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Take Five: Rep. Don Beyer

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s time again for Take Five, when HOH  talks with a member of Congress about topics relatively unrelated to legislative work.  

This week, Rep. Don Beyer Jr., D-Va., opens up about his multilingual upbringing, his automobile history and hiking the Appalachian Trail. Q. You own a number of car dealerships in Virginia. What was the first car you ever owned? A. So the first car I ever drove was my mother’s 1958 Ford Fairlane. Three on the tree, green. And the first car that I ever really felt was mine was a 1959 Chrysler New Yorker that had a push-button transmission. You actually pushed, you know, “R” and “D” and it was four doors, and the seat, you push a little button and the seat swung out … so it was very ladylike.  

The first one I ever paid for myself was [a] 1972 Datsun pickup truck, $52.16 a month, 36 months. ... I did the work on it myself with the owners' manual, [which] was translated from the Japanese by someone who must have used a dictionary because it was completely unintelligible. English words that made no sense.  

Q. You were born in [Trieste], Italy. Do you speak Italian, or any other languages? A. It was my first language. Back then, nannies were 25 cents a day. I was born there in 1950 and my sister Kathy was born a year later, so my mother had two nannies. And she taught school there, at an American school for the kids. So we were raised around Italian all the time. So my first words were in Italian. “Que bella” — "how beautiful."  

But when I came back to the States I was 2 years old, so it was English from that point on. However, all the commands that my mother would issue us were in Italian. “Basta!” “Subito!” She was fluent until her dying day. And then I later studied German in high school, but you don’t get fluent. But then I had the four years [as ambassador to] Switzerland so I was not “mother tongue,” but I was fluent by the time I left. It was fun. By the end, I was doing radio interviews and TV interviews in German, and giving speeches in German.  

 Q. Where is the coolest place you have ever traveled to? A. My favorite place on earth is Zermatt, Switzerland. It is so, so beautiful. And if I ever disappear — I used to say that if I ever disappear you should look for me in Jackson Hole, [Wyo.], but now I would actually say Zermatt. And if I ever actually wanted to disappear, I’d go to Trieste, you know, because other than dear friends, no one would ever look for me there. It’s the city that time forgot.  

Q. Is there anything I should have asked? Favorite book. It’s a tie for three. I only bring it up because no one's ever heard of them, but "Time Will Darken It" by William Maxwell, "A Place on Earth" by Wendell Berry and "On the Loose" by Terry and Renny Russell. And if you read those three books you're basically, you have the world knocked.  

I'm not supposed to say this, but I think the greatest piece of American fiction is "Breaking Bad," which is, I just think, incredible. If you look at ... the arc of a story, I mean it’s as long as "War and Peace," but with a better story.  

Q. Supplied by Tia Shuyler, Beyer’s press secretary: “She also didn’t ask you about how many miles you’ve done on the Appalachian Trail!” A. [Immediate answer] 1,212 miles. I have 963 to go. [The scheduled end date is] 2019 now, but it's been flexible because, you know, I thought I’d finish long before then, but then I went overseas and that interrupted it and then this silly job came up. I was all set to finish in 2017, but then I ran for Congress and that pushes it off a couple of years. But I have more dates coming up. I’ve got the email ready to go out; we’re doing 33.6 miles at the end of August.  

It’s a friends thing. Anybody that wants to be on the invite list ... can be on it. For a long, long time only one person would come, or two people. The last couple of times we've had 10 or 11 people. But we’ve also been staying in nice motels. We stayed at the Bear Mountain Lodge the last time, up in New York. This next time we're going to be camping and backpacking, so, bringing tents. So that might cut the list down.  

Follow up: Do you have any members of Congress on the list yet? A. I don’t, and I do talk about it all the time. ... But I don’t want to invite 435, that’s crazy. I haven’t figured out how to parse it.  

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