Books & Essays
Bartram's Living Legacy: The Travels and the Nature of the South
Mercer University Press 2010
On Human Rights and Immigration
NewSouth Books 2008
Southern Arts Journal, summer 2006, Issue 4, Volume 2, Number 3
Uncle Billy was leaving the hospital for the last time; the last time as far as he was concerned. Exerting every bit of feeble influence and emotional persuasiveness that he could muster, he had pleaded, cajoled, and then outright demanded that his wife, my Aunt Martha, never allow him to be taken back to that aseptic, unnatural environment of tubing and needles. So even though she knew she now had the upper hand due to his weakened state, she rather reluctantly agreed . . . for she was afraid of how he might die at home. A nurse whom she had known all her life had told her it was likely that her husband would bleed out in his death throes from the tumor that was inexorably tightening its grip about his throat. She had watched death visit before. Her mother had been bitten by a rabid fox when she went out to feed the chickens one evening and she slowly died in a weeks long agony of pitiful wailing. She wasn?t sure she could handle being a helpless bystander again. Gripping the steering wheel with muddled uncertainty, she drove home alone to prepare the sick room and await her husband?s return by ambulance.
On his way back home later that day, Uncle Billy had asked the ambulance driver if he would stop on the bridge over the Clinch River so that he might have a last look. The driver, Tom Askins, whose patience and compassion for Uncle Billy were substantially reinforced by the fact he was now on time and a half pay, agreed. He roughly pulled the aging ambulance near the edge of the bridge. His indifferent positioning mostly allowed for other vehicles to pass by without too much risk of being side-swiped.
Tom deftly reached under his seat retrieving a bottle contained by a paper bag twisted at the neck, removed the cap and gulped a couple of fast swallows. He wiped his lips with his sleeve and then screwed the cap back on. He smiled at the remembrance of the tour guide?s answer to his own question down at the distillery in Lynchburg.
?Why do we make the bottles square?? The guide had only slightly hesitated and then with a sly grin said ?So they won?t roll out from underneath your car seat!? Tom still puzzled over the distillery?s comedic indifference to the possibility of drinking and driving. The whiskey burned into his stomach and the alcohol satisfaction brought him out of his reverie. Uncle Billy waited wordlessly in the back, strapped to the gurney.
Tom got out and went around to the back of the ambulance and opened the double doors that parted like huge white gull wings. Although Uncle Billy made a weak effort to assist him, Tom easily extracted the disease diminished body of his passenger and half-carried and half-drug him like a sack of rotting potatoes to one of the bridge?s support girders. Uncle Billy was too feeble to protest his indifferent handling by the alcohol breathing driver. He patiently reserved what little energy he had left so that he could focus on the one thing for which he felt a true reverence.
The girder against which Uncle Billy leaned pierced the decking at a forty-five degree angle like a giant square spear. Tom stretched Uncle Billy against the steel, leaning him against that crazy angle, the girder supporting its emaciated human burden with no more difficulty than a fly presents to the back of a horse. As Uncle Billy clutched the edges of the metal for stability with his long bony fingers, his going home clothes flapped against his thin body in the soft spring breeze. Even though the sun sent warmth to the old man?s bones, his emaciated flesh refused the caress with light shivers. The river languished below as though it longed for the gaze of its lover.
Tom, adequately satisfied with his passenger?s position, returned to the driver?s seat and his afternoon date with Jack Daniels. ?Call me if you need anything? he half-heartedly yelled as he retreated into the interior of the ambulance. As was Tom?s hope, Uncle Billy didn?t hear the driver?s unconvincing declaration at all. Nor would he have wanted to anyway, for Uncle Billy?s cloudy eyes had already become mesmerized by the roiling waters beneath him. This was his last wish, which had been in great peril while he was in the hospital, to see his beloved river again. If it had been just a few months ago, tears of familiarity would have formed in the old man?s eyes; but now his body, exhausted by the ravages of cancer, was past the point of weeping. He watched transfixed as the water, like a beautifully remembered song, flowed past as it always had, as it always would, moving incessantly on its gravity fed journey; its downstream progress only temporarily interrupted by Norris Lake before being freed again by the locks on the dam.
Soothed as much as his failing health would allow, content to spend eternity welded to that bridge if he could, Uncle Billy began to form a prayer in his mind. He knew that Saint Peter would, most likely, not be rolling out the red carpet for him. Not only had Uncle Billy broken all of the Ten Commandments at one time or another in his long, checkered past but he had also refused to ?join the church?. Oh, he had given it a pretty good effort alright. Upon his return from doing his part of the killing of those Japanese fanatics on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, he had gone to the Baptist church for a while with Martha, now his wife of forty-three years.
Admittedly, it was mostly an effort to placate her, but he had even had the courage to sit right up front and listen to Brother Mull give his way too long sermons. Uncle Billy?s temerity was not reinforced by attentiveness, however. Daydreaming, or worse, dozing off were the only accolades that Brother Mull got from Uncle Billy. Suffice to say that Uncle Billy had plenty of company in the congregation from members who shared his form of approbation.
Brother Mull?s fervent delivery was that of old time religion, words rendered in a passionate, singsong voice, his sermon efficiently delivered on both the inhale and the exhale of his lungs. As Brother Mull warmed to his topic, he would begin to move about in front of his congregation animatedly, his hairy right hand tightly clutching and gesturing with the King James Bible over his head as if it were some sort of shield. His Adams apple throbbed up and down with increasing intensity, its movement providing punctuation for the interminable sermon. As the pace of his delivery increased his body began to quiver and shake, sweat profusely exuding from every pore on his body. Heat produced by his efforts was largely contained by the dark suit he wore; his white shirt divided by a thin black tie and flecked with missed drops of brown coffee. As all that energy and warmth swept up the pastor?s body, it had only one place where it could vent. Eyes bulging with fanaticism, ears moving in unison to his bony jaw, words and saliva boiled in a hot, hasty climax out of Brother Mull?s mouth. His ardent, wild-eyed focus on the word of God caused him to forget about the need to groom himself, leaving him with a rather rabid appearance.
Uncle Billy had grown accustomed to the preacher?s fiery animation. After all, he had learned to get some rest while being subjected to constant shelling from those insane Japanese. In his somnolent state, though, he was not prepared for the spittle that erupted from the preacher?s mouth in one of his emphatic points about the perils of the Devil and wanton living. A generous portion sprayed on Uncle Billy?s daydreaming, up tilted face as he and Martha sat on the front pew.
Once in a fierce daylong battle on Iwo Jima with the ?Nips?as Uncle Billy preferred to call his former foe, he and a hungry buddy had anxiously shared a K-ration. A shell from a Japanese cannon came out of nowhere skipping along the black and rocky volcanic ground and split his companion?s skull, spilling brains onto their shared meal. Uncle Billy, jolted from his reverie, had found the preacher?s spittle just as disgusting and not much less shocking than that awful combat experience. The deacons of the church soon found Brother Mull?s delivery just as unsatisfying for Christian rationale known only to them and later replaced Brother Mull with an alternate who was destined to have an equally short tenure. Brother Mull had been fortunate enough to get word from his underage girlfriend, whom he shared with one of his deacons, of his impending dismissal. The notice was just in time and allowed Brother Mull a few minutes to slip most of the paper money from the collection plates that Sunday before they were placed into the safe by the church?s treasurer.
Using some of ?my retirement proceeds? as he called them, he later purchased two large black speakers formerly used to announce the car races over at Dixie?s Speedway. Brother Mull was then relegated to deliverance of the word of God in a rather anonymous, yet more public fashion, aided by those large round, black speakers he bolted onto the roof of his old Plymouth. One spring had broken on the driver?s side rear axle, leaving the car with an awkward tilt, as though it had failed to bear up to the weight of the word of the Lord.
Sometimes Brother Mull would get out of his vehicle and deliver sermons of fire and brimstone near the town courthouse, his message ignored by disinterested pigeons that milled about his feet hopeful for real food as the word of God was certainly not fulfilling to them. Frustrated at his lack of a congregation (and the commensurate level of monetary contribution), he would, whenever he was ?called? to do so drive around the small community where we lived for hours ranting his garbled message at maximum volume in an effort to save lost souls until fuel or vocal cords were exhausted. Lord knows there were plenty of wayward and wandering sheep in that small town but, for the most part, they remained contented grazers in the pastures of sin and inequity.
As it would be with many who had been a captive audience to Brother Mull?s message, Uncle Billy decided that Hell was quite possibly a much safer place to be than in the line of fire of Brother Mull?s spittle drenched sermons. Anyway, when a man labored hard for six days a week as Uncle Billy did, going to church on Sunday just didn?t leave a fishing man enough time to enjoy himself. So Uncle Billy joined the church of the out-of-doors and for the rest of his days rarely ever set foot in another traditional church building again. Even then there were many who felt closer to God outside than in a man made building designated for prayer and worship. Despite his alienation from the usual forms of worship, Uncle Billy never did forego prayer. A skill honed on the battlefield, was kept intact with requests for good weather and simple one line thanks for clear water and an abundance of fish on his stringer.
And so now Uncle Billy prayed earnestly from his steel framed tabernacle, leaning against the girder which supported him with a firmness much better than the Christian God he had heard about but not gotten to know. In the past Uncle Billy had done some reading and on a few rainy days later in his life, when farming was not an option, he had slunk down to the local library and discreetly done a little study on some of the world?s religions and spiritual beliefs. Among other things, he had been astounded to learn that Muslims way outnumbered Christians. Being way outnumbered only reinforced his concern that the Baptists were arrogantly misguided about being on the ?one true path?. With that modicum of understanding now present in his mind about the alternate choices that some other people in this world made with regard to their approach of a ?god?, Uncle Billy gave this last prayer all he could muster. He knew from his military experiences that it was critical to have as many folks on one?s side as possible. He was most dubious that the streets of heaven, with its rather small portal according to Brother Mull, would be trod by his feet and he had, for the most part (particularly if one could overlook the debacle that was WWII) truly enjoyed his existence on earth. He genuinely hated the thought about not being able to be here on the Earth any longer. In his weakened and time shortened state he wasn?t in a position to bargain and didn?t have a good enough grounding in spirituality to be sure that one path ?was the way?. So he took the shotgun approach and prayerfully invoked the assistance of any deity or holy person he could think of who might occupy a rung on the ladder to heaven and who would hopefully be able to relay his request for recycling into a reality. He didn?t seem to be a candidate for heaven and had already experienced hell with the Marines, so he prayed for the comfort of familiar territory.
With his patchwork doctrine, Uncle Billy made an uneven, unpolished but practical prayer, invoking assistance from all the spirits and saints, any Greek and Roman gods he could recall, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr.,etc., and threw in Mohammed, Buddha, and Jesus for sincere good measure. Desperate, he even included that half-assed man of God, Brother Mull. The water chortled beneath him and slowly Uncle Billy opened his eyes, allowing the soft spring afternoon to seep back into his awareness. Shivering slightly, but satisfied with his effort, he allowed himself one last gaze at the river beneath him recalling every stone and eddy, transfixed by the memories, breathing in hope for the future from the comforting waters below.
Strengthened somewhat by his musing, yet exhaling a long sad sigh, he turned, shuffling slowly and very carefully to the passenger side of the ambulance. With an almost heroic effort, he opened the door and let himself in. Tom?s head was nodding, his hand lightly holding the neck of the severely tilted Jim Beam bottle, only barely averting a spill. He jerked quickly into a pretended state of awareness and forgot to put the cap back on his whiskey. Uncle Billy?s timing was good, because if he had spent any longer at his ?church?, he and his driver would almost certainly have died in a wreck on the way home for Tom?s alcohol fogged faculties were declining much faster than the waning afternoon sun.
In their diagnosis of Uncle Billy?s numerous physical maladies, the doctors had overlooked the engine that powered his frail body. Uncle Billy did not bleed out as the nurse predicted nor as his wife had feared, rather his weary heart just stopped working early one morning while he rested in the pale light of pre-dawn. In that transition from life into death and death into life, Uncle Billy lay in his bed dreaming of fishing. The bright midday sun hesitated as though admiring the springtime pastoral scene over which it hung; a Monet-like painting of soft smudges and pastel colors. Time had stopped for an instant; no, forever. A man squatted on his haunches on the side of the river, his gaze intent on the water flowing past him, a long bamboo cane fishing pole, tip arcing towards the water, rested lightly in his hands. The fishing was the best it had ever been and Uncle Billy was smiling.