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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Fathers and Such

Rememberance of my Daddies

The last time that I laid eyes on my Daddy was on April 26th, 1956, the day we laid him in the ground in a little dot in the road called Goin located in Claiborne County, Tennessee. He had died just seventy-nine days shy of his thirty-fourth birthday. He always said he’d never live much past thirty. He’d seen too much during World War II in the Pacific and had never gotten over his pain.

What I remember most about that day in 1956 is Grandma Keck taking me into the front bedroom of her small farmhouse so I could “ say good-bye to your Daddy.” He was all laid out in a dark flag-draped casket with some sort of chiffon cloth pulled over his face so you couldn’t really see him too close. Daddy had been dead for twenty days, most of which was spent lying as a John Doe in the Cook County Morgue up in Chicago, Illinois. Even so he was still tall, dark, and handsome.

Without any conversation Grandma pulled back that chiffon scarf so I could get a look at the Daddy that I barely knew and had seen only a handful of times in the eight years since my parents had been apart. I tried to feel something for the lifeless figure in the casket, perhaps something like love. But the truth is that I didn’t really know the man much except through photographs and my mother’s tears. Grandma said to me, “Now Brenda girl give your Daddy one last kiss.” I was terrified and repulsed but being the good little girl I leaned over his icy cold corpse and pretended to kiss his cheek. Tears of terror, not love, rolled down my face. I ran from the room and out the front door and down the dirt road until my skinny little legs wouldn’t run any further. That was April 26th 1956 – one of the four worst days of my life.

As far as father’s go, I reckon Foister Keck’s intentions were good and that his heart was pure, and in his own way that he loved me. I spent the first two and a half years of my life with him. After my baby brother,, little Jimmy, died, my parents divorced and my family fell apart. Mother lived in some sort of netherworld. Daddy barely ever came to visit me and when he did he would only stay for a short while, leaving some overwhelming, bigger-than-life energy and some presents in his wake.

The last time that I saw my Daddy was when I was six years old. He arranged a visit with me at my maternal grandparent’s home in a place named Stickleyville, Virginia, a mere dot in the road. My grandparents had taken me in when I was two-and-a half years old. Brad and Pearl Castle had done their best by me with what they had in their hearts and what they earned from their tobacco farm. I was always well-loved, well-fed, well cared for, and had the best stories told to me of any child within six states. Grandpa Castle did his very best to make up for the fact that my Daddy had basically abandoned me. Every day he told me that he loved me and that I was a very special little girl.

Daddy showed up in Lee County sometime during the early summer. I recollect this as I had a dark suntan. My hair was white blonde. Daddy remarked that I had legs nearly as long as his, which were really long considering that he was six feet seven inches tall. He said I looked like a blonde Indian. He looked like a real one with his thick straight black hair, dark skin, and eyes the color of chinquapins.

Daddy strode into the sun-drenched yard with a little black dog and a gift-wrapped box in his arms and a big smile flashing his brilliant perfect white teeth. I shyly hid behind Grandma’s white apron as she did her best to reintroduce this stranger to me: “Brenda, you remember your Daddy . . . don’t you?” But I didn’t. He looked friendly enough and he seemed to want to talk to me. He had a great laugh and an amazingly warm smile. He picked me up with his big strong hands and whirled me around the yard till I was dizzy.

Grandma made a big dinner (that’s what we called the noon day meal) for us – Southern food, fried chicken with all the trimmings. She’d killed the chickens in the back yard just before my Daddy showed up. She said she wanted it to be special. In some peculiar way I guess it was. At least no body went home or anywhere else hungry that day . . . or ever for that matter.

Daddy gave me that little black dog and the fanciest doll with her own suit case and lots of dresses that day. Daddy told Grandma and Grandpa Castle that the little dog had had his shots and was a “good one.” It made me feel happy to play with the dog and my dress-up doll. For a little while I felt like I might really have a Daddy of my very own, one who would truly love me and actually be there for me. But Daddy didn’t stay long; then he never did. He had women to see, booze to drink, dances to dance, and other more important people to see. When I asked if he was going to come see me again sometime soon, he just flashed his big smile at me and whirled me around the yard again.

I guess that’s what Daddies do – whirl little girls around the yard.

By August of that summer little Blackie had disappeared. He didn’t even come home to eat. I searched all over the farm for him and went up and down the dirt road between Great-grandma Maude’s house and Stickleyville looking for him. I was heart broken. After about 10 days Blackie wandered into the yard as I was playing with my doll under a make-shift tent made of quilts hanging from the clothesline. I was so happy to see him that I raced up and threw my arms around his neck. He growled fiercely and bit my arm, drawing blood. I screamed and Grandpa came running to the rescue. Blackie growled and snarled even more as Grandpa tried to get him up. Grandpa screamed for Grandma to get the shot gun cause Blackie was “frothing at the mouth.” Blackie crawled underneath the house and Grandpa went after him. When all was said and done that hot humid afternoon Blackie lay dead from a gun shot in the front yard while Grandma, Grandpa, and I had our own wounds to show for his fateful return. Grandpa got out his axe and chopped off Blackie’s head and “sent it up to Richmond” for “evaluation.” For fourteen days we drove over Wallen’s Ridge to the town of Pennington Gap to get our rabies shots in the stomach. It took four people and the promise of chocolate ice cream to get that needle in my stomach day after day. My sense of pain, pleasure, and fatherhood became somewhat convoluted over those fourteen days.

I really wish I could remember something happy and good about my Daddy – something that happened that I could actually say was good and lasting and true and took place with just the two of us. I have a photo of his holding me as a baby. He’s smiling; my mother looks tragic. There are other smiling photos along the way. But I can’t remember. Grandma Keck told me that he loved me and he must have because she would never tell a lie. My mother, Dorothy, assured me that he loved us all better than life itself . . . but he had a peculiar way of showing it. She was always sad about my Daddy. She never got over losing him and my brother.

A few years ago my cousin Linda put together a Keck family reunion back in Goin. At one point she called for the children of the “two dead brothers” to stand together for a family photo. My cousin Susan suggested that the three survivors hold a séance and call in our dead fathers. Linda didn’t find that amusing in the least, but we managed to get a chuckle out of it. In that moment I realized that cousin Linda had spent more time with my father during his short lifetime than I had as his daughter. That realization made me very sad. A day or two later I drove back over Wallen’s Ridge from Tennessee into Lee County, Virginia, declaring to myself, “I’m a Virginian, not a Tennessean.” Perhaps what I really meant is that my father was a Castle and not a Keck – that Grandpa was really my one true Dad.

So on this Father’s Day 2007 it is my Grandpa, Bradley John Castle, whom I remember and cherish. It was Grandpa who told me Irishman’s stories to cheer me up. It was Grandpa who taught me to plant tobacco and tomatoes. . . . took me fishing in the creek . . . bought me ice cream every afternoon at Stout’s Store . . . stoked the fire in my bedroom in the middle of a cold wintry night to keep me warm . . . kept Hershey’s bars for me for a special treat . . . who sat me on his lap and taught me my numbers and ABC’s . . . who insisted I read aloud to him every day . . . who told me how proud he was of me . . . who always had time for me no matter how tired or sick he was . . . who comforted me when my husband was killed in Vietnam. . . . who told me that I was strong enough to be a good mother and make it in the world on my own.

I thank my Daddy for giving me my life. I thank my Grandpa for being the only father that I have ever really known. I’m also grateful that I never got the rabies though I have frothed at the mouth a time or two over the years.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memorial Day Tribute to a Fallen Warrior

Tribute to a Fallen Warrior: Honoring Captain James Eddie Reed
Company A, 3/39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division

By: Brenda Helen Reed

On February 1, 1968, the life of Captain James Eddie Reed prematurely ended in an instant of violence during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. He was twenty-five years old. He had not yet begun to fulfill his dreams. I was blessed to have been his wife for far to short a time, and I continue to be blessed as the mother of his two children and grandmother to three beautiful grandchildren. This is my Memorial Day remembrance of my beloved Eddie.

Eddie, when you left for Vietnam in July 1967 at the age of twenty-four, your heart was filled with love and your eyes with laughter. You looked forward to the challenges that lay ahead, but even before you left you were already missing us. By November the light had gone from your twinkling blue eyes and a look of sadness shrouded your angular face. Your once proud shoulders were stooped from the burdens of the combat zone. The change was profound and disturbing.

You went to Vietnam determined to keep the men under your command safe and alive. That dream, too, was dashed when the young soldiers in your infantry company were killed and maimed in ambushes as they marched through the black muck of the open rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. The responsibilities of leadership weighed heavily upon you. Your superiors asked the impossible of you and your men, mostly mere boys away from their homes in small towns across America for the first time. At home there was little support for the war.

You worried about your men’s fungus covered feet and whether or not they received mail from home or had good food to eat. You dragged them for the dingy whorehouses where they went to escape their pain. When they fell in battle, you despairingly wrote letters to the families they left behind. A piece of you went to the grave with each of those young soldiers. Your men dubbed you “the best company commander in Vietnam.”

I met you when you were only nineteen – a handsome track star, a ROTC cadet, a farm boy. I pulled you from the swimming pool the last day of summer in 1962 when you belly flopped from the diving board at the hometown swimming pool in east Tennessee – just to get my attention. I still remember the mischievous way you laughed when you wrenched from my grasp at the side of the pool. That hot afternoon you won my heart forever. We eloped eighteen months later.

In August 1964 at East Tennessee State University you were commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U. S. Army. I proudly pinned your gold bars on the collar of your khaki uniform. You gave me a prize winning smile and laughed, “It’s a lifetime commitment, honey.”

When your son, James, was born two months later, you changed his diapers and gladly gave him his bottle in the middle of the night. You adored your boy and he you. You held my hand when he was sick and assured me that everything would be okay.

A few months later we settled into life at Fort Benning. You breezed through IOBC, Ranger and Airborne schools while at age eighteen I struggled to be the perfect “Army Officer’s Wife” just as Nancy Shea had described in her book, The Army Wife.

Every day that we were together you made me laugh. You gave your all to our family. We struggled on your second lieutenant’s salary but always managed to have fun. I can still hear you drawling out “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as you showered in the morning. Oh, how you loved me and I loved you!

You watched as the young men in your company, D – 1 – 2, at Fort Ord were sent off to Vietnam immediately after finishing their advanced infantry training. They were green and you feared for their lives. Your commanders took note of your interest in even the clumsiest grunt. You knew his life depended on what you taught him.

You grappled with the deaths of your friends who preceded you into combat and when your day came to go in July 1967, you bravely faced your future. You declared, “I have to do this. Somebody has to look after those boys.” I asked, “But who is going to look after you?” You laughed and pointed to the sky.

Four weeks in country I wrote you a letter to tell you that you were going to be a proud papa for the second time. You immediately celebrated and passed out cigars to the men in A Company of the 3rd/39th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division.

You empathized with the poor farmers in the rice paddies and the villagers of Rach Kien. You hated the war, but you loved your men and they loved you. Every day was a challenge.

The day you moved your company to the French Fort at Don Rach Cat, you wrote that at last your men had a secure, dry home when they were not on the battlefield. You nicknamed the concrete bastion Fort Courage and adopted a pig as Company A’s mascot. You wrote that Vietnam was a beautiful country. You described the sunsets from the top of the fort as romantic. You wished I could see them but more than that you wanted to be home. You marked the days off the calendar in Vietnam. I did the same at home.

You mom and dad missed your help on the farm. Your son at three was too young to put up hay and milk cows, but he had your sparkle and good looks. When we looked at his blonde hair and blue eyes, we saw you.

In November 1967 you took a bullet in the leg and declared that it was nothing. The Army gave you a Bronze Star with V device for your heroism and a Purple Heart. The only thing that you really cared about was getting your men “out of that hell hole alive.” As it turns out you and your men were air-dropped into an ambush. It was a bad day for Company A.

A few days later we met in Hawaii for R & R. You reeked of war and your skin was saturated with dirt. You scrubbed for hours to wash off the stench of Vietnam. For seven days we laughed and cried and loved one another. Your eyes filled with desperation and you asked me to make so many promises. I was scared. I tried hard not to be.

On the morning of your twenty-fifth birthday, you donned your combat gear and boarded the plane back to the war zone. Your last words to me were, “Promise me you won’t ever let my children forget me.” When you turned to wave goodbye, I knew it would be the last time that I would ever see you. You headed back to the war zone. I returned to Tennessee to face the bleak winter that lay ahead.

Your letters home reflected your dissatisfaction with the war and your deep concern about how things were going. You were eager to be off the front lines but the young lieutenants in your command were green. They needed and wanted your leadership. They trusted you. Many of your men were short-timers and were uneasy about having a new CO when it looked like they would be home free.

On February 1, 1968, you were summoned to the 3rd/39th battalion headquarters where you were given an intelligence report, stating that Company A on its island fortress was in danger of being overrun by fifteen hundred newly supply NVA troops fresh off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. You returned to your company of about one hundred and twenty men and prepared for the attack as best you could. At sunset your company came under heavy mortar and artillery fire from across the river that was full of sampans. As darkness descended you and several men went to the top of the fort to survey the situation. You determined the coordinates to return fire on the NVA’s heavy artillery and mortars from across the river. You radioed battalion headquarters and your own men simultaneously, giving orders and requesting assistance. As you spoke on the radios, an NVA artillery round landed on the concrete gun turret at your feet. The spray instantly killed you. The records show that your final orders saved all of the men in your company except for three brave men who died with you. Days later a mass grave of NVA soldiers along with damaged weaponry was found across the river. You had been successful in your efforts to disable the NVA unit.

That very night I dreamed that you were trying to get home to us – but you could not break through the invisible glass barrier that separated us. I saw your anguished face and heard your screams of terror. For seven nights in a row you tried to come home to us. Every night was the same. I lived in fear. Then on February 7, 1968, two Army officers knocked at my door. They told me you were missing in action. In an instant our dreams were shattered. At twenty-one, pregnant and raising a three-year old, I did not know what I would do without you. I agonized about what might have happened to you and queried the Army officers relentlessly every day. Within a few days your letters stopped coming, and mine to you were returned.

Two weeks later the officers returned to our home. The major held a yellow telegram and nervously read, “We regret to inform you that your husband, Captain James Eddie Reed, was killed in action.” On March 1, 1968, we buried your unviewed mangled body in Oak Hill Cemetery in our hometown. When the bugler played “Taps” and the honor guard fired the volley of shots, I felt each bullet rip through my heart. The flag from your casket, your son and our unborn child were all I had left of you. The Army didn’t tell me much. Mostly I was left to wonder, as I did for years to come.

Six days after we buried you, your daughter Jamie, a beautiful little blue-eyed blond, was born. She has your warm smile and strength of character – your funny feet. Like you, she is a fighter and natural leader. She missed you at the father-daughter nights at school. You missed her first smile, her first words, her first day at school, her first date, her senior prom, her college graduations, her weddings, and the birth of her two children. Now she is a wonderful wife and mother of a beautiful son who is named after you and a beautiful baby girl. Even though she has never seen you, she loves you. The truth is that Jamie would have loved to have danced with her dad.

You would be very proud of your son, James. Each time I look at him I see you. He has your good looks and stubborn determination. He missed you at his graduation from Texas A & M. He distinguished himself in the Corps of Cadets. When the Air Force jets flew over the parade field during Final Review, we looked up at the blue sky and said a prayer for you. Your son’s spirit of independence has taken him down his own path. Like you he is his own man. He’s an amazing husband and father to his beautiful daughter, who came to us in a hurry, born early, facing many challenges. Like you, our little Savannah is strong and fierce about life.

In 1991 the United States Army finally awarded you the Silver Star and Air Medal for your heroism on February 1, 1968. Your parents and children were so very proud of you. But then you know because we saw you at the US Capital building during the ceremony. Your mother said she was very proud of “her daughter” (that would be me) for working so hard for you. She was mostly grateful that someone had finally said “thank you” to her and made her feel good at least for a little while. Your dad was radiant with pride.

In the many years since you left us, we have never forgotten you. You gave each of us who knew you a gift of love and spirit. You made us laugh. In the end you made us cry. We think about you every day.

My dear Eddie Reed, you were a natural leader – a lover of people – a bright spot in the universe. The world is a better place for having had you. I was blessed to be your wife and the mother of your children.

Today on this Memorial Day were remember you and thank you for your contributions to our lives and to this world. You were but one of many who has given his life for his country. We love and honor each and every one of you. We thank you for your service.