My buddy Gordon took this photo on April 16, 2007. I know the date because we had just crossed over the Holston River in Gordon’s red truck when the DJ on the country radio station stopped the music for breaking news.
“There’s been a shooting at Virginia Tech,” he said.
32 people were killed.
Dozens more were wounded.
We didn’t know that, yet, though. We wouldn’t know it until the next morning when we watched the news on Good Morning America in the sun room of Gordon & Pam’s home in Crossville, Tennessee.
All we knew at that moment was that a gunman on campus had shot somebody’s kids, and we weren’t but an hour from the Virginia border ourselves.
We were headed for the holler where I’d spent a great deal of time that summer of 1966 after Daddy died.
My mama’s aunt, Lucille Shropshire Christian, took us kids in so Mama could tend to the business of burying our daddy. Aunt Cil never was able to have children of her own so you can just imagine how much she loved on us.
She’d married an older man who had boy nearly grown already. Cousin Lon never did leave home, even after his daddy passed.
Lon was deaf, and in those days, in those places, deaf children were considered unfit for schooling. So Lon wasn’t only deaf, he was a mute. He never learned how to talk. The only way to understand Lon was to know him, and the only person who knew him well enough to really communicate with him was Aunt Cil.
When you’re a little girl and your grown man cousin sits on the front porch with a loopy smile on his face, it’s kinda unnerving. You wished he wouldn’t grunt as he offers you the tin cup to get a drink of the well water he just drawed up. You don’t know if it’s proper to speak to somebody who can’t answer you back. Do you say thank you? Or do you just smile and take the cup even if you ain’t one bit thirsty?
“It’s okay. You ain’t got to be afraid,” Aunt Cil said. “Lon can’t hear, that’s all. He ain’t going to hurt you.”
And from that moment on, you never were afraid of Lon again. You learned he had quite a sense of humor. He liked to stand with you and Brother John down at the barn and watch the two of you laugh at the pigs wallering in the mud.
In those first few moments after we heard the news about a shooting at Virginia Tech, Gordon and I were kinda of mute. He leaned forward and turned up the volume as he drove further back into the holler, under a canopy of limey-green shade trees on either side of the road. Sometimes the Holston was so close Gordon could have spat directly into it, if he’d been so inclined. I remembered Mama telling me that the river used to flood the roads when she was a little girl and she had to walk from the ferry dock to Aunt Cil’s. There wasn’t a bridge in those days, Mama said. A ferry took people acrost the river. Try as I might to imagine my mama walking all the way up this holler, I can’t. It’s a long, long walk.
Gordon and I communicated the way Aunt Cil and Lon did. We just understand each other’s sorrow. Not just about Virginia Tech, although there is that, but also about all that’s been eating away at Gordon from the inside out.
He was just a young boy, not yet grown, when that sniper blew his jaw clean off his face. Mr. & Mrs. Wofford’s handsome son lost all his perfect pearly whites. Forever after, he would have to remember that gun battle every morning when he slipped a set of false teeth into his mouth.
Gordon first got ahold of me after he watched Robin Roberts interview me on Good Morning America about that book I’d written about Daddy’s death in Vietnam. Gordon caught the last couple of minutes of the interview and had a heck of time trying to track down that book. But he read it in one sitting and sent me an email telling you just a brief part of his own story. And because he was a hillbilly from Tennessee, I figured him to be a gift from God. I wasn’t wrong about that.
Whenever I came south, he and Miz Pam welcomed me with an uncommon hospitality. And knowing as he did how much I loved going to up that holler by the Holston, Gordon would carry me there whenever I asked.
That last trip would prove to be even more somber than I ever imagined. Maybe the shootings at Virginia Tech were a foreshadowing. If so, I’d only realize that later, when I wondered what if that brain bleed he suffered a week later had happened on that day, as we drove up the Holston River, dreaming about the day I’d sell enough books I could go back to Tennessee and buy Aunt Cil’s place from the people who own it now. Turn it into a place for writing stories.
So far, I’d only made enough money to buy Aunt Cil a gravestone made from pink Tennessee marble and engraved with the saying – WORDS RISE UP OUT OF THE COUNTRY. I chose them words to honor the woman who wasn’t afraid to tell me stories about my daddy the summer he died.
Gordon had been undergoing test trials up in Charlottesville,Virginia, trying to cure the cancer that was growing like a turnip in his brain. During the treatment phase, he would call me at my home in Oregon every time he got to Kingsport and talk to you until he was nearly to Knoxville, because he couldn’t help but think of my long-dead daddy asleep in that national cemetery located about halfway between the two K-towns. I think about those phone calls now and how much I miss those stories he told me. I wish I’d written them all down, word for word.
Because he had experienced the nightmare that is war, Gordon understood that what drew me back to the holler along the Holston was the memory of the safeness I felt wrapped up in the arms of Aunt Cil. Gordon knew that holler had been my sanctuary the summer of 1966.
I wish I’d known when we were poking around the holler that day up at Aunt Cil’s old place that would be the last trip we would ever make together. But all I remember is the laughter we shared as Gordon in his boots stomped down the grass so he could take my picture in front of the store my uncle once robbed.
“Snakes probably sleeping in these grasses somewhere,” Gordon said, as he prepared the way so I could stand next to John 3:16.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN. The first draft was completed in Crossville, TN, home to Vietnam Veteran Gordon Wofford, who is now buried at Arlington.