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Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

Daddy

I stopped buying Father’s Day cards when I was twenty-three.   When the holiday rolled around that year, I considered for the first time what people do who have no one to buy a card for.  After mulling it over for several days, I decided to buy one for my uncle, my father’s younger brother.  It said, “To A Wonderful Uncle on Father’s Day.”  I figured Daddy would have approved.

He died the day before my twenty-third birthday.  He’d been in the hospital for two weeks, and only my mother knew that he wasn’t coming home.  My mother, my sister, and I had just left the ICU where we’d sat with the unconscious shell of him the way we did every day.   We were headed for the parking lot, when a nurse called us back.  He’s just taken a turn, she said.  We’ve thought he was going to pass all day, she said.  He was just waiting for you to come and say goodbye, she said.  As soon as you walked out, he went.

I tell myself that after forty-five years, I can still remember him.  I tell myself that my memories go deeper than remembering that November 10 is his birthday or August 2 is the day he died or that he smoked Camel cigarettes or that he was buried in the brown suit that he’d owned for only one month or that we put yellow roses on his coffin because my sister, ever the bossy know-it-all, thought he liked yellow ones best.

One of my most vivid memories is lying on a blanket with him and my sister in the backyard on balmy August nights, staring up the stars.  His weekend wear consisted of a white T-shirt and khaki pants, a break from the suits his job required all week.  The faint odor of tobacco smoke always clung to him, mixed with the scent of Dial soap and Old Spice aftershave and a trace of what my sister and I would later learn was the cheap, sickly sweet-sour bourbon that would eventually kill him.

He had a soft voice that never lingered long over the letter “r”.  He once spent an entire evening schooling my sister and I to say “cha-uh” instead of “cheer.”  He was born on a very small, poor farm in upper East Tennessee in a town that he called a “wide place in the road.”  Yet, somehow  he escaped the Appalachian twang that calls a “fire” a “far” and a “tire” a “tar.”  He was the first member of his family to graduate from college.  He was a math and science whiz and incredibly bright.

We’d lie on the blanket at night and stare up at that vast black sky, and he’d point to the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper and tell us how to find the North Star.  He’d insist that anyone who could find the North Star could find his way home.  We’d beg him to tell stories, and he would tell us about growing upon the farm.  He would talk about hunting and fishing, and his dogs.  He would never mentioned being too poor to have an inside bathroom or going to school in a one-room schoolhouse.  Even though he told the same stories over and over, we never grew tired of them.  We had our favorites that we’d beg him to repeat.  They were like jewels that he’d take out in the dark and polish in the starlight, nuggets of family history that only he could pass on to us.

We stopped lying on the blanket, watching the stars on summer nights by the time that I was eleven.  Daddy still did all the things for “his girls” that made me, in particular,  feel special.  A red candy heart at Valentines.  A wrist corsage of pink roses for Easter.  A small gift whenever he came back from a business trip.  But he had old secrets and old wounds that I was too young to understand that ate at him.   As the years went by, the cheap bourbon changed him, and the bottles that he’d bring home in the brown paper bags became more important to him than lying on the blanket finding the North Star.  The pain of his past was too great and he lost his way, despite knowing that our love for him was always his North Star.

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He died forty-two years ago in Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam on July 11, 1971. He, and his six crew mates, were mortally injured when their booby trapped helicopter blew up on the runway on June 16, 1971.

Army helicopters in Vietnam

Army helicopters in Vietnam

He was twenty-three years old, one year short of the age my oldest son turned on Saturday. His mother made it to the Army hospital in Vietnam in time to say good bye. Since the day my first son was born, I have been forever haunted by what Mrs. Workman must have felt on that military transport as she flew across the world to her dying son.

His eyes weren’t good enough to pilot the Army helicopters he dreamed of, but U.S. Army First Lieutenant Lance Davis Workman still made the flight crew. He never married. He didn’t have time.

Lance Davis Workman

Lance Davis Workman

Lance was slightly ahead of me in high school. He was one of the “cool kids” while I was a high school band geek. I only knew of him, really, because he left City High just as I was entering.

But in college, I dated a number of his fraternity brothers. I guess to him I was the “cute” freshman who hung out with the pledges. The Greek life for us was not the modern-day drunken brawls that make the news. The majority of us still lived with our parents in order to afford college. So hanging out at the fraternity house was a way to connect with friends. Lance wasn’t there a lot. He had been ROTC in high school, and he was ROTC in college. He wanted only one thing: to fly those helicopters in Vietnam.

Tennessee earned its nickname “The Volunteer State” during the war of 1812 when Tennessee volunteers, serving under Gen. Andrew Jackson, displayed marked valor in the Battle of New Orleans. They had already been fighting Indians under “Old Hickory” so they moseyed on down the Mississippi to fight the British. Later, some of them would join Tennesseans Sam Houston and Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Tennessee also supplied more soldiers for the Confederate Army than any other state, and more soldiers for the Union Army than any other Southern state. In short, Tennesseans are not afraid to fight. And Lance was a Tennessean.

The Vietnam War is a difficult subject. Later, after Lance had died and I knew more about how he and others like him were dying in vain a world away and after I had seen my generation turn guns on itself at Kent State, I would come to have strong feelings about ending that war. But my only feeling in the hot summer of 1971 was grief for the first of my friends to die. In fact, we were all so committed to the war at the time that when the only peacenik on campus tried to organize a protest by offering free doughnuts, no one showed up to eat a single Krispy Kreme. Not one.

Lance was laid to rest at Chattanooga Memorial Park on July 17, 1971, at 10 a.m. It was a hot, sunny Southern summer day. We all stood under the pines on the side of that impossibly perfect green hill to say goodbye with the old blue Appalachians looking down at us. The Army honor guard came from Fort McPherson, Georgia, to carry his flag-covered coffin. I cried when the bugler played taps, and they folded the flag, and presented it to Lance’s mother and father.

Chattanooga Memorial Park

Chattanooga Memorial Park

We know so little about how long our lives will be. I have had forty-two years since that hot July day. I’ve raised three souls entrusted into my care and have told them the stories of Lance and the others who had so little time. Southerners always honor the dead by telling their stories. What none of us knew on the morning of July 17, 1971, as the sharp July sun beat down on our tears, was that by September, we would all assemble again, just a few yards away to say goodby to Lance’s close friend Cissy, who, at barely twenty-one, would die of a blood clot from the early birth control bills. And within two more years, I would be standing under the same pines, burying my father, who didn’t quite make sixty-three.

My last memory of Lance, however, is not of his coffin under the flag surrounded by the honor guard. No. My last memory of Lance is seeing him dance at probably the last fraternity party he went to before he entered the Army. It was a Western-themed party, and he was wearing a kid’s cowboy hat and cap pistols in a plastic holster. He was dancing and laughing and was probably slightly drunk because we had a big keg that night. He was having the time of his life. That is the memory I will always have of him.

Lance's red hat

Lance’s red hat

He is a true American hero and today is his day and the day of all like him who have died for us. I wish we had been real friends, Lance; but I admire you and cherish your memory.

You can find LANCE DAVIS WORKMAN honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 3W, Row 106.

The Vietnam Memorial

The Vietnam Memorial

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Autumn has come to Southern California. Trouble is, the change is so subtle you have to know what to look for to realize the seasons are turning. Suddenly the air seems very focused and sharp, even though the temperature is still 81º. Crows caw, sounding ominous and lonely in the late afternoon heat. Fewer mallards, and now no ducklings, swim circles among the dry reeds in the  pond close to our house. Trees grow brown, and their leaves shrivel, but hang on. Here and there, a few liquid amber trees – a relative of the Eastern maple – change color, some turn dry gold, others dusty red. But autumn here looks more like summer drying up than a season of breathtaking color and bountiful harvest.

I know because I am an ex-pat Southern girl. People hear my accent and ask how I got from Tennessee to Southern California. The answer is simple: in 1985, I agreed to a too hasty marriage to the wrong person, who had taken a job here. Without even one prior visit, I arrived in San Diego in November 1985 and realized at once I was living in a foreign country. I hadn’t bargained for that. But I hadn’t bargained for much of what was to come.

Autumn in the South, is a deep, lush season. It begins in September with crisp, cool mornings warming to sharp, golden noons, and cooling to vermillion sunsets. The trees go from green to brilliant gold and flaming orange and red almost overnight. Then the leaves fall, covering the grass in deep pools of vibrant color. When I was a child, my parents paid me a minuscule wage to rake them into piles to be carted away to compost. I couldn’t resist the temptation to build leaf forts first and jump into them, scattering red and gold in all directions.

Autumn in the South means FOOTBALL. (Not football.) When I couldn’t be bribed into raking, my father would take over the chore, wearing a soft plaid flannel shirt, transistor radio in his breast pocket. The long golden afternoons marched to the steady cadence of the announcer’s voice, punctuated by my father’s sharp cries of joy or dismay at Tennessee’s progress.

Autumn was bittersweet for me because it meant back to school. On one hand, school was my forte: I was an excellent student. On the other, school was the place I began to perfect the art of covering my true identity from the world. Good little Debbie Hawkins with her pigtails who sat up straight in her desk, did her homework, and never gave the teacher any trouble was not the real me. The real me was hiding underground.

Autumn always brought new clothes. In those days, mothers sewed. Late August meant sitting on high stools in department stores, looking at pattern books, and picking out new school dresses. I wasn’t a fan of figuring out which patterns to buy. You could never tell until they were sewn up if the dress was going to flatter or make you want to hide forever. But I loved walking between the tables that held the bolts of fabric, fingering the soft wools, the supple jerseys, and the crisp cottons. I wanted one of each. School was rarely a creative exercise. It involved regurgitating long lists of facts the teachers thought our lives depended upon. But holding and draping fabric in autumn grays and tans and browns – ah, that was pure magic!

My first child was born during the beginning of the second autumn that I lived here in exile. She was a September baby, coming at just the moment when the lazy summer air focused sharply on turning the corner into fall. The man whom I had married had vanished back to his twelve-hour days at the office. I had thought we would at least share parenthood. But I was wrong. Alone in a tiny rented cottage, I struggled to learn the ways of new motherhood with a child who cried twenty hours of every day. One morning, I saw a group of children from the local preschool pause in front of the liquid amber tree in the cottage’s front yard. They were picking up the dusty gold leaves that had fallen. That poor lonely liquid amber was the only tree of its kind in our tiny community. The rest were palm trees and evergreens. No wonder the children had journeyed from their school to see a phenomenon that in the South was as common as breathing autumn air. Alone and exhausted, I began to cry for all the autumns my California children would never have.

Since that day, I have traveled a long journey, coming to love this strange, raw land that is home to my three amazing children. I have decide this blog is going to become the story of that journey; and how I, perpetually an ex-pat, came to terms with largely foreign ways. Once upon a long time ago, I was a graduate English student, studying Irish literature. Somewhere during those days, I read that if you are born Irish, you are always Irish, no matter where life takes you. And now, after more than twenty years in exile, I can say, if you are born Southern, you are always Southern, even if you marry the wrong person and raise children in a foreign land. But I can also say, that leaving and looking back teaches you so very, very much about who you are and how to appreciate the place that created you. If I had never left, I would never have learned who was hiding inside of me.

Stay tuned for more of the journey. And happy autumn wherever you are.

Fall in San Diego

Southern California autumn

In Tennessee

Tennessee autumn

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