Editor’s Note: The vast majority of our articles on Still Standing come from parents who have lost a child/struggle with infertility. The one below is told from the perspective of a former classmate of a young boy who drowned in 1971. By reaching out to the family of Greg Snellings, the story of this boy’s life, death, and the decades after have been put together in such a way we couldn’t help but run it. It reminds us that not only do we never forget our children, but there are those around us who carry their memories about them forever as well. We hope you will read and share this touching piece with others.
“I wish I were a raindrop. I come from a cloud and when I drop I feel like something dropping from the sky. But when I hit the ground I am gone!”
Such are the strangely prescient words written in November 1970 by a Northern Virginia second-grader who died in an accident before he entered the third grade.
Was he indeed a raindrop who simply vanished? Was his life really that transitory? At times, it may seem like his presence among us was the blink of an eye and he has disappeared.
But he hasn’t.
Greg Snellings was a second-grade classmate of mine at Ravensworth Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia during the 1970-1971 school year. Like me, Greg was a Cub Scout and his family, like mine, were members of the neighborhood pool.
Founded in 1960, the Ravensworth Farm subdivision where we lived was built on a historical tract just off of Braddock Road, which divides the Springfield and Annandale zipcodes, right next to the Beltway. Although he never owned the estate, Robert E. Lee once left West Point to visit his dying mother at Ravensworth and later sent his wife and children there at the start of the Civil War, according to the community directory.
In Ravensworth Farm, we played dodge ball in the street, caught fireflies, rode sleds in the snow, and walked up to the shopping center if our parents permitted us. Such was the fairly idyllic landscape on which my boyhood and Greg’s took place.
* * *
At some point after second grade, I learned Greg drowned in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at age eight. The news—the first time I’d encountered the concept of death’s finality affecting someone other than an older relative—had a chilling impact that stays with me almost fifty years later.
Over the years, I would think about this boy and the way he so unexpectedly disappeared from our Ravensworth lives. I also wondered how his family coped with such a cruel loss. And about what legacy he unknowingly left behind.
In 2010, Ravensworth Farm held a fiftieth-anniversary celebration for the neighborhood at the subdivision’s elementary school. Many older folks, including my parents, were honored as original owners of their houses and given blue ribbons to wear.
In the cafeteria where I ate lunches as a child, guests sat family-style. One woman, an original owner, sat by herself across from my parents and me. She introduced herself as Patricia Snellings who lived on Carrick Lane. Instantly, I was pretty sure who she was.
She asked if I knew her daughter, Kristen, noting that her child was near my age.
I suddenly felt a profound desire to tell her how sorry I was about the loss of her son more than forty years before.
I did not have the courage to open up to Pat for fear it would upset her. At the same time, I thought she might be delighted to know that someone among all these neighbors recalled her son on this particular night. Perhaps she would be cheered to know he had not been forgotten by the Ravensworth community—the people who would most likely know him, other than relatives.
Last year, nearly a decade from that evening, I connected with Kristen, about three years younger than him and me, on a Facebook page for people who’d grown up in our neighborhood. Now a nurse living in Alexandria, she was only five years old when her brother died. I let her know about my memory of Greg, and the time I’d met her mother in 2010 but was afraid to mention him.
Kristen told me that Pat would have liked to hear from someone who recollected her son. I asked her if she would pass along my sentiment and she told me later that she did.
I soon asked Kristen if I could write about Greg’s life, so he would have a legacy beyond a continually declining number of family and friends old enough to have known him. According to his mother, no newspaper ever covered the story of his death.
Pat, now age 81 and widowed, agreed.
* * *
Greg William Snellings was born on February 1, 1963, at Fairfax Hospital, where I was born, too. He would have been 56 in 2019—a life seven times longer than the life he lived.
“Greg was just Greg, not Gregory,” his sister wrote me in an e-mail. “I can remember him getting mad when we called him Gregory to tease him.”
His parents, William and Pat, married in 1958. Nine years older than his wife, Bill grew up in Alexandria.
Pat was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia and moved to the Washington area to accept a job at age 18. She became a secretary at the U.S. Navy’s now-defunct Bureau of Yards and Docks.
Bill was a civilian budget analyst for the Air Force. He had wanted to be in the Air Force, but a health issue would not allow that. Later on, he obtained his private pilot’s license.
I asked Pat what kind of career she thinks Greg might have pursued. She first laughed that he might have been a racecar driver. Pat remembers “racecar” as his first word. His parents had once taken him to Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
They also took their son to air shows. He enjoyed trap shooting with empty shells and reading books.
A rock collector, Greg liked to build model cars and airplanes. With Bill’s assistance, Greg had won an award for the best design at the Cub Scouts’ pinewood derby competition. The event, an annual favorite for young scouts, required boys to build unpowered miniature cars from a block of pinewood, plastic wheels, and metal axles.
Kristen keeps the plaque. It is dated May 23, 1971—two months and one day before the child died. Pat still has the car.
“He liked bugs,” Pat said with a grin. She remembered that in 1970 when the seventeen-year locusts invaded the Washington area, Greg put the rarely seen insects all over himself to amuse. Like most other boys, he was a fan of snakes and lizards. The boy with light brown hair and hazel eyes was a regular American lad in the days long before video games and smartphones.
Smiling, she recalled his sense of humor. A big fan of the TV show “Get Smart,” Greg laughed at Maxwell Smart’s phone in his shoe and would even slap his leg as he guffawed. Once while looking at a fountain on sale at a store, he dropped to the floor giggling after discerning that the water coming from the fountain’s statue of a boy was an artful depiction of urination.
It was an almost idyllic family existence. Mom. Dad. Sister. Brother. Riding bikes and playing in the street, exploring in the woods. Health, prosperity, a friendly neighborhood.
And then came Myrtle Beach.
* * *
The Snellings had gone to South Carolina for a family vacation. The family stayed in a now-demolished hotel called the Holiday House near the famous pier of Cherry Grove Beach, which in the late 1960s was incorporated with other communities as North Myrtle Beach.
On the sunny Saturday of July 24, 1971, at around 6:00 p.m., Kristen, who had turned five one week earlier, was playing with some seaweed. In the late afternoon, when the shadows grow long at the shore, Greg was collecting seashells along the beach. While Pat was helping Kristen clean up from the seaweed, Pat suddenly realized her active boy was not nearby.
“When I noticed he was not there, I looked for him. As I didn’t see him in either direction, I became alarmed and told Bill I didn’t see him.”
His parents first thought he had gone to the Cherry Grove fishing pier. Immediately, they went to look for their son, dividing up and proceeding in opposite directions. Kristen was quickly placed with babysitters—two teenage girls also staying in the hotel. The three waited at a Holiday House picnic table while she played with a Barbie doll. The little girl could tell something was wrong.
Shortly thereafter, Pat noticed a police jeep that looked like a dune buggy coming toward her. Pat asked them, “Are you looking for my little boy?”
But the police had news to provide. Greg had drowned.
When Pat said she needed to tell her husband, it turned out he already knew.
Kristen recalled that her parents told her afterward that Greg was such an obedient boy that he would never have gone into the water after his parents told him not to. And Greg knew how to swim, having taken lessons at the Ravensworth pool.
Pat recalls that upon seeing Greg lying in the wet sand, “I was struck at the time by how still his body was. At that moment, it made me think of the phrase ‘as still as death.’”
What they learned was that some teenage boys had found Greg in the water. From the simultaneously inviting and unforgiving Atlantic, they dragged his body to shore. A pediatrician at the beach tried to resuscitate and revive him. Sadly, it was too late for the doctor to make a difference. Greg’s death certificate was signed at 8:30 p.m. that day.
The family did not stay the night in Myrtle Beach. Instead, they drove all night back in a state of devastation to Northern Virginia. Understandably, what remained of the Snellings family never went back to Myrtle Beach.
The story that went through the neighborhood—the one that I heard as a boy—was that Greg was caught in a rough current and could not get to shore, but, according to Kristen, no one could know for certain.
“Some kids told me he got caught in a rip tide. I guess they or their parents made that up,” said Kristen. “They needed some kind of explanation.”
Pat recalls lots of kindness and support from an enormous number of people at the time.
“The neighbors rallied,” Pat told me. “They brought food and were so nice.”
She says she still has a green dish that came from someone during those few days immediately following Greg’s death. She was never sure whose dish it was and thus could never return it to anyone.
* * *
The night after Greg passed, Pat had an experience she still remembers vividly. Overwhelmed in her despair, she experienced a stark vision that she recalled more than 47 years since.
“I was sitting on the sofa and all of a sudden, I felt Greg’s presence. He was standing beside me and looking down at me,” she said. “I was the child, and he was the adult with wisdom.”
Despite this short and comforting incident, the Snellings family was in for a long haul of recuperation.
“The grief felt like a physical weight,” explained Pat, who went through her days like “a walking dead person,” according to her daughter.
“Thinking they were doing the right thing, people would be kind and talk with you about everything except Greg, when that was the only thing you were thinking about,” she noted.
Looking back, she related some awkward incidents. She feels sure that other parents who have lost a child must have experienced similar interactions. People, even if they mean well, can display odd behavior that doesn’t ease survivors’ pain; helpful words don’t come easily for everyone.
One neighbor, who had little tact anyway, called Pat a few weeks after Greg died to say—with an appalling laugh—that Sears had a sale on little boys’ clothes but recollected only after dialing the phone that “you didn’t have a little boy anymore.”
Another friend said in a panicked rush to Pat, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t even talk to you.” Pat never heard from her again.
Fortunately, she received comfort from other sources.
Pat once dreamt her son moved all of the family’s furniture, including beds, into one room of the Ravensworth house. When she asked him why, the boy responded, “So we could all be together.”
* * *
Not from a religious family but baptized as Catholic at age 16 in West Virginia, Pat found that reliance on her faith helped her cope with the brutal loss of her son. She had not been active in her church before but became more involved after Greg passed and her husband went back to work.
Of course, Pat spent a lot of time crying. One day while in deep despair, she knelt on the floor and buried her face in the bed’s mattress feeling unsure about how to carry on.
“I suddenly felt the presence of Jesus. I had been praying a lot and knew many people were praying for us during August that year,” she recounted. “I realized then that everything I’d heard about Jesus was true. I was calling out to almighty God, and he was answering me.”
This occurrence was a turning point for Pat, enabling her to begin an emotional recovery.
While sitting on a bench at the cemetery, words of Jesus’s resurrection came to mind: “He is not here. He is risen.”
She began to feel Greg was okay and that he was protected. Meanwhile, her husband, with whom their son enjoyed going anywhere, had a tougher path.
After Greg had been dead for seven years, Bill was still grieving privately, often in tears. He decided to seek help through the men’s group at their church. At the men’s suggestion, he wrote Greg a letter that he shared with his male friends. His wife suspects he may have expressed a wish that he’d spent more time with the boy.
“But I had peace,” Pat stated, noting her faith had provided a respite from enormous sadness even as she would sometimes find herself mistakenly setting the dinner table for four people, instead of three.
Pat explained that many couples get divorced after losing a child, but she and her husband did their best to help each other. In fact, their marriage strengthened.
“We understood each other and what we’d been through. More than anybody else ever could,” she reasoned.
* * *
As for coping with the situation as a five-year-old, Kristen remembers holding a funeral with her dolls.
She recalls trying to open Greg’s coffin at the closed-casket funeral before someone gently stopped her. As an adult, she asked her godmother if it was she who took action; it was.
Kristen believes she did not vocalize her grief much: “I was too young to talk about it.”
The girl also grappled with the sudden transformation from being a younger child to being an only child. For years, she told people that she was an only child to avoid answering awkward questions about her sibling’s death. But as she grew older, she was more likely to explain that she had lost an older brother when they both were very young.
In 1987, during the spring break of her third year at the University of Virginia and almost 16 years after Greg’s death, Kristen returned to Myrtle Beach for the first time. She searched for the Holiday House hotel but was unable to find it. Then, she stepped into a restaurant, looked up and suddenly saw where her family stayed in July 1971.
She walked through the property. The picnic table, where she’d been left with two teenage girls while her parents searched for Greg on the beach, was still there. A rickety swingset was gone.
“It looked the same. I felt close to my brother. I felt like a little girl,” she stated wistfully.
Like her mother, Kristen found some people’s comments bewildering. A few would assume—and even tell her—that she didn’t really remember Greg because he died when she was only five years old.
One idea Kristen has contemplated since her childhood comes from moments when people tell her she will see her brother in heaven.
“Would I still be five and him eight?” she asked. “Or will we both be grown up?”
* * *
In 2000, Pat and Kristen lost Bill at age 72 from Alzheimer’s disease. She pointed out that as the decades went by, the couple would occasionally talk about Greg and what his adult life might have been like.
Three years ago, Pat moved out of the Carrick Lane house in Ravensworth where she’d lived for 55 years and into a retirement community in another part of Springfield. These days, most people don’t know about the tragedy she suffered as a young mother. She simultaneously feels that others don’t truly know her unless they know about her son.
Pat visits the grave of her eight-year-old son at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, where he rests alongside his father, but not as often as she used to. And while her grief, loss, and devastation continue intertwined with fond memories of her little boy, Pat recognizes that she gained an unwanted education in the harsh, seemingly random finality of a child’s death.
Shortly after her beloved son passed, Pat had a soothing dream of Greg wearing a tattered gray sweatshirt and muddy jeans with holes in the knees. It was as if he had just come in from rough-and-tumble outdoor play. He was laughing and full of joy.
“I have learned that no matter how bad things get, they will get better,” Pat told me. “For me, things never got fully better, but I felt more able to keep going. You have to keep moving forward.”
As a kid, I, too, learned something about the finality of death from Greg Snellings. Nearly half a century afterward, I find myself drawn to his story that has intrigued me since childhood. My hope is the boy’s family will be reunited someday and that the foursome can then forever enjoy an eternal, pleasant summer vacation like the one they were denied in 1971.