Just as I am: An excerpt

Just as I am: An excerpt May 29, 2011

Just as I am

Mama decided to bury Daddy at Andrew Johnson National Cemetery over in Greeneville, Tennessee. Some of Daddy’s kin didn’t like that idea; they wanted him buried at McCloud, the town where he’d lived as a boy. To try and make them happy, Mama arranged for the funeral service to be held at McCloud Baptist Church, where Daddy had been baptized. But she made it clear that deciding where to bury Daddy was her decision to make and the way Mama saw it, country graveyards often get overrun with blackberry brambles.

“Greeneville was a national cemetery and would always be taken care of,” Mama told me, explaining her decision when I got curious enough to ask about it. “Country cemeteries are not always taken care of. They become overgrown, rundown, and sometimes graves cannot be found years later. I didn’t want that to happen.”

Besides, tending to her husband’s grave wasn’t something she intended to do.

The whole burial thing mystified me. I’d never seen a dead person before and Daddy was my first one. I hadn’t been allowed to go to Granny Ruth’s funeral. Instead, I hid behind the vanity in one of the bedrooms and cried. But truth be told, I wasn’t grieving as much as I was just plumb mad, Frankie was doing something I wasn’t allowed to do.

Before she brought us to the funeral home to pay our last respects to Daddy, Mama took us shopping. She bought matching linen dresses for Linda and me, a white shirt and clip-on navy tie for Frankie, and cartons of Salem cigarettes for herself.

I hated that dress. It was itchy and too tight, and what’s more, I felt ugly in it. I think it also had something to do with the way the lady at Parks-Belk Department Store studied me when Mama told her she was looking for something nice, for a military funeral.

“Oh,” the clerk remarked. “Was your husband the one who was killed in Vietnam?”

Looking down, Mama replied softly, “Yes, ma’am.”

I had been sticking my hands between the piles of folded shirts and slacks and tapping my foot on the wide-plank floors. But I stopped and looked up at Mama. I couldn’t tell what she was feeling, but I felt something like embarrassment or shame. Like we’d all done something wrong for which Daddy had paid the price, and now the whole town of Rogersville was talking about us. Which, of course, they were.

Then the lady said something I will never forget: “Seems like tragedy has come to roost in Rogersville. Did you hear about the accident? Out on Lee Highway? A woman and her two babies were run over by a semi. Her little ole car ran right up underneath that big truck. Killed them all instantly. Her car was all mashed up.”

Some folks treat tragedies like jokes. They get on a roll and start telling all the one-liners they know as quickly as they can before they lose their audience.

Mama shook her head. No, she hadn’t heard about the wreck. But she didn’t look too shocked. After all, there was a reason the menfolk called the two-lane Robert E. Lee Highway the Bloody 11-W.  I remembered the photo of the accident that ran in the June 30 copy of the Rogersville Review. I’d seen the picture in the newspaper box outside the grocery store. Daddy’s cousin Mary Ellen had the newspaper spread out on her kitchen table, opened to the story. The car, crumpled up like notebook paper, was pushed up against the door of a semi with the words “Big Mama” sketched on it.  Kimberly Hobbs, two, and her sister Kristi, one, were killed instantly along with their twenty-year old mother, identified only as Mrs. Glen Hobbs, of Surgoinsville. The article said the car had swerved off the highway and then back into the path of the truck.

I tried to shut out the image of what that mashed-up car looked like. I wondered if the little girls had felt any pain. And if you ran your car up underneath a big ole semi, would it cut your head off? I shuddered. Long trucks had always scared me.

Before moving to Hawaii, we’d lived in Columbus, Georgia, where Daddy trained troops at Fort Benning. Mama had Linda to tend to, so Frankie had to get me to Mrs. Penny’s first-grade class at Edgewood Elementary School. He walked me on Morris Road, a main truck route connecting the business districts of Macon Road and Victory Drive. The roar of semi engines silenced the playgrounds at Edgewood School. Layers of asphalt trembled underneath the trucks’ unyielding weight. Instead of a sidewalk, Morris Road had a drainage ditch filled with grass. Whenever I heard those trucks coming, I scrambled for the ditch. The first time I did it, Frankie looked at me quizzically. He thought I was diving after something. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Hiding,” I replied.

“From what, stupid?”

Frankie didn’t like having to walk to school with a girl. Much less his sister.

“That truck!” I exclaimed. “Those big wheels might suck us right off the road.”

“You’re so dumb!” he said, walking faster. He didn’t even slow down to help me gather my letter “E” pages from the ditch.

I didn’t say anything else the rest of the way. No reason to. Frankie was bigger than me. He didn’t have to worry about being sucked under the spinning wheels of a semi. But I knew from the way those trucks blew my hair straight up and my skirt sideways that they could mash me good.

Now while I tried on the funeral dress, I kept thinking about that crumbled car on Bloody Highway 11. Linda’s dress was a perfect fit, but mine was too snug across my chest. There wasn’t a matching dress in a larger size, and Mama didn’t want to fool with it anymore. She needed a smoke. So she paid the lady and turned on her heels. We kids followed close behind.

I was still wondering about the terror those little girls must’ve felt when the wheels of that semi pressed down over them. I knew any screams for their mama would have gone unheard. I couldn’t figure out who I felt sorrier for, them or us. Which was worse? Being mashed or having your head cut off? Either way, I figured the saleslady to be right about one thing – it did look like tragedy had come to roost in Rogersville.

#                     #                     #

Nash-Wilson Funeral Home sat atop a hill. A low, long brick house, surrounded on each side by massive colonial homes with towering white Corinthian columns, it looked like the poor relative. Mama was taking us kids to view Daddy’s body. Entering the driveway, we passed through a wrought-iron gate with matching lampposts on each side. I wondered what they looked like at night.

The whole front yard was a parking lot. The first of two cars in the lot was long and as black as my patent leathers. I wondered if someone shined it with butter at night. The other car was white and much shorter. Mama pulled up next to the black car, near the front porch, and parked.

Even though July mornings in Tennessee are hot enough to toast bread on the rooftops, Mama insisted all of us kids dress up. My linen dress itched in spite of my cotton slip. Everything stuck to me, and I had to yank at my anklets to keep them up. Getting out of the backseat, I pulled my slip off my chest, allowing air between my skin and my clothes for a brief moment. I felt sweat trace down to my panties. I let go and once again the slip wrapped me like a warm compress. I so wanted to leave, to go home, put on my shorts, and stand in front of the window air conditioner for a long time.

I looked over at Linda winding her way around the back end of our blue car. Mama held her tiny hand. Linda was sweating. Her dark pixie hair was matted around her face. Her cheeks were flushed pink as rose petals. She stared at her feet.

Frankie slammed the door of the car. His hair would have stuck to him, too, but he didn’t have any. The top and sides of his head were shaved so close I could see the freckles on his scalp. He looked funny in a white dress shirt and navy pants, like a tent preacher. Give him a Bible, and he could baptize us all in our own sweat.

Mama nodded quietly at Frankie and me to follow her. We followed Mama and Linda up the three brick steps, walking between tall white pillars. Mama reached for the brass knob of the glossy white double doors. The door on the right opened from the inside. Everything was quiet.

A man wearing a gray suit greeted Mama and welcomed us in a hushed murmur. The first thing I noticed was the air conditioning. The cool temperature made my dress slip from my body. The itching stopped, but now I had goose bumps and I needed to pee.

Nash-Wilson was fancy, like those big city churches. There was gleaming furniture with puffy seats made of red crushed velvet. The carved wooden legs on the chairs looked like claws. A crystal lamp sat atop an end table with the same claw feet. The lamp gave off the only fake light in the entry. The light reflected off a gold-trimmed mirror mounted behind the man who was whispering to Mama. I could watch him in the mirror without actually staring at him. Mama didn’t approve of staring. The walls were papered silver-white. The hallway led only to the left. I noticed a multipaned window with beads of water on each square. I decided not to ask about the bathroom; I’d wait.

Still grasping Linda’s hand, Mama headed off after the man. Frankie and I followed them. Mama’s spiked black heels sunk into the red carpet that looked like dried blood. I was so busy watching her shoes that I forgot to walk and Frankie had to push me from behind. We passed a closed door on the right and rounded a corner. I heard music, a familiar tune. I was no longer hot, but my hands were sweaty and sticky.

We turned left and went through two doors. I looked up. Little round moons hung from the ceiling. Underneath the moons were rows of pews, like the ones at church, only a lot shorter. Perhaps, I thought, this is a church for little people. Frankie really could preach here. There was a book on a varnished pine podium to my right. An aisle led to a front altar. There was no podium for preaching, but there was a large, lead-colored trunk where it should have been. There was even a cross made from red and white flowers. I wasn’t sure what was in the trunk. Mama had never sat us down and explained what we were about to see. I don’t think it even occurred to her.

I saw a piano to the right and a small organ to the left. A cross was centered on the wall behind the altar. That’s where I’d heard that music before, at church. It was a traditional hymn, sung at the close of nearly every service: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” I always liked that song. I could sing it all the way through without the book. “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God I come, I come.”

The man stepped aside to allow Mama access to the aisle. Linda pulled her hand away and stopped four pews from the back. Mama turned and looked at us. Frankie started walking. I followed. Linda stood still, as if she was holding something important, something that would shatter if she moved one inch. Pausing beside her, I challenged her to walk with me. She refused.

Mama was at the center of the altar, by the open trunk. She turned and looked at me. Her thick lips were tautly turned down. Her brown eyes were scolding. They said, “Get down here and leave your sister be!” I walked on by Linda but not quickly. Time seemed to have no hold over the place.

Frankie joined Mama; behind them, the trunk. It sat up high on crossed frames. It was gray and as smooth as Mama’s pink nightgown. The cross cast a shadow over it. Turning, I looked at Linda, pleading with her not to abandon me. She saw my plea and looked away, down at her shoes. Angry, I faced forward. I walked faster, my feet moving, my mind shutting down.

Mama walked over to the bench on the right and sat down, looking away from me toward the wall. She refused to see. I wasn’t scared, but my heart was beating fast and my petticoat was sticking to me again. Frankie had no expression. He was peering into the top half of the trunk. I touched the trunk’s side. It felt cold and wet, like the Popsicle we sometimes got when the ice cream truck circled our neighborhood.

I jerked back. This was no treat. Frankie wouldn’t look at me. He stared at the inside of the trunk. The music grew louder: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.”

Taking a deep breath, I stood on the tips of my patent leathers and looked in.

Who is that? He looked like something from one of those wax museums. Shoot, I think they made a mistake. Put us through all of this and that’s not even him. Doesn’t look a thing like Daddy. He isn’t moving.

I looked at Frankie. He looked mad. Biting his bottom lip, his hands stuffed into his pants pockets, he studied the blue man’s face. Frankie had to know. I wanted him to tell me this man wasn’t our daddy. Tell me, Frankie, please tell me.

With a tissue in hand, Mama bowed her head and wiped her eyes. Linda was already gone. Aunt Betty, Daddy’s oldest sister, had come in. Mama asked Aunt Betty to get her baby out of there, to take her home. I looked again into the trunk. I reached up and touched the Plexiglas that sealed and preserved the dead man for all eternity.

There was a mark under his right eye. Frankie studied the swollen area around the cheek and the nicks and scrapes in the man’s forehead. He looked like he could’ve been in a fistfight. The kind that didn’t leave too many marks on a man’s face but killed him anyway.

I didn’t know this man. I wasn’t even sure he was real. Maybe he was a big rag doll. He was awful cold-looking. Someone ought to get him a blanket. Mama? Frankie? I’d never seen anyone that blue. His lips were almost purple.

Nope, that isn’t him. I turned away. I felt sorry for that man, and his kids, if he had any. I wondered, what would happen when everyone realized this man is not who they think?

As we left the parlor, I pulled on Mama’s arm and asked a question that she would never be able to answer to my satisfaction: “Why is he so blue?”

Either she didn’t hear me or she chose to ignore me. I persisted. Couldn’t she see it wasn’t him? I was furious at her. I asked again, “Why is he so blue?” Maybe someone should turn off the air conditioner, get that man a blanket.

“Mama, Mama, why is he so blue?” Over and over I begged for an answer.

We got into the car and slamming the car door behind her, Mama turned and yelled: “Because he’s dead!” She left off the “stupid,” although I heard it in her tone anyway. Then, repeating the words quietly to herself, she said, “Because he’s dead.”

Turning to look out the rear window, she backed out of the lot, leaving behind the long black shiny car and the man in the cold trunk.

Now I was the cold one. Shivers came quickly. I couldn’t stop shaking. I needed a blanket. Rocking back and forth, I began humming: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.”

I cried for Daddy, for Mama, for Linda, for Frankie, and for me. There are still times when I weep for my father the way I did that day at Nash-Wilson Funeral Home, the day I saw him lying all cold and purple-blue in that casket. Even today Mama is troubled by my tears.

(excerpt from After the Flag has been Folded: a memoir  by Karen Spears Zacharias)

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  • This nation has paid such a terrible price for its freedom. You have to ask, was it worth it? A price paid by wives and mothers, by sons and daughters, by sweethearts and waiting beaus. Has it been worth such a dear loss? The answer lies in two bromides: first, freedom isn’t free, and second, such men fight not because they hate what’s in front of them, but because they love what’s behind them. But such truths become overused phrases because they are true, and saying them any other way doesn’t make them any easier to accept. It still hurts.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Because they love what’s behind them and right beside them — the men and women who serve alongside them.
      You are right, Ed. It’s an important question to ask and one that we should demand Congress answer BEFORE we send troops to do their bidding.

    • Memorial Day and Veterans Day are special times of grieving for me. It happens on many levels. First, I grieve the loss of good friends. Second, I grieve the burden borne by their families and loved ones–as well as countless others. It is these endless stirrings that led me years ago to write and produce a 2-hour drama as a tribute and a fundraiser. Preparation for that production led me to Washington, DC, for three days to take photographs on the National Mall, some of which I would use in production.

      While I was there over that period, something unexpected happened. By that time, the trilogy of the Vietnam memorials (the Wall and the two bronze sculptures) was in place. It didn’t take long for a person with half an eye to see that something was different about the Vietnam memorials. They spoke of war with an entirely different vocabulary. The glory was gone. The classical allusions to imperial power of Greece and Rome were gone. There were no screaming eagles with bared talons, no chariots, no horses in full gallop with fire-breathing nostrils. Perhaps for the first time, the memorials created to give expression to the experience of Vietnam put a human face on war. To prove to myself I wasn’t imagining things, I took the better part of a day getting to every other piece of bronze and marble sculpture I could get to on foot and by Metro, including Arlington. The only thing that comes remotely close (that I found) is the Iwo Jima bronze, but its focal point is more the flag than the figures themselves.

      Going back to the Wall, then, and to the Women Veterans of Vietnam sculpture, cemented what I had come to see and the role I have played ever since in giving verbal expression to the human experience of war and its costs.

      When we speak today of freedom and the human costs of war we are always walking in occupied territory where objectivity and subjectivity have been put into a blender along with the deepest human emotions. The going must be slow and careful.

      As each year I seek to give voice on behalf of the Vietnam generation, and now the Iraq/Afghan generation, I find the reality of the human experience, not how we may have idealized it or politicized it, to be the genuine article. I think of my boyhood friend Wesley who, with less than three weeks to go, gave his life to retrieve the body of a mortally wounded medic he likely did not even know. Wes died for a set of remains and thus became remains himself. His family could only take small comfort that Wes had been so unselfishly loyal to a fellow soldier and his unknown family back in the States, but they could never convince themselves that Wes’ sacrifice had been for the cause of freedom. And my late friend Jack who had countless human lives on his hands from the ordnance fired from his Cobra had absolutely no way of differentiating “the enemy” from the elders and the children who might have been inside those grass-roofed houses that went up in flames. He struggled with how to think of himself as a moral human being all his days. Talk of fighting for freedom could enflame him because there was such a chasm between the rhetoric of the time and what he saw and did.

      It’s true. Freedom is not free. The price is high, indeed. But for me, we essnetially had that fight back in the American Revolution. And for me the Civil War was not primarily about state’s rights or slavery but over the definition of humanity and citizenship–and we didn’t come close to settling it with 600K lives lost. Since then, WWII included, I think America’s wars have been primarily about security. And security from attack by another nation state or from terrorism by a homicidal ideology is very different from freedom as established by the Constitution and the laws of our nation. Security is maintained by vigilance always and by fighting occasionally when and where we must. But freedom, for me, is maintained only by the full exercise of citizenship by an educated and invovlved people who in their hearts and minds are willing to take the effort and pay the price of doing so. That’s not free either, and it certainly does not happen unless WE do it 24/7/365.

      Karen is right. The Congress is tasked with having the discussion and making a DECISION about where and when and how and what for to send men and women of the armed forces into harm’s way. But Congress are not our rulers. They are our servants. It comes back to us.

      For me on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and other days, the mourning returns not only over the loss of life but more frequently over the loss of discussion and sense of the bigger picture of citizenship here. One of my spiritual mentors once admonished to “watch our language”. I think he’s right. When we use the term “freedom” in place of “security” it tends to close the door to discussion. To question then seems disloyal. When responsible discussion stops, freedom ceases. When our nation’s alliances and interventions in the world in the name of security or freedom are colored by narrow economic interests that control the debate, we become both less secure and less free. The military cannot and will not fix this. It’s not their job. Only the locus of freedom, “we the people”, can fix this. We do this by using our eyes and our heads and our voices. As the most empowered people the world has ever seen, the opportunities we have are nearly limitless–unless we choose not to excercise them at all. Or unless we think it’s only the job of the military “over there somewhere”.

      Tarney once observed that “the church that ceases to think ceases to count.” Seems like it’s true for our nation or any nation, too. This has been my attempt to think out loud, not for my benefit but for the benefit of all. May the next person now come along to help us all think better than me. Amen.