By Tom Poland
Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, I’d leave on a Friday afternoon and head for the mountains, the Blue Ridge species. My monthly drives from Columbia, South Carolina, to Buchanan, Virginia, took me to family. You see my daughters lived in that small town named for President James Buchanan.
The five-hour drive involved I-20, I-77, I-81, and a welcomed break from interstates—the majestic Blue Ridge Parkway. Along the parkway, 18-wheelers noticeably absent, my views included valleys, clouds drifting across my windshield, waterfalls, deer along shoulders, and places with poetic names such as Peaks of Otter, Sunrise Field, and Sunrise Meadow. I recall, too, a high, narrow ridge with deep valleys plunging off each side. It was like driving the edge of a knife blade.
One memorable view stood out. By day the Roanoke Star, more accurately, Mill Mountain Star, was invisible. By night, however, that white star meant I was just half an hour from my girls. It became a private landmark. “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.”
My wish was to spend time with my daughters.
In early dark winter the Hollywood sign of the East Coast stood out. It loomed over the Roanoke Valley. It shined upon Roanoke, Star City of the South. Driving along a rim of mountains, weaving in and out of curves, and driving within that valley, to me it seemed a giant had pinned the star to Mill Mountain, so named because a gristmill once operated at its base.
Back then I never got to visit the star. I knew nothing about the world’s largest manmade star. I just knew I’d soon see my girls. Then, some thirty-plus years later, I saw the star up close. On an October Sunday, my daughter, Beth, and her family and I enjoyed lunch at the park associated with the star. An autumn wind rustled leaves. Some leaves were beginning to turn. Though it was warm, the wind carried a chill. Winter, my star time of yesteryear, was calling.
After lunch, we went to the star I had only seen from afar. Standing beneath it erased a lot of self-doubt and pain. So, right here I must thank the Roanoke Merchants Association and Roanoke Chamber of Commerce for erecting that symbol of hope in November 1949. One-hundred feet tall, the star stands 1,847 feet over sea level and 1,045 feet over Roanoke. It stands tall in memory. Looking up at two stars within a star I thought about all the trips I had made back in the day. Just above where I stood came the white light that sustained me.
That October Sunday I looked out across Roanoke Valley wondering just where I was when I first spotted the star light. Standing beneath it felt personal. Perhaps another father in absentia gazed upon that star and found in it a landmark of hope.
Over the years the star’s shone red to indicate a traffic fatality on a given day. After the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, the Mill Mountain Star burned bright white with several sections symbolically blacked out. For me it shone as a symbol of hope, that my girls would grow up unscarred by divorce. For me, passing through Roanoke Valley alone on cold winter evenings long ago, the star light, star bright symbolized a time to be with family during trying years. When I look back across time I see it through windshields long gone. The star burns bright, a beacon of hope, and all turned out well just as I hoped.
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