Thursday, November 20, 2008

Visit to Clarks Hill, 2008

These are the Veterans of the Clarks Hill area, assembled before the Veterans Program in front of the Hosanna Baptist Church. That's the 92 year old Mrs. Scott in the beautiful red dress at the far left.

This is going to be a hard story to write. Not because it is sad or anything like that, but because it is so hard to define the feelings from being where I was and doing what I was doing. I just got home yesterday afternoon and I am still buzzing and trying to pin down the emotions from the experience.

Last year at this time, Barb and I went to Clarks Hill, SC and attended a Veterans program at the Bethany Baptist Church. Bethany is the boyhood parish of my friend, Frazier Dixon. Frazier and I served together in Vietnam and I was with him when he was killed in action on December 3, 1969. I returned to Clarks Hill last year and met the friends and family and it was a very very hearty healing experience for all involved.

It's on the map!

This year, I was invited down there again. I wanted to return. I brought them an Eagle feather in a display case and a flag that was flown in memorium for my friend. There were some people that I didn’t get to meet last year. They found out about my visit too late and didn’t make it. This year, I stayed four days and three nights and got to meet some key relatives that I desperately wanted to meet.

Anthony Morgan, Frazier’s best friend from high school, paid for three nights lodging for us at the Marriott. That was a very nice thing to do. We were going to stay at a local LaQuinta motel. To ease the burden of having to pay for lodging allowed us to stay longer. The fine folks and other Veterans that attended the program also pitched in and gave us an envelope with some cash for gas and expenses. What unbelievable thoughtfulness. All of this generosity was a beautiful gesture on their part.

They made me feel like a hero. Like I was doing something special. Maybe I did expend effort to drive down there, but it was them that provided me with healing by their friendship and acceptance of me and my family as their own.

We drove down in three segments. Wednesday evening for a few hours just to get some miles under our belts, then a long day Thursday covering about 700 miles. We had a short day friday as we rolled in to Augusta, GA about 3:00 p.m. We checked in on a day when the rain and fog had covered the city like a blanket.

Friday night, we were suppose to go to Mrs. Scott’s North Augusta, GA home and see her gardens. She is proud of her gardening skills, and at 92 years of age still feeds herself and friends with the vegetables she grows. She is an inspiration. She is responsible for putting on the Veterans program for the Veterans in the community at her own expense. It was so foggy, that we did not go driving around but instead, just met Shirley Luke, our friend and contact, and had a nice casual dinner at the S&S Cafeteria.

Shirley stayed at her mother’s place in Clarks Hill, we returned to the Marriott where the kids swam in the indoor pool. Barb and I relaxed in the hot tub to soothe the tightness of our muscles from the long drive.

Saturday, I paid a visit to the grave site of my friend. Last year, I saw the site needed some repair as the concrete top was crumbling. I mentioned sending money down to help with the cost of repairs, but nothing was said about my offer. Low and behold, when I get down there, the whole thing was redone. New landscaping and a much needed brightening of the headstone. Mrs. Scott had been responsible for the expense of having the site upgraded and it looked great.

The dam on the Savannah River. Once called the Clarks Hill Dam, the official name is now the J. Strom Thurmond Dam. This is about 15 miles North of Augusta, Georgia

After the cemetery visit, we went to the Clarks Hill lake and dam and walked around a bit. We had some time to kill before the program started at 3:00 p.m. They renamed the Clarks Hill dam. It is called the J. Strom Thurmond lake and dam now, but the locals will forever know it as the Clarks Hill dam. I am in that camp. Thurmond doesn’t deserve the moniker in my opinion.

The Veterans program played to a full house at the Hosanna Baptist Church. The Bethany Church was undergoing roof replacement. Hosanna offered the site for this years event. I met with several Veterans from the previous year. I remembered most of them and they remembered me. I also got to meet Frazier’s sister. When the family was young, the Mom divorced and remarried. Her new husband moved the family to Philadelphia. Frazier wanted to stay in Clarks Hill, so he stayed with his Grandfather and two cousins, Dan and Lois. The sister, Shirley, and other siblings went north. Frazier was raised largely by his Grandfather and aunt.

Shirley was there and we met for the first time. Like many of the people from the area, she didn’t know what to believe as far as what the Army told them. The casket was sealed, so they never saw a body. Many believed Frazier could possible be alive as a prisoner of war or just missing in action. Amazing was the distrust in believing what the Army officials told them about his death.

It wasn’t until I came along last year that they learned the entire truth of what happened that fateful night in December on a battlefield in Vietnam. I was there with Frazier the night he was killed. I saw him alive, then saw him dead. It was this first hand account that meant so much for the family and friends to hear. They were in disbelief for all these years. I believed it, but never made sense of it as I never know anything of his existence other than as a soldier in the American war in Vietnam.

I also met Dan, the cousin he grew up with, and Lois, Dan’s sister. I had met other cousins and neighbors of this small tight knit community a year earlier. Dan and I talked a lot. Dan needed the closure and asked me some pretty pressing questions, but I swallowed my own pain and relived some of that night to soothe his mind and give him answers to questions he had struggled with for almost 40 years.

At the program, I was asked to speak a little. I kept it brief, but I did have this Eagle feather to give to the community. A spiritual Elder I know from Wisconsin gave me this feather to give to them. He told me that the feather was symbolic of the Warrior Spirit of my friend, and by giving them this feather, I was returning his spirit back to them as I was with him when he died and holding it with me for many years.

I put the feather in a case and presented it to them along with a flag, also in a wooden case, folded in the traditional triangle style. The flag was flown at a Native American Pow Wow in Northern Minnesota at an honoring ceremony in August. After last year, I was able to fly Frazier’s flag. Before that, I guess I just wasn’t ready to fly it and see his spirit wave goodbye. I felt I needed to hold on to his spirit. I didn’t know why, but found out that I was holding on to it because I had to return it to Clarks Hill. After last year, I was able to complete the mission and say goodbye to my friend.

Now, for the really good part, we ate a magnificent banquet in the church dining hall. Fried chicken, peach cobbler, baked mac n’ cheese, green beans, stuffing with gravy, along with red velvet cake with a cream cheese pecan frosting that was to die for! The dinner was very nice and we sat around for a couple of hours talking and growing friendships.

We returned to the Marriott and spent the rest of the evening in a haze after the days activities. Sunday had us up and walking around the old downtown of Augusta, Georgia. It was a cool morning, but a bright sunny day. After a brief swim in the hotel pool, we went back to Clarks Hill lake and dam and walked around there a little and went to the visitor center.

The lovely Mrs. Spadoman at lakeside.

At 1:30 p.m , we met Shirley Luke at Sam Marshall’s little grocerette/bait and tackle, and anything you might need store on the highway. I met Sam at the program and he was glad to see us on his turf as he invited us to stop in at the store the day before. Shirley came and we followed her to Dew Drop Inn Road. We turned into the woods on Dew Drop Inn, and went just a short 1/4 mile or so and came into view of a bunch of houses. They were scattered around, not in order like a suburban development, and faced this way and that. The dirt road was wide and narrow. Kids were outside playing, people standing around here and there. Smoke coming from chimneys as the day experienced a cold front as winter reminded us all that is was near.

The Grandkids, DJ and Anna, at Clarks Hill Lake.

This year, we took the two oldest Grandkids with us. It was a joy to have them with.We went to Debra’s house first. Debra is Frazier’s first cousin and lived in the house next to where Frazier grew up. Debra has eleven bothers and sisters. Five of the sisters still live on Dew Drop Inn. We went from house to house. Some had food and we ate. Some just were at home. As we went from house to house, a few joined our troop and we walked to the spring where the water was retrieved in an earlier time. We went ot the washing hole where laundry was done. It came alive and I could see it all.

And the food! Greens, greens with okra, pork hocks, fried chicken, barbequed chicken, sweet potatoes, baked mac and cheese, corn bread, sweet tea. Man, I ate and ate. We talked about each others lives as we explained the differences between the cultures and the North and South. I told them that I cooked Italian food in those large quantities at one time in my life. I fed the family too. We agreed that next time I come down there, I’d get a kitchen to cook and I would make a real authentic spaghetti and meatball dinner for all of dew Drop Inn.

That’s when I got invited to the Family Reunion which is due to take place next July Fourth weekend in 2009. I wondered if they were kidding, but they meant it. We are invited if we want to be there. I can’t quite explain the feeling of being there, in this enclave, of family and distant relatives, all living and sharing their food and their lives with us and each other. This was no special dinner, this was everyday life. That's what made it so great. We were treated just like family with no pretending. One sister will cook one day, another will cook the next. people from the houses were coming and going. Some would eat a plateful right there, others would wrap up some food and take it home. This is real community and not at all unlike the Native communities in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, or my own family in an earlier time.

I came away determined to start a tradition and cook my Mother’s recipe of Italian “gravy”. The red sauce, with spaghetti and meatballs. Sausage, lamb shanks and neck bones along with good bread and salad. I’ll do it once a month an I’ll be starting this weekend on Sunday.

To be there and share this repast. To be there and be accepted like kin is an experience that is indescribable to me. As it happened, I sat there and soaked it all in. There were so many hugs from so many people and so many “Drop in any time” invitations. Bob will take me fishing, Les will fix my car. Debra and her sisters will be cooking so there is no way a person would starve.

All in all, another year has passed. Another fabulous trip to the boyhood home of a man that I met in Vietnam on the battlefield. What a journey this life has to offer if we are willing to make it.

Many years ago, I embarked on a healing path and didn’t know what to expect or if anything at all was to be expected. The healing has come and it continues. It is out there for all of us. We need patience and faith in something. I am a lucky man for all of this to happen to me in a few short days. And they tell me they are the lucky ones to have met me. What an honor, what an experience. It can never be duplicated, but I can relive it, moment by moment each and every day.

Yours truly with Anna at Clarks Hill Lake.

Thanks for listening to my story. May peace and love touch you all in some way.


dawn said...

I feel the old spado back, what a lovely experience. Great post spado and I think you might have to go on a diet after this trip, love always

Coffee Messiah said...

Nice re-telling and very nice to have both experiences with that young man, and then his family.

Looks like you've lost some weight.
; )

Cheers to ya'll! ; )

fjb said...

Peace and love to you, friend.

Fran said...

Sounds like a great journey. Time w the grandkids, a spiritual passing of the carrying of the spirit of your friend, and the special connection with his family & community. I bet he's up there smiling, proud to be your friend.
Good medicine, healing for all your spirits.

Mary said...

A most excellent journey. So meaningful. I'm happy for you. And them. What a blessing that you all came together.

PS-Real Southern cooking blows me away too! It's so foreign to me but every bite is so mmmm....

nik said...

What a beautiful story Joe, thanks so much for sharing it - and for having the gumption and where-with-all to make that journey. It sounds like there were deep rewards on both sides.