Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (4b/19) — Chapter Four, Aster (Part 2)

IN OUR COTTAGE GARDEN, this aster was just one of hundreds that took over this month.

By RAHN ADAMS

BOONE, N.C. (Sept. 25, 2019) – The question has always been: Does the Truth really matter? Not just now. Not just for the past three years. The Truth is eternal. But, with a nod to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay A Few Good Men, do we want the Truth? And can we handle it?

That military connection—if you’ve seen that particular Tom Cruise legal thriller—is apt here. With Michaelmas, the Feast of the Archangels, only four days away, I’ve been thinking about four older men, all unrelated to me, whose lives and messages guided my own path. I remember all four as angels.

Without going into angelologies of various religions, Michaelmas celebrates the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. The holy day, which falls just after the autumnal equinox, also marks the end of the growing season and, in some countries, serves as a day when accounts are settled.

The aster is the flower of Michaelmas, with one variety even called the Michaelmas daisy. The star-shaped wildflower blooms in September as harvests come to an end. In some regions, another similar wildflower thrives with goldenrod in fall fields and ditches. It is the white doll’s daisy or false aster.

A RECENT FORTUNE COOKIE: “Worry not that no one knows of you; seek to be worth knowing.”

MY MICHAEL was a co-worker, actually my boss, in the late 1970s and early ’80s at my hometown hardware store here in North Carolina. He was the hardest-working man I’ve ever known, and when he and I unloaded the True Value truck every Monday morning and huge paint shipments twice each year, he expected me to keep up with him. He was a single father who raised two fine sons. He and I talked often, usually about everyday things, never about his past—which, as I learned after his death, was heroic in several other ways. The word that best describes him, though, is integrity. As a co-worker and friend, any preaching he did was by example—in other words, in practice, not with talk.

He died unexpectedly at home when Timberley and I were living across the state on the coast. I’m not sure I even learned of his death until after his funeral, maybe when the hometown newspaper with his obituary arrived in the mail a couple of days later. That’s when I learned who my Michael was: a World War II veteran who had enlisted in the U.S. Army two months before Pearl Harbor and risen to the rank of technical sergeant by the end of the war. Before I met him, he had served as a city fireman for over three decades, several of those years as fire chief. He never talked to me about either past life.

MY GABRIEL also comes from my time as a hardware man, and he was, with no equivocation, my employer. His family had owned the hometown hardware store for ages, and he was company president the whole time I worked there. One of his sons hired me on the spot when, as a college student, I walked in off the street looking for a part-time job; and another son ran the company’s satellite store in a neighboring town where I later worked part-time and then full-time after I dropped out of college. I have always admired that whole family, but especially my Gabriel and his wife, who were inseparable until her death. Without them, my life would be much different, and I probably would not be the writer I am now. Working for them at the hardware allowed me to, first, go to college, then later quit school and become a writer when that time came.

I’m glad I was able to attend the visitation and pay my respects to my Gabriel’s family when he died in 2009, almost 20 years after his wife had passed. I had missed her funeral, but I had written about her in a personal column at the coastal newspaper where I worked then (click here to read that column, which is posted at DigitalNC). What I didn’t know about my Gabriel, though, until I read his obituary was that he had served in Italy as a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot during World War II. A fairly recent newspaper article about his war exploits was on display at the funeral home; however, when I worked for him, I never heard him speak about his war experiences, something that definitely would have interested me.

I met MY RAPHAEL only once, but I have borne his influence all my life as I carry his given name. He was a doctor. His father was a doctor. His brother and sister were doctors. This distinguished family mainly served the farm communities in central Pennsylvania, where my father grew up. My Raphael treated me once about 55 years ago when I contracted German measles while my family was visiting the Adams farm. I’ve always assumed that my parents named me after him because he had treated my father for pneumonia and saved his life in the 1940s. But apparently not.

In an effort to verify this long-held belief about my unusual name, I first reread some autobiographical writings that my father had completed not long before his death in 2001. He had, in fact, written about almost dying of pneumonia, although the account mentions no doctors, no hospitalizations, no office visits, not even a single house call by any healer other than his sister, who was a registered nurse, and God Almighty. My father always said surviving that illness was his calling as a minister of the Gospel.

For my mother’s part, she had written in my baby book simply that I was named for the Adams family’s doctor in Pennsylvania. And when she took me to be examined by him that one time, I recall mainly his white doctor’s coat, his gentle manner and his smile at meeting a youngster with his own oddly-spelled name. So why was I named after him? With my parents now unable to answer that question for me, I turned to the Internet, as most of us younger, computer-savvy folks would. What I learned in a matter of minutes made perfect sense.

My Raphael was a war hero. According to his obituary at Legacy.com, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War II. In the winter of 1944-45, he was in the Battle of the Bulge, a three-week offensive in France that saw more than 90,000 American and British casualties, according to Wikipedia. At the same time, my father was back home helping his father run the family farm. Dad wrote about that, too—how he had wanted to enlist immediately after Pearl Harbor and again later in the war, but that his father had forbidden him to leave.

It makes sense that Dad might have named me after one of his heroes—after someone who had actually done, gloriously, what Dad had only dreamed of doing. Or maybe by giving me this odd name, he just wanted me to get beaten up every first day of school by having all my teachers mispronounce my name. I mean, they also named me after one of my aunts. I don’t know. In the pursuit of the Truth, you often have to put two and two together, especially when the Web is involved. And sometimes, with or without online intervention, things just don’t add up.

Take MY URIEL’s story, for instance. I met him when I worked at the satellite hardware store beginning in the late 1970s. He was one of my favorite customers, a grandfatherly type who came into the store every few days and, if we weren’t too busy, lingered a few minutes after making his purchase to pass the time with me and anyone else who was working then. I’m not sure where his nickname—The Colonel—came from, whether he told us he had been a military officer of that rank, or maybe one of us had simply started calling him that because of his ramrod-straight, well-groomed, military bearing. But he did look like a retired Army or Air Force colonel, and he certainly had some tales to reinforce that image.

I wish I could remember more details of those war stories, but I can’t. As I’ve thought hard about my Uriel over the past week, I’ve considered the possibility that all I think he told me—like how he was among the first American soldiers to visit Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s fortress-like chalet in the German Alps, at the end of World War II—was just a figment of my imagination. He and I didn’t just talk about war, though. He said he was originally from a town in northern Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley—a town that was named after his family, he said. And once he pointed to a spot on the red-brick sidewalk outside the store, and he said that was where he had stood when he proposed to his wife years earlier.

Even back then, 40 years ago, when I first heard my Uriel’s stories of war and love, I wondered why I was so quick to believe him when no other WWII veterans I knew talked much about the war. Again, I’m making an assumption, but I think I was so anxious to have a grandfather figure in my life—having lost both real grandfathers before I was six—that I didn’t feel the need, right then, anyway, to learn the Truth. I was happy back then with what I now fear was fiction, with a little f. That f could stand for a couple of other words, too—like what I said and how I felt last weekend when I read part of the Truth on the Web.

False. Fake. Yeah, let’s say those are the two f-bombs I had in mind.

Like a false aster, my Uriel appeared to be the real thing, but the virtual paper trail he had unwittingly left for me to follow online suggests otherwise. His obituary made no mention of military service or military funeral rites. His grave bears no marker of military service. Birth records show that he wasn’t born in verdant northern Virginia, but in the red-clay foothills of western North Carolina. Census data indicates that he grew to adulthood in two N.C. Unifour area counties near here. His WWII draft registration appears to have been falsified in 1941, as he listed his father, who had died in 1934, as the only person who would be certain to know his address in the event that Uncle Sam might need to contact him.

And then there’s the Book of Love. Between 1939 and 1953, he had two wives in Virginia, presumably at different times—one who bore a child six-and-a-half months after their marriage date, another one who divorced him for desertion, according to marriage, divorce and birth records available online. I’m guessing all that happened before he married the one who accepted his romantic sidewalk proposal outside the hardware building. That only child, by the way, died in 2008. No other children were listed in my Uriel’s obituary. And all three of his known wives are now deceased.

I did find that some things he told me were apparently true (notice how I qualified even that). The occupation listed in his obituary matched the information I found in one city directory of a Virginia municipality not too far—130 miles—from the one he’d called his hometown. But the other two Virginia counties mentioned in the official records I saw—both fairly isolated mountain counties near the N.C. line—are at least 180 miles from his so-called home in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley. Also, a few minutes of genealogical research revealed that in the mid-1700s, my Uriel’s great-great-great-great-grandfather did live near that old Shenandoah town before he himself moved to North Carolina and died here. So maybe “home” does mean different things to different people, whether their hearts and, more importantly, their bodies were ever there or not.

Of course, I’ve described only part of the picture that emerges when all the puzzle pieces I found are snapped into place. Still, there are gaps—dark holes where pieces of information are missing and may never come to light. And there are obvious mistakes, notably in the federal census data available. Or maybe I simply misunderstood the stories he told. Maybe my memory, which isn’t nearly as sharp as it used to be, filled in some blanks with what I thought he meant, not what he actually said. Maybe I assumed too much, both in my personal communications with him 40 years ago and now in my investigation of his past. I’ll let you unpack the operative word in that last sentence for yourself. If I’m wrong about my Uriel, I won’t whine too much as I lay a wreath of asters and apologies on his grave. Maybe I am an ass.

And yet, even if I’m right about him, I’m left with basically the same questions I started out with: What, if anything, have I gained by learning the Truth? And what have I lost? Would I have been better off—in any meaningful way—never to have questioned my old hero’s integrity?

I really can’t answer those questions, and no website exists that can help me.

There is, certainly, one other basic question: As I investigated my Michael, my Gabriel and my Raphael in the same manner as my Uriel, why did I find nothing contradictory about them? Why did their pasts check out while his didn’t? Why didn’t their paper trails turn into primrose paths?

This time, taking everything into account, the answer is undeniable. Undoubtedly, they are my better angels.