Sad, lonely, beaten down, hungry. And no one cares.
That’s how I felt after watching the State of the Union message Monday and then the Republican debates Wednesday night on CNN. Politicians — hot air, all of them, blowing words, puffing their own glories.
The visual of a DIVIDED house lingers, slapping against my face like loose shutters on a rickety house in a bitterly cold windstorm. One side blowing one way, one going the other, both sides banging against the house, bruising it, knocking holes in it, damaging it. With all the banging going on, I clearly got the message that neither side cares about me and how I feel.
“You and I interact with people all day,” I said to my husband. “Business associates, customers, friends, neighbors, volunteers, the clerks at the grocery store, the bookseller at Barnes & Noble, the man at the doughnut shop. We don’t know whether they are Republican or Democrat. We just know that we are all Americans. We’re in the same boat. We’re all facing the same problems and running up against the same brick walls.”
Too bad our country’s leaders don’t understand that.
I’m sick of the spin and slurs and insults and empty promises. And when it comes to the issues, I’d like real solutions that help real American common working citizens.
I can only speak of problems I know firsthand.
First off, I know a man who comes to a monthly writers’ group that I am involved with. He’s an educated man, from up north, moved to Tennessee and got a job on a dairy farm to use his degree in animal husbandry. After Hurricane Katrina his son talked him into going to Louisiana to rebuild houses, which he did for a year. When he returned, he had an idea of starting his own construction business. Because it was hard to get off the ground, a friend recommended him to the owner of a local construction company, so he could have an income while he worked toward his own dream. The owner asked, “Is he white?” The answer was yes. “Well, I don’t like to hire white men,” the owner said. “They’re greedy. They just want to earn money.” Translated, I think that means he has to pay them more than $3 an hour, and he can get cheaper labor.
You know where this is going without me saying another word. Illegal immigrants.
A while back, I had to get a tetanus shot at the county health department, because my doctor didn’t have the vaccine in stock. I was the only one there who didn’t speak Spanish. Even the signs were foreign. I took off from work to go sit and wait my turn among people who were obviously not working. After I got my shot, the lady at the check-out desk said sarcastically, “Do you plan to pay for this?” “Do I have a choice?” I asked in the same vein. She swooshed her arm toward the waiting room and said, “They don’t pay.”
I pay $309.25 a month for health insurance, and then when I have a procedure — for example, a colonoscopy, as I did last month — I pay co-insurance — for that procedure, an additional five hundred. On top of that, I must pay taxes to cover the health care of illegal immigrants — people who broke the law to get here to live free. Only there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody has to pay.
I got stuck alright.
Turning the other cheek, I have a young cousin who lives in a rural area of a southern state. She took college courses to train for a job in medical transcription so she could earn four times minimum wage. She has worked for the same company for ten years, and now she is being phased out. Why? Because they are sending her job to India. My cousin is a thirty-five-year-old single mom supporting two children, now starting over, looking for something she can do in America to earn a living.
I suggest a funeral home. The one thing they can’t do over there is bury our dead.
But they can bury us.
Yeah, I feel like a whimpering, whipped puppy, longing for a new day, but knowing in all likelihood I will never see beyond the bars of this cage.
My daddy went to war, long before he was my daddy. Uncle Sam sent a letter saying he had to, only he wasn’t at home to get it because he was in Mobile working. Grandpa sent him a telegram, telling him to come home now, that he had to report to the draft board the next morning. So the young lad rode the bus to DeKalb all night, and Grandpa picked him up at the station and took him to sign up for the army.
He was in the army for three years and in the war for fifteen months, but the war stayed in him a long time afterward.
Fifteen years later, he bought a big map and sat in his chair and studied it. With a yellow magic marker and a deliberate hand, he started marking across it. He connected dots of towns with names like Cherbourg, Mars-la-Tour, Metz, Bastogne, Trier, Crailsheim, Ulm, Augsburg, Mittenwald, ending at Berchtesgaden, near Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. He traced what he could remember of his route with the A Company, 80th Armored Medical Battalion, 10th Armored Division, Third Army, under Blood and Guts General George Patton.
I watched him, lying flat on my stomach on the hardwood floor, leaning up on my hands, putting the bottoms of my feet on the back of my head.
Before he marched through all those towns, and a hundred others, he trained at Camp Gordon, Georgia, with all the other boys he’d serve alongside, and they all went on “Tennessee maneuvers” together. Tennessee maneuvers was when the division practiced for real war near towns like Lebanon along the high bluffs of the Cumberland River because it was like the terrain in Europe where they’d be fighting. Dad talked about Tennessee maneuvers all the time, till we were sick and tired of hearing those two words.
“When I was on Tennessee maneuvers…”
“Oh no, Tennessee maneuvers!” My sister and I would shoot up and zoom to the door.
When Dad embarked for France, he was in the first division to sail from the United States directly to the European mainland, but the boat he was on ran aground in the New York harbor and the convoy went off and left them. If you ask me, that wasn’t a good way to start. I felt sorry for him because when he left the base, he and Mama had only been married six days. She watched him go away in the back of a big brown truck. He was twenty-two.
Dad was a sergeant, a front line medic in charge of five ambulances. He told the ambulance drivers where to pick up the wounded and where to take them. He rendered first aid on the front lines — gave plasma and morphine to torn, mangled bodies and watched men die. There was real blood and guts there, and he had to eat, sleep, and live with it all. He was baptized in it. His stories came, short snippets streaming from his memory, the words of an ordinary soldier who knew his part and not the big picture. As a post-war child, I had a duty to listen to stories that happened along that yellow line. Some were funny and some made his face go gray.
His unit first saw combat at Mars-La-Tour, when his ambulance was hit by German planes. Dad said he jumped out and hit the ground and his driver jumped on top of him with heavy boots. “I ran to the back of the ambulance to check on my men, and when I opened the door, one fell to the ground, dead. His head was half blown off by a shell that had gone through the roof.” That’s when Rainbow took off running down the road as fast as he could, like a jackrabbit in low cotton. “We just watched him go, there wasn’t a thing we could do. We never did see Rainbow again.” “You didn’t tell on him?” I asked. “Naw.” I figured they’d probably all had a hankering to go with him. Dad said they named the hill they were taking Rainbow Hill. “I knew ’bout how long it would take those planes to turn around and come back again, so we jumped in the ambulance and I directed my driver on down the road a bit, and we hid behind the wall of a church where they couldn’t hit us.” I figured war could make a man get down and pray.
The Rainbow story made me glad I was a girl. Because I couldn’t bear to look at a dead friend with only part of a head and brains showing. Knowing I might be next. I knew right then and there if I had gotten drafted into a war, I’d escape the fighting and dig a deep hole in the woods, get it in, and cover it with twigs and branches, hug my knees, and stay put till the treaty was signed. I also knew that if every soldier felt like Rainbow and me, our country wouldn’t win any wars.
Dad said the rest of the soldiers rolled on — he called it “hauling ass” — mopping up Germans, seizing towns. “We were cold, hungry, always on the move, and on constant alert to stay alive,” Dad said. “We had anti-aircraft guns shooting over our heads, mortars thrown at us, flack spreading all around us, planes going over and strafing us. The bullets looked like they were coming straight at my eyes, then they would go straight up.” The Germans even strung wire cables across the roads to catch soldiers riding in vehicles and decapitate them. Dad installed bars on his jeep that stuck up and would break the cables. His jeep ran under one, the bar caught it and broke, and injured his driver.
“Supplies didn’t get through to us. Many days we didn’t eat. Too afraid to be hungry anyway. Our K rations came in a cardboard box — a can of eggs and cheese and another of coffee. I’d take an empty can, put dirt in the bottom, pour gasoline on the dirt and light it to heat my coffee.” There was a roll of toilet paper and four cigarettes in the rations. “We slept wherever we could,” he said. “Sometimes in our vehicles, in people’s kitchens, in barns in France.” The stalls in the barns were divided by concrete walls and Dad slept next to one for protection. “In Germany we’d run a man and his wife out of their bed and sleep a while.”
The Germans drew Dad’s group south, while they broke through our lines north to take Bastogne. So Dad had to haul it north. They spent a night in Metz, where they removed all their division shoulder patches and insignias and whitewashed their tanks, painting over the division markings. A big snow had hit and they’d be disguised. They saw other soldiers retreating from the Bulge. “They looked like the walking dead, they were shell-shocked, some had no helmets, some had no shirts. They handed over their ammo and kept on walking, never looked up. We were their replacements,” Dad said. “We spent Christmas Eve in Luxembourg City, then on Christmas morning we all set out north to Bastogne. At a fork in the road, Company A — the one I was in — went east, then north, about two or three miles south of Bastogne. Company B went into Bastogne, took the brunt of the battle, and had heavy casualties. They’re still there.” Dad looked up toward a corner at the ceiling. “We were surrounded for two days. It was cold, the snow was deep, and I lost all my supplies when we had to move quickly. I didn’t have shoes for a day and a half. My feet got frostbitten. We couldn’t dig foxholes because the ground was so frozen. We were shelled constantly — the shells would explode in treetops and shrapnel would rain down on us. Men went crazy and had to be restrained.” They were told to hold Bastogne at all cost. That means until every man was dead.
Then help arrived. “We captured and killed Germans as they retreated so they couldn’t set up more battles. German soldiers hid in the woods and hundreds came out with hands locked over their heads to give up. I was standing around with a few soldiers, when a young blond German boy, not more than seventeen, came out of the woods with his arms raised. He was surrendering. The man standing next to me pulled his pistol and shot him. I gave him morphine before he died. He looked at me in the eye and asked ‘Warum?’ and I just shrugged and told him I didn’t know.” Dad flattened out his lips, and the corners of his mouth curled up. “Did you tell on him?” I asked. “Naw, it was no use. That’s what war does to some.”
Dad told of a time when he didn’t obey his superiors. “I got orders from a lieutenant, a runner from company headquarters. He told me to proceed until I came to a fork in the road and to stay there all night and wait. We’d join the other battalions early the next morning. When I got there, I noticed it was out in the open. Something told me not to stay. I figured we’d get picked off. I told my driver, ‘We’re not staying here. Let’s move on a bit.’ We found a more protected spot. Next morning before sun up we headed back and joined the column about daylight. At the fork in the road we saw the ambulance of the Company B sergeant — he had the same job as mine with the same orders, to park and wait. He and his driver had both been shot in the head right through their helmets. If I’d obeyed orders, I would’ve been shot dead, too.” It wasn’t like Dad to disobey orders, but it was like him to use his own sense and skills and do what he had to do. I knew him well enough to know he had a feel for things. I guessed that came from growing up in the country and hunting.
Two months after Bastogne, Dad’s group crossed the Saar River, pounced on Zerf, and turned north — nine miles to Trier. On the way, the day before they captured Trier, they were getting heavy opposition. “Soldiers on the front were putting the wounded in a house along the road. Captain Adkisson told me to take a half-track, go up to the front, and bring back some of the wounded. I needed a driver for the half-track, so I took a 5-gallon water can and filled it with schnaps and gave it to Leroy Worrell to drink. I asked him to drive me through a mined field to the front line. The enemy was putting up a formidable defense. We were pounded and pelted with heavy artillery. The shrapnel was so heavy, I expected we’d get it any second. In the midst of the fire, Leroy would stop to get a swig.” Dad stopped to laugh. “I’d get real nervous because we were sitting ducks. But we made it to the front. We put the litter patients on the porch of the house and loaded the walking wounded into the half-track. I told Leroy to take them back to the hospital and send Arch Page back with an ambulance for the litter cases when the mortar attacks died down. I stayed with them and gave them first aid.” They rescued four litter patients and ten or twelve walking wounded.
That was March 1, 1945, the day for which Dad was honored with a Bronze Star with Valor. I read the certificate that came with the medal. “Sergeant Hardy’s exemplary conduct on this occasion reflects grand credit upon himself and the military forces of the United States.”
I reckoned he did a good job in the war. But I knew he was scared and it all stayed with him. The reason I knew is that he had nightmares about it. A few times, I heard him moan and cry out in the middle of the night. Mama said she had to wake him up and tell him it was a dream. She said many times when he first got home from the war, he’d come home from work in the middle of the day, shaking. And sometimes he couldn’t eat. She said she’d listen to him talk until the shaking stopped. I reckoned that’s what war was like. You go, you do what you have to do, and if you live, you come home and you try to stuff it down so deep you don’t think about it much. You just do it and then you bear it.
It was TEN in TENnessee this morning! Coat-wearing weather. Even for the dog.
But it wasn’t too cold to have lunch in downtown Franklin at Puckett’s with The Girls. After some salads, we stopped in two doors down at Merridee’s, where Bill Peach was holding an intellectual forum from 10 till 3. He’d said, “My primary role in this venture should be only the commonality of convening a gathering of some of Franklin’s (and Nashville’s) best and brightest. When we arrived about 2, Rick Warwick — Williamson County Historian — was there, along with another man, and Bill’s face brightened and he announced, “Here are four Williamson County literary giants.” We all laughed.
It was cold outside, but I left warmed by friendship.
In fourth grade Johnny Kenney told me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I told Miss Phelps on him. I was counting on her for reassurance, but she clamped her mouth shut. She was a tall woman with wide hips and skinny bowed legs and black hair in a bun. She was an old maid with a long chin and a pointed nose, and she was the sweetest schoolteacher ever. Miss Phelps made a smacking sound with her thin lips. “Well,” she said, letting out a long breath. “I’m not going to say a word.”
Oh, no, I thought, as my heart sank to my knees. There must be something true about big fat Johnny’s revelation. It knocked the wind out of me, and I felt like there were thunderstorm clouds instead of snow clouds descending on me. I’d have to work hard to try and pull the pieces of my shattered childhood back together. That Christmas, I tried to ignore the possibility that Santa didn’t exist, but the seed of the idea was still there and set in, spreading like mold on bread, to spoil my joy. It made me grow up faster than I wanted to.
In fifth grade during a rainy day recess, I was sitting in the back of my classroom talking to my friends and drawing a picture on a sheet of notebook paper. I’d loved to draw all my life, everything from girls with pigtails and ribbons to paper doll clothes. I was pretty good at it. When Mrs. Wright walked in the room, though, I covered my drawing with my hand and pulled it toward me because I truly lacked confidence that I was good at it and didn’t want anyone to see it. That made her think I was drawing something nasty, and she accused me. I got fussed at in front of the whole class, and no matter what I said she didn’t believe me. I had to give her my picture so she could see for herself that I was telling the truth. I felt dirty, exposed, like a naked puppy dog rolled over on its back with all its little nipples showing. That’s when I learned you’re always guilty until proven innocent. I didn’t draw much after that.
My sixth grade class was all boys, except for six girls. There were constant barrages from the boys — jokes and words I didn’t understand. I hadn’t a clue what was going on around me, except that there was a lot of muffled snickering. And then one day Ina Jean Durham taught me a new word that started with the letter “f” and she defined it in great medical detail. Now, Ina Jean didn’t make good grades, even in spelling and vocabulary, but I think she could’ve gotten an A on this subject. She told me my parents even did the deed she described. I almost vomited thinking about that, but I figured they’d only done it twice, because a baby was the end result of that act and they only had two.
I didn’t dare tell Mrs. Waldrop on Ina Jean, but when I got home that afternoon, I told Mama I’d learned a new word. Mama looked up from her pressure cooker full of peas steaming and hissing a warning. She had shock all over her face. Later that night, she pulled out a book titled Being Born and said she’d been saving it for me. “Here,” she said. “Read this and you’ll know everything.” That was my Birds and Bees talk — a one-sentence summary of the facts of life, as well as everything I’d need to know on my wedding night.
I knew then that the f-word was for real, and the act it defined really went on behind closed doors. I wanted to go backwards and not know. I felt cheated out of my childhood.
It seemed that all adults were flawed. They were weak-kneed, they could be downright mean, they were suspicious, they had all this nonsensical stuff going on, and this one f-word was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard of. Who in the world could’ve conjured up something so far-fetched? Adults really needed something better to do besides sitting around figuring out what body parts fit where. And I really didn’t need to know about all this. But I did know. It did, however, shed some light on the boys’ hushed remarks.
Another thing about sixth grade was that the superintendent wanted all the sixth graders to learn Spanish in their classrooms. The junior high had a language lab and would offer foreign language to gifted students the following year, but for now, everybody would have a dose of Beginning Spanish. The flawed thinking here was that every teacher could teach the language. It’s one thing to teach long division and sentence diagramming, but another thing entirely to teach the correct pronunciation of another country’s language when you’ve never heard it before.
My teacher was a rich farmer’s wife and didn’t have to teach for the money, like Mama did. She just taught because she wanted something to do. She said adios with a southern accent … and she didn’t even get that right.
I knew she wasn’t saying the words right, because I was already learning Spanish at home. There was a TV program every afternoon with Mrs. Blue from Arkansas. She made her two boys come on the air with her to repeat her drills. They sat in little wooden chairs at a little wooden table. The two Blue Boys and I learned Spanish together. I was eager for those thirty-minute segments. I soaked in the words.
After too many of my annoying corrections to her diction, Mrs. Waldrop announced that I would be teaching the class. She meant it, too. And so every day from then on out, I stood in the front of my classroom and at the age of eleven, I taught twenty boys and five girls how to speak Spanish. God only knows what those boys were slurring about me behind fists they held in front of their mouths, but by golly, they listened and they learned. And in seventh grade, based on test scores, some of us were pulled out and put in a real Spanish language lab and learned from a real Spanish teacher, Mrs. Stigler, and I became a lowly student again.
All in all, I saw that adults had the same problems kids did. They didn’t know all the answers, they didn’t believe, they didn’t trust, they did a lot of pretending, they didn’t always do the best thing, but sometimes they got it right.
It looks like a picture out of Turbulent Years: The 60s, one of my Time-Life Our American Century series books. It has a snapshot of striking Memphis sanitation workers lined up for their protest in March, 1968, carrying placards that said I AM A MAN. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to lead the march. But it turned violent, and King championed nonviolence. He returned to Memphis to plan a second — peaceful — march in April, and told a crowd that God “has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
The next day he was shot dead on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel. The bullet tore off part of his jaw, fractured his spine, and severed vital arteries.
That was 40 years ago.
Today, I went downtown to Landmark Booksellers and got right in the middle of the 2008 Franklin march in honor of MLK. People walked from The Factory down Franklin Road, across the Harpeth River, past the bookstore, to the square. They carried placards and sang. After four decades and a lot of water under the bridge, hundreds of people walked that mile or more to honor a man that didn’t make it to the Promised Land, but made it possible for others to go and live there.
It was cold outside, but it didn’t seem to turn anyone away.
It was nine degrees Saturday morning, with a chill factor of zero. I thought about my daffodils that usually start their venture upwards in January and ran outside to the spot behind the low stone wall I built. There they were! Daffodils, two inches out of the ground.
Those early rising flowers give me such hope. Hope that the world will be warm again. And colorful. And happy. Hope that we’ll all be outside again under the sun, together, laughing, living. They let me know that change is coming.
We were freshening up before going out to eat and catching up on the day at the same time.
“I got the sales tax report done and also put your letter in the mailbox for pickup,” I said, running a comb through my hair.
“Your letter. You know, the yellow envelope you left for me to put out in the mail.”
“Ah, that was my stool sample.”
“Oh. My. Gosh.” I slammed my comb down on the marble … because I like drama. “I cannot be-lieve I held that and carried it out to the mailbox.” I put my hands on my hips and looked at him in the face and then in his face in the mirror we were standing in front of. It was a test kit for colon cancer screening on its way to a lab. “What were you thinking? You didn’t even need to bother with that. You just had a colonoscopy, for cryin’ out loud.”
“It was free.”
“Free? You did it because it was free?”
“Yeah, I do it every year. It’s a service my insurance provides. We could do you, if you want. They send a little brush — ”
“Never mind! But you’re gonna have to start walking your own samples to the mailbox.”
A half hour later we were sitting in Amerigo’s in Cool Springs eating Cheese Fritters — the recipe is in Bon Appetit, and then I had Goat Cheese Pasta and he had Veal Saltimbocca.
It wasn’t so tonight, but usually I’m very distractible when I’m eating out in a restaurant, surrounded by tables filled with happy folks, all engaged in conversation. One ear gets pulled to the table behind me, while the other goes toward the table across the aisle. I also try to snatch a sampling from two tables away. I just can’t help but listen. I stare at the couple seated at Table B and keep an eye on the family at Table C, meanwhile causing gaps in conversation with my own table partner, thus having to say, “Huh? What’d you say?”
It reminds me of a writing exercise in The Pocket Muse, guaranteed to provide interesting plot and dialogue:
“Go to a restaurant with somebody patient. Pretend to be listening to him while you eat. Meanwhile, grab a swatch of conversation from Table A and another swatch from Table B. Combine and enjoy.”
This makes me glad that the stool sample dialogue took place in the privacy of my home, because I’d hate to think that some poor writer in need of news or muse or stimulation was catching a swatch of that.
I’m a weather-watcher, a Weather Channel fanatic, so when I saw the snow graphic on the Local on the 8’s Daypart Map, I kept watch. All day Wednesday, I watched the gray skies and kept one eye on the satellite map. On the Regional Doppler screen, I watched green approach Williamson County and noted pink spreading upward from Alabama. It was supposed to be snowing in Franklin by five.
And by golly, it was! Snow poured down, like a blizzard — big, beautiful flakes whooshing from the sky like Fourth of July fireworks … like thousands of white rockets flooding down … like comets leaving long tails. I yelled out some snow squeals, and I danced from window to window, watching it fall. I stood on the back porch in it and let it pelt me. I held my hand out, and there were flakes so big they nearly covered my palm. Clean, refreshing, pure, innocent snow.
In mere moments, the yard lay in white — white that lit up the night sky. Plump, fluffed snow piled up on bushes and cars and mailboxes and lined the branches of the dogwoods out front. The whole neighborhood was white — a winter wonderland reminiscent of the lyrics of a childhood song: “It’s a marshmallow world in the winter, when the snow comes to cover the ground. It’s a time for play, it’s a whipped cream day. I wait for it the whole year round!”
My neighbor’s little boy always makes the first snowman in Wimbledon and within an hour after the first flake, his was up and dressed.
Thursday morning out back, the frosty icing had melted. There was still an inch covering the bluebird house on the fence, where birds won’t nest because cats can tiptoe across the fencerail and poke a paw in the front hole. There was snow remaining on the wooden border across the back flowerbed. There was snow spattered around Dad’s Memorial Garden. His birthday was yesterday. He would have been 86. His birthday is also today. He was born way out in the country, and the doctor’s late arrival came after Dad’s appearance, so while he was born on the sixteenth, it is recorded on his birth certificate as the seventeenth.
I headed out to Nashville this morning, and as I drove across South Berry’s Chapel Road beside the pasture full of black cows and green grass, I grew amused at hundreds of cow patties topped with snow. The snow had long since melted in the fields, and only a reminder of it lingered in what looked liked snow-capped volcanoes.