It took an aortic valve replacement for Raymond Solomon to realize the value of putting his story on paper. It was 12 years ago and he did not know if he was going to make it through the surgery, so Solomon, now 80, decided to write two sets of letters to family members.
"The impetus was for the kids to not have the void I had in not knowing who my parents really were," said the Fairfax resident. "I had no idea what my mom was like as a teenager." The letters would give his children and grandchildren a sense of what kind of person he was and his philosophy on life, he said.
Solomon survived the surgery, and while he recovered, his wife Hazel suggested he record some of the more notable stories of his life, which began in New York City. When Solomon was 16, he left the city to attend the National Farm School in Pennsylvania. From there, he said, he attended Ohio State University and Columbia University for his master's degree in school administration and European History. He spent many years as a schoolteacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, before moving to Fairfax County to retire.
"I said, 'You know what, Hazel, I'm going to write some of these stories down,'" said Solomon. "To tell my children and grandchildren who I am and who I was."
He wrote a few short stories, but did not begin his writing project in earnest until he began attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a senior education program at George Mason University.
"I tore up everything I had written before and threw it away," said Solomon. The class taught him basic tenets of good writing, he said: showing rather than telling, using adjectives and adverbs sparingly, and most importantly, using active verbs.
"I nagged him for 10 years to write it," said Hazel Solomon, who has been married to Raymond Solomon for 54 years. "I'm really, really proud of him."
As Raymond Solomon compiled his stories, friends began encouraging him to publish them. Turned off by the intense scheduling commitments required by most of the publishing houses he encountered, he decided to publish a collection of his stories himself. After a few trips to Kinko's, "The Blueberry War and Other Stories: A Memoir" was in print.
In February, Solomon gave a reading of "The Blueberry War" at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield.
Fairfax Station resident Robin Neyman, who attended the reading, was struck by Solomon's writing.
"I was sitting there listening to this," said Neyman. "It was putting the rest of us to shame … he took the average life and made it interesting."
"It gives our kids a history of their family and an appreciation for it," said Hazel Solomon. "They would never know anything about us as a young family. Now our great-grandchildren can have the opportunity to know about their great-grandparents."
Writing allows Solomon to think about his own life in a different way, he said. He always writes about his own experiences, he said, since they make the most effective stories for him.
"I think about an incident in my life that has some bearing on my philosophy, thinking or emotions," said Solomon. "Then I just sit down and tell the story."
While Solomon was studying at the National Farm School in Pennsylvania, he spent a summer doing gardening work for a wealthy family in Bucks County, Penn. The family, who happened to be 12-year-old Stephen Sondheim and his mother, Foxy, treated Solomon and his friend Chester Roystacher less like hired help and more like guests, said Solomon. Becoming friends with Foxy Sondheim allowed Solomon to attend parties with the likes of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers, but also gave him the chance to experience Foxy Sondheim's strong personality up close.
Once, Foxy Sondheim talked Solomon and his friend into taking her car into town for some errands. She insisted, Solomon wrote in "Foxy—Episode One," even though neither of the young men knew how to drive. They ended up hitting a parked car, which slammed into a police cruiser. Solomon and his friend were taken to the local jail.
"We whispered accusations back and forth, casting blame like a ping pong ball in play," wrote Solomon. "We hardly noticed when the door opened. There she was, a 'Loretta Young,' gesturing and radiating charm and concern."
As soon as Foxy Sondheim, a prominent dress designer, offered the police officer some designer samples for his wife and wrote a check to a police charity, the two boys were released on the spot.
"Down and Out"
As a child living in New York City in the 1930s, Solomon remembers the Great Depression well. Neighbors would become so far behind in their rent that they would be evicted, said Solomon, and would leave all their possessions on the street until they could come up with the funds to move back into their apartment.
A couple who Solomon remembers as Mr. and Mrs. Abraham found themselves in this situation, owing $46 for two or three months of rent. They went door to door throughout the neighborhood to beg for money, he wrote, and hired Solomon to watch their pile of furniture and clothing that sat on the sidewalk.
"How ridiculous the arrangement," wrote Solomon. "Two nine-year-olds guarding this massive conglomeration of worn, torn and tattered junk, a family's possessions!"
It took three days for the Abrahams to gather enough money to make their rent, wrote Solomon, but as soon as they had moved back in, Mrs. Abraham insisted on paying Solomon for his help.
"Two Carrots, an Apple and an Extra Large Potato"
Solomon's favorite story is set when he was studying at the National Farm School. It was 1944, and as part of his studies he also looked after horses. One night, as he was preparing to leave the horse barn, the school veterinarian called him back in to assist with a mare in labor. Solomon had never attended a horse birth before, he said, and felt nervous.
"To deliver a foal breech was quite an experience," said Solomon.
The vet gave him the job of comforting the mare. Solomon stroked the animal's head and promised it two carrots, an apple and a potato if it came through the delivery successfully.
After the colt was safely delivered, wrote Solomon, he started to walk back to the dormitory for a hot shower and a meal. First, however, he made a detour to the school kitchen, to pick up the food he had promised the mare.