Characters give a town — an area — its character.
And, man, do we have some!
There’s that swashbuckling political bantamweight, L. Douglas Wilder; the notorious drag queen Dirtwoman, who is gravely ill after a series of heart attacks and infections; and Duckman, who bicycles recklessly through town making quacking sounds.
You recall the uncatchable Black Dog and perhaps White Goat, the ram who roamed the rocky ledges above the Powhite Parkway bridge by the tragic and mysterious Blue Shingles property.
We have colorful musicians and artists including Dave Brockie (RIP), Wes Freed and Ed Trask; and writer/historians such as the Mark Twain-like Harry “The Hat” Kollatz Jr., along with many other wild cooks, bakers, actors, developers and crusaders.
For all of its reputation as a conservative Southern town — “a hotbed of social rest” — RVA is bursting with offbeat characters.
Which brings me to a favorite:
He’s kind of outside of the edge of RVA — he lives in Sussex County — but his diesel Ford truck with IGOJUMP on the tag frequently rolls into the area to rescue cats and parachutes stranded high in trees.
“I get cats for free,” Brian “Swamp Man” Carr told me during a rescue last year. “I charge for parachutes, but I do cats for free, ‘cause I’m an animal lover. Always have been.”
He’s also a nature lover. He and his wife, Pam Carr, live in a remote log cabin where the Black Water Swamp and Warwick Swamp merge.
Hence, “Swamp Man.”
“There’s nothing like it,” he said of his swampy retreat. “No other place to be.”
I met him while driving through a quiet neighborhood in Waverly last year.
A crowd of people were staring up into the branches of a massive willow oak. Stopping to investigate, I could see someone about 70 feet up, grabbing a cat.
Turns out it was “Socks,” stuck way up there for six days.
Socks was lowered by rope in a paisley pillowcase.
Moments later, this compact, rugged figure repelled down from the tree, quick like Spider-Man, whipping his 120-foot Arbor Plex climbing rope out of the branches like a magician.
Dang! That’s cool!
Socks was reunited with his young caretaker, Destiny Buhls, who had watched in amazement along with others in the neighborhood.
“Thank you very much,” she said.
“You’re welcome very much,” Swamp Man said before he rode off into the sunset.
Since then, I’ve seen him in action twice more. (You can see the videos on WTVR.com or YouTube.) On Wednesday, it was Ella the housecat, stuck in an elm for nine days on Fieldstone Road in Chesterfield County.
She snuck out of the house, ran up the tree and kept going up, explained 7-year-old Nikolai White.
It’s easy for cats to climb up because of their claws, Swamp Man said.
But coming down is another matter: “They have to back down.”
He strapped on his climbing spikes and safety harness and whipped up an adjacent cherry tree so he could reach down into the elm for Ella, who clearly was ready for rescue. She just mewed softly as he slid her into the magical paisley pillowcase, telling her what a good kitty she was as he lowered her into the waiting arms of Nikolai and his little sister.
Swamp Man was back on the ground within a minute.
“I love it,” he said of tree-climbing. “It’s always been in my blood.”
His father was a climber and power lineman for the same outfit for which he has worked for 38 years, Prince George Electric Co-op.
“When I was a kid, we had a big old oak tree I’d free climb,” he said. “My grandmother lived across the street. She’d call my mom saying, ‘Your son’s all the way up in the top of that oak tree.’ My mom said, ‘If you don’t look at him, you won’t worry about it.’”
He laughed. He has a deep country voice and a guffaw that you want to hear. Yes, there’s that big beard and a cheek packed with Stokers Tennessee Chew.
The IGOJUMP on his tag? That would be 405 jumps out of an airplane, he said. That’s how he got into the delicate and dangerous job of rescuing expensive parachutes and lines that get hung up in trees. Some of them are stuck 100 feet up or higher.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Swamp Man, 57, said. “It’s a legal way to get high.”
It’s been a wild ride, said his wife, Pam, who often comes on his rescues.
“You never know what kind of turn you’ll take,” she said rather proudly. “He’s one-of-a-kind.”
No, she’s not worried about his climbing. It’s the skydiving that made her heart skip a beat.
Jessica White, Nikolai’s mom, said she called Chesterfield animal control and the fire department. No one would come. She couldn’t afford to hire a tree service.
“Everyone said she’ll come down,” she said. She heard the old saying about no one ever seeing a cat skeleton in a tree.
But Swamp Man believes they do fall and die — or get hurt.
You can tell he really cares. He’d rather make a drive and a climb.
“Thank you for not letting my cat become a skeleton in a tree,” Jessica said.
Swamp Man laughed that laugh and drove off.
What a character.