For 35 years now, almost anyone who cares about Virginia politics has come to this tiny rural Southside town midway between Richmond and Norfolk for the annual shad planking. They picnic in the woods, dining on shad and other fish and downing record quantities of beer and stronger liquids, all while they work the 4,000-plus crowd like a family reunion.
The shad planking--so named because the shad is nailed to a plank and roasted for hours--is considered the quintessential Virginia get-together, and for years was run for and by the state's white male political establishment. It wasn't until 1976 that a handful of blacks--all of them men--received coveted invitations. And it wasn't until 1977 that the first woman dared to drop by--although she was hardly invited.
Staff writer Megan Rosenfeld, then covering Virginia politics for The Washington Post, got in by brandishing an entry ticket passed on to her by a sympathetic--and invited--male. To this day, shad plankers still assume Rosenfeld was aided and abetted by a turncoat Northern Virginian--and, believe me, they still talk about it. But Megan confided in me that she made history in the Old Dominion with the help of a Tidewater resident.
In any case, as she reported then, "I had difficulty blending into the scene."
Last week, I, too, finally got a look at a shad planking, Virginia-style. By now, thanks to Rosenfeld's pioneering, there were about 10 women also on hand, including Northern Virginia Del. Gladys Keating (D-Fairfax), a few lawyers and a couple of other female reporters and photographers. Still, even after six years, it was easy to understand how Megan must have felt.
"Okay," I hear some of you saying, "what's so awful about being one of the few women at a predominantly male gathering?" Nothing, except that most of the men don't want you there and think that you are spoiling their party.
"It's just not the same since they let the women in," complained a normally enlightened Richmonder who misses the antics of the old days.
What the men seem to miss the most, apparently, is what supposedly made shad planking such a ritualistic treat: the freedom to relieve themselves on the spot whenever nature calls. Now, with women present, most, but not all, feel compelled to walk further into the woods or use one of the portable comfort stations installed since the arrival of female intruders.
Whether their resentment is caused by the presence of toilet enclosures or by the presence of the women, I cannot say for certain. I can tell you that, while I was in line to use "the facilities," one Virginia gentleman got his guffaws by opening the door of a booth on a hapless male--who, I must admit, was more embarrassed than I was.
And when I ventured into a makeshift bathroom, I was only slightly surprised when someone or someones outside took to rocking it back and forth.
What else to tell you about the afternoon? Well, it got impossibly crowded by 4:30 p.m. The band played "Dixie" every five minutes. The governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, a congressman, lots of state legislators and even more lobbyists and special interest groups were there. And when the scheduled speaker, freshman Republican Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr., had to stay in Washington to vote, the brief greeting he sent was cheered as the best shad planking speech ever.
Another observation: It was announced that "a ton and a half pounds"--that's what the man said--of shad had been bought for the occasion. But almost everyone I talked to said they didn't even like shad, including several of the service station dealers I drove down with who stopped for dinner on the way home.
And, oh yes, they sold souvenir shad planking hats for the first time this year. I bought two:
One for me . . . and one for Megan.