheless. “I always feel like I’m being watched, especially in the back room and upstairs,” she said. “Upstairs there’s just this weird energy, and it feels creepy. Whenever I have to close by myself I run upstairs and run back down, the same as Chloe.”

Most disconcerting to Lincoln have been the flying books. She described one incident when a book fell or leapt off a shelf next to the cash register and landed ten feet away. “It’s happened several times,” she said. “Customers will say, ‘Did you see that?’ and we just laugh and tell them it’s the ghost, having some fun.”

A mother and daughter who came in the store not long ago got into an argument over the phenomenon—the daughter insisting she’d seen a book fly off a shelf, the mother equally insistent that it hadn’t happened.

Lafollette has seen flying books as well. She said she’s also found books in odd arrangements on the floor when she opened the store, mostly upstairs and mostly kids’ books, as if someone had been sitting on the floor reading them. Once she found a pile of 20 novels stacked in the middle of a rug on the second floor. The books hadn’t been there when she closed up the night before–they were on first-floor shelves–and no one had been in the store.

Malevolent or Just Bored?

Despite all that and more—Lafollete and her mother are certain the ghost followed her home on at least one occasion; she had to ask it to stop revving her car engine—she and Lincoln say they don’t believe the ghost means any harm. Lincoln said she thinks he’s just bored at times, and perhaps looking for some excitement.

“There’s kind of a bad energy when there are more formal things going on in the store,” she said. “But the ghost seems to especially like children, and there’s a really positive vibe or energy or whatever when we have things like the FAA [Fredericksburg All Ages] concerts.”

Cymrot agreed. “It doesn’t scare people or drag chains or smoke cigars,” he said. “But it gets bored and antsy. It’s happier when there’s some entertainment for it.”

Still, not everyone is comfortable with the ghost.

“We did have one customer,” Cymrot said, “a woman with Down’s Syndrome or perhaps another developmental abnormality, who despite having been all over the store on several previous occasions wouldn’t enter the back room under any circumstances. She was visibly distressed and said ‘It’s in there! It’s in there!’ before leaving the store.

“She has not been back.”

Cymrot, who also owns Riverby Books on Caroline Street, said he had a premonition that there might be something odd about 307 William St. when he first opened the store in 2010. As he built shelves and painted walls, especially on the second floor in the front corner, things kept happening: Materials fell. Drinks spilled. And he found himself getting easily exhausted and annoyed.

In the first year of operation he renovated the upstairs three times, but it still never “felt right.” Light bulbs burned out quickly, especially on the second floor. And the wireless speakers—the same ones that had worked fine for years at Riverby–developed static and quit working after a short time.

And there was the strange effect the building seems to have on some of his employees.

“Somehow the space just eats them up,” he said. “They get lethargic; they stop taking out the trash or counting the change.”

Erin Comerford, a rising sophomore at the University of Virginia who has worked at both Riverby and Read All Over, called it a “general energy suck.”

“When I’m over at Riverby I’m motivated, I get things done, I’m in a good mood afterwards,” she said. “But at Read All Over people try to get work done and it never seems to go anywhere.”

Cymrot said he’s had to let half a dozen employees go at 307 William, a marked contrast to Riverby where virtually all his employees have stayed on happily for years.

“With most of them [at Read All Over], they just gradually did less and less work until I had to call them on it,” he said.

Smudge Pots and D&D

Since the ghost first made its presence known to bookstore employees, Cymrot has learned other stories about previous tenants in 307 William St. who were convinced the building was haunted, and who tried various means of driving out the unwanted guest.

The owner of Echelon Day Spa, who rented the building from Cymrot’s family before Read All Over moved in, once went through the store with burning sage in a smudge pot, a supposedly effective means of sending away uninvited spirits. Massage therapist Pam Gallant, who worked at Echelon, confirmed that story.

Gallant also said the owners of Gold Star Emporium, who set up shop at 307 William back in the 1990s, brought in a paranormal adviser to coach them on the best way to handle the troublesome ghost. The Gold Star owners have both since died.

Cymrot has taken a different approach, hanging bright posters and pictures throughout the store, and scheduling as much lively entertainment as he can for customers–and for the ghost: Fredericksburg All-Ages concerts, poetry readings, story-telling events, film screenings, live acoustic music.

And he’s recently added another activity—though this one is down in the basement, a particularly claustrophobic part of the store with its low ceilings, deep shadows, natural outcroppings of rock, and posts made out of original cedar tree trunks. The old coal chutes down there have been cemented up. A brick arch which once led into the basement of Bistro Bethem has been cinder-blocked over, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” A “creepy crawl space” that Cymrot has yet to explore juts out through a broken brick back wall.

Undaunted by the forbidding ambience—or perhaps partly inspired by it–Cymrot and several friends have been meeting once a month there for late-night sessions of the old fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, which all played years ago in high school and college, and which they’ve now resurrected locally.

Cymrot says participants haven’t noticed anyone extra showing up. No phantom footsteps or howling winds or flying books.

So far.



My Friend Alice

(A longer draft of an article I wrote for the newspaper when Alice died earlier this week.)

Alice Rabson could barely see out of her rear view mirror because of all the bumper stickers on the back of her purple Volkswagen Beetle, bold testament to her adamant support for a host of progressive causes. I used to see that car all over town, and it always made me happy to know Rabson was nearby, ready to fight the good fight and bring the rest of us along with her.

Though the bumper stickers were a good start at announcing what she stood for, what they couldn’t tell you was that Rabson had been an advocate for those causes—civil liberties, a woman’s right to choose, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, human rights, anti-war —her entire life, long before they were embraced by anything like a majority of her fellow Americans.

Rabson had to give up that VW several years ago as her health began to fail, but until this week she never stopped advocating for her causes. She died quietly Monday morning while sitting at breakfast at the Hughes Home in Fredericksburg.

She was 92.

Wherever she went, whatever she did, Alice Rabson lived what she believed, and she never shied away from expressing herself–fighting on the front lines of progressive issues as a lifelong member of the ACLU (her father was one of the founders), as one of the first members of the local National Organization for Women, as co-founder of and longtime counselor for the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence, and so much more.

“I remember NOW working out of Alice’s home for several months in the 1970s, lobbying for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment,” said her long-time friend Becky Reed, a former Stafford County Supervisor and attorney with Rappahannock Legal Services. “Alice had a number of causes that she believed in. But she didn’t just believe in them—she got out and worked for them.”

Fredericksburg’s Gaye Adegbalola, a renowned blues singer, remembers another moment from Rabson’s early years in town—one that changed Adegbalola’s life.

“I was down from New York visiting my family,” she recalled recently. “My father and I were driving on Princess Anne Street by the Selective Service Board which was in the old Post Office—what’s now City Hall. And there, standing all alone in the pouring rain, holding a sign protesting the war in Vietnam, was Alice.”

Adegbalola told that story recently at a Democratic Party fundraiser where she was performing, exhorting the crowd to show that same “passion and fire to stand up for what we believe.”

“Any time I have lacked courage to stand up for a cause,” Adegbalola said, “the role model who comes to mind is always Alice Rabson.”

My own introduction to Rabson happened 22 years ago, also standing on the steps of City Hall where we were holding signs opposing the first Gulf War. Alice believed that diplomacy, sanctions, a willingness to try anything and everything should precede any decision to go to war. It was a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam—in all previous wars–but that, as Rabson saw it, we clearly and tragically hadn’t.

I had just moved to Fredericksburg to teach at what was then Mary Washington College. It was 1990. Rabson, retired from MWC for five years by then as a professor of psychology, had been organizing and participating in progressive political actions in town for decades. Her friend Jane Ellen Teller remembers seeing a photo from the 1960s that ran in the newspaper of her standing outside the old Woolworth’s holding a sign demanding the segregated store open its doors to African-Americans.

Though Rabson was never afraid to stand alone, she was also a firm believer in including her children in political activities, in one case bringing young Steve and Ann Rabson along with her to picket a barbershop in Ohio, where they were living at the time, because of the barbershop’s refusal to cut black children’s hair.

“We were always a very politically active family, and Alice was a great role model for a lot of people, including us,” said Ann Rabson, who continued the family tradition by bringing her own daughter Liz to anti-war rallies. “I was so proud of her. And my daughter was proud of her, and my daughter’s daughter was proud of her. She was adventurous, and not afraid of anything.”

Not that Rabson didn’t have her detractors. Her strong opinions, expressed over the years in letters to the editor, invariably prompted vitriolic responses. People threw things at her while she stood on protest lines. And, because she was not afraid of shaking things up where she worked, she was criticized by some of her colleagues for being “too outspoken.”

Some in the Old Boys Faculty Network at MWC called Rabson “Crazy Alice” behind her back, even after she left the school. I’d heard those whispers before meeting Rabson that day at City Hall. The Old Boys thought she was trouble, and boy was she ever—though the best kind of trouble: the kind who gets things done.

They were wise to keep their whispers to themselves.

Rabson, who might have been five feet on her tallest day, didn’t just take on the larger inequities in society; she was committed to progressive change right at home, starting with the psych department’s antiquated offerings in developmental psychology—her specialty–and continuing through the fight to force MWC and the University of Virginia to go co-ed and end UVa’s discrimination against women that had endured into the 1970s.

When she retired from the school, in 1985, Rabson didn’t sit still for long. Actually she didn’t sit still at all. She joined the Peace Corps and spent the next two and half years serving as a health counselor in the Marshall Islands. She was 65 at the time.

Throughout her life, Rabson’s greatest sources of pride were her children: Ann, an internationally-acclaimed blues pianist, and Steve, who taught Japanese literature as a member of the Asian Studies faculty at Brown University until his retirement in 2006. Steve Rabson moved to Fredericksburg to help care for his mother last year.

In every conversation we ever had, Rabson talked about her children’s lives and their accomplishments—Ann’s latest record or CD, Steve’s most recent translation.

Rabson lived with Ann and her husband George Newman the last three years of her life. But for most of the 90 years prior to that, she was fiercely independent. She was well into her 80s before she stopped driving and moved for a time into an assisted living facility.

As recently as three weeks ago Rabson was still having her son Steve drive her to the Unitarian Universalist Church for her beloved Sunday Discussion Group, a regular gathering whose members, fellow secular humanists, all looked forward to debating the tough issues of the day—with warmth, intellect, humor, passion, and the occasional raised voice.

“She led a full, productive life,” said Steve Rabson yesterday. “She helped so many people personally and professionally. That’s the most significant thing I learned from her—that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is to be able to help other people.”

A few years ago, at a memorial service for our friend Bill Lakeman, another long-time Unitarian Universalist, Rabson, who had trouble walking, nonetheless stepped forward to speak. The minister, Jeff Jones, tried to lead her to one side of the pulpit where he thought it would be easier to step up on the dais. But Rabson insisted on going to the other side.

Jones tried again to lead her to his side, but Rabson still insisted on going the route she had chosen.

Finally, someone in the congregation spoke out: “Alice will do it her way!”

The current UU minister, Walter Braman, who was in attendance at that service, reminded me of that story yesterday.

“Six short words,” he said, “that truly underscore her life and her person.”

There will be a memorial gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 3 p.m. to celebrate Alice Rabson’s life. All are invited.

Think Intergalactic, Eat Local

Come join in Monday evening, Oct. 8 at the downtown library in Fredericksburg for a community-wide discussion on sustainable agriculture, the locavore movement, and Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Plan B for How To Save the World! All you vegetable gardeners, foodies, and friends of the Earth: come share your thoughts and suggestions. Click here for more information.

I’ll be moderating the discussion, which is the culminating event in the library’s year-long focus on sustainability, with Animal, Vegetable Miracle as their Big Read.

Click here to learn more at Barbara Kingsolver’s web site for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana on Old Rag Mountain



This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.