"The First Fish"
"WW II on the Warwick River"
About the Author
The First Fish
Dorothy Holloway Burkholder sits in an out-of-the-way room of Mennowood Retirement Community. She’s a slight woman of 95 years with short white hair and light blue eyes. As she recounts her first fishing experience, her blue eyes bore though the off-white walls of the room back several decades and a few miles west to the Holloway Farm in Warwick County, where she grew up.
The Holloway Farm was 50 acres and sat on just north of Fort Eustis by the Warwick River. The Holloway’s house sat in the middle of the farm; surrounded by peach trees, chicken coops and fields.
Beyond the farm lies a small wooded thicket and a stream where a young Dorothy ventured off to one sunny day to catch a fish. Inspired by the fishing adventure of the Bobbsey Twins, the main characters of a series of children’s novels, Dorothy created a fishing “pole” out of a bit of string, a piece of metal for a sinker, and a pink worm she found under a nearby brick.
“I thought, ‘I’ll toss it in, see if I can do like the Bobbsey Twins and see if I can catch a fish’,“ Dorothy said.
Dorothy tossed the sinker into the small creek and waited. After a few minutes, “I felt a jiggle jiggle, jiggle jiggle and thought ‘oh, I caught something’,” she said.
In complete surprise, Dorothy hoisted her catch out of the water. She laid her prize onto the path along the creek and examined her prize.
“It was a pretty little fish,” she said. It was a small and mostly gray thing with an orange spot beside a fin.
She felt a pang of regret as the fish flopped about in the exposed air.
“I thought ‘I don’t want it to die’ so I thought ‘I’ll pick it up and take the hook off and throw it back in’.”
When she went to save the fish it stabbed her with a fin as it flopped about. A little bit of blood oozed out of a prick in Dorothy’s thumb and sealed the fish’s fate.
“Well. If you’re going to treat me like that I’ll just let you lay there,” Dorothy said, “I didn’t want to see it flopping around to die so I just left it there.”
“I was sorry to see him die but I can’t save you if you’re going to treat me that way,” Dorothy said with a laugh. ◊
World War II on the Warwick River
The explosions that rocked Pearl Harbor in 1941 were felt all the way in the small farming and fishing communities on Virginia’s Peninsula. Dorothy Burkholder, then in her early twenties, remembers hearing about the attack that thrust the United States into the conflict.
“It was a shocking thing but there were a lot of shocking things about the war,” she said.
Living close to several military installations, reminders of the war were constant. Planes buzzed overhead on training missions, and blackouts to ensure the enemy couldn’t pinpoint targets were common. The U.S. Navy sought inlets and rivers of the area to conceal its warships.
To this end, the U.S. Navy dug out local oyster beds to make space to hide submarines in the area. Dorothy’s grandfather staked his future on harvesting his oyster beds but the government commandeered them to hide submarines, destroying them in the process. With the beds ruined, the oysters and a vital resource went away.
“They never did come back,” Dorothy said.
As food producers, the men of the community supported the war effort not by shouldering rifles but by growing crops. The war hit home in the rationing of goods the villages and farms of the area didn’t produce themselves. The community made do and tried to get through until the war ended.
“Sugar was very hard to get. Families were allowed only so much and that’s all you could have,” Dorothy remembers, “didn’t coffee get short? I didn’t drink coffee so it didn’t matter.”
Clothing was a concern for Dorothy but the community found a way to replace worn clothes year after year, thanks to livestock feedbags.
“The food bags that came for the cows and the chickens had a print on them so we would wash them and get the print out of them and use them for clothes,” Dorothy said. “So when you went to buy chicken or cow feed you tried to get bags just alike so you’d have enough of one kind so you could make a dress or something. So you’d pick out your colors.”
In this way the people of the communities along the Warwick River eked out a living with the rumbling of World War II in the background. As the war endured year after year Dorothy and her community toiled away making do and producing food for the war effort until the conflict ended.
“The war was awful and we prayed everyday for it to stop,” she said. ◊
“I liked him, Dorothy said, “so I went out with him.”
Dorothy’s eventual husband, Nelson Burkholder, came from a family that owned a neighboring dairy farm. His father relied greatly on him to keep the farm functioning and profitable.
“His father called him his Moses, so he was a very capable guy,” Dorothy said.
The boy with broad shoulders and dark hair caught Dorothy’s eye because of his abilities.
“I was selfish enough to know at the time that I had to marry someone who made enough money to live on because it was hard times it was during the deep depression,” she said, “and to get money to buy things was harder to do.”
After gaining Dorothy’s father’s approval, the couple began going to roller skate parties and doing other things together until one momentous Wednesday.
“I thought what’s he coming over here for? Dorothy said, “I went to the door and he said ‘I want to talk to you.’”
Nelson planned to ask her father if he could marry Dorothy.
“You have to ask my father,” Dorothy said, “I’m not going to ask him.”
Her boyfriend set off and Dorothy dashed into her house, a large two-story home that sat in the middle of her family’s homestead. She ran upstairs to her bedroom and then peered out her window at the family’s long barn a couple fields away.
Nelson marched down a path leading to the barn while Dorothy’s father worked away on repairing the roof. Her thoughts raced with how the exchange would unfold.
“My father was very stern. A ship captain, used to being obeyed,” she said, “I wasn’t sure whether he’d let me get married or not.”
Finally Dorothy’s boyfriend reached the barn and began to climb the ladder to the roof.
“I saw my boyfriend go up the ladder and go up on the roof and I thought ‘I sure hope my father doesn’t throw him off,’” Dorothy said.
Nelson reached the top of the barn and began talking to Dorothy’s father for the next half hour. Eventually, Dorothy’s boyfriend climbed down the ladder and returned to the house to find Dorothy waiting for him.
“He said everything’s alright,” Dorothy said, “that’s how we got married.” ◊
narrative stories by Jack Jacobs
Dorothy Burkholder with her husband Nelson Burkholder. The couple began dating when Dorothy was in her late teens and were married for 50 years until Nelson passed away.
Dorothy Holloway Burkholder is a lifelong resident of the Virginia Peninsula, and was born in Warwick County, Virginia, in the 1920s. She grew up the daughter of a prominent ship captain turned farmer named Robert M. Holloway.