I’m at the Philly airport. Someone is on her iPhone worrying about her eHarmony date: “He looks like Harry from ‘Sex and the City.’” Silence. “You know, Charlotte’s husband, the bald one.” Silence. “We’ve talked on the phone twice and we’re having a drink next week.” Someone else is worrying about how to line up to get on this Southwest flight, which has no seat assignments. “OK, if I’m B49, you mean that’s where I stand in line to get on the plane, not where I sit on the plane?” And I am worrying about what I might find in Dickson, Tennessee, where, on my first visit 21 years ago they made me shoot a beer can off a 55-gallon drum with a shotgun before they’d take me back to the airport.
My last trip to Dickson, Tennessee, where my husband grew up, was close to three years ago for Lee, my mother-in-law’s funeral. On a number of visits so small that in two decades I can count them on one hand, I am still trying to appreciate the differences and mindset of a family I was married into but not raised in.
My husband, David Crow, who came down the previous day, picks me up at the Nashville airport in his dad’s pickup. We hug the curves of rural, two-lane Highway 48. Put David in a pickup and he immediately starts driving like a 16-year-old with raging hormones. I soon recognize the familiar fence enclosing the 40-acre property, where an ocean of sage once rippled in the summer breeze, cows and horses once nibbled away languid days, and pigs were once slaughtered and stored in the giant freezers on the screened-in porch. Gone now is the old red barn, but the farmhouse remains, and I see the tranquil triangle of a pond is still there down the hill. I can picture the June bugs jumping on the water, and I see my father-in-law’s fishing rod holder on the dock.
As a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I always find it very hard to spend time in Dickson, mostly because it requires doing absolutely nothing. While David’s family can while away the day and night sitting on lawn chairs under the carport for hours at a stretch, sipping diet Coke (in Christine, my sister-in-law’s case) or vodka and Clamato (in Art Crow, my father-in-law’s, case), I think, shouldn’t we be hiking or visiting a Civil War museum?
I do my best to settle in by picking up Rusty, one of 12 stray cats and dogs, and petting him in my lap. “I feed ’em but I don’t own any of ’em,” my father-in-law says.
Aunt Dot tells me about her spunky great-granddaughter, who is nine going on 21 and calls Dot Boo Boo. “The other day,” Dot says, “she gave me a great back rub. I paid her two dollars, but I told her, ‘Art gives me a back rub for nothing.’ She just put her hands on her little hips, and said, ‘Boo Boo, has that man lost his ever-lovin’ mind?’”
In the kitchen Cousin Joyce, who tools around the back roads of Dickson in a smart red convertible, teaches me how to make hush puppies. She expertly mixes the batter with chopped onions, self-rising corn meal, and whole-milk buttermilk. I ask her for the recipe. “Don’t got no recipe. Just do it from the look of it. Too runny, add more meal; too thick, add more buttermilk. Now, Art puts beer in his batter; I don’t. Lots of other people put other things in their batter. This is the way I do it.” She shows me how to first dip the spoon in the hot fat, then scoop up a bit of batter and hold the spoon vertically so the batter slides off, just so, in a perfect ball into the roiling pot; the aroma makes my knees go weak with hunger.
The next morning I peek out of the lace curtains of my bedroom window and in the bright morning sun see four-year-old Landon in his pint-sized John Deere boots, hoe in hand, helping his grandfather, Paw Paw (my brother-in-law Steve), plant the fall garden on raised beds made of railroad ties. Steve pauses to pull off his army green baseball cap and wipe his brow with the back of his hand. The summer garden is all gone, just dried stalks like Giacometti sculptures, bent at the waist, their crooked dead leaves jutting out at awkward angles. Summer’s bounty of tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, okra, and butter beans now reside in Crayola-colored rows of red, green, and yellow on the pantry shelf, all neatly canned by Christine. The squash and corn has all been grilled and frozen, to be pulled out at Thanksgiving.
Steve crouches down to tuck each tiny onion and cabbage plant into its new home in the sun-warmed, freshly hoed dirt. The tow-haired Landon calls out in his little raspy voice: “Paw Paw, look at the hole I dug! Isn’t it nice and clean?”
On Sunday afternoon, Art, David, Aunt Dot, and I go down to the V.F. W. Hall for a beer. Past the Discount Smoke ‘n’ Chew, Speedee Cash, and Catfish Kitchen, the V.F. W. Hall 4641 sits up on a hill. A camo green Vietnam army helicopter is on the front lawn and a flag recycling box stands by the entrance. The cars, mostly American-made SUVs, in the parking lot sport Vietnam Vet license plate borders and God Bless America bumper stickers. Stepping inside the modest one-story building, I feel I must be on a Hollywood backlot for a Scorcese film. I find myself in a time capsule of vintage ’60s fluorescent lighting, linoleum floors, and walls of painted cement block and wood paneling. Only there are no cameras and no Starbucks coffee cups. This is the real deal. In the entry hall, a table is scattered with brochures with titles like “Fighting Depression in Old Age” and a clipboard signup sheet for the Ladies Auxiliary.
On the walls, framed behind glass, original front pages from the Nashville Banner and Nashville Tennessean, yellow with age, create an eerie timeline of World War II. December 8, 1941: “Congress Declares War! 3,000 Casualties at Hawaii! Tennessee Is Ready, Says Gov. Cooper.” February 23, 1945: “Patton Roars Deep Into Reich” accompanied by an AP photo of Marines invading Iwo Jima. August 14, 1945: “Full Surrender of Japs Ring Curtain on War/Truman Gives Americans News of Victory.”
Another wall is dedicated to the Vietnam War. December 29, 1972: “12th B52 Down/4 Crewmen Dead.” My husband tells me that my brother-in-law was stationed as a flight engineer at the same base as those crewmen in U Tapao, Thailand, when the crash occurred. I try to picture my docile, goofy brother-in-law in uniform but I can’t; I can only see him hoeing in the garden with his four-year-old grandson.
Inside the main hall, under hanging lights, I see men, their jeans slung low on incredibly thin hips, John Deere caps or cowboy hats pulled over their eyes, denim shirts rolled up over tanned forearms, and women with long blond hair and denim cut-offs, cigarettes expertly tucked into the corners their lips, leaning over pool tables, their cues poised, as if frozen in an Edward Hopper painting. Others sit around game tables, scattered with Bud Light cans and purple plastic ashtrays. Nearly every person smokes. When I walk in the room, they all turn their eyes on me. One man touches the tip of his cowboy hat in silent welcome. Another nods almost imperceptibly and turns back to his hand of cards. When any of them walk across the room or around to the other side of the pool table, no matter what their age, they seem to be masking pain. On one wall a whiteboard has a Sick Call list of veterans who are ill and the name of the VA hospital where they can be visited.
At the bar, we lean on the red vinyl padded edge and order beers from the bartender, a rail-thin Vietnam vet named Buzz with dark shaggy hair, a mustache, a tattoo on one arm, glasses pushed up on his head, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. When he takes my order and his eyes meet mine, I am momentarily struck by a hidden, haunted look in his dark eyes, like I’m seeing something he doesn’t want me to see. I hold my breath, watching him as one might watch a big dog, waiting to see if he’s friendly or ferocious. But Buzz’s mouth breaks into a smile as warm as a child’s, and I know he’s OK. As he sets my glass down, his arm shakes ever so slightly, as if a spirit running through his nervous system can’t seem to get dislodged. Behind him on the wall are dozens of arm patches indicating different military units and baseball caps stitched with the words Desert Storm Veteran, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Vietnam Veteran.
My husband asks Buzz to take down a 20 mm shell to show me. Buzz places it on the bar. It looks like a bullet, only about 12 inches tall. “That’s the shell fighter planes use to take out tanks,” my husband explains. “The top third is the shell, the bottom two-thirds is filled with gunpowder. Go ahead, pick it up.” It seems somehow sacrilegious to do so, like touching a relic. I think, thanks to these shells and the brass balls of the men who used them, we get to live in a democracy. God knows I don’t have brass balls but something tells me every man in this room does.
Next to me Aunt Dot orders another drink and says mildly, “My hairdresser of 33 years just died of breast cancer, and my hair has looked like hell ever since.” She lowers her glass and leans in for emphasis. “When someone fixes your hair twice a week for 33 years, you get pretty close.”
I ask my father-in-law, Art, about those fighter planes. He proudly says one of the members here did 1,100 jumps collectively during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and Desert Storm and earned four Purple Hearts. Art tells me he wanted to join the Air Force when he enlisted during the Korean War, “but I had bad knees. Bad knees and jumpin’ out of airplanes don’t go together. But that didn’t keep me from walkin’ from one end of Korea to the other.”
He fought in Heartbreak Ridge, one of the Korean War’s bloodiest battles, a devastating and exhausting month of fighting in 1951, in which over 3,700 American and French and an estimated 25,000 North Korean and Chinese lost their lives. Attacks and counterattacks begun by bomb, bullet, and shell often finished by grenade, trench knife, and even hand-to-hand brawls as ammunition supplies diminished. It was the last major offensive conducted by U.N. forces in the war.
I ask Art if there are any World War II vets at the hall, and he says, only two or three, now in their mid-80s. At that moment I happen to look at the flat screen TV mounted on the wall: in a moment of supreme irony, I see that the final game of the Little League World Series is airing — Japan is playing Hawaii.
Despite the high-tech vents in the ceiling, the smoke gets to me. I slip out onto the patio to escape and to admire the mural of a tropical beach Buzz has started painting on the outside wall. I look at the sherbet-colored stripes of the sunset at low tide, a moon rising over the water, and can only think of one place where Buzz has seen palm trees.
Before I go to bed on my last night there, I ask my father-in-law about the framed photographs on the walls in the room where I’m staying, all neatly organized by generation. I point to a sepia-toned photograph of seven teenage girls in sailor tops and saddle-shoe-style basketball shoes, the one in the center holding a basketball painted with the words “1st Baptist ’22-’23.” “That’s Esther,” says Art, pointing to the woman holding the basketball (my husband’s maternal grandmother). On the opposite wall is a photo from my own wedding, and there is Esther with powder white hair, a corsage pinned to her lavender dress, standing between me and my husband. Oh, that Esther.
Underneath Esther’s basketball team is a portrait of Lee dated 1945. She’s photographed in profile, her chin slightly lifted, her soft eyes gazing heavenward, her perfectly brushed wavy golden hair framing her face like a movie star. I cannot believe how beautiful she is. I am suddenly transported back 21 years to my very first trip to Dickson, when Lee, kissing me goodbye, wiped her floury hands on her apron and whispered in my ear, “You’re awful nice for a Yankee.”
Next is a painting of Art in uniform. “That was done in Japan in ’52, while I was on R&R,” Art says. Lee and Art met in 1951; that same year he went off to war. I silently think about Katie, my 18-year-old niece, who just joined the Navy and will be going to boot camp later this month. Will she come home so Buzz can serve her a beer?
Later that night, with Lee the movie star and Esther the basketball girl looking down on my head, my eyes adjust to the dark. I see the outline of the framed yellow cotton baby outfit that my husband, his sister and brother, their children, and my son each came home from the hospital in. “Every Crow baby has come home from that hospital in that outfit,” Lee told me. I feel a foreshadowing of someone putting me in a frame and sticking me on that wall 50 years from now. What would they say about me? “Oh that’s the Yankee David married. I heard that on her first trip to the farm they made her shoot a beer can off a 55-gallon drum. And she did it.”