|The Shell in the distance on Highway 31|
I met Bill at a Shell station on Highway 31 and Epperson Springs Rd. in Westmoreland, TN. The trip from my house in Nashville took a little over an hour. Northeast into the Tennessee countryside; it was a great drive for a sunny winter day.
When I pulled into the Shell, he was waiting for me, standing next to his buddy's white GMC pickup. I could tell he was excited because Bill made a beeline for my car. I, too, was excited but also a little bit nervous...
|Pulling in at the Shell on Hwy. 31 & Epperson Springs Rd.|
Until starting my drive to Westmoreland that morning, the full reality of the situation hadn't dawned on me. This was probably the final chapter of my connection to Bill and his family.I had purchased the cigar box over Memorial Day weekend in 2011. And since that time, I had come to see myself as something of a steward of the memories contained within it. I had always hoped this day would come. But now faced with it, I began to lament the loss of my role in the story.
The truth was, no matter how close I may have felt to Bill or his father, I was a complete stranger to him. Some guy who, only last week, sent him a letter about pictures of his dad. He had been a compelling character in my life for over a year but I had literally just entered his. Would I be able to find any real connection with this man when we met? How would I feel about preserving and returning these memories to him if he turned out to be a jerk? It was a petty and small way to feel, I know. Fortunately, it proved to be without merit when we finally met.
|Mike's White GMC Pickup|
"Mike" he said, "is a real good friend of mine. I hadn't seen him in 16 or 17 years when I came back here. But there he was - same guy, same ugly face. We were still good friends and we still are."
"Yeah" added Mike, "and now we're just a couple old hippies trying to stay out of trouble."
They were immediately likable people, genuine and good natured. As grateful to see me there as I was to come. The sense of trepidation that had crept over me on the drive up was gone the moment I met Bill and Mike.
We got to talking about the circumstances of our meeting. I told them how I bought the cigar box at a flea market in Monteagle, discovered all the photos were of the same person and got my first clues from the names written on the backs. I told them about posting the photos in chronological order, about the help I received online as I searched to locate Bill's family and how amazed I was to discover that he was living in middle Tennessee. Finally I told them about locating Bill's address on a dodgy-looking website but sending a letter anyway, just in case. All of it, I said, made me feel like some larger force was at work, urging me towards that very moment standing in the gravel parking lot of the Shell station on Highway 31 and Epperson Springs Rd.
When I finished telling my story, Mike looked up at Bill, "You know, Bill, this is a reward for all that good work you do."
"I teach Sunday school and do some preaching sometimes too," Bill explained.
|Bill (left) & Mike|
"Here's me, my mom and my dad at the zoo... That's my grandmother and that's where my grandpa is buried... Oh, there's Mom!"
My favorite reaction came when Bill discovered the picture I know as CBL #1. It shows his father, Charles, in 1933 at 14-months-old with wavy locks of hair.
"Hm, who is that? Is that me?" he said and pulled the photo out for a closer inspection. "Oh my goodness, it's Dad! Look at that! He had long hair once. He used to give me a hard time about growing my hair long. But now I know that he had long hair once too!"
Until that moment, I hadn't considered that some of the photos in the box might be unknown to Bill. But this picture was clearly a new discovery and provided him with a new connection to his father. I thought I could hear joy and relief in his voice as he spoke about the image.
In my letter to Bill, I had only mentioned the box of photos. He had no idea there was more to come. So while he was distracted by the pictures, I reached back into the backpack and pulled out a small plastic bag.
"Bill," I said, "I haven't actually told you about everything that I've brought today. A few months after I bought the photos, I went back to the lady I got them from and asked if she had anything else belonging to the same man. She said she did, which is why I am able to return these to you as well."
One-by-one I began to pull out Charles' military medals, belt buckle, dog tags and wallet and set them on the trunk of the car next to the cigar box. Bill, who had only moments before been excited and affable, stood stunned, looking at the items I had placed before him. After a long moment of silence, I began to worry that I had somehow upset him with these objects. That is, until I heard him whisper "wow".
|The view of the Shell from where I parked|
"One of these medals is for the time my dad saved his commander's life in Vietnam," Bill said. "They were driving through a village and one of the locals tossed a loaf of bread onto their vehicle. The commander picked it up but Dad realized something was fishy. Those people were so poor, they barely had any food. There was no way they'd give away good food. So Dad grabbed the bread and threw it away from the vehicle. [points to a sign 30 feet away] It blew up before it would have hit that sign."
He told me about Charles' death in 1995, which was a result of his military service and exposure to Agent Orange. "He was an engineer. They were building runways and roads near the fighting, so he came into contact with a lot of dirt that had been sprayed with the stuff. I watched my father go from 240 pounds to 160 pounds in three weeks, then he passed away. And the government never did anything to make it right. Still haven't."
|Bill & I|
"As far as I'm concerned, I had the best mom & dad in the world," he began. "My brother said that they loved me more than him but I don't think that's true. They loved all of us the same."
He said he had not seen his brother, who is gay, since their mother's funeral in 2003. It was not a decision made out of malice, he explained, just that they lived drastically different lives. "I told him 'You're my brother and I love you but I disagree with what you do.' I haven't heard from him since then. For all I know, he might be dead from AIDS."
(I knew from records I saw while searching for Bill's family that his brother had, in fact, succumb to AIDS a few years ago. But, in the moment, I could not bring myself to say it to Bill. Later, as I was driving home, I began to wonder if maybe he wasn't already aware of his brother's fate. The "dead from AIDS" comment seemed like an after thought at the time. But why bring up the possibility, if he didn't already have some reason to believe it? Perhaps his brother had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS prior to 2003 when they last spoke? Or maybe I just wanted that to be the case because I didn't have the stones to tell him what I knew...)
Next, Bill told me about a cousin who had been living with them when his mother passed away. A little while after the funeral, his cousin stole most of the family's possessions from their house and disappeared. The photos and other stuff I had returned to him were among the things that had been taken in 2003. Bill said he had given up hope of ever seeing them again. Mike told me that losing those items had been a source of frustration for Bill ever since.
We visited in the Shell station parking lot a little longer, chatting about the day's weather and the Titans' recent victory over the Jets. But I could tell from the way he kept glancing at the bag, Bill was anxious to go home and spend time with his family heirlooms. (Which was understandable since he hadn't seen them in nearly a decade.) I mentioned that I needed to get back on the road and began to make my goodbyes, when Mike suggested that Bill say a prayer.
We stood together with bowed heads in the gravel parking lot of the Highway 31 and Epperson Springs Rd. Shell station as Bill led us in a prayer. He thanked God for bringing us together that morning and for inspiring me to find him. He thanked God for the beautiful weather and asked for my safety on the drive home. Lastly, Bill thanked God for family and friends.
We all said "Amen."
We shook hands one last time and Bill and Mike got into the white GMC pickup. I watched and waved as they pulled away from the Shell. Then I got into the Road Sofa and did the same.
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